There are those who say that London is a club that everyone belongs to. This is never truer during the season when all the mummies at the school gates are chatting animatedly about Ladies Day at Ascot and their corporate tickets to Wimbledon. My own particular branch of the club appears rather small, with a membership of about one. My any-season day goes pretty much: four packed lunches, school run, twenty minutes in the gym on a bike reading Gourmet Magazine next to a row of girls reading Stage, followed by work on the book due two months ago, lunch, school run, and then either out to a function, or a hot date with Frazier. Once a week or so I catch the husband - an associate member who, given his poor attendance, is not getting value for his monthly membership fee. So imagine the joy of driving out to Sonning for lunch at the long established French Horn and actually recognising someone else in the restaurant.
If youre planning to do the same over the next few weeks, I hope you booked last month. Being close to Henley, and with Ascot and London just a short run down the M4, it will be packed. Its also a favourite destination for locals. And, I warn you, for the retired.
Now, who is she? I muttered to my husband while sipping a glass of champagne in the lounge amid a well-worn collection of of leather armchairs and old Dralon three piece suites, my voice muffled by the crackling of the log fire and the hiss from a brace of ducks, roasting on the spit. He grunted, busily salivating over the wine list and reading the expensive ones out loud. I examined the Sunday lunch menu - 3 courses for £39.90 pounds (which includes service) - where most dishes are taken straight from the more expensive a la carte. But I hardly noticed the veal cutlet, roast ribs of beef or the saddle of lamb. Instead, I stared at the woman lounging elegantly at the other side of the room wondering where I knew her from. School? Too young. Art College? Too chic. Soho? Too refined. Portobello Road? Too rich.
Look mama, the ducks is all wet, said her small old son. Oh, sweetie , but thats not water, its FAT, she said as though the substance was as outlandish as an anaconda curled up in the fireplace. False friendship can be embarrassing - you cant just rush up to people with a cheery hello after recognising their face, thinking that they must work in a bar, because often theyre currently starring in a soap or presenting an afternoon chat show. In this way I have claimed acquaintanceship with most of Channel 5.
The dining room has a fantastic view over water meadows lined with weeping willows leading down to the Thames - so archetypically English that it should have a calendar tag attached showing June. The room is as traditional as the menu, gold brocade curtains, folded like origami around the picture windows and dripping bottle green fringes. Service is old style, complete with trolleys, silver salvers and Wedgwood cheese bells, and the tables, set with magnum wine glasses big enough to keep goldfish in, act as repositories for all those silvery objets you get as wedding presents such as water goblets and ornamental pheasants.
Husband had asparagus with hollandaise, a napkin folded on the table to tilt the plate - because when eating, as at the gym, you dont want to exert yourself too much. I had a crab salad with herring row - beautifully presented on a circle of red pepper coulis. Otherwise you could have had smoked salmon with poached eggs or, for a step back in time to lunch with your parents in 1965, melon with port.
To follow, a gargantuan dish containing half a spit roasted duck with apple sauce, potatoes dauphinoise, spinach and pureed carrots was impossible to resist. Trying to be adventurous I chose filet de sole Banane, which though based on the Escoffier dish, Sole Caprice, was as bizarre as it sounds. The buttery filets of sole were excellent, but the mango chutney and caramelised bananas, despite my great affection for both, were like pompoms with a business suit. With a bit of ice cream it would have been a great desert. I was immediately offered something else - but isnt that what husbands plates are for?
Next up, naturally, was creme brulee, bread and butter pudding and, our choice, a sinful warm chocolate pudding and a more restrained bowl of berries with a sabayon cream. While bracing ourselves for our ignominious return to the car park (5 Jags, 5 Mercs, 3 rollers, 4 BMWs, a Lexus and our battered Renault with the side mirror held on with duct tape), I went to the ladies, where two permed women were air kissing, saying: Darling, I havent seen you since Cliveden. That bloody club again. Then in walked my mystery girl. We said hello, and suddenly it came to me. Of course, she goes to the gym. I am a member of a club - even if its only Holmes Place.