I'm often a little nervous when visiting ultra-fashionable restaurants, but Cipriani didn't disappoint. The whole evening was a complete fiasco. Had I been a regular punter, I would have left in a fury of indignation, but as a restaurant critic I was absolutely delighted. All I could think of, as I waited for a taxi at the curb, was what fantastic material I'd been provided with.
This new restaurant on Davies Street in Mayfair is the latest addition to the Cipriani empire, a chain of upmarket Italians that encircles the globe like a Gucci belt. (It's the Pizza Express of the Jet Set.) I can't claim to have been to Harry's Bar in Venice, which first threw open its doors in 1931, but I've been to both the uptown and downtown Ciprianis in New York and gazed longingly at the beautiful people while teams of sharply-dressed waiters have cleaned out my wallet.
In one respect, at least, the Cipriani family have got things right. With its marble floors and warm, buttery lighting, the restaurant manages to look glamorous and cosy at the same time. Linen café curtains shield the well-heeled patrons from the faces of the have-nots pressed up against the window and a little porthole opposite the maitre 'd's station gives you the feeling that you're safely ensconced in some billionaire's yacht. On the night I was there, this impression was confirmed by the presence of Flavio Briatore, one of the restaurant's owners, at the bar.
Unfortunately, whatever sense my wife and I had of being guests at a fabulous party disappeared as soon as we made contact with the staff. Since Cipriani opened just three months ago, two managers have parted company with the owners and, judging from the chaos in the front-of-house, they've yet to be replaced. After we'd been subjected to an endless cavalcade of incompetence, my wife and I decided that a better name for the restaurant would be Il Torro di Fawlty.
Our waiter--yes, a Manuel look-a-like--began by bringing us two drinks we hadn't asked for, then, after we'd ordered a bottle of Pinot Griggio, he scurried back with a bottle of Chianti. Eventually, the right wine arrived, but not until the first course had been cleared away, and it was lukewarm, not the ideal temperature to serve a crisp Italian white. True, it was then placed in an ice bucket, but that wasn't much of a consolation since it remained in the ice bucket for the next 30 minutes. I would have got up and refilled our glasses myself, but the tables in Cipriani are packed so closely together I was terrified I might step on someone's Manolos.
The food, like the restaurant's patrons, looked good from a distance but on closer inspection turned out to be rather unappetising. My starter of tomatoes and mozzarella was perfectly decent, but my wife's artichoke salad was revolting. I followed up with baked tagliolini and my wife had minestrone soup. We both agreed that neither dish was as good as their off-the-shelf equivalents in Sainsbury's.
When our waiter brought our bill--and he was no slouch in that department--I couldn't help noticing that we'd been charged £38 for two helpings of "Ravioli with ham" that we hadn't had. I gently pointed this out and, after studying the bill for what seemed like 15 minutes, he told me that he'd substituted these dishes for the tagliolini and that, if I examined the menu, I'd see it didn't make any difference to the final tally.
"Nice try, mate," I said, "but if you examine the bill you'll see that (a) the tagliolini is on there and (b) it's only eighteen quid."
He furrowed his brow, took the bill back and examined it for another 15 minutes. Eventually, he reappeared with a new bill, this one correct, though I couldn't help noticing that a service charge of 12.5% had been added. I didn't begrudge him his tip. After all, he'd provided me with the best material, if not the best meal, I'd had in a long time.