Victorian London - Publications - Etiquette and Advice Manuals - Dinners and Diners, by Lieut.-Col. Newnham-Davis, 1899 - Chapter 9 - The Hotel Cecil (The Strand)

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CHAPTER IX

THE HOTEL CECIL (THE STRAND)

It was in the noble cause of conversion of fellow-man that I dined at the Hotel Cecil. One of my uncles, the Nabob—so called by us because he spent many years in the gorgeous East— affects the belief that there is no good curry to be had outside the portals of his club, the East India; and for that reason, when he is not dining at home, dines nowhere but there. I would not dare to trifle with the Nabob’s digestion, for I have reason to believe that he has remembered me in his will; but I also thought that he should not be allowed to go to his grave with the erroneous impression that curry can only be made out of India in St. James’s Square. I have eaten good curry at the Criterion, where a sable gentle­man is charged with its preparation, and I also remembered that at the Cecil they make a speciality of their curries.
  
The Nabob, doubting much, said that he would dine with me; and, with the possibility of the alteration of the terms of that will always before me, I went down to the Hotel Cecil to [-60-] interview M. Bertini on the morning of the day of the dinner.
  
Three gentlemen in gorgeous uniforms, and with as much gold lace round their caps as a field-marshal wears, received me at the door. A clerk in the reception bureau took my card, wrote something mysterious on a slip of paper, and sent a page-boy in blue off on the search for M. Bertini, while I stood and contemplated the great marble staircase.
  
M. Bertini would see me directly, I was told and I went down a floor or two in the lift and was shown into a comfortable room, the big table in the centre covered with papers, a telephone at either side of the armchair by the table, and on the walls sketches for the uniforms of the gentle­men with gold-laced caps who had received me, a caricature of M. Bertini, and drawings of various Continental hotels. A yellow dog which had been asleep under the chiffonier rose, stretched himself; inspected me, and apparently thought me harmless, for he went to sleep again. Presently in came M. Bertini himself; looking cool and neat, his beard closely clipped, his moustache brushed out. I had interfered with his morning round of inspection; but he could spare a minute or two to talk over my needs for the evening. I told him at once what I wanted: a dinner for two with the curry course as the most important item, and M. Bertini, who is an expert in cookery, took a slip of paper and sketched out a menu. Here it is:-

Hors-d’oeuvre variés.
Consommé Sarah Bernhardt.
[-61-] Filet de sole à la Garbure.
  
Côtes en chevreuil. Sauce poivrade.
Haricots verts a la Villars.
Pommes Cécil.
Mousse de foie gras et jambon au champagne.
Curry à 1’Indienne.
Bombay Duck, etc. etc.
Asperges.
Bombe à la Cecil.
Petites friandises choisies.

We had a table in the corner of the great restaurant, with its dozen marble pillars, its walnut panelling, its tapestries, the gilt Cecil arms on a great square of red velvet, its great crystal lamps that hold the electric light, its fireplaces of Sicilian marble, its gilt ceiling, its musicians’ gallery in one corner. The waiters with their white aprons bustled silently about setting down the hors-d’oeuvre, the important person with the silver chain round his neck took the order for a bottle of Deutz and Gelderman, and the curry cook, clothed in white samite, and with his turban neatly rolled, came up to make his salaam, and was immediately tackled by the Nabob, who in fluent Hindustani put him through an examination in the art of curry-making, which was apparently satisfactory, for he was dismissed with a Bot atcha.
  
Then the Nabob, hook-nosed, clean-shaven, except for two thin side-whiskers, turned to me. “When I was at Mhow, in ‘54, Holkar—not the present man, but his grandfather, had a curry cook named Afiz, who—” and just then the waiter brought the soup, which I was glad of, [-62-] for I knew my uncle’s story of Holkar and Afiz, and how the cook was to have been beheaded for giving his Highness a mutton curry instead of an egg one, and was saved by the Nabob’s inter­ference, and I knew that it took half an hour in the telling. The consommé Sarah Bernhardt, which has a foundation of turtle, to which is added consommé de volaille, quenelles and parsley, was worthy of M. Coste, erstwhile of Cubats’, the gorgeous restaurant in the Champs Elysées, who has deserted the banks of the Seine for those of the Thames; and the filet de sole à La Garbure, over the description of the cooking of which M. Guy Gagliardelly, the most attentive of maitres d’hôtel, waxed eloquent, was another masterpiece of the kitchen. It is a variation of the filet de sole Mornay, having vegetables added tp it.
  
Then came a pause, and with it the Nabob’s opportunity. “Holkar never gave a great curry feast without asking me to it, for he said that I was the only European who understood what a curry should be“ and just then the waiter put down our cutlets before us, and M. Gagliardelly was at my elbow to explain that the haricots verts were prepared with flour and egg and then fried like a sole, and M. Laurent, the chef du restaurant, who had been going the round of the tables, told us the secret of pommes Cecil.
  
My uncle drew a long breath, and I knew what was coming, when luckily a lady with a great dog-collar of diamonds passed and attracted his attention, and I staved off the dissertation on curries for a few minutes by telling him of the [-63-] wonderful diamond stomacher the lady possessed, which made the collar look only like a row of brilliants. I called the Nabob’s attention, too, to a quiet, almost shabbily-dressed gentleman, dining with his wife and two little girls, for he is a man with an estate in Australia big enough to form a principality in the Balkans, and people talk of the revenue he gets from his flocks and herds with a sort of awe. A little French chansonnette singer; the editor of a Society newspaper; a well-known musician and his daughter, who is a rising young actress, were other people of interest to be pointed out ; and by that time our two wedges of the delicately-coloured mousse, with its flavouring gained from tongue and champagne and old brandy, were before us. The mousse was the only dish in the dinner that was really open to criticism, and I do not think that I am captious when I say that I prefer it made less solidly than M. Coste's creation at the Cecil.
    Then came the dish of the evening, a tender spring-chicken for the foundation of the curry, and all the accessories, Bombay duck, that crumpled in our fingers to dust, paprika cakes, thinner than a sheet of note-paper, and chutnees galore, to add to the savoury mess. It was a genuine Indian Curry, and the curry cook, his hands joined in the attitude of polite deference, stood and watched rather anxiously the Nabob take his first mouthful. I myself think the Malay curries the best in the world, those wonderful preparations of prawns, fish, fowl, meat, or vegetable, with one great curry as the foundation [-64-] swimming in the delicious semi-liquid, which has always the taste of fresh cocoa-nut, with half a dozen subsidiary curries, and then a host of sambals, little dishes of ota-ota, which is fish brains pounded in cream, fresh cocoa-nut and chili, beans, shredded ham, Bombay duck, and a hundred other relishes; and I put next to it the Ceylon curry. But the Nabob swears by the curries of India, and even the old Quai Haies of his club pay attention when he gives his decision on a question of feeding. “ Er, um, yes, good” said the old gentleman, and the cook salaamed. “Good, decidedly. I don’t say as good as we get it at the club “—he was bound to say this—” but decidedly good.” The success of the dinner was made, and I felt relieved in my mind as to the will. The asparagus and the bombe, with an electrically illuminated ice wind­mill as a background, were but the skirmishes after the pitched battle had been won.
  
As I lighted a cigarette, the Nabob, who does not smoke, began again. “Holkar always in­vited me and a fellow Aziz, whose life I saved— that’s a devilish good story that I must tell you some day—used to make one special curry of lambs’ tongues, which he called after me." “Pardon me, uncle, while I pay my bill,” I said as a last resource, and this was the bill I paid :—Soup, 2s.; filet de sole, 3s.; côte de mouton, 3s.; haricots verts, 1s. 6d. ; pommes, 1s. ; mousse, 4s. ; curry, 3s. 6d. ; asperges, 7s. 6d. ; bombe, 2s. ; two cafés, 2s. ; liqueurs, 3s. ; cigarettes, 1s. ; wine, 15s. ; total, £2:8:6.
  
29th March.
[-65-]
*** M. Bertini has left the Cecil and Mr. A. Judah, young, alert, with something of the cavalry officer in his appearance, reigns in his stead. Mons. François has deserted Monte Carlo and the Grand Hotel for the Strand and the Cecil, and now has charge of the restaurant. François has seen the rise of Monte Carlo, having been a dweller in Monaco before Mons. Blanc turned a rocky hill into a paradise by establishing a hell in the centre of it. To hear him tell the story of the early days of the Casino is very interesting. Mons. Laurent is now the maitre d’hôtel at the Continental.
  
Mr. Judah was kind enough to give me the recette for the consommé Sarah Bernhardt, the soup I thought so excellent when I dined at the Cecil, and I also asked him to suggest a dinner for six people, with some specialities of the Cecil included in it.
  
Here is the recette, and here the menu, with an asterisk against the dishes which are specialities of the Cecil cuisine

Caviar frais de Sterlet.
Consommé Sarah Bernhardt.
* Suprême de truite Astronome.
* Poularde soufflée Cecil.
Selle d’agneau de Pauillac rôtie.
Petits pois nouveaux.
Caneton de Rouen à la Presse.
Salade de coeurs de Romaine.
Asperges de Lauris. Sauce mousseline.
Pêches rafraichies au marasquin.
Comtesse Marie glacée.
Paniers de petits fours.
Fruits.

[-66-] Consommé Sarah Bernhardt

Il faut d’abord avoir un bon consommé de volaille; le lier avec du tapioca grillé, que l'on jette dedans pendant qu’il bouille, et laisser cuire environ trois quarts d’heure; y ajouter une infusion de cerfeuil, estragon, coriandre, avec une pointe de cayenne, ainsi qu’une ou deux eschalottes et un ou deux champignons emincés revenus au vieux Madère sec; verser le tout dans le consommé et laisser cuire environ dix minutes. Passer au linge fin ou à l’étamine; garnir de peluches, de petites quenelles d’écrevisses et de ronds de moëlle coupés à l’emporte, piece d’environ un centimitre d’épaisseur.

You must first have a good stock, made from poultry, then add to it roasted tapioca, which you throw in while the stock is boiling. Let it cook for about three-quarters of an hour, then add to it an infusion of chervil, tarragon, coriander, and a pinch of cayenne pepper, as well as one or two shalots, and one or two minced mushrooms, which have been soaked in old dry Madeira. Pour the whole into the stock, and let it cook for about ten minutes. Pass through fine muslin or a sieve; garnish with little quenelles of crayfish, grated bread-crumbs, and rounds of marrow, cut out with the cutter, about three-quarters of an inch in thickness.