Authors: Peter King
Tags: #food, #mystery, #cozy
Open Road Integrated Media
E LOOKED JUST LIKE
he did on the screen—both the big one and the smaller one. Wavy hair, light reddish gold in color, solid, reliable features, light blue eyes that crinkled at the corners when he smiled. He had the same mild manner and the deliberately unconcealed Cockney accent that was a reverse of the usual movie star image.
I knew he had played for years in British second features before his international appeal had been discovered. His name and face were now known all over the world and I knew that he ran his own production company. He still appeared in a remarkable number of films though—most of them in Hollywood. He played laid-back secret agents, historical heroes, dedicated scientists, improbable lovers, and most recently, affluent business executives.
“Was it some of those roles that gave you the idea of opening a restaurant?” I asked him.
“Not really,” he said with that lazy East London drawl that was his trademark. “I bought a half share in that first restaurant because I liked the idea of being able to eat and drink in my own place and share it with others.”
“It wouldn’t have been nearly as popular without your name behind it.”
He smiled. A producer had said of him, “He’s the only person I know in Hollywood who hasn’t been spoiled by success—with the exception of Lassie,” and I could see why. Desmond Lansdown was aware of his fame but did not flaunt it. Where his name was likely to be a drawing card, he was ready to use it. He was under no illusions concerning the value of having
attached to anything whether it was a film, a business, or a restaurant.
“Quite true,” he agreed affably. “It has done very well.” It had indeed done very well. We were sitting in Benson’s Brasserie, probably London’s most famous restaurant and perhaps even the most famous restaurant in the Anglophile world. Most of this fame was due to heavy patronage by film and television stars—a direct result of Lansdown’s participation. The original brasserie had been the entry of a struggling chef entrepreneur called Paul Benson into the restaurant business. It had been popular because of its food, but when Lansdown bought a half share and spent a good part of the next few months here—while he was “resting” between roles—the brasserie had rocketed to the top. More remarkable, it had stayed there.
Restaurants in major cities today are complex beasts and have to fill many roles to stay profitable. They are simultaneously feeding troughs for the nondomestic, showrooms for culinary wizardry, posing parlors for the would-be and almost-are famous, and a meeting place for those who have already achieved fame. Benson’s had achieved the first two goals but it had been the arrival of Lansdown that had provided the latter two and put it on the global eating map.
One of Desmond Lansdown’s personal assistants had phoned me. He sounded like a young man and had an Oxford accent that you could cut with a dull fork, chosen no doubt by Lansdown in a whimsical moment. I would have bet that his background too was as uppercrust as it could be—a further deliberate contrast to Lansdown’s own upbringing as the son of a Billingsgate fish porter and a charwoman.
The young man had confirmed my identity. “You call yourself the Gourmet Detective, I believe.”
I confined my agreement to a plain, “That’s right.” He might have sniffed but it was barely audible. “I am sure you recognize the name of Mr. Desmond Lansdown?”
“The actor? Of course. I’m one of his fans.”
“He would like to talk to you. Over lunch at his restaurant. A confidential matter for which you were recommended by Sir Charles Willesford. Would tomorrow be convenient?”
A free lunch at Benson’s Brasserie! And an assignment too!
“Let me look at my appointment book,” I said and rustled the pages of Sri Owen’s
Indonesian Regional Food and Cookery,
which happened to be open on my desk. “I have a couple of things,” I said in one of those musing voices, “but I can move those … yes, I’ll be there. About noon?”
So here I was, in what some claimed to be a close second to the Ritz as the most beautiful dining room in London. The paintings on the walls were framed in a baroque style that gave the place the look of a Parisian restaurant of a few decades ago. It bustled with a casual grace that probably hid careful organization and efficient planning. The lighting was good, as if to emphasize that there was nothing to hide, and the acoustics were excellent—points overlooked in too many restaurants. We were upstairs, the more secluded floor.
“You’ve done a wonderful job here.” I said and meant it.
“Paul Benson gets most of the credit,” he said with a modesty that in a movie star was as rare as caviare in a fish-and-chip shop. “Of course, he had the sense to bring me in as his partner”—he flashed that winning smile for which he was famous—”but at the same time, he remodeled and updated here.”
A waiter came with two gin and tonics, which Lansdown had ordered when we sat down.
“Here’s to your continued prosperity,” I said, raising my glass. He nodded in acknowledgment, took two large swallows, savoring each, and said, “That’s where you come in.”
No small talk? Well, I’m a man of few words myself—except when more are called for.
“Sir Charles Willesford recommended you highly.”
“Ah, I did a job for him in France recently. He seemed quite pleased with the result.” I saw no reason to add that I had come extremely close to having my career ended—permanently—on that assignment.
“We buy a lot of our wine through his company.”
I nodded and sipped gin and tonic.
“He told me that you specialize in culinary investigations.”
“That’s right,” I agreed. “I find rare foods, unusual spices and herbs, advise on the use of little-known food specialties, locate markets for exotic ingredients—that kind of thing.”
“Sir Charles told me a little about the job you did for him.” There was more than just a twinkle in those world-renowned light blue eyes. “Bit of a private eye too, aren’t you?”
“Not deliberately,” I told him, a little alarmed. “If you’re looking for a two-fisted, gun-toting gumshoe who can do a racing turn at eighty miles an hour, I’m not your man. It’s turmeric—not turmoil with me. I’m into marjoram—not mayhem. I was scared out of my apron a couple of times there in France …”
He grinned engagingly. “If they decide to make a film of your life, I’ll volunteer. Not to play you, no, getting a bit too long in the tooth for that. I’m doing some directing now though … still, that’s not why you’re here.”
I waited for him to tell me why I was here but instead he said, “But first, let’s order. The chef tells me the lobster balls are very good today—didn’t know they had them, did you? I’m going to have what I had the other day—it was great. A warm salad of duck livers with sherry vinegar and then filet of lamb with Madeira sauce and rosemary butter. You can choose anything you want from the menu, of course.”
“I’ll go along with your choice. Sounds good.”
A photographic flash sizzled and Lansdown frowned. He caught my look and then grinned. “I don’t mind an occasional photo, but it has to be of me,” he said. I was trying to connect the line of the flash to a table when Lansdown said, “Third table over.”
The subject caught sight of us, waved, and called out a cheery, “Hi, Desmond!”
“Julia Roberts,” Lansdown said to me just as I recognized her. “She’s off to Rome tomorrow—they want her to play the Vatican’s first woman cardinal. Typecasting, I told her, but warned her hot to try for Pope.”
The waiter came, took his order, and waited. “I had an excellent Amarone with it the other day,” Lansdown said. “A lot of them are a bit too ‘big’ for lamb, but this one—it’s from the Fabiano vineyard—was just right. That okay with you?”
I agreed and he nodded to the waiter. “And a couple more of these.” He motioned to the gin and tonic. “They make mine with Bombay gin—yours will be the same,” Lansdown had come a long way from his barrow boy origins.
“Right,” he said. “Let’s get to business. Here’s why I wanted to talk to you. We’ve done very well here, that’s true. Now I’ve got another idea—I’m not bragging, this one really is mine—and Paul agrees with it. See, the way I figure it, French cuisine is a bit over the hill, so to speak. It’s still wonderful and there are some magnificent restaurants in France, here and elsewhere. But in recent years, the Italians have been more imaginative, more progressive, more innovative.” He paused and eyed me for a moment. “Any comment on that?”
“I agree. I’ve made similar observations myself.”
“Good. Then when I tell you that Paul and I are going to open another restaurant, it won’t be any great surprise when I tell you that it’s going to be Italian.”
“I can’t think of a better choice,” I told him. “You can hardly lose.”
“Most new restaurants opening these days are trying to be different and offer the diner something he doesn’t get every day and certainly doesn’t get at home. As a result, we’ve got Thai, Vietnamese, Afghan, Korean, Moroccan, and God knows what else. Now, the way I see it, they’re all a bit gimmicky. Oh, the food’s good in many of them and some are even authentic. But I don’t think too many are going to last, and I want to be in this for the long run.”
The waiter brought two more gin and tonics and the salads.
“That kind of commitment is vital in a restaurant’s success,” I said. “It shows in the way the place is run.”
We both drank, and as Lansdown put his glass on the table, he turned it slowly, clinking the ice. “Just one more thing …” There was a silky tone to his voice that told me something critical was coming.
“This isn’t going to be just another Italian restaurant,” he said slowly and took another swallow. “It’s going to be the best Italian restaurant in London. It’s got to be the best, or we don’t do it.” His voice hardened just the way it had when he’d played that SS colonel who was trying to kill Churchill.
“A tall order,” I said, just managing not to add “Herr Oberst.” “London has a number of outstanding Italian restaurants right now. There’s La Famiglia, Orso’s, Zafferano, Del Buongustaio …”
Lansdown emptied his glass, gazed regretfully at it for a second, then sternly resisted the thought that had tempted him. “Excellent, all of them,” he agreed.
“And there are several more not far behind.”
“True, but let me ask you this: which one is really superior to all the others? Which is
Italian restaurant in London? I mean, which one stands head and shoulders above all the rest?”
“There isn’t one,” I answered after the briefest reflection. “Not one that really stands out.”
“Exactly!” He thumped the table, just missing his gin and tonic. “That’s the one we’re going to open!”
He pointed to the salad. “Try this. Then tell me it’s great.”
I tried it. It was. I told him. He was partway through his already. “I’m a fast eater. Always have been. Probably stems from my early days in the East End when if you didn’t eat fast, someone would snatch it off your plate.”
The waiter brought the wine, opened it and Lansdown tasted, nodding with approval. We held up the glasses, their glowing ruby-colored contents inviting us.
“Here’s to the best Italian restaurant in London.”
“I’ll drink to that,” said Lansdown and we did. “What do you think of it?” he asked.
I took another, more analytical sip and considered. “Rich and well rounded,” I said. “It has a great texture and the tannin conies in strong a little later, and I like that long, lingering finish. Too many red wines today cut off short.”
“Couldn’t have put it better myself,” he said and this time his accent came through without any camouflage at all. “They tell me they use a special process for making Amarone of this quality,” he added.
There was something in his tone that made me suspect he knew quite well what it was. If so, this was his way of making sure that I was sufficiently well informed to undertake this mission and earn the steep fee I intended to charge him. It was an appropriate moment to convince him he was making the right choice.