Beginish luck: Pat Moore at work (Mike MacSweeney)
Milltown House, Dingle, on Ireland's west coast is the best value ever. I was saved when I dropped in there on my two-day Irish-tour-by-conked-out-Volkswagen-convertible. For £42, not the sort of bill I am used to, we got a lovely room with a stunning view, breakfast, phone calls to London and other places, and the expert advice of the owner, Angela Gill, on the life, times and restaurants of Dingle. The breakfast orange juice in the jug was genuinely fresh-squeezed, the jam and the bread were home-made, there was a newly baked apple cake, and everything else, from griddle pancakes with maple syrup to eggs to sausages to bacon, was as good as you could hope for. I had Ballyhea kippers! If you want a far-flung gem, this is it.
The night before the breakfast, after I'd recovered from the drive in my Dara White-arranged Volkswagen and got over her extraordinary instructions - "If the police stop you, say you brought the car in from America because it's got Californian plates" (I'm still trying to figure that one out!) - I decided to see the sights of Dingle. Mrs Gill recommended the Beginish Restaurant and then on to Dick Mack's pub. "You book for me, Angela," I said. "Tell them it has to be a large corner table and I'm not easy." When I got there, owners Pat and John Moore already knew this because they were regular readers. There was a peat fire, nice oil paintings of Irish scenery, a large fan going round, a bar you could sit at, and, above all. Irish voices, which should be imported into every restaurant because they manage to sound vital, melodic and not disturbing.
The restaurant is in what was John Moore's living room. He used to own the local cinema but gave it up to front for his wife's cooking. The food would grace any London posh-place. Crab claws in beurre blanc sauce, oysters, grilled fillet of wild Irish salmon, Bailey's and sultana parfait with fruit coulis. The most expensive wine was Australian, Penfolds Grange 1981 at £65. I'd never had Australian wine. It was mild and harmless. But my real liquid discovery in Ireland was draught Guinness. I am totally hooked. I'm arranging for a draught Guinness apparatus in my house. I had it first at Dick Mack's, a wondrous pub where the left-hand bar is for shoe repairs and the one on the right for drinks. It's totally period, with little booths and a melee of old rooms at the back. Grandpa started it in 1899 and it must have looked just the same. The next day I came in for another draught Guinness and the owner, Oliver MacDonnel, told me why it tasted so good. Halfway between a milkshake and a beer, I thought. Apparently they have the barrel under the counter so it's a very short draw and you get the Guinness out not having to go through too many pipes! He said a barrel only lasted a month, so I'm going to have to ﬁnd a lot of Guinness drinkers when I get it at home.
"We sell a lot of wellingtons to farmers and that sort of thing," said Mac, explaining the period shoeshop bit. I recommend you leave home immediately and go to Dick Mack's, Green Lane, Dingle, Co Kerry. And I never go into pubs! "No place quite like it!" is printed at the bottom of their note pad. It's true.
For my second night I decided to stay in one of Ireland's best-rated hotels, the Park in Kenmare, which has the massive price and luxury I'm used to. It couldn't be better than Dingle, I thought, as we lurched along the beautiful coast road in our decrepit Volkswagen. Pausing for yet another Guinness in Castlemaine, I was amazed to find the ladies' lavatory had exactly the same highly expensive "Victorian" tiles as in my swimming pool at home. And don't ask what I was doing in the ladies' lavatory.
Meanwhile in England my friend, the gourmet and top TV-writer Laurence Marks, who lives near Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons, tells me his wife had some vastly over-salted cod there. When he complained, they said, "It's the way we cook it". "My wife couldn't taste the rest of her meal for the salt," he said. "And the food wasn't very good, and massively over-priced." I'm taking the Manoir off my 32 best list. The last time I went I gave it a pretty good review and when I spoke to Raymond Blanc a bit later he was very rude. No question, chefs are the most peculiar group ever. And I don't mean that as a compliment.
Reassured that Mr Winner's general aversion to anything north of the park will make our favourite restaurant Winner-free, may we recommend to his less prejudiced readers Caffe Graffiti, Hampstead, London. The menu, created under the artistic direction of chef Clive Mancini, is unmatched in this area and we find ourselves continually wanting to return to try his latest delicious creations.
Siobhan Pitel and Carol Barrett, London NW3
Oh dear! I see Mr Winner is once again at odds with the doormen at Claridge's. Does it ever occur to him that the particular moment he arrives or departs these chaps might be parking or retrieving my car? Come on Michael, fair's fair. I stay at Claridge's several times every year, for one simple reason: the staff, in particular the doormen, are the most polite, courteous and friendly people in London.
Derek Waterhouse, Wyke, West Yorkshire
Like many others, I enjoy Michael Winner's witty and often provocative Restaurant Watch and take a vicarious delight in his glamorous meals. However, I must remind him and Simon Chapman (May 14, Letters) how expensive and unsophisticated the eating of frogs' legs is. The frogs' legs dished up in French-style restaurants are mostly imported from developing countries, where frogs play a vital role in eradicating insect pests in rice paddies. India has banned the trade, which, alas, has been taken up by Bangladesh and Indonesia. Frog-catching is done by peasants and is an industry that eventually leads to disaster, not just for the frogs, which are caught at night by dazzling torches. Some 300 may be dropped into one sack and shaken down. Many are dead and decomposing in the tropical heat by the time they reach the nearest cutting-house, where they have their legs cut off on curved blades. Their top-halves, still alive, are strewn on the floor. Insect pests increase precipitously where frogs are vanishing, so the exporting countries import costly and polluting pesticides. Indeed, India banned the trade not simply due to the exposure of the cruelty, but because the cost of importing pesticides outweighed the export earning of frogs' legs. On humane, hygienic and environmental grounds, it is hopping madness to eat frogs' legs.
Diana Lord, Cockfosters, Herts
As a great fan of Michael Winner's sensitive and moving films, I was delighted when you announced that he would be joining The Sunday Times as your restaurant critic. However, after reading his first few articles, I was horrified by his boorish, arrogant manner and vowed never to read his reviews again. Initially I was true to my word but for some strange reason I was unable to bring myself to dispose of back numbers of Style, which I kept in my fridge. Then, one night when I was feeling depressed, I took 20 copies and read all of Michael Winner's reviews, frantically devouring every word in an orgiastic display of gluttony. When it was over I was disgusted with myself but since this first incident the pattern has been repeated several times. Eventually I summoned up the courage to share my dark and guilty secret with my GP. I was surprised to learn that my symptoms were not unusual, and he told me I was in the early stages of a newly identified condition acalled Anorexia Pompous Oafia. So if anybody else reading this has experienced this syndrome, get professional help fast you are not alone!
Mike Cockburn, Hexham, Northumberland
My husband and I discovered the Undershaw Restaurant in Hindhead, Surrey on a recent drive out of London. We were served the most delicious lunch. We had our drinks in a gothic-style red and black bar overlooking the magnificent rolling countryside, and then were offered the choice between two dining rooms, one extremely formal and the other situated in the library a light and airy room also overlooking the gardens. As a bonus the proprietor informed us the house had belonged to Arthur Conan Doyle and offered to show us his private chapel.
Angela Levine, Edgware, Middlesex