Published 5 February 1995 Style Magazine 83rd article
Pyramid sailing point: Michael Winner sees the Sphinx (Vanessa Perry)
"Don't eat anything" I was told. "If you must eat, then only oranges or eggs because they're covered with peel or shell. Take stomach pills, take antibiotics." I had been asked to Egypt for the Cairo Film Festival. They were paying a tribute to Oliver Stone, Ismail Merchant, Nicolas Cage, Marsha Mason and me. A motley crew. If I was not to be shot by terrorists, it seemed I was to be food poisoned.
We arrived at Cairo airport at one in the morning and a bank official tried to swindle me on the exchange rate. The motorway into town had raised sentry boxes every so often, with soldiers armed with machine guns looking down on us. More soldiers round the hotel and massive security. What, I wondered, am I doing
After a few hours of nervousness, I ate everything and anything. It was mostly terrific, none of it gave me tummy trouble. I saw no terrorists, no mugging, no violence, just fascinating places - and jolly nice people; So much for over-caution.
We were put up at the Gezira Sheraton. Not the sort of place I'm used to. Okay for normal people and commercial travellers. But there are no posh hotels in the centre of town. It was efficient, with sweeping views over the Nile and the ugly high-rises that dominate Cairo. And on our one smog-free day we saw the Pyramids from our balcony, nestling by the suburbs between a closer view of two other Sheraton hotels.
It was to one of them, the Cairo Sheraton, that l went for my first Egyptian meal. We had been on a camel around the Giza pyramids and studied the Sphinx. We were led, doubtless by someone on commission, to a perfume shop where a door from the main display lounge opened into a toilet that couldn't have been flushed for weeks. I declined the offer of coffee! We'd been to an older pyramid at Sakkara and now were sitting at a table with Farouk Hosni, the minister of culture.
A staple starter in Egypt is one of my all-time favourites, mezze. I eat it in London at my local Arab place, Al Basha in Kensington High Street. It’s lots of things in bowls with a thick, plate-shaped bread to dip in. There's samboussek with spinach, shrimps, deep-fried brain, chicken swings, hummus, babaghanough, stuffed vine leaves, tabouleh, kobeba and more. I have no idea which bowl was which (well, I could just identify a shrimp), but it was all excellent, here and everywhere else I ate it. The main course was beef and veal with sauce and veg. Far better, I thought, than mass catering in England. Many Egyptians arrived anything up to two hours late during an amazing cabaret of whirling dervishes, men with tambourines and castanets dressed in skirts. These they eventually peel off over their heads in
layers while going round and round at an amazing speed. An orchestra of many strange instruments goes barmy in the background. Most diverting.
Dessert was Om, Ali and Maha La Bya. Various puff pastries, nuts and milk. l liked them. The coffee is mostly Turkish and for no sugar you order Sada, for medium sugar Ala Riha and for a lot of sugar (me) Ziada. Alcohol is thin on the ground, which didn't worry me as I don't drink much.
There was a whole roast lamb, just minus its head, sort of curled up feet and all, at dinner at the festival president's flat. And some famous Egyptian actress, names were never my strong point, gave a party with some excellent fish and the lady guests absolutely superbly over-dressed by Western standards, but a pleasure to see. To call the Egyptians hospitable is to under-use the word. They're kind beyond belief, jolly and caring. I ate at an Italian restaurant overlooking the Upper Nile at the Isis Hotel in Luxor because we came back from the Valley of the Kings too late for the main buffet. Can't say that was historic.
But I can recommend El Mashrabia in a part of Cairo tourists don't normally go. A jolly starter of grape leaves with calfs trotter and an excellent follow-up of stuffed pigeon. I even ate my ﬁrst Mars ice cream ever at Luxor airport. Bit heavy, I thought. I'm not dying for that again. But everything else was incredible.
I refer to the letters accompanying Michael Winner's column. Are you not aware that the majority of them are reinforcing the widely held belief here in the north that the inhabitants of Greater London and its environs are gradually being driven barmy by overcrowding, traffic jams and pollution? What other feasible explanation could there be for their apparent willingness to pay outlandishly high prices for restaurant meals in the full realisation that they are probably going to be offended by surly waiters and insulted by jumped-up cooks. Not to mention the possibility of having their pre-booked table commandeered by Michael Winner.
Raymond Franks, Leeds
Having the good fortune to be a frequent visitor to the Dorchester Hotel for tea, I wish to take issue with Margaret Bochen-Haack's letter (January 22). She states that last year she complained about poor service and seating arrangements. What rubbish. Obviously sitting at tea tables in a group will be less spacious than sitting at a dinner table. As for service, in my opinion there is none finer in London. No improvements whatsoever are necessary.
Carol MardiDei, London W1
Whenever I read Michael Winner's column, I always get dead jealous. What a fantastic job he has! But perhaps one day he will run out of dining partners, or perhaps lose his address book and could do with an understudy me! Well, if that day ever comes, I'd be only too willing to make up the numbers.
Alexandra Murray, Lane End, Bucks
How sad that you thought it necessary to print HA Mustard's miserable letter about Mr Winner's Christmas break (January 29). After all the appalling places Mr Winner has had to force disgusting food down his throat (with amazing grace and wit) he does not merit being berated so severely. In the dark and gloomy days of recession, it has been a wonderful touch of old-fashioned glamour to read about his showy, opulent hols.
Paulette Dudley, London SW6
I heartily agree with your correspondent HA Mustard about Michael Winner flaunting how much his Sandy Lane hotel bill was. We have stayed at that hotel and our bill was nowhere near the altitude of his. To quote a hackneyed phrase Mr Winner knows the cost of everything, but the value of nothing.
Edna S Weiss, London NW11
In order to avoid offending myself and millions like me, could any future Restaurant Watch not contain letters from Jennifer Robb, Manchester (In Style, January 29, she wrote: In order to avoiding offending myself and millions like me, could any future Restaurant Watch not contain any reference to the choosing of, the eating of, or the purchase of veal. I find it upsetting). I find it upsetting, to say the least, to read such a pretentious product. If the only way to stop people writing it is to make them social pariahs, then so be it.
A J Cowles, Guildford
I recently decided to surprise my partner by taking him to lunch at The Naked Turtle in Sheen, near Richmond, Surrey. I booked and we arrived at 2.30pm and were greeted by a waiter who spoke with his back to us and instructed his colleague to "sort us out". My partner ordered a warm salad of calf's liver and goat's cheese and I ordered steamed mussels with lemon grass and peppers. The liver was raw inside. The mussels tasted okay, but at least 25% of them remained firmly closed. After we had finished our first courses, our plates remained in front of us for at least 15 minutes. Eventually we moved them on to the next table, which was empty. Our main course arrived roast beef served with mint sauce! My meal then came back with a Yorkshire pudding disguised as a pancake. The seafood bouillabaisse was, my partner told me, overcooked. At the end of this disastrous affair, they had the cheek to add a 12.5% service charge to our bill, which totalled more than £65 for two courses. It is a shame that this restaurant, which is in a good location, has become complacent.
Amina West, Kingston upon Thames