In Washington DC, politics is known as "show business for ugly people", the idea being that it's a good way of getting on television if you have a face more suited to radio. In the past 25 years, though, a good deal of the glamour has seeped out of politics. These days, the Westminster Village is less like the West End and more like the Edinburgh Fringe. It's a place where ambitious men and women go to polish their acts in the hope of being talent-spotted. With a bit of luck, they'll be plucked from the obscurity of the front bench and given a shot at hosting Have I Got News For You.
The fact that politics has become such an unfashionable profession is reflected in the paucity of decent restaurants within walking distance of the Palace of Westminster. Now that politicians can no longer persuade anyone to publish their articles or buy their memoirs, they can't afford to eat well. It came as no surprise to learn that the most recent Brownite plot--the so-called "Curry House Conspiracy"--was hatched at the Bilash Tandoori in Wolverhampton. Clearly, the conspirators couldn't stomach the prices at the Cinnamon Club, the only posh Indian in the Westminster Village.
Which makes it all the more remarkable that Quirinale, an upmarket Italian on Great Peter Street, has survived as long as it has. Its predecessor on the same site, a private dining club called Congress, closed its doors in 2002 and no one expected this basement establishment launched by a former employment lawyer to last more than 18 months. Four years later, it's still going strong.
If I was an uncharitable critic, I'd be tempted to attribute Quirinale's survival to the cost-consciousness of its proprietor, Nadine Gourgey. When I arrived at lunchtime, this versatile restaurateur was manning the front desk and when I left she was doubling up as the coat check girl. All this, in spite of the fact that she was six months pregnant! In truth, though, the reason Quirinale has prospered has more to do with its owner's attention to detail than the bottom line.
First of all, the space has been beautifully refurbished, with pale green walls and a white-stained oak floor making it seem wonderfully airy and light for a basement restaurant. Then there are the waiters, immaculately turned out in grey trousers, blue blazers and stripy ties. But, above all, there's the food. Nadine Gourgey struck gold when she discovered Stefano Savio, the Italian head chef who has been running the kitchen at Quiranele since it opened. His specialty is Northern Italian cuisine and, given the standard of his cooking, it's astonishing that he hasn't been snapped up by Gordon Ramsay Holdings and given his own outfit to run.
I began with malloredus--small pasta shells--accompanied by tomato sauce, sausage and pecorino cheese, and followed up with breast of guinea fowl stuffed with ricotta, black truffle and uccelletto beans, while my companion started with a rocket and parmesan salad and, for his main course, had roast fillet of pork accompanied by prunes and celeriac puree. Everything was exquisite, but the highlight was the bread that we were offered at the beginning of the meal. The little squares of focaccia were so good--they melted in the mouth like butter--I could have happily feasted on them to the exclusion of everything else.
According to press reports, Quirinale has recently been adopted by the Cameroons as their unofficial headquarters, something the proprietor is understandably keen to play down. "We get a lot of Labour ministers here as well," she protests. Let's hope the patronage of the Notting Hill Tories doesn't prove as disastrous for Quirinale as it did for Zuma, which closed shortly after word got out that David Cameron and George Osborne were regulars. This is one of the few institutions in the Westminster Village that deserves to stay in fashion.