Our perfectionist boulevardier finds The Wolseley to be a place of becalmed originality.
It’s late afternoon and neither I nor my lawyer, Harold, who insists on these tête-à-têtes, are really hungry. But before long we are consulting the patisserie and konditorei section of the menu at The Wolseley out of politeness to Ovitz, who I didn’t know had been invited but infuriatingly I do remember introducing as a client. Ovitz is talking about his recent experiences in European cafés, and I make a mental note not to introduce him to anyone else ever again.
‘Bateman here will have an opinion I’m sure,’ he says, nodding to me, sensing my preparedness to correct him on the long development of continental baking culture.
‘The French pastry tradition, with its lighter macarons, croissants, profiteroles and the like, is a distinct entity from their heavier and ultimately more rewarding Germanic cousins, the sachertorte, Black Forest gateau, and even though it uses the puff pastry common to the many lighter French dishes, the satisfyingly named strudel, Tom.’ I let his name linger. ‘This menu comes from the latter tradition, and yes I know the two overlap but hey,’ I say with a happy shrug, ‘if you’re going into a Parisian patisserie and expecting to get all the doughy, earthy richness pioneered by the lebküchen of seventeenth-century Germany, do you really have anyone but yourself to blame?’
The schnitzel section of the menu may not be the most innovative, but being able to produce them year after year at the same exceptional quality is an innovation in itself, and one that my lawyer, muttering to himself about afternoon tea, and Ovitz, his tattooed wrist poking out from underneath a collarless and offensively white designer shirt, have no conception of whatsoever.
In such grand European surroundings the cultural dissonance of scones is filling me with a nameless dread. Mercifully there’s no music at The Wolseley – just the sound of conversation and the echoed clatter of cutlery in a high room with minimal furnishing – but in my head I can hear the strains of the Brandenburg Concerto No 4 in G Major.
I can’t stand Ovitz any longer and make my excuses. ‘Oh Patrick, not so soon,’ Harold mewls as I stand at the edge of the pressed linen looking down at him. ‘What could you possibly have to do now, it’s the end of the day?’
‘I have to post some thank you letters.’
What is a classic? Does it have the elements that allow it to stand the test of time? The grand European brasserie came late to London, but when it arrived in the form of the Wolseley on Piccadilly, it was already a classic, part of the landscape and an even bigger part of London’s rich culinary heritage. We forget to celebrate these cultural achievements as we go about our lives, but we should not forget the influence they continue to have on the new openings we like to keep pace with. What is the Berners Street Tavern, if not The Wolseley with amateur photography and bad music?
The traffic is clogged this evening and the driver is finding the most expensive route because, he’s telling me nervously, there are protests in Piccadilly and that this time of day is usually fine.
He’s calling me something that sounds like governor, but can’t be. Still, I take it as a sign of respect and, with the slightest of nods, register some in return for his distaste for the unemployed protesters.
The memory of The Wolseley is still lingering in my mind a few days on and my appetite for novelties is feeling sated. The permanence of London’s long and permanent traditions are calling to me. Giant posters for an exhibition are draped down the front of the National Gallery extension like ceremonial banners at a fascist rally. They’re red and long and each has an ancient god in a different reclining pose. A queue lines up along the edge of the building, all in tuxedos, which the British somehow call black tie.
I’m so late for the opening and so fucking positive that all the right people will have gone by the time we get to Notting Hill that I have to make the driver stop in Kensington, because I need a lemon and raspberry Diet Snapple before I can swallow a Xanax. But by the time I’m standing up again in the street outside the gallery behind me a fleet of taxis are arriving, and Ovitz and Gunther von Pappendorf are already here.
‘Tom,’ I say to Ovitz, who is leaning nonchalantly against a wall, cradling his iPhone and stroking it with his thumb.
‘Sup man?’ One of Ovitz’s parents is American so he gets away with saying things like that in London, but to me it just sounds strange.
I nod at a triptych of neon pink. ‘Do you think pure color exists?’
‘Very interesting, Tom. Very int –’
‘– As Patrick knows very well, color can only be pure in an abstract sense. To us it’s always relational.’
Arraganza Mordifanti threads one of her silken arms through mine. She is the only girl I have ever met who has scared me, so I give her a smile to let her know we’re on the same side and only sparring for fun in front of Ovitz, who has a completely different idea of cool to Arraganza and me.
‘Surely that’s the whole point of the painting and the curation? It’s refreshing for a show to be about much more than the art itself, for it to make its physical presence so much a part of the message. Three identical blocks of color have more to say about our inability to free ourselves from the dialectic. We know that contrast is everywhere but we fool ourselves into thinking that it can be harnessed. The white of the room, the separate existence of the three canvasses, these are all things we cannot rid from our minds. And then the word contrast, on the opposite wall to the paintings’, I gesture to make my point, ‘rises unbidden to the front of our consciousness, confirming what we already know we are seeing.’
What rises unbidden to the front of my mind is the tasteful geometry of the marble floor in The Wolseley, expanses of white tablecloth, silver cutlery and the listless cacophony of conversation in that cavernous room. I will be back there soon.
Illustration by Cynthia Kittler.