WHEN food critic Sir Clement Freud set out to devise a new menu for Virgin Trains' West Coast service, he had a clear idea of what he was aiming for. "I tried to invent a menu which would be difficult to get wrong," he says.
Challenged to create the menu because of his past criticism of rail catering, Freud spent four months working with Virgin's executive chefs Ronnie Snowling and George Mitchell, and on-train services managers Steve McMeakin and Lucy Evans, to improve the standard of on-board catering.
The result is a seasonally-changing set-price menu (£15 for two courses, £20 for three) aimed at executives, with a choice of two starters, three main courses, including a vegetarian option, and two desserts. The first menu is now on trial in the first-class dining car on the London to Manchester route, with plans afoot to extend it to others.
Simplicity is the key word, and dishes that can be successfully prepared on board rather than those that look impressive on a menu card have been given priority. Emphasis has been placed on good-quality ingredients and traditional dishes, the latter having emerged as overwhelmingly popular in customer surveys carried out by Virgin.
Current starters are a potato and leek soup served with a crusty white roll or thick slices of nut loaf; and tiger prawns skewered with pineapple and green pepper served with a mixed leaf salad and a balsamic vinegar dressing.
Main courses include fishcakes containing a mix of smoked haddock and fresh fish accompanied by a mayonnaise and horseradish sauce, which is served, like all main courses, with new potatoes and mixed vegetables or salad.
The meals are developed and pre-portioned by a number of suppliers at the request of Rail Gourmet (see above). They are then cooked to order by the solitary on-board chef.
The menu is available for dinner only, and in the first four weeks an average of 20 covers have been served per journey by a nine-strong waiting staff.
Wines on the 11-strong list have been selected by Hayward Bros Wines, with a selection criterion of being able to withstand rough treatment on board. Predominantly French, the choice favours stable and young wines with no sediment because of the lack of opportunity to decant. The list comprises four whites, including a 1997 Pouilly Fumé Domaine Henry Brochard (£15.50), five reds including a 1996 Casablanca Merlot Santa Isabel Estate (£21.50), one Champagne and a rosé. n