Published 21 August 1994 Style Magazine 60th article
Jean Ducloux with Michael Winner (Vanessa Perry)
Before going to the Chateau de Bagnols its co-owner, Helen Hamlyn, sent me four exquisitely printed books about the chateau and the surrounding area.
The covers, hand-blocked on to parchment-like paper, show a feather pattern circa 1600 from the ceiling of a tower in the chateau. It's a lovely design also sold on tablecloths and napkins in the hotel shop. If they had a brochure available here they'd make a fortune at Christmas, but commercial matters do not seem to pass often through Helen's mind. I was also given a large-scale Michelin map of France and some hand-drawn maps of the area, all immaculately done (Cartier Polo organisers, please note!), and thus I set forth.
I had been recommended Le Cep (also known as Auberge du Cep) in the village of Fleurie, which has two Michelin stars. The Beaujolais area is pretty without being startling. I took the tiny country roads past 16th-century stone farmhouses, the occasional grand chateau and rolling vineyards. There seemed to be an uncanny lack of people anywhere, even in the little towns. Perhaps they knew I was coming! We parked outside the old church opposite Le Cep as someone peered through the glass doors. It turned out to be the waiter. The place was totally empty. I like empty restaurants, you get much better service. It's simply furnished with wooden, cane-bottomed chairs, flowered cushions and neatly laid tables.
An extremely attractive, 33-year-old French lady, Helene Chagny, the daughter of the owner, turned up as the hostess, and utterly brilliant she was. She recommended the champagne with freshly squeezed blackberry juice (lovely) and I followed with frogs' legs. For 10 years it's been illegal to kill frogs in France, they're a protected species, so the frogs came from Hungary. Helene, who amazingly used to work for Qantas, was proud of the fact that she got them alive, whereas other places got frozen frogs. How they were killed in the kitchen I will not reveal because if a reader objected to me eating foie gras that poor person would keel over, hysterical, if I did!
Nevertheless they were unspeakably delicious. There was a freebie starter of a zucchini flower with truffle butter, a main course of chicken with home-made croutons, a sauce with Beaujolais Fleurie (the local wine) and a fresh pasta. I nicked some of Vanessa's snails and then ate more desserts than I should. If only I could find restaurants as good as this in England without having to get poshed up as if you're going to some temple of taste. The young chef here, Michel Guerin, just got on with the job.
The second place I was directed to was Jean Ducloux's Restaurant Greuze in Tournus. He's apparently very famous because he gave me a book, Jean Ducloux cuisinier a Tournus, subheaded Une vie passionee. Thank goodness he was extremely jolly! It's another slightly poshed up family place, comfortable in every way and with food so good I wish it was located round the corner from me in Holland Park. This time the champagne had fresh raspberry juice in it. Ask in London and see how often, if ever, you get fresh juice added to champagne other than orange juice! Here, it's all utter rubbish out of pre-packed cans or bottles.
The food was described as "traditional" whatever that means. They offered cheese set in a brioche so light it flew. On the continent they often start with an absolutely extraordinary bread offering, so good it sets you off wonderfully. In London you get eight sorts of drying-up rubbish and it takes half an hour while you're told what each one is, which doesn't matter anyway because it's all dull, whether it's with carrots, caraway seeds or whatever. Anyway, Monsieur Ducloux produced a totally historic meal and if I could read my notes on the menu I'd tell you what it was! I really must learn to write in a way that can be read later. I can just make out "sorta game pie, beyond belief" and "langoustines, delicious sauce" and "Mr Ducloux has an enormous toy-train set at home...he's 74 and his lovely wife is Paulette." If that's any use, terrific. If not, go there yourself.
Having read Michael Winner's column last week with interest, I decided to put some of his exciting new ideas into practice. I initially booked at Ye Olde Name Dropper, but upon the advice of friends hastily arranged a reservation for two at 8pm at Pretentious Moi? in Knightsbridge. By 9pm the place had been totally redecorated to my taste. It all started as a harmless bit of table moving, however, the staff were most unhelpful; I had to call Pickfords to help me shift the grand piano. But why stop there? The structure of the building left a lot to be desired. I began with a light, subtle piece of tongue-and-groove and quickly moved on to the load-bearing walls. My companion, the luscious Miss Veronica Wannabe, tucked into the dado rails with gusto. All this to the amazement of the restaurant staff. I liked the place so much I boarded up the entrance, and a party of six from Wanstead had to go elsewhere! Miss Wannabe thought it would be a good idea for restaurants to provide flat-packs for diners to assemble and take home with them. By the end of the evening I fancied eating alfresco and decamped to the Bayswater flyover. Now that is what I call fast food. Next week I am eating at MFI.
Jonathan Platts, Harrow, Middlesex
A few months ago, my wife and I together with two friends visited the Camden Brasserie, a restaurant that we knew well but were introducing to our friends for the first time. We had just finished the hors d'oeuvres when I was seized with excruciating pain and I collapsed on the floor, to the horror of my wife and our friends and, no doubt, most of the diners. I thought that I was having a coronary. The restaurant called an ambulance and I was whisked away to hospital, where I spent the next 17 hours. Happily, my fears were not realised and it turned out that it was, in fact, a severe muscle spasm. However, while waiting for the ambulance, my friend asked for the bill. I found out later that this was duly given to him and included the four main courses as well as the small salads and bottle of house wine. The main courses had been served to the table but not consumed by any of us. My wife and I were furious at what we considered was an unfeeling and totally materialistic attitude to the incident. The restaurant owners' response was that by calling the ambulance they had acted correctly, and charging for the main course was the correct thing to do as the food had been prepared and "consumption had commenced"! They offered to consider a refund if our friend decided to approach them direct. My advice to readers is that should a medical problem occur, they try at least to defer it to when the coffee is being served!
Michael Austin, Pinner, Middlesex