I am never bored with Harrods, only disgusted, and it is disgust of the most animated and exciting kind. It is Nabokov’s fish-tank of a department store, but with lampshades, not hebephilia. Its wares have surpassed its beginnings, which were haberdashery. Charles Harrod’s first shop was at 228 Borough High Street when George IV, who would love Harrods, was king. His second was at Stepney. Harrod came west for the Great Exhibition of 1851 and now we have this: the most crazed example of a crazed aesthetic, which is imperial Edwardian. Or Disney pinnacles the colour of blood. Harrods used to have a boutique in which almost-normal children could be transformed into Disney princesses. I await the cryonics department with ecstasy.
That Harrods is now owned by Qatar Investment Authority is surely a mad kind of justice, and its motto Omnia Omnibus Ubique (‘All things for all people, everywhere’) is such bald fiction I am impressed. I don’t shop here, of course – I can’t afford it – but I come to do my favourite thing, which is laughing at rich people’s taste. You can take the measure of their lives, or lack thereof; Asma al-Assad bought a fondue set. There is always something new to make your eyeballs fizz. Today I am mesmerised by a Christian Dior skateboard and a pair of Prada table-tennis bats. I don’t bother to note the prices. It would make my fists itch.
Harrods must disembody itself or it would fail on its own terms. It’s a shopping mall, not a place, and shopping malls must not be connected to the earth. If they were then no one would buy anything, for isn’t the earth by itself enough? And a shopping mall must have restaurants to succour the almost-human shopper because wanting things is exhausting. I have yet to eat a good meal in Harrods, so this column is an act of hope. Hope is cheap. It has a caviar house, a coffee house, a burger restaurant with Gordon Ramsay’s name attached to it – does he know? – a grill, a café, a tearoom, a pizzeria and a chip shop.
Now there is a restaurant called Em Sherif, ‘proud flag bearers of Lebanese culture’, which is superb, and doesn’t need it. It is a small bright room at the edges of menswear, which is a labyrinth, surely by design: if you cannot get out of menswear, you may find yourself buying an A.A. Gill-themed velvet bathrobe for £3,000. It is the first Em Sherif in Europe, and I don’t think I have ever been anywhere that felt more transient, including an airport.
Any restaurant in Harrods is at a terrible disadvantage. It can be as mad as Harrods itself, which I would like to see – Daniel Humm or Thomas Keller could set themselves up with diamond cutlery and nudity and papier-mâché forests – or it can simper at the edges, gawping, as I do. Em Sherif does this: it is plain for Knightsbridge, despite fine tiling. We eat flatbread with spiced beef and pine nuts (£16!); tabbouleh; hummus; labneh; not wagyu hummus (£46!); kibbeh sajiyeh and falafel.
It is, to use my favourite adjective, adequate, because no matter your passion in northern Europe, it is easier to find a Prada table-tennis bat than a good tomato. It is not as fine as you would find in Shepherd Market – a market without a shepherd, or a market – and not nearly as good as you would find on any street corner in Lebanon. Harrods, in its mad way, never disappoints me: that’s why I always come back. Perhaps one day you will be able to buy a full-sized nation state here. For now, I come out cheering.
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Em Sherif at Harrods, 87-135 Brompton Road, London SW1X 7XL; emsherifrestaurant.co.uk
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