25 JUNE 1994, Page 42


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*,* The Savoy Grill

I HAD ACTUALLY intended to go to the Atlantic Grill this week. That I ended up in what is probably the most famous Cisat- lantic grill rather than in the new hot spot underneath the Regent Palace Hotel is, I hope, not considered too much a derelic- tion of duty. I think, anyway, it is best to wait, cautiously and judiciously. The itch for the new is, if anything, the weakness of the critic, though at least in The Spectator one is not expected to succumb to the vul- garity of novelty. And a visit to the Savoy Grill is certainly not that. I'd promised a friend a birthday treat, and he could not be dissuaded from the place. True, I could have eaten in mufti and gone on to the Atlantic Grill another night. It's not, I assure you, meanness that made me double it up into a working dinner, but immobility. Perhaps a restaurant critic should not own up in public about this: I don't get out much these days.

It is perhaps eccentric to choose to go to the Grill for dinner, lunchtime being its most celebrated hour, when lords and cap- tains of industry, tycoons and assorted powerbrokers (the sort of people who, it was once memorably remarked, are too important to be famous) meet and eat. Name-dropping maps in the form of dia- grams of the seating plan are regular fea- tures in the magazines that make it their business to chart this sort of thing. But,

from a critical point of view, it is probably better to go at the wrong time; that way one can make sure it is the restaurant and not its clientele that stays in focus.

Evenings in the Grill do not sparkle. Stripped of the hushed and urgent atmo- sphere of power, it seems a remarkably ordinary place. The wood panelling looks dated rather than grandly clubby. This, you imagine, is what the set designers on Cross- roads would have built if only the ATV budget had allowed. The food one expects to be good and plain, but good with the occasional fanciful slip-up. This is more or less the case. Omelette Arnold Bennett, as should be the case in the restaurant which invented the dish, is breathtaking. It's prob- ably too large for most people to contem- plate as a first course, and I dbn't see why it should ever be included among the starter specialities. As far as I know, this was Arnold Bennett's nightly dinner in its entirety. Along with eggs Benedict, this golden, gooey, yet firmly contained disc of eggs and cheese and smoked haddock is about the smartest way of going to work on an egg. The Caesar salad from across the page was as rewarding. La Salade Cesar, as it is styled here, is a weakness and an obses- sion of mine. Done properly, without new- fangled curlicues or clevernesses on the part of the chef, it never disappoints. It did not disappoint, though the assembly of the

dish was strange, with a straggly pile-up of croutons alongside, not dotted among, the lettuce.

Just as there is at lunchtime (though then there are two to choose from), there is a rotating list of plats du jour for dinner, that's to say, pot-roasted veal on Monday nights, beef Wellington on Tuesdays and so on. The difficulty here is that whatever night you're there you hanker after yester- day's or tomorrow's treat. Wednesday's promise of poularde de Bresse Grandmere would, I'm sure, have held greater appeal had we been dining on Tuesday or Thursday. I was almost tempted. But then, as the waiter remarked as I discussed the matter with him, you can always have chicken at home. The same could be said (and I said it) of the roast saddle of lamb, which circulates on its trolley every night, but it is wonderful, wonderful lamb. Too much of this tender, feathery, almost aromatic flesh was arranged on my plate. Idiot that I am, I absent-mindedly nod- ded to the enquiringly upheld mint sauce and then had to endure having my plate doused in green-speckled vinegar. Who could ever think this a good idea?

I had wanted to try, from the less restrained list of entrées, a rather elabo- rate-sounding concoction of roast rabbit and lobster, artichoke and garlic and lime- leaf, whatever that might really be. But after the omelette Arnold Bennett, I knew it wouldn't be wise, and I could not deflect the birthday boy away from the flambeed escalope of veal. Nor did I want to: this is exactly what you should have in a place like this. The waiter tried his best, however. It's very sweet, he urged: better the other veal. Who can blame him — all that faffing around? Something else, perhaps, was the reason for his disinclination. I looked enquiringly at him as he nervously instruct- ed, with dramatic shoos, a younger waiter in the art, and he explained: the flambeur must be positioned correctly, otherwise the smoke detectors are set off and the fire brigade rushes round. This happens regu- larly, apparently, and the Savoy is charged £250 each time. And, incidentally, he was right: it was too sweet.

The pudding trolley was a pretty dismal affair, and the petits fours looked and tast- ed like something a child brings home from a domestic science class. House hock was sweet and musty, rather like Mateus rose without the colour, and the house bordeaux was vile.

Dinner for two respectable eaters but modest drinkers came, with tip, to just under £120.

The Savoy Grill, Strand WC2; tel: 071-836 4343

Nigella Lawson