My mood could have been better. It was raining when I arrived at Malmaison in London and, as I stood in the pouring rain, paying my cab driver, I realised I hadn’t brought appropriate shoes. The day before I’d had a rather unfortunate date with a rather unfortunate man, the upshot being my only pair of closed toe shoes are in quarantine.
I stepped into the warm, dry and beautiful ornate entrance of the hotel and trundled my case up to reception. Arriving early, I didn’t expect my room to be ready. Given the luck I’d had in the last few days, I was expecting everything to be rubbish.
But my room was ready, and lovely. Overlooking the private gardens of Charterhouse Square, it had beautiful original sash windows that actually opened. Properly. This is very rare and very appreciated in any hotel room. The bed was huge and firm, the pillows fluffy, the sheets high quality and pressed. My miserable mood lightened considerably and I took a long, hot and powerful shower, emerging renewed.
I had arranged to meet my friend Kathy for lunch. Once a month we go to a fine restaurant together to catch up on the various dramas of our respective lives. That day, I had a story to beat all stories so far. Kathy arrived, late and shaking her umbrella violently in the hotel lobby. I was so relived to see her; I needed to debrief after the traumatic events of the day before. “Are you alright?” she asked. “You sounded terrible on text. What the hell happened?” I’m fine, I reassured her. Let’s eat. I need wine.
We made our way downstairs to the basement restaurant – warm and cocooned from the pouring August rain – and took a seat under the huge sky light running the length of the dining room. The rain pounded above us, making us feel safe and cosy and private, much like sitting in a car when it’s raining – all alone in your own world, dry and warm. We sipped champagne.
“Start at the beginning. Tell me everything. Did he really take you to a Witheredfork? I just don’t believe it. Really?”
I finished the flute of champagne and the very attentive and friendly waitress arrived as if by magic. “Another glass?” No, thank you. I thought we’d have wine with the meal. I passed the wine list to Kathy while I scoured the menu. So many things I want to eat. The menu at Malmaison Brasserie is simple, elegant, comprehensive. I chose the salad Niçoise to start and Kathy ordered the chicken liver pafait, and we both went for the famous Malmaison burger with cheese and bacon.
The wine ordered, I began my tale of woe.
“So, I arranged to meet him at one o’clock outside Holborn station. He had previously said to me that he ‘eats in fancy places all the time with clients’ so would I mind if we didn’t go to a Michelin-star restaurant? Of course not, I say, I totally understand. ‘Great,’ he says, ‘meet me outside Holborn and I’ll surprise you’. Fantastic.”
The waitress arrived, holding two plates of amuse bouche that seemed much larger than normal amuse bouche, more like starters. A gift from the chef that was very much appreciated, gnocchi with chanterelles and huge, generous and fragrant slices of black truffle. The gnocchi dissolved in the mouth and the chanterelles, fried gently in butter gave a deep savoury quality to the dish. It was perfectly seasoned. We finished it quickly, wanting more.
Back to the story, Kathy nudged. “Yes, right…so, I spend the usual two hours getting ready – hair in pin curls, legs waxed, dress chosen, make-up nice. I look presentable, I’m wearing good shoes and my hair is amazing. On the way there I get a text. ‘Let me know what you’re wearing, so I recognise you.’ So I reply, ‘blue flowery dress, dark curly hair’. Fine, I think. Fine.
“I get to Holborn, stand outside with Ray-Bans on, texting Jonesy about how freaking nervous I am. And then it happens. A short, overly tanned bald man wearing an un-ironed flannel shirt (can you even get flannel shirts?) approaches me. I recoil. He moves closer and leans in for a sweaty hug. I realise at this point that I do sort of recognise this strange creature and my good manners kick in and I sort of return the hug. Clammy.”
“Oh dear. When had you last seen him? Had he changed that much?” Kathy asks.
“I last saw him 11 years ago! That’s a bloody long time! No, he hadn’t really changed that much now I come to think of it.”
Our starters arrived at this point – my salad was so much better than I had dared hope, the tuna perfectly timed, all the elements of the dish the right temperature. A pet hate of mine is fridge-cold food, all so common when ordering salads such as Niçoise where there are so many different elements involved. This was a joy to eat – even the baby potatoes, fragrant from being dressed while still warm, had been peeled. An extra effort truly appreciated and one that took this salad up above 90% of the Niçoise salads I’ve had before.
I took a large sip of red wine and continued my story.
“He is by now staring directly at my cleavage and can’t seem to take his eyes off my tits. ‘I recognised the blue dress!’ he says, staring down my top.”
Our empty starter plates were cleared and the wine topped up.
“He is now walking down the road, I am following, wondering where the hell this strange man will take me. He tells me he has a blocked ear and that he can’t hear properly because of all the wax.”
“Hang on,” Kathy interrupted. “He told you he had a blocked ear? Why? Why the hell did he tell you that? I thought you said he was trying to seduce you?”
“He was!” I half shouted across the restaurant. “That’s why this is all so terrible. He really was trying to seduce me!”
“Blimey. Ok, carry on…”
“So, I’m following him down the road and then it happens. He turns into a doorway covered by scaffolding so it takes me until we are actually inside the building to realise where I am. He strides towards the bar, I nervously glance around and it’s then that the realisation hits me. I am in a Witheredfork. There is a loud banging and drilling noise surrounding me, I wonder for a brief second if this is actual hell and if the sound effects are a part of that whole experience. I realise no one else seems to notice the banging, but then I also notice that every other person in there looks as if they are in some form of catatonic state.
“We reach the bar. I frantically scour it for something drinkable. They have Gordon’s. I cannot even contemplate drinking Gordon’s and so I opt for a pint of beer. ‘I’m going to have to abstain I’m afraid,’ he says, and so as not to look like a complete alcoholic, I agree to do the same. I order an Appletize. They only have J2o. I ask for an apple juice. It comes in a grease-marked glass and a straw is plucked from the box with sticky fingers touching every single inch of it, and dropped into the juice. I shudder.”
I paused for a moment as the waitress brought our burgers to the table. The contrast between the incredible meal in front of me and the memory of the terrible Witheredfork experience was huge. Voted in fourth place in the Top 10 Burgers of London in April 2011, it was obvious why. Juicy, generous, well-seasoned, this was a thing of beauty. Chips cooked in dripping accompanied it as well as aioli. I didn’t think this could get much better.
Back to the horror story…
“We choose a table, sticky with dried tomato ketchup smudges, and on the walk from the bar to the table I realise the carpets are tacky. My shoes are sticking to the carpet. I gingerly place my bag down on the floor and smile weakly. He hands me the menu.
“He is so keen to order quickly, I don’t even get a chance to read the menu – he’s standing over me, impatient to get the order in. He didn’t even look at the menu. This man knows what he wants. And he wants two meals for £5.99. I order a superfood salad as it seems to be the only thing that cannot be microwaved. He leaves to order at the bar. I hear my name being shouted across the cavernous hell hole that is this pub and I look up. “They don’t have the superfood salad! Caesar Salad?” he asks. “Um, yes, sure, that sounds lovely” I stammer, cringing at anyone in this godforsaken place knowing my name.
“He returns to the table. He stares at my breasts. We talk about what we’ve been doing for the last 11 years. The food arrives.”
“Oh tell me about the food, please. Please,” implored Kathy, genuinely excited to hear my assessment. “Was it as bad as it looks? Really?” There was a distinct edge of Schadenfreude to Kathy’s request but I continued despite it.
“Well. My salad leaves are brown and wilted. The ‘Caesar’ dressing is warm and artificial-tasting, much like those little packets of chip-shop tartar sauce that have been sat next to the deep fat fryer for a couple of months. The chicken breast has blackened marks on it presumably to make it look as if it had been char-grilled. It is pumped with water to make it ‘succulent’ and has obviously been cooked some time ago, cut up and then re-heated as the edges of the cut sides are dry and brown. The cheese is sweaty. The croutons are luminous yellow with bright green specks of “chives”. I eat about a tenth of it, chewing as little as physically possible, washing mouthfuls down with the from-concentrate apple juice.”
“Oh, dear God! That sounds horrendous! How did you survive it? Weren’t you ill later?”
“I did consider the chances of my contracting some form of life-threatening food poisoning and then think how incredibly fucking horrific it would be to die in that way. How shameful to die via Witheredfork. That thought put me off even more than one more bite of the frankly repulsive ‘meal’ and I downed knife and fork. My companion, on the other hand, is tucking into his salmon fillet and chips with gusto. He is enjoying it immensely. He finishes the entire plate. We sit with the dirty crockery between us, and talk about my dead husband. I think to myself, ‘could this actually get worse?’”
Kathy and I broke our conversation when our crème brûlée arrived: creamy, smooth, crisp sugary crackling on top. Perfect. The sweet, warm custard soothed my distress. I continued.
“Eventually after one whole tortuous hour, I tell him I have to dash as I have an appointment to view a house at 2.30 so I’d best get going…
“I thank him for lunch, collect my bag from the sticky carpet and we leave together. Thankfully there are enough people on High Holborn that I manage to slip into the throngs un-noticed and no-one seems to realise I just came out of a Witheredfork. I walk briskly toward the tube, my companion trotting along behind me. I can smell freedom.
“We get to the tube, and he asks, ‘so is it alright to keep texting you?’ I say ‘probably best to keep the texts to a minimum’ and smile weakly. He leans in for another clammy hug and I turn it into two air kisses. I turn on my heels, and run across the road, oblivious to oncoming traffic. I just need to get away.
“Wow. That really was the date from hell wasn’t it?” asked Kathy, full of genuine pity.
“It really, really was. And to think, he could have taken me here.”
The Brasserie at the London Mal, 18-21 Charterhouse Square, Clerkenwell, London, EC1M 6AH. Tel. 020 7012 3700. Website.