Magazine article The Spectator

Two Fat Gentlemen

Magazine article The Spectator

Two Fat Gentlemen

Article excerpt

MIDWINTER is the bleakest season for the political eater. It presages the fat point of the turning world; that dread moment, after the festivities are over, when the spread stomach repels while the weighing scales revolt. No further procrastination is possible; dieting must commence on the 13th day (or soon thereafter).

To distract my attention from this unappetising prospect, the editor of The Spectator proposed an amuse-gueule to precede the indulgences of December. Mr Watkins and I should dine with an interesting politician - we chose David Willetts - at a good restaurant where fine vintages were to be found.

That was an easier condition to meet than the editor may have realised. Most good restaurants have good wine, generally at a goodly price. The question is whether the price could be justified, in relation to wine merchants' lists, or indeed auctioneers'. In a fallen world, the answer tends to vary according to who is paying. There are always bargains on any list, to those on expenses.

One of the hazards of contemporary journalistic life is the number of girls who are entering the trade. None of them knows anything about wine. They often work for television companies and wish to consult The Spectator's political columnist. They have developed the idea - goodness knows why - that one will be more amenable over lunch. Frequently, they start by complaining that they are never allowed to see wine lists - the age of chivalry is not dead - then, their ignorance excused, proffer the list and invite one to choose.

At which point, vulgarity becomes inevitable. I am always happy to choose, I announce, as long as I am given a budget. The face opposite then falls. Evidently, I was expected to conjure Montrachet and Latour for the price of the house carafe. Half flattered, half exasperated, I then explain the facts of oenophile life; it postpones the moment when I will have to explain the difference between the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Foreign Secretary. The first such fact is that you get what you pay for.

Fortunately, for our dinner, money was not much of an object. I therefore chose the Connaught. In a discreet, understated way, the Connaught is one of the most opulent of London restaurants: the wood panelling, the well-spaced tables, the silver domes flitting across the room under the guidance of expert waiters. Some monasteries and churches have a numinous quality, as if the architecture had been infused by centuries of prayer. The Connaught dining-room has a similar atmosphere; one can sense the contented spirits of long-departed gourmets.

We started with some champagne. It was perfectly pleasant - as it ought to be, at L7.75 a glass. I then ordered a '94 Montagny from Louis Latour, a useful wine with no pretensions to greatness. At lesser establishments, however, the 34.50 it cost would have bought a good Chablis or even a Meursault. The main wine, we decided, should be claret. An '88 Calon Segur suggested itself: a serious wine from a reasonable vintage. It also caught one's eye because by Connaught standards it was competitively priced: a mere 55 a bottle. We drank two, but David had only half a glass. Alan and I saluted his abstemiousness and made up for it.

Then food. I started with a salade caprice: langoustine and crab on some interesting leaves with truffles and a good vinaigrette. It was no more than adequate, lacking the panache of a salade gourmande at a great French restaurant: 6/10.

The set menu then included a consomme Prince de Galles: a hot chicken consomme with more truffles, topped with a pastry crust. The pastry was admirably succulent, but the soup was disappointing. Despite the truffles, it was bland. Edward Prince of Wales might have eaten it, but only if his tummy was playing up.

For the main course, I departed from the set menu in favour of a woodcock. I asked for my woodcock to be rare and well-hung, with the guts on crunchy toast. …

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