Published 24 July 1994 Style Magazine 56th article
Best trends: Marco and Mati (Michael Winner)
I put the framed photograph of Marco Pierre White and his girlfriend, Mati Conajero, on our table in the Halkin Hotel Restaurant. I'd taken it a couple of Sundays before at the French Horn, Sonning, with a background of the river.
One evening at 8pm Marco pulled up at the French Horn car park, dressed for fishing down river, got out and found himself stared at disdainfully by a neatly dressed man. "I wouldn't eat in there," said Marco, indicating the French Horn over the road, "I hear it's terrible." The neatly dressed man was Ronnie Emmanuel, the owner of the French Horn, and a conversation followed in which Marco was contentious and Ronnie quite delightful, until both realised who they were.
Marco was so charmed by Ronnie that he now visits the French Horn regularly and declares the duck and scampi as good as any he has ever eaten. And this at a restaurant not even deemed worthy to be in the Egon Ronay Guide! What nonsense! I, with my very own camera, had taken a superb portrait of Marco and Mati and it now sat awaiting their arrival for dinner on Sunday at their chosen restaurant. When they arrived, for a man so famous for excess, Marco was immensely modest. "You can't have that there, not in view," he said, genuinely worried. "Why not?" I replied. "It's brightening up the place no end." But Marco would have none of it, so I moved the photo to the posh side table that faces the lobby of the hotel and the restaurant entrance and sat it next to a nice vase of flowers.
Marco had invited me to dine with him at the Halkin because he admires the Italian chef, Stefano Cavallini. I am now fatter and wiser: never let the chef choose what you will have to eat, unless you're close to total starvation. They are so determined to show how much they can do and how good they are at it that you end up with far too many rich courses. Even someone as brazen as I did not have the heart to say "Enough! Good as it is, take it away!"
From the freebie starter (well, it was all free for me as I was Marco's guest) of warm mussels in sour cream and caviare, through the best pea soup I've ever had, through a risotto of sea bass cooked with red wine sauce, through kidneys roasted with farci of veal meat and fat from the kidneys, through chocolate souffle with brown bread ice cream, through petits fours and coffee and all this on a Sunday night after a large roast at home for lunch! It was beautifully done, but much too much, even for a pig like me!
As I bloated out more and more and had nightmares of days of salads to make up for it, I looked around the room. The Halkin is one of those super-posh, small hotels that have sprung up like rabbit warrens all over London. I remember marshalling the military-precision details of getting Arnold Schwarzenegger from there to my house for a party last year. The dining room itself is minus 1,000 in the atmosphere league. It's cool to the point of frigidity. Marble and pastel beige may be fine for Italy with hot sun outside, but in built-up Belgravia it's cold and soulless. It is not helped by the clientele, jet-lagged Americans, on the whole, talking, spasmodically, in defeated whispers.
There are some small, half-circle wall paintings of Italian villas, and quite incongruously a few English Victorian paintings, in groups, in their original heavy gilt frames. They are the only homely speck on a bleak landscape. I checked them out. They were the sort of thing you used to get at Sotheby's Belgravia on a bad sale-day, but nevertheless in touch with a distant reality. Kitsch and in their own way appealing. There are only 11 tables in the Halkin restaurant which further adds to the air of repressed gloom. But the food is good and as long as Stefano isn't choosing for you, there's a chance you won't come out a stone heavier.
We have just had yet another superb meal at the Hungry Monk restaurant in Jevington, East Sussex and felt compelled to write in praise. Over the eight years that my wife and I have been visiting this establishment we have never had a poor meal, bad service or unpleasant surroundings. The food on the occasion of our most recent visit was wonderful, and at a set price of only £20.90 per head, extremely good value. I thoroughly recommend it.
Bruce Payne, Uckfield, East Sussex
In his column last week, Michael Winner makes references to his enjoyment of foie gras. I am sure that he is well aware of how foie gras is produced, and that it entails deliberate and excruciating cruelty. Tragically, many would-be sophisticates take their lead from well-known personalities such as Mr Winner, and so the demand for the product rises and the suffering not only continues but grows. Doesn't he feel it reasonable for diners to try to avoid foods which entail unnecessary suffering to animals, or is gastronomic delight paramount?
Cathy Joyce, Cheam, London
Michael Winner's gastronomic adventures are great fun. But the letters spawned by his weekly column are almost as entertaining. My favourites include the one from some Toady Thompson a few weeks back. Heaping praise on our Michael and rebuffing all complaints many not unreasonable this enamoured fan would clearly love to join the Winner table. The letter of letters, however, was Jenny Cropper's last week in which she complained about the high fat content of her meal at Harvey Nichols. If she really worries about cholesterol, why did she order pork pate followed by scallops in cream sauce? Better order the melon and Dover sole next time, Jenny.
Sheila Mawhood, High Wycombe
I read with astonishment last week's Winner's Dinners with a letter criticising Cibo restaurant in Russell Gardens, west London. I have been going to Cibo regularly for the last five years, and in that time we have been admirably served quite excellent food by Gino Taddei and the rest of his staff. The number of other customers who regularly use Cibo must also testify to the high standard of food and service which are enjoyed there.
John Lucas, London SW13
I'm sure Michael Winner actually gets real pleasure from venting his spleen. But if he fancies a quiet night out with no cause for shouting or a rise in blood pressure he ought to go to Bishopstrow House, near Warminster in Wiltshire. My wife and I first went there to celebrate a wedding anniversary and we have been back several times. Bishopstrow will never attain the gastronomic fame of Raymond Blanc's Manoir Aux Quat' Saisons in Oxford, but it does offer good food in a country house setting at relatively modest prices: set dinner is £31, while set lunch is £25 or £12.50 for three courses.
M Burrowes, London W14