The AA’s chief hotel and restaurant inspector, Peter Birnie, joined us at the first judging sessions of the Hotel Cateys at the Dorchester Hotel this week. I took the chance to pop out for a bite with him afterwards, to witness an inspection first hand.
We went to Rhodes W1, Gary Rhodes’ new fine dining venture at the Cumberland Hotel. I loved
the restaurant’s Kelly Hoppen-designed interiors – the crystal chandeliers that dominate reminded me a bit of Superman’s ice palace in the Christopher Reeve movies. Our initial concerns that we had hit the restaurant on a quiet night were soon dispelled, as the place filled up steadily.
So, how does an AA inspector inspect? In short, with huge care and a huge attention to detail.
As Peter picked up his spoon to sample his starter of salmon soup with steamed smoked salmon, he resembled a surgeon wielding a scalpel. He delicately eased a flake of salmon from the centre of the bowl and moved it around his mouth. “Delicious”, he announced, before taking a sip of the soup itself. Peter was right: the salmon was perfetly cooked, with a bite that stood up well to the liquor around it, and with an intensity of flavour that brought kedgeree to mind.
Rhodes’ decision to offer a simple choice of white or brown bread clearly pleased the inspector -after all, who wants to be talked through a long list of fruited and spiced breads when all they really want is to be left alone to enjoy the company of their fellow diners?
Does Peter have a particularly well-developed palate, I asked. He replied that it is sufficiently sophisticated for his purposes, but reminded me that it’s the visual presentation of a dish, its touches of flair, its combinations of texture and the manner in which it is served by staff that he is judging, as well as its flavour. Hence his pleasure on seeing and tasting my starter, salad of sweetbreads with freshwater crayfish and soft quail’s eggs, in which the crunch of the fried sweetbreads was complemented by the ‘give’ of the crayfish and the ooze of the eggs.
Peter tested the sommelier by asking him to suggest wines for all of our dishes. He didn’t disappoint with either his selection or his service, which was warm and companionable.
Both mains were good. My roast spring lamb sat on a bed of 24hr-cooked shoulder of lamb that melted in the mouth; Peter’s salt roast pigeon was appeallingly pink and benefited from a lemon cumin gravy that he judged to be flavoursome without ever overpowering.
We sidestepped the impressive cheese trolley and moved on to desserts. Peter was delighted by the clean lines and complexity of the cherry trifle put before him. “There’s a huge amount of work gone into this,” he enthused. My iced lemon chiboust was rich and zesty, but did the dish need another contrasting texture on the plate, wondered Peter. Maybe …
With one last scribble in the notepad that rarely left his side throughout dinner, Peter left our table and moved into the reception area to quiz Head Chef, Brian Hughson on the component parts of each dish we had sampled. Then it was time to go our separate ways – Peter, to his hotel to write up his notes, me to find a cab, still dreaming of the superb salted caramel chocolate that had capped my meal.