Published 18 September 1994 Style Magazine 64th article
The Lloyd Webbers at Le Provencal
"That," said Andrew Lloyd Webber as we walked through the village of St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, "is the best unknown value in the South of France." I peered into the small Bar du Port as we went by. St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat was not crowded even in the high holiday season. It contains probably the most beautiful villas in the world. Almost uniquely, the ghastly hand of progress with its high-rise apartments, wider roads, and all-the-same brand-name shops and eateries has passed it by.
We were aiming for Le Provencal, a one-star Michelin restaurant near the harbour. A little outside area covered by a yellow awning, a larger inside one. Exterior tables set amid trees and flowers with a set carte "Le Menu Langouste du Provencal 1994" with four courses for £70. It's one of Andrew's favourite locals, with a charming but not untemperamental chef named Jean-Jacques Jouteux. We had an excellent Papillon de pomme de terre aux anchois frais cebettes du pays jus d'olive potatoes and anchovies to you. Then a bit of langouste, fromage de chevre and a selection of desserts. Extremely pleasant, with Andrew and Madeleine Lloyd Webber and I mulling over the theatrical scene.
Then I re-checked the Chateau Eza in Eze village, one of the loveliest of places with its cobbled, high-sloped streets with medieval houses leading up to a cactus garden looking down on to wavy, tiled roofs and the coast below. The chef, Andrew Signoret, has kept up to scratch and I ended with an amazing fennel sorbet with cooked apricots!
But just when you get to think everything in France is marvellous, a nasty shock is around the corner! Mine was after I had visited Villefranche in my open Peugeot, as usual atrociously driven. A small, picturesque road had a ``No entry" sign on it, so I drove in. It wended its way, getting narrower and narrower, behind the houses that faced the sea. Suddenly I was in a shopping area with open-air diners filling the pathway in front of me and, for good measure, clothing and other items on sale also blocking my path. Behind me lay two miles of right-angle bends between old buildings which I'd only managed going forward with an inch to spare. I could not go back. As eaters rose and moved their chairs and tables and as shopkeepers carried in their goods, I smiled and thanked them. Miracle I got out alive, really.
Back in Beaulieu-Sur-Mer we were attracted to a charming little band playing adjacent to the lovely 1930s casino in the restaurant Petite Fleur. The six-piece orchestra was at one end of a flowered and paved garden, softly lit by old-style globe lights on wrought-iron, decorative poles. I expected Gene Kelly to appear and dance. We sat down. Water, ice and lemon appeared with speed. "This'll be pleasant," I thought, looking past the palm trees to the moonlit beach and the sea. Then came my ham and melon. You could have chewed the ham for a century and a half and still you couldn't have swallowed it.
The melon was only marginally less tough. Vanessa's mozzarella with pesto was old and horrible with too much pesto. Her tomatoes were tasteless. "Let's go before it gets worse," I said, calling the waiter. I asked him what I owed them. He beckoned to a senior waiter, who for a second time, asked why I wanted to leave, and finally said grumpily: "No pay, no pay." We fled, only to be pursued down the road by a waiter. "The manager wants to see you," he said. Wearily, I turned back to go into the empty restaurant room at the side of the casino. A very officious man arrived. "What's the problem?" he demanded. I told him of the awful food and offered to pay. He asked me to repeat my views of the food. Finally he looked at me and said: "Well, you can't expect to leave without paying!" "But I've offered to pay four times!" I said. "The last time being a minute ago to you." I reached for my money. "You don't have to pay," he said. "I'll pay myself!" And off he went in a huff. They've only recently re-opened the casino in Beaulieu, apparently some naughty people got hold of it and it took the local authorities two years to get rid of them. I wonder how long it'll take them to sort out the restaurant?
I write to tell you about my recent experience at the Perroquet restaurant in the Berkeley Hotel. As part of a special deal by Savoy hotels, they were offering a two-course dinner for £10. I naively assumed that, as the hotel was part of the Savoy Group, I could expect a certain standard. How foolish I was. The waiters were rude and supercilious and I got the impression they were treating me and my companions as the poor relations. They brought the meal to a true nadir when they implied that we had underpaid. After we strongly denied this, one came slinking back to admit they had found the missing cash "on the floor outside". I have always had a deep-seated suspicion that hotel restaurants offer indifferent food and careless service. If only. We left there in a state of shock, and all agreed that it was, without doubt, the most unpleasant meal we had ever experienced.
Fiona Watson, London NW6
In response to Michael Winner's article about Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons, I would like to say that, following a recent lunch there with our three children, I am very glad that our meal was not disturbed by whining adults. It was wonderful to go somewhere of Le Manoir's ilk and feel that children were positively welcomed, rather than just tolerated and in those circumstances, children usually behave well.
Karon Gray, East Hanney, Oxon
Last Saturday, I had a dish at the French Horn in Sonning which was described as cubed sole and salmon in a light red wine sauce. On arrival, it looked so unappetising I doubted whether I could eat it. I hoped I was wrong, but in fact it turned out to be greasy and tasteless. The staff were not interested as to why I had left my meal, and simply removed my plate. Gaining and maintaining a reputation for high standards are two different things, and the French Horn should not take the latter for granted.
L Ward, Exeter
I would like to share an experience I had, similar to the one Michael Winner had while visiting that famous French chateau, Le Grand Egotist, where he had the antelope sorbet with cauliflower dodo sauce in a poached dinosaur egg slightly undercooked by three and a half seconds. I went to McDonald's the other day and my Big Mac was still frozen in the middle. It just goes to show, these things happen to the best of us.
Nicholas James Ferris, Chichester
I very much enjoy Mr Winner's column each week, being, by turns, amused and horrified by his behaviour. I do feel, however, that he concentrates on the top end of the market. There is just as much fun and amusement to be found when eating out much more cheaply. If Mr Winner finds himself in Greenwich, southeast London, at the weekend, I suggest he visits the Beachcomber restaurant, and orders the fish and chip special of the day. For the full effect, he should ensure that he is sitting in a window seat and watching the passers-by. Shortly after placing the order, he will be treated to the sight of a runner, bearing a covered plate of food, passing across his gaze, turning up the alley by the side of the restaurant, and into the kitchen by the back door. A couple of minutes later, the beaming waiter will present him with his order, fresh from an establishment nearby "owned by the same person". The food, and cabaret, will come to £5 per head, including mineral water, but not a tip. Excellent value, I'm sure he will agree.
D C North, Greenhithe, Kent