Last night I dreamt I went to…Prunier’s. When I was in my twentys, I was squired around London by a circle of men who might be said to have known better. They were all considerably older than me and thought a good night out consisted of either the theatre and supper or the opera and supper. Since I liked both the theatre and the opera very much indeed, and was a not-absolutely penniless student I happily went along with the plan which always followed a familiar pattern.
The date would be pre-arranged and we would meet in the front of house at whichever venue was showing the chosen show and then after the play, opera or ballet we would go out to dinner. If it had been the opera we invariably went to Boulestin or Rules. Boulestin has gone but Rules is still a post-opera favourite. If it had been the theatre is was Kettners or Pruniers, Kettners still exists on its old site but is now a pizzeria and Pruniers is now The Caviar House on Piccadilly.
This is not, however, the site of the original London Prunier, which if I remember correctly was half way down St James’ on the right hand side.
One swept in the entrance, and was filleted seamlessly out of one’s coat and ushered to a table. Almost immediately one would be presented with a menu the size of one of the old broadsheet newspapers upon which, all in French was an immense array of different fish dishes and in a tiny paragraph on the lower right hand side were Les Viandes.
Now, I may have got this completely wrong, but what I recall as key was that Prunier’s was a fish restaurant, founded in France by Alfred Prunier and his wife, the London restaurant was opened by his granddaughter Simone in 1925; it closed in 1976.
There were an enormous choice of oysters, shellfish and marine and freshwater fish, but all I can remember was a list of dishes the main ingredient of which was sole. You hardly ever see sole on the menu today, but in the 1960’s under sole there was a plethora of choice: Sole or filets de sole Colbert, à la bonne femme, Dugléré, à la florentine, à la meunière, Lutetia, Richelieu, Saint-Germain,
Joinville, provençale and Véronique, and several others.
You may wonder why I remember all these, suffice to say I went on eventually to become a chef myself and these were all in my repertoire.
What I don’t remember is many other fish. In season there was always salmon and trout fresh from some Scottish or English river and line-caught, though I have a feeling that there was also some slightly dubious netting of salmon going on; though possibly Prunier’s eschewed such catches and occasionally there would be turbot or something but my memory has snagged on sole.
Dining was a strangely different business then. More sedate and more expansive and possibly more expensive – though I rather doubt that. Because there was an acre of space around each table one had a sense of privacy even in a room full of people; diners were draped in napery from thick damask table cloths and huge napkins; the floor was carpeted in the thickest possible pile and windows hung with sentinels of deep pleated curtains. Sound absorbing folds of fabric meant that conversation could be held in quiet tones and your neighbours were so far away that you could not hear each other.
Famous people frequented Prunier’s but no one batted an eyelid. I remember sitting at a table near to Omar Sharif (the George Clooney de ses jours) who was in London for a chess championship or something totally unconnected with film; on another occasion Princess Margaret arrived but there were no photographers and no one had a cell phone, so she came in with her guests and went after dinner almost unobserved. All very discreet, cocooned and luxurious.
My dream was a revisit, it was like a balloon and we were floating just off the ground, very weird because I hadn’t given Prunier’s or any of my beaux a thought in years, so it was rather peculiar.
What happened to scampi? Another dish that seems to have vanished.
Just for a moment I want to digress. Fillet of sole Véronique came up in a Masterchef The Professionals programme this year in the “cook a classic dish of your own choice” section. One of the women contestants chose it and you could tell instantly that Michel Roux Jnr was deeply unimpressed, sole cooked in white wine and grapes, not skilled or clever enough – an out and out loser. I hope somewhere there is a YouTube clip of the moment this dish was presented to him and Gregg Wallace. The viewer saw the forkful travel towards M. Roux’s mouth, his face was a picture of anticipated disappointment, which transformed itself into an image of perfect bliss as the flavour sensation hit his taste buds, you could actually see the adrenalin rush of pleasure flow through his entire body. It was absolutely amazing. When he had recovered he said he had never tasted anything like it. I have no idea what the chef had done, except magic. There was a much earlier occasion in a previous year when another female chef offered up dark chocolate sorbet, ooh my goodness Michel Roux was doubtful! But once he had tasted it he even asked whether they could use the recipe in the restaurants, accolade indeed; though she didn’t go on to win.