Published 18 December 1994 Style Magazine 77th article
It being the week before Christmas and these my last words before 1995, I wish to make a pronouncement. Harry's Bar in Venice is the best restaurant in the world. Not slightly, not marginally, not by a hair's breadth or whatever, but firmly, and absolutely. It typifies the sort of food I like.
Brilliant, natural ingredients, not over-fussed in the cooking or presentation, just direct. I was there recently on a second Venice visit.
I had not intended to go to Harry's Bar for a couple of days, but the lure of the Bellinis was too great. They're so meticulous that the barman, Claudio Ponzio, who's been doing the Bellinis for 25 years, pours a little bit from his mix into lots of glasses, six times each, to make sure they get the same, as the substance is different at the bottom of the container to that at the top. The taste is unbelievable. Claudio was taught by the man who invented the Bellini, Giuseppe Cipriani. Then I had a croque-monsieur, toasted ham and cheese. So incredible that Vanessa, who's a vegetarian and doesn't eat ham at all, had two. The shrimp sandwich was deliciously succulent. Arrigo Cipriani, the owner, told me the shrimps were alive that morning, and if they're not, he doesn't get them. Then he gave me tuna fish tartare with a mix of baby rucola, baby radicchio and baby lettuce all picked in the first 24 hours of life. Then their chocolate cake, which is so far the best in the world it doesn't have any competitor within a million light years.
It's a spirited place, noisy, cheerful, with the dapper Arrigo Cipriani that day in a rather strange, mid-blue suit, with a very florid tie with roses on it, keeping a careful, dictatorial eye on things. On another visit I had chicken croquettes, tagliolini noodles with white truffles, a scampi and zucchini risotto, an osso bucco now there's something that to be historically memorable is pretty rare apparently a rice called Vialone Nano helps, it comes from Mantua and retains its starch thus not becoming soft. All of this you can see in one form or another on dozens of menus; the difference is the sheer quality that Harry's Bar gets out of them. I finished off with a very thin crepe with lemon custard cream. Again, so what? But to taste it, mind-blowing!
It may seem a bit of a leap from Harry's Bar to the Sandy Lane hotel, Barbados, where I shall be when you read this. But the hotel, set in a lovely bay and beautifully designed, has been my Christmas residence for 11 years. Last year I wrote that I had been there "again and again" and I said that none of the other hotels on the island had better food. A solicitor called Brook Land wrote indignantly to contradict me saying the hotel food was superior, almost, to any on the island, and that I'd been there for 11 years! I'm frequently amazed that people write in to correct me with exactly the words I used in the first place! And I used to think lawyers were so brilliant! I also said the Barbadians were charming and efficient, and another reader wrote in and asked why should I call them surly! I think there are people who don't read, they just write letters. The Sandy Lane food has never been brilliant, but it's more than compensated for by everything else. This year, Rocco Forte told me at my house when he came to my birthday dinner, they have new chefs in both the posh upstairs restaurant and the casual Italian one below. I know they're both immensely looking forward to my visit!
The trouble with the Caribbean, foodwise, is that little is fresh, it's mostly brought in and deep frozen. I don't have a deepfreeze in my house, I think they're morbid. Only good for dead bodies. I remember at Frenchman's Cove in Jamaica, fed up with recently unfrozen steaks, asking the local staff on the beach what they ate. "Curried goat, man," was the reply. "I'd like that," I said. "Here?!" said the staff. "Absolutely," I replied. So the next day on the beach, while everyone else had grilled ex-frozen lobster and grilled ex-frozen everything, I had fresh curried goat. Totally delicious, memorable, magnificent. I wonder if they'd knock that up for me at Sandy Lane?
With the impending 50th birthday of my wife, and the requirement of a rather special present for this anniversary, what better timing than Mr Winner's abnormally pleasant write-up of the Bas-Breau, Barbizon (October 23). I immediately took a chance that it was as good as Mr Winner had suggested and booked two nights in advance. Readers may be interested to know that what he wrote was quite true. It was quite outstanding. The food was wonderful. The service from the desk to the bar, to the dining room, to the very comfortable and quite luxurious bedroom, was superb. Neither my wife nor I could wish to find a better, more comfortable place to spend two restful days. Instead of Mr Winner's usual unduly harsh criticism, couldn't he dig out a few more places? It would be much more pleasant for all concerned and more enjoyable reading.
Christopher Fleming, Newbury, Berks
Last week I had the misfortune to eat at dell'Ugo in Frith Street, Soho. I have visited the restaurant on many occasions and have always enjoyed the food; this time, however, I was to be disappointed. I began with some field mushrooms on toast: very dry, rather rubbery, and there weren't very many of them. To follow, I had one of the specials a risotto of sun-dried tomatoes with scallops. This was an unpleasant, bland-tasting mush. I left most of it. I could tell that my guest a friend on a fleeting visit to the capital was not enjoying his daube of beef either. Our waitress did not bother to ask us why we had both left most of our dinner on our plates. But then, she had barely managed to muster a smile during the evening. There followed a wait of nearly 20 minutes for one portion of Christmas ice-cream which arrived half-melted. What has gone wrong with this popular, good-value restaurant?
Name and address withheld