You’ll have noticed it’s August, so I don’t want to bore you with too much in the way of profundity. However, it occurs to me that restaurants are among life’s major waystations, not to mention benchmarks; just as much as all the big events we celebrate therein. Gathering to eat with the good/important people in one’s life while marking the passage of time… well, if I were being profound I could plausibly argue that this is What It’s All About. Whatever “It” is.
I was considering the Bigger Picture as I ambled through Soho, crossed Regent Street to Berkeley Square, around the corner to Mount Street and The Connaught (walking in London being a pleasure, if only in August), en route to that hotel’s new restaurant (by global superchef Jean-Georges Vongerichten) and a lunch date with my father.
This very solid slab of Mayfair bricks is very much one of my own waymarks and Benchstations™, given that it was 35 years since I’d last lunched at the Connaught with Pa. Vongerichten, meanwhile, has had a mixed reception in London over the years (though I loved the then-newly fashionable south-east Asian fusion of Vong, back in the Nineties day). JG remains big in NYC, however, and though his is the name over the Connaught’s door, the cooking is mostly by Anshu Anghotra, his executive chef. It’s a busy kitchen: there’s breakfast, brunch, lunch and two sittings for afternoon tea, as well as dinner, from 7am-11pm every day.
Anyway, entering the Connaught always hurtles me back to April 1982 and my choice of an unflattering pale baby-blue shiny frock teamed with (I recall) a pair of blue stilettos – all very Princess Di. The venue choice was (in hindsight slightly bafflingly) my father’s idea of, I guess, a grown-up 18th birthday lunch for a Young Lady, even though I was a lairy nightclub habituée with a peroxide (blonde) habit. We ate in what is now the London home of Hélène Darroze and thus much less dauntingly a gent’s club than it was then. I was the only person in the room under 40 and I’m pretty sure that the food – a tidy regiment of cutlets – was served soberly and silver-serviceishly from beneath vast cloches, by Frenchmen.
I do recall that the menu was the size of the Ten Commandments, because for many years I kept it in a box. It was, all in all, a very formal sort of lunch for an 18-year-old girl who wasn’t actively planning to marry a royal in this, or any other, lifetime. (In contrast, for my 21st in 1985, Dad took me out for gnocchi at Di’s favourite, San Lorenzo). Still, the Connaught remained a place on which I looked very fondly anytime I passed through its doors for a Do – as opposed to a Di – or a cocktail.
And now here we both were, three and a half decades on, at the Connaught’s new take on “informal gourmet dining” (there are actual take-away pizzas) – though my ever-dapper dad was wearing a tie. Design-wise, the space is what I’d describe as “Internationale Eleganza Moderne” – airy and tasteful, bland and greige-y – and not aimed at anybody who has, for example, ever had a hip replacement. “Far too low!” declared Dad of the chairs, while of the heavy curvy tables with large circular marble bases, “Look! Nowhere to put my feet!” However, he had been provided with a chic little stool for his swan-handled walking stick and was gleefully observing that he was far from the oldest person in the room: “Look at him – ancient!”
These days (he won’t mind me observing, I’m sure), Dad eats like an octogenarian supermodel – little and slowly, albeit without the Super’s chain-smoking interludes. The menu was right up his catwalk, too: starters that could easily double as mains, lots of caviar and truffles (29 quids for the truffle pizza), plus some properly sensible old-school menu headers – Fish, Meat and Simply Prepared. There is even a dish called “brown rice with summer veg and salsa verde”. For £18. I fancied the truffled cheeseburger with Somerset brie, black truffle mayo, yuzu pickles and chips. Meanwhile, Dad took to the warm shrimp salad with tender lettuce, avo, tomato and champagne vinegar. We both liked the look of the mocktail mojitos.
It was all very fine. The burger was as good as it ought to be and the chips were better. Dad was impressed by his salad – inasmuch as it is possible to be impressed by a salad – and we were united in admiration for the mockmojis. Service was perfect, the room filled up with many people a great deal younger than us for whom it was fun to create implausible backstories (something we’ve enjoyed doing together since about, ooh, 1967).
And then came a fur-coat-and-no-knickers dessert of quite divine silliness – peach candyfloss with “redcurrant ginger juice”, peach sorbet, almond mousse and fresh and roasted peach – which arrived looking like Diana Dors but then – pouf! – melted away, after the application of its hot juice, to Shy Di nothingness. I’m not sure what culinary surrealism it is that Vongerichten is in the business of “fusing” these days (my father had tapioca and summer berries); but like its hotel setting, it’s comfortable, beautifully executed and it works.
Another waymark/Benchstation™ box ticked, then. Not least because in 35 years’ time Diana will have been gone for more than half a century and (if I make it that far) I shall be five years older than Pa is now. Waystations, benchmarks, venerable old hotels and life’s random choices. The thing is, even 20 years on, I can’t help wishing she’d stayed in London for August.
Connaught Hotel, Carlos Place, London W1K 2AL;
020 7499 7070; the-connaught.co.uk
Lunch for two £120