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Food: Frankie Vaughan deserves better

The Savoy Grill is a famous restaurant in a famous hotel and it knows it.

20 August 2011

12:00 AM

20 August 2011

12:00 AM

The Savoy Grill is a famous restaurant in a famous hotel and it knows it. Although it is managed by Gordon Ramsay, with his TV horns and tabloid nightmares, it is still reeling with self-importance, an elderly debutante who once jumped on John Wayne in the loo. The view is of a taxi rank and a queue of tourists in sports jackets being shepherded by a man dressed as a penguin. But still the very name is awe.

The refurbishment is done and the piles of brown leather that made me think of camels have gone. It is art-deco glossy now, gloomy and sexy, with chandeliers and lustrous walls, which are possibly aubergine. I didn’t know aubergine could do lustre, but now I do. It is an exhibitionist, a date restaurant, for late-night negotiations with lovers. And I am with my mother.

The other diners seem to be American. Americans love the Savoy, because it was the first London hotel to go en-suite, and they remember and give thanks. Many of them are under ten but still in suits, miniature Lehman Brothers drowning their sorrows with lemonade. So this is a sexy restaurant filled with children, and photographs of the stars who used to come here. I always think this is a mistake, as if Frankie Vaughan ate here once, but now they’ve just got you.

The menu is Olde British, stiff and very big. My mother disappears behind it so it is now a talking menu. Puddings and pies, and a lone Caprese salad (named ‘heritage salad’ for those who hate Italians) kidnapped from a room with more light. The waiter is a real Frenchman, from the south he says, and he looks after us too tenderly.

Mother has egg mayonnaise. It is supposed to come with crayfish, but mother can always improve on menus. She zaps the crayfish like a Flash Gordon baddie. The egg arrives on a bed of stringy leaves smothered with electric pink liquid. It looks revolting, perhaps Play Doh a toddler has set on fire. If she dreamed of mayonnaise so fluffy and yellow it stares in the mirror with wonder, it didn’t come. She asks aloud if it came from a bottle. The waiter overhears, crumples, breaks. My pork, veal and pistachio pie is loaded with salt, and too chilly. The quail’s egg is a lump of brine.

Steamed steak and onion pudding is adequate but not delicious; the sauce is too thick and sour. Where is the spice, the fun, the cartwheeling? Mashed potato, which in food terms is a slut — it will jump on anything — has been on a quest to make itself as uninteresting as possible and it has succeeded. It is pale and smooth and it tastes of nothing. It needed lumps; vegetable chef, step away from the blender. If you can’t make good mashed potato you aren’t a good restaurant, even if Frankie Vaughan came once and liked it. The cauliflower cheese, meanwhile, is undercooked. Mother has salt-marsh lamb and leek pie. It’s OK, she says, but doesn’t finish it. It lies on the plate like an accusation; no, a divorce. Then she lays down her fork and says, ‘This is pub food.’ I imagine the Savoy Grill splitting in two.

We are almost too sad for pudding, even if the Americans look overwhelmed with joy. We watch them leave — to do what? Go to the Caprice? Watch CBeebies? Discuss the Laffer Curve? I order burnt English cream with rosemary shortbread. It’s fine, but the dish is too shallow, so it feels joyless and incomplete. My spoon grates against the bottom. I feel bad for the Savoy Grill and the smiling dead diners on the walls. It deserved better. I can’t think of much else to say about it, except it reminds me of Truman Capote weeping at the end of his life. It needs lumps.

The Savoy Grill, Strand, London WC2R 0EU, 020 7592 1600.

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