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No Sacred Cows  
Toby Young
Friday 1st November 2002


ES Magazine - 1st November 2002

I had a bad feeling about Cecconi's the moment I came through the door. To begin with, I'd made the mistake of wearing quite a fashionable outfit--grey corduroy jacket, Diesel Jeans, trainers--when the dress code at Cecconi's can best be described as "dress down Fridays". Apart from me, every man in there was wearing a navy blazer, chinos and a pair of loafers. Cecconi's is one of those expensive, Mayfair restaurants in which, at first glance, everyone appears to be Italian but on closer inspection turns out to be Middle-Eastern. It's the kind of place I imagine Osama Bin Laden hung out in during his decadent, Edgware Road phase.

The maitre 'd must have clocked me as an outsider--I'm a British passport-holder, after all--since she seated me in what was, by some margin, the worst seat in the house. I wasn't in the kitchen, but I was so close to an area where food was being prepared that if I'd sneezed half the restaurant would have caught a cold.

None of this mattered, of course. I was prepared to suffer any indignity to sample Cecconi's famous house speciality: risotto made from rare white alba truffle. This truffle, which costs £900 a kilogram, is the rarest and most expensive in the world. It comes from northern Italy and is only in season one month a year. Two weeks earlier, Prince Andrew, Bill Clinton and Kevin Spacey had made a pilgrimage to Cecconi's to feast on this dish and run up a bill in excess of £500. This promised to be a meal I would never forget.

Oddly, there was no mention of white truffle risotto on the menu but my waiter assured me that if I was prepared to wait for 25 minutes I could order it as a main course.

"How much is it?" I asked.

"Obviously, truffles are expensive," he said in a thick, Sardinian accent, "but for you we can make a special price."

This immediately made me think a bit of bartering was in order, but when he whispered the figure--£45--he made it sound like a take-it-or-leave-it sort of deal. So I took it.

The bread, when it arrived, was stale, and my starter was only so-so, but I wasn't quibbling. That would have been like complaining about a hand-job from Monica Lewinsky when you were about to make love to Marilyn Monroe. I was happy to keep my powder dry for the main event.

After what seemed like a good deal longer than 25 minutes, a dish of orange-coloured risotto was placed before me. Wait a minute. That was odd. I tasted a bit and, though I've never actually had rare white alba truffle before, I could have sworn this wasn't it. I summoned my waiter and, sure enough, he'd brought pumpkin risotto by mistake. What about my white truffle risotto?

"Sorry sir," he said. "If you want that I'm afraid it'll be another 25 minutes."

By now I'd run out of patience and told him I'd stick with what had been put in front of me. But was there any chance he could take it off the bill? He laughed at this, as if this was a completely ludicrous suggestion and, sure enough, when the bill arrived, it included a charge of £18 for pumpkin risotto. He'd even added a 12.5% service charge!

Gordon Bennitzio, as they say in my waiter's part of the world. I don't think I've ever had quite such a miserable experience in a London restaurant in my life. I won't be going back to Cecconi's, whether white alba truffle is in season or not.

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