Published 26 February 1995 Style Magazine 86th article
Dinah-Jane, left, Isabella and Nico Ladenis (Arnold Crust)
Some two years ago, before I wrote about restaurants, I went to meet my Cambridge university contemporary Lord Parkinson at Chez Nico At Ninety Park Lane. As I entered the lobby the lady who seemed to be in charge threw her arms round me. "Michael!" she said. "we've been wondering when you'd come." "Er," I got out before she enthused "Look, there's Natasha." She indicated a dark, pretty girl at the reception desk. Natasha rose and kissed me. "What a lovely surprise," she said.
A second later Nico Ladenis himself appeared. "Michael!" he hugged me. "How wonderful to see you again!" This family, I thought, is stark raving mad. I don't know any of them, it's all a ghastly case of mistaken identity. We stood. They beaming, me confused. Mrs Ladenis, for it was she who had first greeted me, realised my predicament. "Cornwall Gardens," she said. And all became clear!
More than 35 years ago I lived, as everyone has at one time or another, in Cornwall Gardens, South Kensington. My family owned the house which was divided into flats. I was on the first and second floors, and on the top floor was Madame Zissu, a wonderfully elegant French lady. Madame Zissu had a beautiful daughter, Dinah-Jane (now Mrs Ladenis), who I attempted, in a desperately feeble and totally unsuccessful manner, to seduce. Not long thereafter Dinah-Jane married a young man who worked selling space in the classified ads for this very newspaper. I would pass him on the stairs and nod "Good evening" or whatever. This was Nico Ladenis. A little later Dinah-Jane and Nico had their first daughter, Natasha. Her pram was often left in the narrow Victorian hallway and it greatly annoyed me. I was very house-proud and totally uncaring of how difficult it would be for Natasha's pram to be carried to the top of the building. I bombarded Madame Zissu with solicitor's letters telling her to leave the hall clear.
Madame Zissu left, I left, and Cornwall Gardens became a distant memory. But here it was revived. I had no idea I had lived below such distinguished neighbours. Time heals all, and the troubles over Natasha's pram had faded. I proceeded, royally escorted by Nico and Dinah-Jane, into the restaurant.
I returned many times to Chez Nico At Ninety. I never had anything less than a splendid meat, many were immensely memorable. The last time I ate there I said to Vanessa afterwards: "That really was as good a meal as you'll ﬁnd anywhere in the world." Little did I know on that very day Nico had learned that the Michelin men agreed, and had awarded him a rare third star. Chez Nico is very much a family business; Nico, now also joined by his youngest daughter, Isabella, presides over an elegant room, tut-tutting about every detail, and providing for Vanessa on that night a beyond-belief starter of ravioli of lobster with truffle sauce and, for me, a perfect risotto of ceps.
I nicked some of Vanessa's John Dory (usually the most boring of fish but made very tasty with the addition of a wonderful sweet-and-sour sauce). I had nuggets of fresh salmon with langoustines. This was surrounded by angel hair deep-fried pasta and a delicious sauce that was running out a bit early except that Nico noticed it and hurried some more from the kitchen. At this point Dinah-Jane rejoined us. "There's a man who‘s just asked for mustard
with his Dover sole," she said in deep shock, indicating a table some distance away. "What do you expect?" said Nico. "They come from Claridge's." He thought for a moment. "Do we have mustard?" he asked. "I think so," said Dinah-Jane. "I hope it's Colman's," said Nico. "I like Colman's." That little drama over, I settled down to a dessert of iced nougat with caramelised nuts and nicked some of Vanessa's tulip of assorted fruit with vanilla ice cream and raspberry sauce.
It seems quite amazing that Nico, once famed as the most temperamental and explosive of chefs, was self-taught from books because he decided no job he got was worth having. He's now legendary and I would like to say, taking into account our long past association, that he owes it all to me. But even I can't think of a reason why.
I read Michael Winner's report on Zamoyski's, the Polish restaurant in Hampstead (February 12), and it sounded so good I went immediately. It was terrific a great evening and a great price.
Julie Jones, London, NW8
A book should be brought out based upon the Winner's Dinners column, highlighting all the restaurants that have failed to satisfy Mr Winner's bizarre sense of service. I would not only buy the book, but would also take great pleasure in visiting every establishment and personally buying every member of staff a drink.
Greg Coad, London, SW12
On my last visit to the National Theatre, I had a "cheese plate" at the ground-floor buffet. There was enough cheese for three, biscuits for one, and butter frozen solid for half a biscuit. My partner had the "Indian plate". It should have been hot, at least warm, but it was neither. I asked him to describe it: "Disgusting." I requested a more specific description: "Double disgusting." I don't believe the Royal National Theatre can't improve its catering. How does the Lyric, Hammersmith, manage to serve real food?
Janet Crawford, London, EC4
If, in my native Ireland, I was charged £65 a head for the tum-churning dishes described by Mrs Williamson (February 19), we would shoot the chef. May I suggest a ploy that has worked well in Ireland? In posh restaurants, ask a friendly person at a distant table to ask the waiter if he recognises the pair at table 10 (or wherever you are sitting) and, when he says no, to reply: "Well they are from the Exquisite Food Guide. He is vicious and she is an absolute bitch." Sending over a drink to the obliging table is well worth it.
Leslie Craven, Woodford Green, Essex