RESTAURANT AS THEATRE
MESTIC science was compulsory at my all girl school. My first creation was a tinned tuna-fish crumble with parsley gar- nish. It leaked all over my satchel on the Way home. My father, having forced down the remnants for diimer, banned me from attending any more lessons. So I wasn't allowed to try my hand at curried eggs, quiche Lorraine or cauliflower cheese. Looking back, I'm not surprised by my failure. I can only remember my parents taking the family to a restaurant once. The starter was tomato juice, the main course Was chicken vol-au-vents and the kiwi cheesecake didn't compare to my mother's homemade strawberry ice cream. Food in the 1970s was functional, not fun. Britain had beanbags, cheesecloth flares, Slinkies and lava lamps, but still ate macaroni cheese.
Here and there, isolated pockets of food- resistance fought a rearguard action against the Bird's Eye culture. One such table terrorist was Sir Reginald Sheffield, of Scunthorpe, north Lincolnshire. A landowner, he couldn't bear to see his pigs being turned into gammon steaks with pineapple and he didn't want his four daughters to live in a culinary cul-de-sac. So every holiday he would bundle them Into the car and head off for Brittany and Normandy where they would eat the five- course menu gastronomique twice a day. The family became champion eaters. The eldest Samantha, was a connoisseur of fruits de mer aged seven. Her favourite starters were live sea-snails and buttered lobster. Pasta with truffle shavings, fol- lowed by tete de veau stuffed with foie gras Would sustain her until the cheeses. And for pudding she would eat an unpasteurised creme brulee or three. Back home in Scun- thorpe it was tongue and pig's trotter. The only food she wouldn't touch was runny egg whites.
Sir Reginald was taking a risk. He could have created four vast daughters, dedicated to eating him out of home and pantry. But miraculously the Sheffield sisters are all stunningly beautiful, waif-like creatures, destined to marry eligible men and spend their honeymoons notching up Michelin credits. Samantha and her husband recently fitted in nine stars during a weekend cruis- ing round the Continent. Like all traditional foodies, Samantha is suspicious of London, where lunch is fin- ished by 3 p.m. and chefs have abandoned butter and cream in favour of steamed hal- ibut and baby gem lettuces. She is only mildly amused by restaurants that need themes like the Pharmacy's prophylactics in their windows.
So Bibendum seemed the perfect choice for dinner. Conran's first restaurant has always stayed aloof, refusing to compro- mise with girlie portions of griddled vegeta- bles and goat's cheese. We were the last table to arrive, at 9.30, having downed a couple of glasses of champagne and a few crustaceans in the oyster bar downstairs. Samantha admitted that she'd had a little foie gras on toast to sustain her when she got back from work. The waiters took one look at her teensy blue dress, Prada mules and flat stomach and marked her down as a green salad and mint risotto disappoint- ment.
Then she opened the menu and within minutes all the waiting staff were running round trying to discover whether the souf- flé was pan-baked, how the Baltic herrings had been cured and which part of the tuna they had used for the tataki. She wanted to know where the chef, Matthew Harris, had found lobster oil, whether the broad beans were picked that day in England and why the essentially French-inspired restaurant had insisted on `dumbing down' with Thai dipping sauces and imam bayeldi.
Bibendum was packed with sweaty British businessmen entertaining their American clients. The women wore head- bands and smoked course after course of `But who really planted the pea in the Princess's bed? And was it really a pea? And if so, why didn't the security camera . . . ' Silk Cut. The men were more interested in the size of their mergers than the portions on their plate, and the Americans only wanted the fish and chips with puréed peas. Then there was Samantha, determined to try everything and already halfway through her third piece of baguette and unsalted butter.
The waiters couldn't remember which kind of caviar was on the potato parmen- tier, but we ordered it. We also tried the salad of wild salmon with broad beans, bacon and lemon dressing, escargots de Bourgogne and the ballotine of fresh foie gras. Our besuited neighbours had shunned them in favour of the dull-sounding crab vinaigrette or asparagus with poached egg. The parmentier was too solid for the caviar, but benefited from a dollop of foie gras. The broad beans were peeled and could have been picked from a sunny walled gar- den that afternoon but were marred by a few flaccid strips of stale salmon. The escargots slithered down the throat very satisfactorily.
For the main course Samantha insisted on ordering the sauté calves' sweetbreads with broad bean purée and mint, although the senior waiter tried to steer her towards the roast pigeon with sage and mascarpone polenta. The sweetbreads arrived looking like a Viking's blond plait laid out on a vast platter with an order of pommes frites on the side. For the first time Samantha fal- tered. The meat, she explained, was too salty, the ingredients weren't quite fresh enough and even the chips were oily not crisp. The solution was to order a creme brul6e and a prune and armagnac ice cream. The creme brulee tasted like Normandy butter mixed with golden syrup. The first mouth- ful was almost too much but the second was strangely beguiling. The prune ice cream tasted like all the other Conran establish- ment prune ice creams and did little more than keep our intestines ticking over. We agreed, that, ignoring the headbands, the restaurant was possibly the most beauti- ful in London, with its glowing stained-glass depictions of the Michelin man karate- kicking, the deep blue chairs, the curva- ceous bar and the plump water tumblers and wine decanters. The waiters didn't act as though they'd just arrived on the ferry from Le Havre, but treated the food as though they had been taught to make may- onnaise at grandmere's knee. If Bibendum had existed in the 1970s, the British wouldn't have appreciated it. In the 1980s it brought French cuisine to South Kensing- ton. But today, surrounded by its younger, brasher siblings, the food has taken on a somewhat matronly, heavy-legged quality. It's still starched and stately, the bone structure survives, but it's no longer as seductive.
Bibendum: Michelin House, 81 Fulham Road, London SW3; tel 0171 581 5817. Din- ner for two about f100.