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Planning a gourmet break in London

Nothing ever seems to go right for me when I plan a gourmet holiday. Shops and markets are never open on the days I want them to be; restaurants are always booked up. I can’t count the number of times my schedule has been waylaid by mysterious ‘private functions’, which crop up with unnerving regularity whenever I dare to make a booking inquiry.

Have I told you that the queen ruined my honeymoon plans last year? Well, she did. We’d been planning to go to The Waterside Inn on night one ever since we got engaged and the whole week was arranged around it. So desperate were we to guarantee our table that I rang them up the very second the booking window opened to make sure we got in.

“I’m sorry sir, but the restaurant is closed that evening for a ‘private function’. Would you like to book for another day?”

Turned out the royal family had reserved it for some sort of celebration.* We were forced to reorganise the entire bloody week!

Impeded by the Crown

Naturally, as I shuffled hotels and restaurants around, more issues cropped up. We couldn’t get into Gordon Ramsay. Then we couldn’t get into Le Gavroche. I had no problems booking Alain Ducasse – which was always on the itinerary – but when I rang them up a few weeks beforehand to inform them of my wife’s dairy allergy they said they had no record of the booking at all!!

The guy at the end of the phone fortunately agreed it was the restaurant’s fault and sorted us a table anyway, but he didn’t manage to do so before my head exploded, splattering big gooey lumps of excitement and good will all over my bedroom wall.

The original plan had been to do all the country’s three-star Michelin restaurants in a week, in this order: The Waterside Inn, The Fat Duck, Gordon Ramsay and Alain Ducasse (with a night at The Dorchester).

After a month of headaches, we eventually settled for: Hibiscus, Goodman, The Waterside Inn and Alain Ducasse (with a night at The Dorchester). Not too shabby really, but a bit of a pain to cobble together.

Executive Deluxe Room at The Dorchester, Park Lane

We got there in the end – our executive deluxe room at The Dorchester

Annoyingly, I’ve been going through the exact same pain again as I try to set up another gourmet holiday in London this June. It’s gone like this:

We wanted to spend the last night with a room and dinner at The Ritz.

The Ritz was unavailable.

We booked a night at The Dorchester instead and tried to get into Le Gavroche.

Le Gavroche was unavailable.

I uttered the following phrase: “God this is irritating. Ah well, at least we won’t have a problem going back to Goodman – who books a steak house so far in advance?”

Goodman was unavailable.

I uttered the follo… actually, that probably doesn’t bear repeating.

I just seem to have no luck with these things; no luck at all. I know these places are popular, but when I go to book them as soon as is humanly possible, I’d expect to hit more often than not. It’s not like I’m trying to get into an El Bulli or a Next or somewhere where you might have to pay a few hundred quid on eBay in order to be sure of a reservation.

I know two different couples who are going to Le Gavroche in April and booked without a hitch. How is it they got in so easy? I expect the Jubilee has something to do with it. Yet again I’ve been thwarted by the queen with her sodding celebrations!**

Anyway, I should probably stop complaining. If there’s anything to be learned from going through this experience again, it’s that you should always have a back-up plan for this sort of holiday. And the great thing about London is it’s pretty damn easy to come up with a back-up plan that’s just as full of awesome.

My restaurant itinerary for the four-day trip is as follows:

Dinner at Hawksmoor Seven Dials

Lunch at The Ledbury

Dinner at The Square

(we’ll eat here when we stay at The Dorchester)

There should also be time for a visit to Borough Market

…and a macaron raid on Pierre Hermé.

I’m pretty happy with that!

It’s almost inevitable that some things will go wrong when the week actually comes. Lowlights from last year included a three-hour train delay on the way down and a ‘meal’ at an Angus Steakhouse.

But as long as the latter doesn’t happen again, I think we’ll be alright. I’m very much looking forward to it!


*Or at least I’m fairly sure that’s the case. It’s certainly a more interesting story with the queen involved, so let’s stick with it…

**I don’t mean that really. I love the queen. She can thwart me all she wants.

Drink #1: Dom Pérignon 2000

Dom Perignon 2000 label

In the world of vintage champagne, three brands stand out above all the rest: Krug, Cristal and Dom Pérignon.

No doubt there are other sparkling wines that are just as good; alternatives that can match the Big Three for reputation and even price. But when it comes to name-recognition and status, nothing comes close.

It’s because of this prestige that each one is represented on my list of Foods to Try Before I Die. And it’s because of this prestige that I thought it would be a very long time until I had one.

You see the funny thing about status wines; the thing you’d never guess of drinks consumed by the rich and famous is they cost an absolute bloody fortune.

The cheapest Dom Pérignon years will set you back between £80 and £130. The lowest priced Cristal is around £140 to £170. Vintage Krug starts from approximately £165.

To put that last price in perspective – because, let’s be honest, it’s the Krug I want more than any other* – for £165 my wife and I could get return train tickets from Manchester to London and eat the set lunch at Le Gavroche, complete with a bottle’s worth of wine.**

So imagine my surprise on Saturday, as I wandered into Burnage Tesco (of all places) to buy something cheap for tea. I’d bought some champagne glasses from the LSA Bar Collection that afternoon and was looking for a bottle of cava to break them in.

I got a couple of yards down the wine aisle before coming to a very sudden halt. Before me was a sign I couldn’t quite believe and I was having to concentrate very hard to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating.

The special offer read:

Dom Pérignon Champagne – £49.99

My wife asked me what was up. If she was my grandma, she’d have asked me if I was trying to catch flies – my gob was hanging wide open, and all I could do was point. The price was just ridiculous. £50 for a wine that I knew probably cost £100 at least?!

The bottle wasn’t actually on the shelf. Tesco keep products that expensive in the back, so I had to ask a grumpy old man in a blue shirt to go and fetch me one. I was expecting the 2002 Brut, I got the 2000 Brut, I didn’t care – like I would know the difference. It was going in the basket, it was going to be bought, and it was going home with me to be drunk.***

High quality champagne isn’t meant to be served super-cold. According winedoctor, you want it between 8ºC and 10ºC, which you’ll reach after around an hour in the fridge. I gave it half an hour in the freezer and then a few minutes to warm up before serving. I think I got it about right.

Before the Dom Pérignon, the most expensive champagne I’d ever had was probably a basic non-vintage Laurent Perrier, which was worth about £40. The best I’d ever had was either an unknown rosé that I was given compliments of Diego Masciaga at The Waterside Inn or the Paul Drouet Speciale Reserve Alain Ducasse Brut.

Comparing any of them to Moët & Chandon’s prestige champagne is like comparing Arsenal with Manchester United. You used to think they were good, but put them up against the true elite on an August bank holiday weekend and they’ll lose 8-2.****

The first thing that struck me as I tasted the Dom Pérignon was how fresh it was. You don’t really expect a liquid poured from such a dark and broody bottle to offer that cleanness of taste, but it did.

And then the bubbles took over and I couldn’t help but think they were perfect. I’ve never understood why some people love sparkling wine so much – the fizz can get a little wearisome after a while. But I don’t think I could ever tire of these bubbles. It felt like a swarm of pixies kissing the inside of my mouth.

However, the true wonder begins once you’ve swallowed and the flavour begins to hit. The complex taste***** lingers on your palate and continues to develop there for well over a minute. I’ve had nothing like it before! All I could do was close my eyes and allow my tastebuds to take me on a journey through the depths of this extraordinary wine.

It took about an hour for my wife and I to polish off the bottle. When it was finished, I strongly considered going back to Tesco and buying six more. “It’s an investment – we won’t be able to buy it at this price ever again,” I said.

Regrettably, the cooler side of my brain prevailed and I decided we couldn’t afford it. Sure, we’d save money in the long run, but at this stage of our un-rich lives, that’s money much better spent on boring house stuff like fixing damp and replacing rotting windows.

Still, for £50, champagne of this quality is an absolute steal – it’s light years ahead of anything else you’ll get in a supermarket.

So next time you’ve got something to celebrate and you’re in Tesco to buy a bit of fizz, look past that thoroughly mediocre bottle you’re about to waste £25 on and consider going that extra mile instead.

Verdict: Highest possible recommendation – at least as long you can get it for £50

NEXT UP: Old Fashioned (cocktail)


*In particular, the 1985, which would cost the best part of £900 for a magnum. Decanter’s 100 Wines to Try before you Die list would seem to suggest the 1990 is superior, but who cares what the critics think? The sheikh in Paul Torday’s ‘Salmon Fishing in the Yemen’ always orders the 1985, so that’s the one for me.

 **Le Gavroche is at the top of my UK restaurant wishlist (yes, I have a list for that as well). As the first UK restaurant to earn three Michelin stars, it has a rich history, and while it lost its third star 18 years back, its reputation remains extremely strong. In fact, towards the end of last year, Andy Hayler suggested it might well be London’s best restaurant. Dinner will set you back a fair whack, but you could eat the set lunch there (complete with half a bottle of wine) twice over for the price of a Dom Perignon.

 ***And after being drunk, the empty bottle was going to be turned into a candle holder, because it’s stunning and much too cool to throw away.

 ****I actually had the chance to put the Dom Perignon up against one of those champagnes as I quaffed three glasses of Laurent Perrier the following night at Northcote Manor. It was no contest.

 *****I don’t really do tasting notes. I prefer to focus on enjoying the wine rather than stepping out of the experience to think about what individual flavours I can pick out. But if you’re interested, here’s what Robert Parker has to say:

“The 2000 Brut Dom Perignon is a gorgeous, seductive wine that floats on the palate with remarkable grace. Toasty aromas meld into freshly cut flowers, apricots and pears, with sweet notes of mint and licorice that linger on the long finish. This perfumed, inviting Dom Perignon is elegance personified, and in this vintage the wine fully merits its lofty reputation.”

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