I recently saw a guide to finding niche hotels, where the final tip was ‘Don’t book five, six or seven star hotels. The establishment itself may be lovely, but what of your fellow guests?’ While critiquing this wisdom (Are not the establishments also worth avoiding? – the service and prices at the bars of Park Lane lodge-houses pucker mouth and anus respectively) it occurred that this could be a metaphor for restaurants awarded Michelin stars. Good food and service, undermined by the baggage that comes with an accreditation, and high price tag.
Do the Michelin listings homogenize the experience, the prestige attracting more trade than the unique qualities of the cooking, service and ambiance? Many chefs have been known to write to Paris, expressly asking that they are not included in the red book. They fear car parks rammed with Audi Q7s (BMW X5/RR Sport). They fear their crafted dining experience will be reduced to a notch on the Amex of the star chasers. Two tips for experiencing Michelin-endorsed food whilst reducing contact with these people are thus: stay out of Zone 1, and don’t do dinner.
So we went for lunch at The Bingham. This large townhouse sits below another larger old favorite, The Petersham, on the road of the same name running into Richmond south along the Thames. There are few more picturesque locations in London, and The Bingham has its fair share of river action, albeit shrouded in Victorian sash windows and curtains if you are not on the back terrace. Sitting in the slightly ‘80s retro-luxury’ dining room so beloved of this calibre of restaurant, the quality of the clientele did prick my perception, but they were completely outweighed by The Door To The Kitchen.
For reasons which must have some logical background, a sliding door the girth and robustness of which you might find on a container ship has been installed between the kitchen and dining room. It’s automatic mechanism is far from Star Trek-smooth, punctuating subdued dining room conversation like a rusty iron girder to the temple. Not that this was a problem for our fellow guests, so engaging were their iPhone and Blackberry screens that only the occasional grunts to waiting staff (finally concluded with 5 chirps of an Amex being processed) signaled their appreciation of Head Chef Shay Cooper’s efforts. Do affluent middle-aged couples really have that little to say to each other?
I am being unfair. On one table a strident woman from South London must have been told that each course at the Bingham is ideally paired with two double gin and tonics, so could easily give The Door a run for its money, dessert having been concluded. Inversely to the clientele, the quality of the food emerged quickly as extremely high, and certainly a step above Alex Bentley’s excellent dishes at the Petersham in terms of delicacy and presentation. A brill fillet with shrimp and pork dumpling was bathing in a salty roast pork consommé, perfect with a glass of Rully 1er Cru. Mains were moist poisson ballantyne (from the set menu) and rack of lamb with shoulder on the side. Both faultless, especially give the chicken was priced as part of the set menu.
I felt the toasted marshmallow desert a gimmick, however the Bingham’s deconstructed version of Tiramisu should be on every connoisseur’s hit list (the more traditional Valentina version is certainly up there). As I couldn’t turn down a well-aged Oregon Pinot, our bill was well over average. Service was a professional mix of friendly and formal and with the kind of food Greg Wallace is constant bleating about on Masterchef, the Bingham is never going to be cheap. At £26, the set lunch is good value if you keep things simple (i.e no gin). We cannot comment on the rooms available or indeed the dinner service, but would recommend lunch as long as you take ear plugs for the Door. Or just take your iPhone and earphones.
Petersham Road, Richmond, Surrey
Telephone: 0208 9400902
A la Carte Price: £80 per head including (some) wine, Set lunch, £26
Perfect for: Avoiding the Michelin hoards down by the river
In an epilogue to this review, the 2012 Michelin UK guide has been published, and guess what, The Bingham no longer has a star. As above, the food is world class so let’s not worry much about that, and focus on two positives: we can now book for lunch or dinner with more confidence – hopefully Mr iphone will no longer rate the place. Secondly, the excellent Hand and Flowers (gastropub)in Marlow has been awarded a second star, so get there before the bargain set lunch price goes up, and car park fills up with urban 4x4s.