The Restaurant at the Churchill
BRUNCH SAID in American is hunky, substantial, solidly respectable; said in English it sounds the epitome of naffness, exuding a mixture of the suburban and the effete. I suppose the reason it sounds so embarrassing over here is that we are, still, and despite a depressing body of evidence to the contrary, shiveringly sensitive to words and that which masquerades as words. In America, where they think noth- ing of referring to Botels (places you sail up to, tie your vessel at for the night, and rent a room to sleep in) and the like, there are no such susceptibilities to take into consideration. Americans are linguistically unembarrassable — a fact closely allied to their being, in the main, totally devoid of any sense of irony.
Anyway, without fear of social ostracism or linguistic infelicities I wanted brunch. I wanted to go to bed on Saturday, knowing that I could get up late on Sunday, trans- plant my tomatoes (Gardener's Delight) and prick out my carnations (King of the Blacks), leave a trail of potting compost all over the dining-room table and go out for eggs Benedict or sweet-fleshed crab cakes, a pot of coffee or jug of Bucks Fizz.
Now I know and, indeed, you probably know that the place I should have gone to is the Caprice. But I've already written about the Caprice. And besides, the adven- turous, questing spirit of the restaurant critic must be ever seeking out the new. At any rate, that's what I tell myself. Not that the Churchill — one of those turgid-look- ing, early Seventies architectural horrors of a hotel — is new, but a recent, ceremonial- ly announced revamping and relaunching of its restaurant made much of its Sunday brunch menu and the novelty thereof. Great part of the lure is explained, or it is on my account, by the fact that one of the two chefs is David Wilson, who used to cook at Blake's hotel and who is one of the most innovative chefs we have.
The Restaurant announces itself on the menu with a bizarre and dated array of typefaces and in the hotel with a deal of wood panelling and equally dated drapery.
The brunch menu is a prix-fixe, set-meal
affair (£19 for three large courses), which is the first mistake. The whole point about brunch is that the various people eating it should be free to eat as little — thereby having something nearer breakfast — or as much — going all out for lunch — as they want. (The second mistake -- and it's a comparatively minor and very common one — is that they call 'antipasto"antipasta'. These dishes are supposed to constitute what comes 'before the meal', which is 'pasto' in Italian, not what comes before the pasta course.) And of course it says something about the time the menu was planned that the starters are a selection of Spanish tapas or Northern Italian antipasti. The Italian influence was more in evidence than the Iberian on my visit, although in comparison to the antipasti at the Hyde Park Hotel (although I haven't eaten there recently) it wasn't up to much. It is unwise to go for the big show: a cornucopia of platters and groaning boards may look good but the food is better looked after by bringing out small platefuls and replenishing often.
The main courses race across frontiers, sometimes mid-dish, with an international-
ism that stays just this side of culinary pas-
tiche: you can have eggs Benedict (thank goodness) or huevos rancheros, eggplant (note that it is not called aubergine in this American stopover) frittata with chorizo, Pyrenean leg of lamb or Scottish salmon.
The eggs Benedict didn't compare favourably with the Caprice version (and the comparison does, I'm afraid, need to he made) but didn't greatly suffer from it, only it was on the vinegary side. Seafood pasta was enormous and stickily bland, though the addition of some Tabasco greatly helped. The prime rib of beef looked as if it had been carved into slices some consid- erable time before it reached me, but even so the meat was truly exceptional.
Puddings go back to the starter principle: another large table decked with sweet- meats, in this case pecan pies, fudge brownies, custard tarts, cream slices and other fatty concoctions with a howl of fruit salad thrown in for good health. Service is had: either the waitress is charming but cannot speak a word of English or she avoids your gaze at all costs. And at £98 for three, covering a couple of Black Velvets each and 15 per cent service, it is not the kind of disappointment one can afford to take too much in one's stride. I knew I should have gone to the Caprice.
The Churchill Hotel, Portman Square, Lon- don WI; tel 071 935 9050.