As I perused the menu I spotted many a customary mass catering staple; smoked salmon terrine, asparagus with Hollandaise, roasted fillet of beef with a ‘medley of vegetables’, but I thought I’d put my cynicism aside in the spirit of the occasion and accepted a glass of white from the waiter. I dismissed its heart-burning acidity (I forget what it was, alas, probably just as well), confident of my suspicions of the menu, and made polite introductory conversation with the other eight people on our intimate little table.
It wasn’t long before our starters arrived accompanied by my first faux pas of the evening. The smoked salmon and lobster terrine came with a shot glass of gazpacho. At least I thought it was gazpacho. Not being entirely sure what to do with this I assumed the confident air of the food critic of renown and tipped it liberally all over my plate. It was only at that point when I noticed its consistency and that my co-diners were delicately sipping theirs from the glass that I realised it was a Bloody Mary designed to complement the fish. Needless to say, as I dabbed the egg from my face and tucked in, I have the pleasure in pointing out that I also buried my cynicism about the menu at that point – the terrine was delicious, fleshed out with generous chunks of lobster tail, such as it was (even swimming in Bloody Mary, such as it shouldn’t).
The subsequent dishes – a mid-course added, presumably, to justify the ticket’s £95 price tag – continued in suit. The char-grilled asparagus was deliciously al dente and felt like a soft palate-cleanser before the main event; the beef. Again, here my fears subsided as I sliced into the fillet, expecting to be battling tanned leather, and was met with a very tender cut ever so slightly purple in the middle. Perfect. My hats off to the chef here, putting 800 fillets of beef through the kitchen and turning them out like this. It’s a shame the stuffed potato fondant went the other way, being a tad too hard to the bite. Still, my money’s on the meat with a dish such as this and I went through it with relish. Finally, dessert was a rather inventive chocolate truffle dressed with customary raspberry coulis. Having first scoffed at the decision of including the menu in some detail in the press release I have to say I was impressed. This was dining for crowds done with aplomb and sent us satisfactorily into the main event…
Whereupon a voice boomed from on high telling us to take any comfort break as necessary as Ms Cole would be taking to the stage in ten minutes. Such notices usually create surges of activity in a crowd this size and I half expected a stampede to either the stage or the doors. Fortunately there was neither, bar the odd lady or gent excusing themselves politely from their dinner companions and demurely making their way among the tables. It would seem that everyone was adopting a certain refrain of yesteryear and, short of bidding every person one passed “Good evening” and not getting anywhere with “After you”, “No, after you”, manners were prevailing.
As ten minutes lapsed, you could sense a frisson of excitement in the room, the level of animated conversation slowly lowering to a murmur. Naturally, that ten minutes became more like twenty and then, as if walking into her own living room, Natalie Cole stepped up to the stage – finally quashing any fears that Bruce Forsyth was, indeed, the warm-up act – and delivered a sumptuous rendition of Peggy Lee’s Fever.
I confess, I couldn’t profess to be a massive fan of Natalie Cole, I couldn’t name any of her original numbers, but what I realised as I sat there, with each song delivered like conversation with an old friend, is that I felt utterly comfortable. Here I was in a room with 799 other people and it could have been a smoky Soho basement in the 1950s. Other familiar Rat Pack signatures followed and between each song she ingratiated herself with her guests with anecdotes, including one such introduction to a tune by one of her father’s friends who she simply referred to as “Uncle Frank” and broke into Nice ‘n’ Easy. Class.
Amid the crooners’ classics there was also a fun Sergio Mendez number, the hideous Miss You Like Crazy (which, thankfully, she managed to make sound half decent) and her encore of Lovely Day brought the house to its feet. About halfway through the set there was mention of a treat coming up. I feared the worst and glanced across at Bruce. Instead, screens were lowered either side of the stage in preparation of the definitive moment of the evening which – as if you couldn’t guess – came when she delivered Unforgettable, perfectly synced in duet with archive footage of her father. It was as if he was there.
There was definitely something different about this evening; the venue, the dinner, the feeling that we were all privileged guests, that we’d experienced something from days gone by; it was certainly no ordinary concert. There are future Live from the Plaza events planned and I sincerely hope they take off as they really do mark a special occasion. Assuming, of course, you don’t mind sharing your intimate wedding anniversary celebration with eight other guests.
Live at the Plaza continues with Paul Young on 11th December.