Published 11 September 1994 Style Magazine 63rd article
Baby food par excellence: Michael Winner with Raymond Blanc and Benjamin (Vanessa Perry)
"Mr Winner, I do not want you in my restaurant." The voice was icy and belonged to Raymond Blanc of Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons near Oxford. "Er, why?" I asked. Of course, dear Raymond had been influenced by the craziest theory around, being put about by Antony Worrall Thompson, that I am a slave and avenging angel for Marco Pierre White. So silly I cannot believe grown men could bother with it. After a few moments of talking to Raymond sensibly, we agreed I'd be there for lunch at one.
I've had mixed times at Le Manoir. When I first went, I ate brains and they were not good. I told Raymond and he was apologetic. But I liked the place and when I later took Jack Lemmon it was fine. I went again with Miss Seagrove before going to tea with John Gielgud, who lives nearby (names are dropping like hail!), and the last time was with the lovely Polish actress, Joanna Kanska. Then the food had been great even though I got a main course I didn't order but the service was terribly slow, and, worst of all, a child had screamed the whole time and gone round the place slamming the service cupboard doors! I was so distressed at this intrusion on my peaceful eating I wrote to Raymond, who wrote back saying he welcomed children but he'd see there wasn't one in the room when I came again!
Well, here I was again (just!) walking through the beautifully kept gardens. If I said I didn't like anything I'd be considered a slave of the dreaded Marco, if I said I did I'd be a coward! I was in a no-win situation. I got some champagne and fresh peach juice. Oh dear! I didn't think it was nice at all. Then I noticed mine was the only table without nuts. Was this punishment for knowing MPW? However, when Raymond came to sit with us, nuts appeared and so did some excellent little appetisers. We settled into the dining room and before you could say "Where's my starter?" I heard a cry! A child was at the same table as on my last visit, making a terrible din! I called the head waiter. "I bet Raymond went out and hired that child just because I was coming," I remarked.
My first course of marinated red mullet fillets layered in a puree of salted cod was excellent, but I thought the thin slice, not very large either, was a bit pricey at £25. And, dare I say it, I thought the bread was dreary. They threw in an extra course of frog's legs, supposedly from France, but unlikely as they're a protected species and even the French import them. They were not likeable anyway, little tasteless balls on the end of thin bones. But the spinach puree and mushrooms with them were delicious. The main course of sea bream on a bed of pan-fried squids with herbs and bouillabaisse jus was extremely good, so things were looking up no end. "And," I said to Vanessa, "even the baby seems to have shut up." She pointed to the garden behind us. There a formally dressed porter in black trousers and a red waistcoat was solemnly pushing the baby endlessly round in its wheeled chair. Just as well, too, or I'd never have enjoyed my concentrated espresso ice cream in a wafer-thin bitter chocolate cup topped with a Kirsch sabayon. It was lovely.
Raymond came to sit with us again, and what a terrific, bubbly chap he is! He decided to show us round the place, becoming so enthusiastic he thrust open the door of the men's toilet and led in Vanessa. Nobody seemed to mind. But when he opened the ladies', there was a very affronted old girl. "Not in here!" she said furiously. So Raymond and I beat a retreat. "They're so prudish," he said, giggling. "She was only washing her hands!" The tour of the guest bedrooms all beautifully decorated with enormous care was a great success, so then we "did" the grounds. There we met the baby still being pushed round, now by its parents. I was introduced, his name is Benjamin and he's four months old. We all posed for a picture together. It wasn't until four o'clock that we left. Raymond had been a historic host, yet here was a man who had first tried to blackball me! It just shows I definitely bring out the best in people.
Displaying the human characteristic usually attributed to those embarking upon marriage for the second time hope over experience I turn each week to Winner's Dinners. The hope is always that Michael Winner will write a piece which is objective, accurate and fair, and which is neither pompous nor self-congratulatory. Such a piece has, however, yet to be conceived by him. A worrying vogue developing throughout the heretofore civilised arena of British restaurants is the tendency of a band of followers to imitate this guru with feet of clay. I have even seen a napkin being raised. Several years ago, an assistant of mine was dealing with a completely unjustified complaint. He was asked by a guest for the address of head office, so he could complain to them. Afterwards, my assistant asked "But where do I write to complain about them?" May I propose that the answer is a column in The Sunday Times each week called Guest Watch? I shall be happy to contribute each week a balanced view from the other side of the fence.
Peter Robinson, Stow-on-the-Wold, Gloucestershire
I am disappointed by Antony Worrall Thompson's lack of memory when he writes that he has always had excellent meals at the Waterside Inn (Letters, September 7 [Actually August 7, Ed.]). About four years ago we dined together at the Waterside; even though I was the host on that occasion, Antony expressed his disappointment at the meal. Four years later when I was the guest of Michael Winner I did not express my opinion on that lunch, but now, due to Antony Worrall Thompson's thirst for publicity, I have no option except to defend my host's opinions.
Marco Pierre White, London SW1