3 MAY 1997, Page 55

Low life

Hooked on baguettes

Jeffrey Bernard

Last week I went to a restaurant, new to me and extremely good and with a very pleasant atmosphere, called Maison Novel- li at Clerkenwell Green. It is an area that has rapidly become fashionable but is still slightly awkward to get to. Anyway, I was in excellent company with my brother, Bruce, and Jonathan Meades who, as you will know, is the restaurant critic for the Times and about the best there is. At least he refrains from making vulgar boasts about the price of some of the meals he eats which hardly any of us can afford.

Laid up and beaten up as I am, I hardly go out any more, and food, which has always been important, has now become one of the great pleasures in my life along- side, would you believe, the revolting habit of smoking. But I shall look forward to going back to that restaurant very much indeed just as I look forward always to going to the Ivy where they treat me just right which is not like nobody at all but not like some wretched star. The only bit of fussing that irritates me in good restaurants where they are trying to be as helpful as possible are over-zealous wine waiters who keep topping up your glass when it's not necessary, but I suppose that is where most of their profit comes from.

But the financial situation being what it is, I am always on the look-out for cheaper and more ordinary but wholesome places to eat and, apart from restaurants, I find somewhat to my surprise that, thanks to my new home-care girl, Nicky, I have become positively hooked on baguettes of all things. I heat them up in the oven and have them with marmalade for breakfast, I make savoury sandwiches with them and when I'm not eating them I am always trying to discover new places that sell them. I even send out for them from hospital for lunch on the days I'm having dialysis. I don't seem to be able to like all that much steadi- ly but instead go in for temporary enthusi- asms, even obsessions. Apart from baguettes, too many of these food obses- sions are too expensive, such as shellfish and dover soles.

To travel in the opposite direction, a day at the races is one of the few ways I know of going on a diet since, almost without exception, the food is so awful and, for what it is, so overpriced. But at least at the races the people who do the cooking don't set themselves up to be or behave like bloody stars. The awful worship of some chefs today is just about the only thing that has spoilt the vast improvement of restau- rants during recent years. And it is odd how different restaurant writers affect the places they are writing about. There was a time when a good write-up from Fay Maschler or Michael Parkinson, when he did it, spelt ruination to a restaurant. For some extraordinary reason they took a good mention as a signal to be licensed not to give a damn any more and just to serve up anything. Jonathan Meades is marvel- lously not guilty, whereas some critics lead one simply to places where the main course is snobbery followed by a bill that is usually enough to give one peritonitis.

Of course, I am automatically barred, so to speak, from a lot of restaurants nowa- days because they are not wheelchair- accessible and there is hardly a restaurant in London where the gents is on the same level as the dining-room itself. As a little boy one was always told to go to the loo before going out on the most trivial expedi- tion and it would be like that again if I wasn't somewhat perversely saved by kid- ney failure.

In my most recent attempts to escape the prison of my flat and to get out and eat, I have come across so many more disap- pointments than the few pleasures like the Maison Novelli and the Ivy. When you can cook yourself — and I used to a lot — you know the price of food and never mind all the crap about the cost of rates and rent these days; the Red Fort, for example, is very over-priced as are nearly all Chinese restaurants that have little more in the way of pretensions than oilskin tablecloths, and I wish they would get out of the habit of over-drying the ducks. I have no compunc- tion whatsoever about eating meat but occasionally alcoholically-induced senti- mentality makes me almost feel, were they not so lovely to taste, it is a crying shame to eat such an amusingly pleasant animal as a duck.

Which reminds me, dear old Peter Lan- gan's restaurant, Odin's, still produces that dish probably better than anywhere else. It now occurs to me that I must try to fight back the tears and make myself a duck baguette.