Peter James

Amy’s Enchantment

Peter James stopped by the restaurant Amy’s at the Gatwick Hilton

I wrote recently that the old rule of thumb about eating out used to be that the better the view, the worse the food.  But is the reverse true?  For sure a flashy exterior to a restaurant is no guarantee of much other than the hefty bill that will be presented at the end of the night.

Some of my most memorably meals have been in fairly scruffy places.  Yona Schimmel’s knish bakery in New York’s Lower East Side is in a building that looks like it’s been waiting for the demolition ball to swing for the past fifty years, but the simple knishes that comes up from the kitchens in a dumb waiter are amazing.

Eaten outside on a cold winter’s day, one of their warm potato knishes hits every spot that only great food truly can.  I’ve had similarly joyous experiences in street markets of Munich and Frankfurt, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur.  And if I had to single out the one single greatest meal, to date, of my life, with was in a little former station hotel in Roanne, a small town in France, thirty klicks from Lyons, formerly called L’hotel Moderne.

Well, that’s what the place had started life as, until bought by three brothers in 1957, who were to become a legend.  The gaff was renamed, eponymously, Les Frères Troisgros – and is now known as Maison Troisgros.

In 1976, when I had first started to take an interest in food, I read three different reviews in major publications by well-known critics, who each declared that this was the finest restaurant in the world.  The reviews were so effusive that my wife and I drove seven hundred miles to have dinner there.

So dull was the exterior we drove past it three times without noticing it, and we wondered if we had been the victims of a clever hoax.  Then we went inside and everything changed… Getting on for 40 years later I cannot remember what we ate or drank, but what I can still remember is the stunningly, understated beauty of the interior, the utter charm of the staff, and course after course of food that truly had been, as the Michelin Guide would say, Worthy of a detour.

But above all, what I remember about Troisgros was how the place made us feel.  It was as if it had cast a beautiful, enchanted spell on us.

And so, in the same category of unpromising exteriors, we segue neatly to this month’s restaurant, Amy’s (named after aviation pioneer Amy Johnson) at the Gatwick Hilton.  On arrival, I had the similar feeling of gloom I’d had all those years back when seeing the exterior of Troisgros. 

When I left I felt something of that enchantment I’d had from Troisgros.   Last time I’d eaten at the Gatwick Hilton, the lobby restaurant was a standard burger and tired Caesar salad joint, so I went with some trepidation, despite assurances that the place had been transformed.

One of the problems with airport – and station – hotels is that travellers come in all shapes and sizes and with vastly varying ideas about what to wear in a restaurant – especially a hotel lobby restaurant.  And most such places are usually three-quarters empty, with dreary music playing and bored looking staff.  Not Amy’s.

We went on a mid-week night and the place was packed – as the truly delightful manager, Biju, informed me it is every night.  After a dinner there, I can see why.  Within a few minutes of arriving in its small lounge, the selection of pre-dinner canapés – tapas style – washed down with Champagne had already charmed us with their presentation and array of flavours.


They included a ceviche of scallops with caviar, a mini cone with goats cheese, a curried king prawn with a kiwi fruit shot, and miniature chicken tandoori.

In the restaurant itself I started with salmon tartar with a vodka lime jelly that, surprisingly was a sublime combination, both in artistic presentation and taste.  One of my guests had a magnificent platter of lightly curried tiger prawns, another had scallops with pancetta crisps and the fourth had the fashionable pan fried squid and chorizo – done superbly here.

I’ve not often sat at a table where all four diners have instant food envy.  So to solve the problem we all shared.  Four faultless, inventive and stunning starters, all priced from £10.50 to £15.00.

For mains one guest had a teriyaki-style tranche of salmon.  So often this fish can have a nasty, oily tang to it, especially farmed salmon, but this one was moist, delicate, exemplary.  I had pan-seared calves liver on a bed of mash, with a sweet onion puree and bourbon sauce.

It was a very clever and superb take on a simple comfort-food dish.  Equally good, too, were a pan fried duck breast and also pan fried sea bass, a staple of every restaurant these days.

Personally I think it can be a dull and tasteless fish, but here it was executed with real flair, serviced with a caramelized olive risotto and a fennel and orange compote – not a combination I’ve seen before – my guest borrowed the famous phrase of late food critic Michael Winner by declaring it historic.  The mains range in price from £14 through £24, but there is a small separate section offering grilled meat, from £24 or £39.

The puddings are equally inventive.  I had an apple pie doughnut which was so good I nearly ordered a second one.  A mocha chocolate millefeuille was equally moreish, as was the ‘deconstructed cherry kirsch cheesecake’ and the baked orange custard tart.  All the puds are £8-9 and there is a fine cheeseboard option.

There is a good range of reasonably priced wines from a number of regions.  We drank a truly stunning Blackstone Chardonnay from Monterey, California – a relative bargain at £32.00, and a Robert Mondavi Private Selection Pinot Noir at £35.00.

The staff at Amy’s are an utter delight.  For three hours I forgot entirely I was in an airport hotel restaurant, and when we finally and reluctantly left, it was with something of that same feeling of enchantment I’d had from Troisgros all those decades ago.