Heston’s new service
Observations on the lunch crunch
With remarkable synchronicity, it seems everything in the expense bracket of "unattainable" has gone on a self-induced purge. We now have cut-price holidays in the Caribbean and half-price champagne; I got a letter yesterday from Queen Ethelburga's prep school, a York-based establishment, offering the junior members of the family a free first term and school uniform. Even Heston Blumenthal, the chef whose tasting menu at the Michelin triple-gilded restaurant, the Fat Duck in Bray, costs more than £100 a head, has come down to earth by revamping a branch of that cheapest of eateries, Little Chef, as shown recently on Channel 4's new series The Great British Food Fight.
Only one branch, mind you, and a posh one at that: at the Popham service station on the A303, gateway to countless Hampshire second homes. Never mind: Heston, himself allegedly named after a service station on the M4, is not known as the world's greatest chef for nothing. If anyone could meet the challenge, surely it was him. When I asked my foodie friend Juliet if she would like to have lunch on the A303 - but at a place involving the cheferie of Mr B - she couldn't get into the car fast enough.
When we got there, it was quite clear most of the clientele were also there on a bespoke mission. People were walking around clutching broadsheet newspapers; a woman in a large cashmere throw swept in, followed by a small boy wearing corduroy plus-fours. The decor, provided by Ab (son of Richard) Rogers, has an Alice in Wonderland sensibility: all the plastic and chrome of the original is there, only surreally enhanced. Cooking suggestions adorn the tiles on the ladies' loos, and when you open a cubicle door, Peter Sellers and Sophia Loren start singing. Seagulls and clouds decorate the ceiling.
The gradient of knowing irony is rather steep, it must be said, and might well put off those for whom eating at a table with a plastic tomato containing ketchup is a perfectly ordinary occurrence. For foodie Londoners en route to Hampshire, however, Blumenthal's presence must seem like divine intervention amid the wilderness of Harvester pubs. The manager, wearing a shirt ironically emblazoned with the word Waiter, told us proudly that he had a booking to come for 45 people. You can almost hear the dinner-party chat in Notting Hill. Come to my credit-crunch 40th, at the Little Chef. Food by Heston Blumenthal!
All the staff have been to Bray to learn how Michelin eaters like to be served and, when it arrived, the food was delivered with panache. It was also delicious; prawn cocktail furnished with huge, plump prawns, coq au vin rejoicing in a fragrant, thick sauce, and my companion's root vegetable casserole and dumplings earthy and moreish. So much so, that we had to finish with a Bramley apple pie. Juliet pointed out that Heston had wisely organised a familiar menu, with no sign of scary cheffy fodder. There was ox cheek stew, but no snail porridge (thank God). And it didn't require much tampering at the coal face: no weird salads (fruit or otherwise) that could go wrong in the hands of an enthusiastic but inexperienced preparer, and many of the dishes brought in from off-site kitchens.
Furthermore, it really is good value. This is not some tarmac-surrounded version of Au Trianon. Our three-course meal came to £30. Yet the test will be when the first flush of visits is over and foodies have level pegging with the truckies. That both tribes should appreciate sitting down and breaking bread together is something that surely even the most clever redesign cannot engineer. Yet, in these recession-heavy times, who knows what walls will come crashing down?
Tags: economy 2009