I used to think that the best thing about being a restaurant critic is being treated like a VIP in places like the Ivy and the Caprice. Being able to get a table at a moment's notice at one of London's top restaurants is a perk that's reserved for the rich, the famous, the beautiful--and people who do my job. For a couple of hours, as I sit there basking in the attention of the maitre 'd, I can pretend I'm one of life's winners. Then it's back to reality--or, rather, Shepherd's Bush.
However, having been to a top restaurant with a genuine VIP, I now realise I'm not being treated nearly as well as I thought. Sophie Dahl was in town recently to present a prize at the South Bank Show Awards and she very sweetly agreed to have lunch with me at Gordon Ramsay at Clairdge's. (We used to share a flat together in New York.) It was like being on another planet--the planet celebrity.
When I made the booking--several weeks in advance--the maitre 'd specified that I'd need to be at my table at 1.15pm precisely. Any later than that, and I could kiss my reservation goodbye. I arranged to meet Sophie in the tea room and when I arrived, at exactly quarter-past-one, she had a cup of hot tea in front of her. Would I mind waiting a few minutes while she finished it? I immediately broke out into a sweat and told her about the three-line whip.
"Don't be so wet," she said. "Of course they won't give away our table."
Sure enough, when we entered the dining room at about 1.35pm, the maitre 'd genuflected like Basil Fawlty greeting a couple of food inspectors. He didn't even ask for my name--no reservation was necessary for someone in the company of "Miss Dahl". He showed us to what was unequivocally the best seat in the house--a table for two at the back of the restaurant on a kind of raised dais. It was almost like being on stage, an impression that was confirmed when every head turned in our direction.
The décor at Gordon Ramsay at Claridge's is what might be described as upmarket chintz. It has a plush, chocolate box feel to it, almost as if you're sitting inside one of Tiffany's exquisite blue packages. It feels less like a hotel restaurant than a private room at a very rich person's holiday home. This is what I imagine the parlour looks like at Lord and Lady Black's house in Palm Beach.
The restaurant's patrons, with the exception of my dining companion, were a little disappointing. There were one or two plastic surgery monsters straight from central casting (Beverly Hills branch), but the majority were boring and business-y. Perhaps the reason Sophie was treated so well is because she was the only celebrity in there. At one point she put a cigarette in her mouth and, before she could light it, the maitre 'd darted across the room and whipped out his Zippo.
Sophie ordered two starters from the set lunch menu: the Tian of Cornish crab with fennel, rocket and herb salad, followed by marinated and seared loin of tuna with pickled white radish, balsamic and parmesan. I was tempted to ask our waiter if that meant I could order two main courses and still only be charged the price of two set menus--I'm sure he wouldn't have raised an eyebrow--but I thought that would be a bit rude. I, too, started with the crab and, for my main course, had a delicious piece of pork. I'm a huge fan of Gordon Ramsay's cooking and the food was up to his usual standard. Even if I hadn't been with a supermodel, I'm sure it would have been just as good.
Returning to Shepherd's Bush on the Central Line was even more of a reality bath than usual. For a few, tantalising moments I'd been allowed into the front of the aircraft. Now it was back to Economy.