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Good, better, Barbara

Published 13 March 1995
Style Magazine
89th article



Shine on: Jonathon Hayes, Barbara Deana and Patrick Gavin of Chinon (George Jaworsky)

I like strange places, and restaurants don't come much stranger than Chinon. I'd like to tell you where it is, but I've been going there for quite a while and I'm not sure. Sometimes I go west and then north from my house in Holland Park. I get lost and invariably go down a one-way street the wrong way, eventually finding it in some bizarre location opposite a fish-and-chip shop. Once I tried going to Shepherd's Bush Green and turning south, but I went round in circles for ages through territory alien as Mars before I eventually located it. When you get there it's a tiny, wonderfully bright bar with some neon and mirrors and behind it a thin little place with customers, two of whom wrote to this very page that the owner, Barbara Deane, was extremely rude. Barbara responded huffily, saying in her opinion those people were patronising and the customer was certainly not always right in her establishment.

Mix Barbara and me, and you would expect a lot of trouble. Indeed, the first time we met was pretty dismal. Then she and her boyfriend, the chef Jonathon Hayes, had the worst decorated room I've ever been in, a few doors down from the present location - and food to match. It was memorably one of the worst meals I've ever eaten. My receptionist, Mrs Lagoudakos, who comes from the Wirral and likes a good night out, was in total shock. She agreed that Barbara wore the most ghastly, old stretched-down pullover and was not charm itself. I read that they had moved up the road, and for reasons I cannot possibly imagine, decided to give it another try. I was exceptionally impressed. This either shows that I am of a forgiving nature; was in a particularly good mood; or things really had improved. Having been back a lot since, I can guarantee the last explanation. This is odd because other guides have downgraded Chinon considerably during the period I have raised it. It lost its red M from the Michelin and its star from the Ronay (now returned) whilst in my view, which is far superior to theirs, it has got better and better.

In the first place, which I admit is not the most important, it has the best background music in the world. This may be because Jonathan was a musician. Unlike another local favourite quite close, Cibo, which plays the most discordant rubbish ever through its loudspeakers, Chinon has me asking again and again what I am hearing. I always mean to buy it but never do. I see from my notes I've written down Clannad, George Winston and a load of South American priests chanting. I've always been partial to chanting priests. Foodwise, I've knocked back charming roast, stuffed squid; splendid grilled turbot with black mushrooms and sweet and sour aubergines; terrific ravioli of fresh crab and leeks; and nice slices of cloud pie. All the portions are very generous and on pleasing plates. I do have trouble with the seating arrangements so dear Barbara (we're on almost intimate terms now) has to lug a very heavy marble-topped table from one side of the room to the other before I get there.

Downstairs is usually closed these days which doesn’t surprise me. It's a horrid room and I'd need to be paid to eat there. But it is available for functions. Funerals maybe? And Barbara does complain a bit about some of her customers. But not of me. This could reveal to normal people that she’s nutty. But I'm a great fan and in the real world, that's all that matters.

Marco Pierre White rings me to say he's now a partner in what was Walsh's in Charlotte Sweet, renamed Interlude. It is owned by my good friends Ronnie and Carol Emmanuel. Her father founded Wheelers. "They had no idea what they were doing," said Marco, who put his own chef in. "You can't pan-fry sole and serve it with fried bananas and chutney any more." "What!" I exclaim hysterically. "But that's Sole Capri, one of my all-time favourites!" "Well, it's gone," says Marco.

"Sole Capri gone? Francis Bacon and I used to eat it at the old Wheeler's in Soho." "Well you won't get it any more," says Marco. Three stars have definitely gone to his head. The man's barmy. Killing off Sole Capri is worse than transporting live calves, and worthy of equal protest. Come along everybody, join me at the barricades.



Letters

I hesitate to correct Michael Winner (March 12), but I believe the first Gaggia espresso machine in London was installed in Moka Bar on Frith Street. Started by my late aunt and uncle, Rose and Maurice Ross, the grand opening in 1950/51 was performed by the great Beniamino Gigli and it was there I spent all my school holidays making ``frothy coffee" and getting to know the colourful characters that were around Soho in those days. A wonderful experience and an education for a teenager.
Michael Ross, Harrogate, Yorkshire

Michael Winner is a self-satisfied pain and I can well understand restaurant owners blanching at the mention of his name. But he is compulsive reading. And when it comes to wanting an egg on his pizza (March 5), he knows what he's talking about. We first had this in Nice many years ago, on a bitterly cold, wet winter day. We chose Le Safari, as much for its roaring log fire as for the tempting smells coming from its kitchen. And it was there that we saw them; succulent pizzas oozing tomato and anchovy, placed on griddles on the open fire, with an egg snuggling down in the centre of each one. On that chilly, windswept day, it was an unforgettably warming culinary experience. Smart? No. But so delicious. Orsino's would be wise to add them to its menu.
Molli Burrell, Lanzarote, Canary Islands

I should be interested to know the opinion of others as to whether restaurants should accept some liability for articles handed in to their cloakrooms. Do they really expect us to nametag our possessions or should we take them into the dining area, thus cluttering it up, to avoid losing them? Having enjoyed a pleasant meal at the Canteen, Chelsea Harbour, recently, the evening was marred by the cloakroom having "lost" my partner's scarf. Although we had been there a little over an hour, the scarf had been handed over to somebody else. They have since told me that people often lose their jewellery there, too, and the Canteen is not liable for that, either. I should like to know who would leave their jewellery in the cloakroom, but if they do be warned.
Carole Wilshaw, London SW10