London’s Savoy hotel re-opened in October this year after being closed for refurbishment for the last 3. I have mentioned the Savoy in a previous post as being the place where the Omelette Arnold Bennett was created. Well, knowing that “eat an Omelette Arnold Bennett at the Savoy” was one of the things on my “to do before I die” list, my exceptionally perceptive and thoughtful boyfriend Joe decided to surprise me with dinner there to commemorate my 31st birthday. (He had been promising me that we would be going to the Ivy, which I must admit had me doubting whether he was the man of taste that I thought he was, but it was all an elaborate ruse!)
Happily they still have the Omelette Arnold Bennett on the menu post-renovation. Unhappily, if you order it, you will not get one.
Oh no. Recall my previous definition of an Omelette Arnold Bennett, which I think is a fair one: “a perhaps unlikely combination of flavours that has become a classic – smoked haddock, cheese, and hollandaise and/or bechamel sauce in a fluffy soufflé-style omelette.” If you order that at the Savoy (described fairly innocuously on the menu as “Omelette ‘Arnold Bennett’ with baby spinach leaves and light potato-mustard dressing”) what you will get is a ring of scrambled eggs, haddock and potato cubes with grilled cheese over the top and a little jug of mustard dressing on the side. What the…? Where’s the hollandaise? Where’s the light puffy, airy, grand eggy pillow housing those precious gems of smoked fish?
This raises all sorts of problems, from the semiotic to the moral. What does it mean to call something an “Omelette Arnold Bennett” anymore? Can an author change the substance of a work yet retain its name? And who is the author? Is it the Savoy, or is it Bennett himself? If the latter, by what right does the Savoy dare allege that this new, well, “thing” is an Omelette Arnold Bennett? If the “new” Omelette Arnold Bennett is supposed to remain the point of reference for this culinary artifact, then what do we call the old one? Are all the old recipes wrong now? Is Delia Smith now a liar when she says “Meanwhile, the Savoy Grill, proud of their achievement, still serve it every single day, year in, year out.” Can I call the old one an “Omelette Gareth Tilley”? Or does it go the way of “Coke Classic”? You can bet that Samuel Beckett’s estate wouldn’t have put up with for this sort of chaos if he had had an omelette named after him. (But then again he was substantially more accomplished in his own right. See, it’s not all beer and skittles acquiring fame by having food named after you).
I engaged the waiter in the debate (probably a mistake). Could you legitimately serve Peach Melba with, say, a lychee sauce instead of raspberry, I asked him? His shocking answer was that they’d changed that one too – Peach Melba (so called) now comes with redcurrant sauce, so be warned. I was sort of hoping for a reply that semi-justified their actions, along the lines of “well, we at the Savoy subscribe to Umberto Eco’s view that cultural phenomenon can be studied as communication, and so in re-creating our menu we considered that the irreducible core of Bennettness was a mélange of haddock, eggs and cheese. We believe that provided that all the elements of the original dish could be communicated to the diner we were entitled to vary the form; the acidity, for example no longer comes from the lemon in the hollandaise, but from the mustard dressing.” To which I could have replied, “I see. But don’t you think you’re taking an unrealistic view of the denota of the term ‘Omelette Arnold Bennett’? Even if I accept your premise that the variations you describe are of form and not substance, will your diners not have expectations as to form as well?” Was I asking for too much?
And that’s before we even get to the problem about whether there’s any duty on the Savoy to preserve cultural phenomena that live on only in the transient nature of individually prepared dishes? Surely this qualifies for an EU preservation grant of some form or another?
And then there’s the problem of the poorly expressed menu description. “Omelette ‘Arnold Bennett’ with baby spinach leaves and light potato-mustard dressing” suggests to me that you get a plate with an omelette on it, and on the side is a little pile of spinach leaves with a potato-mustard dressing, when in fact what they mean is that there are about 2 spinach leaves hidden in your omelette like pennies in a Christmas pudding, and you’re supposed to pour a mustard dressing over the whole caboodle. Whatever the merits of re-writing the rule book, the least we could expect is for it to be accurately described on the menu.
The Savoy’s problems go a bit deeper too. Upon ordering a Manhattan cocktail, we were told that these were only available in the bar. That would be the bar located 5 metres to my left. Surely it is not beyond the wit of man to have a Manhattan made in the bar and then transported in some way (perhaps on a tray?) to the Thames Foyer? Is that how Marilyn Monroe was treated when she stayed there. “Sorry Miss Monroe, Dom Perignon is only served in the bar”?
Enough complaining though. Apart from the omelette, the Manhattan incident, and the inability of the piano bar singer to sing my requested “Tell Me on a Sunday Please”, it was just fabulous. Of course it is impossible for a visit to the Savoy to be anything other than completely fabulous. From the absurdly shiny cutlery to the waiters in tails, from the chandeliers to the little pink “Happy Birthday” cocktails, this is a type of retro I could really get into. If only it was a little bit more faithfully retro, that is.