Monday, 7 April 2008
I am currently working my way through Jay Rayner's latest book The Man Who Ate the World, a hugely enjoyable read for anyone with even a passing interest in food. In the by turns hilarious and frightening chapter on Moscow, Jay makes the observation that no matter how lavish or exclusive, high-end restaurants operate a kind of twisted democracy that allows any schmuck to be A-list for a few hours, it just takes some of us longer to save up for the experience than others. While I think there's an element of truth in this (although to be fair, most of us could save up for any kind of luxury treat given enough time), the idea that London restaurants are some sort of level playing field is in my experience pretty far from the truth. For captains of industry, "it" girls and soap stars, getting a reservation at a certain infamous handful of fashionable eateries (The Ivy, Scott's and the Cipriani amongst others) is little more than a matter of asking your PR agent or waving your AMEX Centurion card. The rest of us have to make do with 6:30pm sittings and a table for two in the cloakroom. Of course, that's even if we're lucky enough to get in at all, some restaurants I'm sure being just a front for some sort of money laundering scheme (yes, I'm talking to you, Fat Duck - how can your phonelines be engaged constantly for 7 hours every Saturday for the last 4 months!?).
But it's not just about reservations. Even once seated, the heirarchy plays out in a number of other more subtle ways which became obvious during a recent trip to Zafferano in Belgravia. Rated highly by better people than me, it is also a celeb favourite so I was surprised to have the choice of any time I liked for Sunday lunch. This apparent flexibility made more sense when we arrived for our table only to be ushered through the glamourous main dining room to a pokey annexe with a decidedly non-A-list ratio of covers to floorspace. However we fared better than many other unlucky diners in the room and service was so good it soon made up for the relatively cramped corner table.
Amuse of little squares of risotto with some sort of vegetable paste were only OK but as we weren't expecting any 'extras' like this came as a nice surprise. However I couldn't help noticing that some other tables - even in the B-list annexe - occasionally received further snacks such as bowls of olives and breadsticks, which weren't offered to us and weren't on the menu. Perhaps I should have slipped the waiter a fiver, or maybe they'd sussed us out from the moment we said we weren't having wine and ordered tap water. Just because I'm paranoid doesn't mean they aren't out to get me.
My starter of Passamonti ham with "gnocchi fritti", was literally just that - an oblong plate with little salty pillows of gnocchi at one end and some sliced ham at the other. Very good, certainly, but not really cooking as such - more like tapas than traditional Italian.
The main course was, however, delicious. Polenta and guinea fowl ravioli with "peverada" was silky smooth ravioli in a fantastic stock, coated in rosemary-infused chunks of (I think) chicken livers. A rich and satisfying plate of food, and exactly the kind of thing I had in mind in my quest for the finest Italian food in London.
The superb food came at a price suitable for the address - £34.50 for two courses - but as we largely avoided alcohol and bottled water we just about managed to get away with £40 a head including service. It was, to be fair, a perfectly pleasant lunch and I would go again to try and sample more of the menu. But these fashionable places react badly with me. Don't get me wrong - the service was smiling and superb from top to bottom, the food well worth the money and most other important factors well above the London average. But there's that niggling thought always at the back of your mind in places like this, that your paying the same money for the same food as everyone else, but some people are getting that little bit extra just because their appearance means the restaurant features in the next edition of Heat magazine. So before I venture any further into the dangerous world of restaurant politics, I'll leave you with a quote from one of my favourite movies:
Carol Connelly: OK, we all have these terrible stories to get over, and you-...
Melvin Udall: It's not true. Some have great stories, pretty stories that take place at lakes with boats and friends and noodle salad. Just no one in this car. But, a lot of people, that's their story. Good times, noodle salad. What makes it so hard is not that you had it bad, but that you're that pissed that so many others had it good.
As Good As It Gets, 1997