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The quality of merci

Published 23 July 1995
Style Magazine
107th article

Barmen: Antonio, loft, and Salvatore D'Alessandro with Michael Winner (Vanessa Perry)

"I see you've been doing a bit of gardening!" John Guy, owner of Hollington House, near Newbury, Berkshire, yelled from his residence. "Oh dear, I've been caught," I murmured. The previous night I had churned up a great deal of Mr Guy's new turf adjacent to the tree-lined drive in front of the Edwardian hotel. It was his fault. The humps in his drive are so high that, even creeping, my low-slung Ferrari scrapes on them. So I'd detoured and got dreadfully bogged down. The hotel itself has that wonderful, mad elan of the untrammeled owner-occupier. Some chairs are in gilt, some aren't; china animals abound; a deer, antlers aloft, hangs in the hall. It all works rather well. The oddest thing was the toilet in my suite. When I stood in front of it a perfect view was given to people coming to the hotel entrance and in the garden having tea. If that doesn't put guests off their tea, what will?

I didn't eat there except breakfast (very good) because I was attending Andrew and Madeleine Lloyd Webber's Sydmonton Festival, surely the best organised weekend in the history of the world and excellently catered, meal after meal, by a group called The Admirable Crichton. But the views at Hollington Hall are spectacular, the staff delightful. Except when I asked for all the newspapers from the Sport to the Financial Times. The only two I didn't get were the Sport and the Financial Times. They've obviously got something against figures.

In telling you of my adorable life and times, a number of places fall through the cracks. "I must mention them," I think, and then forget. For example:

The Mena House Oberoi Hotel in Cairo, near the pyramids, is the only real luxury hotel Cairo has. But it's a few miles from the centre and a 100 yards can take you an hour in Cairo traffic. It was built in 1869, and has since had more gilt added than even the Dorchester. But it's simply terrific. The rooms, the pool and the restaurants all have a spectacular view of the pyramids. I ate by the pool. Good tahina and an "Arab mixed grill" with four singers and a band playing. The Mona House is where the first peace talks between Egypt and Israel took place. In 1943 it hosted a conference with Roosevelt, Churchill and Chiang Kai-Shek. "They sat in the sun and decided not to decide anything," said Hussein Marzouk, one of the philosophical managers as he showed me round suites and rooms of unbelievable opulence.

The Windsor Hotel in Alfi Bey Street, Cairo, is the opposite of the Mena House. It used to be a biggie, but the area got burned down in 1951 and it remains a total time warp in a city overtaken by ghastly modernity. Luxurious it isn't, but atmosphere it has in spades.

I had a drink with the owner, Wafik Doss, who‘s had it since 1964. Wooden tub chairs, wooden stools at the bar, just like you imagine Egypt was when upper-class British were going berserk tricking everything they could from the pharaoh's tombs. In the old-fashioned lounge there were two English people reading The Guardian. They looked unbelievably miserable.

A strange thing occurred when I revisited my most favourite caff in the world. the Napoli Bar in St Ouen, Paris. It's one of those places which packs people in so tightly diners have to help the sweating waiters by passing rigatoni, pizzas and what have you over their heads to reach other customers. It's in the Marche Aux Puces, the greatest antiques flea market ever. In I went, was pushed and shoved as usual, when suddenly they showed Vanessa and me to a table for four. Not only that, they kept it empty of its other two customers.

"This is odd," I thought. I decided to make myself known to the owners. A large, bearded chap came up. "Je suis un mettre en scene Anglais qui ecrit for hobby in Sunday Times... " Antonio D'Alessandro, for it was he, looked unbelievably bored and pointed to the wall. There displayed was my mention of them last year. I got so excited I slurped wine all over myself. Antonio and his brother Salvatore stood for a photo (one of the rare ones Vanessa takes which end up in focus) and off I went, a mini hero. That’s another place you'd never have heard of without me!

  • NEXT WEEK: I am going to murder everyone in hotel and catering who's failed me in recent months! I shall enjoy myself greatly.


    Recently I visited the Cafe Flo at Islington Green in London, my first visit to a Cafe Flo in many a long year. Unfamiliar with the much rebuilt area, I had emerged from the Tube and walked up Camden Passage. The first suitable restaurant, Frederick's, refused my custom, presumably on the grounds that I would not have been able to finish my meal before 7.45pm, when its full-price menu came into effect. At no time had I expressed the wish to eat at cut-rate prices. Proceeding up Camden Passage, I found Cafe Flo (entrance on Islington Green). The cassoulet, which was the plat du jour, was splendid. It contained all the traditional elements of a cassoulet toulousain, was sizzling hot and of vast proportions. Indeed, when I apologised to the waitress for not finishing it, explaining that it was a question of quantity, not quality, she said: "Don't worry, sir. I don't think I've ever seen anyone finish it." I cannot now recall what I had as an hors d'oeuvre, but I do know that a Ricard, a starter, the cassoulet and a half-litre of house red (something very drinkable from the Languedoc, I believe) cost me less than £17, which I found quite excellent value. The service was rapid and cheerful, the Muzak not too loud, and one was automatically given the choice of smoking or non-smoking areas. The only (very small) criticism was that I had to ask for bread, but when it came it was deliciously fresh slices of baguette.
    John Griffith, Oxton, Lancs

    Did Michael Winner's review of the Dorchester's Grill Room (July 9) have to be marred by the final derogatory comment about their delay in answering the phone? My wife and I recently visited the Grill Room to celebrate a special birthday. To give Mr Winner his due, nothing could be faulted. Both food and service were exemplary. We had telephoned beforehand to make our reservation and a polite young lady promptly answered. She not only took the time to advise us of our dining options, but even went as far as to suggest that we might like to order a cake and champagne.
    Patrick Coffey, Cardiff