Why oh why does The Connaught continue to disappoint gastronomically?
[We love the idea of this grande dame of small London hotels, and even spent our wedding night there. Definitely preferable to the New York Plaza. JR]
I have long found that eating in either The Grill or The Restaurant was a great pleasure to look forward to and was always a comfortable and comforting place to be (until of course the bill arrived) but that this was an institution that never lived up to its billing. I would come away not thrilled and elated but hollow and disappointed.
Lunch last week was no exception. It seemed the right place to go as my guest had recently been summarily asked to resign from a post he enjoyed and he needed cheering up. The Connaught's quiet restaurant, rather than anything more modern and noisy, would be a civilised place to discuss his future plans.
It did at least fulfil that function but in other respects was merely second class.
The first shock comes with the price of the prix fixe lunch menu, somewhat reluctantly introduced after a review of mine in the Financial Times in the early 1990s. It is not actually the price which shocks - £28 for three courses is not too bad - but the fact that to this is added a £2 per person cover charge (presumably to cover the Melba toast as there are no amuse-bouches at the beginning nor petits fours with the coffee). And on top of this comes an automatic 15% service charge - hardly in the spirit of a set price meal. (Isn't that the great thing about the equivalent in France? You know from the start exactly how much the meal will cost.)
The menu itself turned out to be less than inspiring: standbys like kipper pate, Connaught terrine and soup of the day or melon plus some poached quails' eggs. In vegetarian mood I chose a dish of celeriac remoulade because that was what I felt like eating and was therefore disappointed to be served a plate with only three mouthfuls of the celeriac in the middle and round the side more of the ubiquitous Melba toast covered in thin slices of Parma ham.
The main courses were of the same ilk. Roast beef from the trolley in the middle of a week during which the whole of the press, not to mention Europe, was preoccupied with BSE, seemed insensitive to put it mildly. Other choices were a darne of farmed salmon, a medley of different fish - a dish I unhesitatingly avoid - and a 'cassoulet of Kent lamb' (bit of a culture clash) with haricot beans. The quail dish that did sound exciting I ordered, only to be told that it took 40 minutes, which begs the question why it was on the prix fixe menu, created for those who cannot afford a leisurely lunch.
The cassoulet dish was a waste of good lamb. I love a proper cassoulet, in which slow-cooked duck, Toulouse sausage, pork, goose and mutton and the beans are cooked slowly, but this was an aberration of a classic dish. The very antithesis of what The Connaught stands for. Sadly, we fared little better with the cheese trolley which should be the best in London but is far from it (the best I have seen recently is that at Orrery, 55 Marylebone High Street, London W1, 0207-616 8000).
And if you think all this is disappointing, wait until you see the wine list. Although newly designed, the wine list offers no explanation of any of the wines on offer and some horrendous mark-ups - the strangely ubiquitous Durney Chenin Blanc from California is £31 plus 15% service but under £4 from your local Majestic!
[£17.50 at Eurasia in Glasgow where I had another disappointing set lunch recently - only £13.95 for two courses here, plus £2.50 supplement for three strange 'Asian hors d'oeuvres', one of which was a small bowl containing a lychee and two melon balls. J.R.]
If all the wine waiters were fully au fait with what they sell this would be a plus but it seemed not to be the case. From the Sommelier's Suggestions on Page 1, I spotted a 1985 red burgundy Chanson Pere et Fils at £40. What I wanted to know was, was it past it? The sommelier had no idea. First of all he went away because he thought it was a printing error and it should have been 1995 not 1985. Then when we had established that it really was a 15 year-old wine, he was not sure if there was any stock left. There was and it was OK but a wine definitely on the downward path. The bill with this bottle and two set lunches came to £100.
One of the big problems with The Connaught is that here is no restaurateur, no one to enliven the splendid dining rooms with personality. Secondly, despite all his official titles, chef de cuisine Michel Bourdin, is too reluctant to adapt to changing customer demands. And, finally, and perhaps most importantly, the waiting staff are predominantly long-term timeservers who come in, do a job and go home. If you like your restaurants feudal, The Connaught is the place for you.
The Connaught, Carlos Place, London W1 020 7499 7070.