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Chinese chequered

Published 1 October 1995
Style Magazine
117th article

Memories: Kam Po But and Michael Winner (Dinah Lagoudakos)

I've had strange experiences in Chinese restaurants. Once in Fu Tong in Kensington High Street (now renamed Lee Gardens and not as good) Oliver Reed threw me over his shoulder. Later he left the next booth, where he was dining with Ken Russell, went into Hyde Park, picked a fight that he clearly lost, ended up in the Round Pond and came back in his immaculate, now soaking wet, pinstripe Savile Row suit.

I Ching in Earls Court Road was the Zen group's first restaurant. My favourite exuberant, Peter Lam, who was a bus boy at Fu Tong, was manager. On my first night there, my friend the film director Lewis Gilbert said: "We've been here half an hour, Michael, and there's no food."

"Don't worry," I said, calling Peter over. Half an hour later Peter appeared with a roast duck, showed it to all the tables and then took it back to the kitchen. It was never seen again. Nor was there any other sustenance! There'd been a fight and the chef had walked out! Peter was desperately trying to flimflam the customers!

I took Charles Bronson in one Saturday night and he said: "This isn't a very popular restaurant, is it?" The room was totally empty except for us. "Where are the customers?" I asked Peter. "I put them upstairs," he said. "Not good enough to eat in same room as Charles Bronson."

l have spent nights of torture in the Shanghai in Kensington listening to a succession of the worst pianists in the history of the world.

And I will never forget a meal at Zen in Chelsea Cloisters, so noisy I couldn't hear a word Marlon Brando said, and Marlon has an excellent and clear speaking voice.

So, when Fu Tong closed and all the restaurants in the group became Zen, I stayed away, particularly after once trying Zen Central years ago. But recently, after the first night of Fame (very good it is), John Gold, the owner of Tramp and the Belvedere, and I gave up waiting for food at the party and I called Zen Central from the Rolls.

I knew from the way they took the reservation they had no idea who I was. This was confirmed when we got to the restaurant and the manager went forward to greet John Gold saying: "Good evening, Mr Winner." After that it was all downhill. The waiter took at long and complicated order, refused to write it down, and said: "I'll remember." Those are words that fill me with fear. But he did bring all the right stuff, except when I ate I wished he'd got it wrong and brought something else. Everything, but everything, tasted tired. Seaweed, spring rolls, Peking duck, you name it, it slept.

I'd forgotten that Chinese food could be really terrible. At the end I had no money. I said to the manager: "You know who I am . . . ?" "No." he said. "I'm a customer with no money and no credit cards," I explained patiently. When he let me sign the bill he came out with the most extraordinary remark: "How could I know who you are?" he said. "You've only been in here once before." Work that out!

Alter all that name-dropping and criticism, I'm happy to tell you of a first-rate Chinese restaurant that is already terribly busy, so please don't feel obliged to go. It's Ken Lo's Memories of China in Belgravia, actually almost in Victoria, but I'll make it sound posh. This has been around for ever and some years ago left the late Ken Lo's ownership to be bought by Claudio Pulze, who's a shareholder in the Canteen and the ghastly-run Zafferano. What matters is that just as in Zen Central everything's awful, here everything's good. The chef is Kant Po But from Shanghai and he knocks up an absolutely delicious quick-fried courgettes stuffed with minced prawns. Mongolian barbecue of lamb in lettuce puffs, steamed sea bass and whatever else he turns his wok to. Although Claudio can't get the room together at Zafferano, Memories is brilliantly handled by Steven Yeung.

And l must give Claudio credit for keeping up the standard at the Canteen. Chefs come and go. Marco waxes and wanes, but I have never had a bad course there. And the newest lot, now supervised by "Executive Chef" Gordon Ramsay from the Aubergine, do a job of equal excellence. If only the car park wasn't like a council block slum and the atrium Stalinist Russia at its worst. I'd go there even more.


Whenever I take the view that humanity may occasionally exhibit rational characteristics, I only have to read Winner's Dinners to disabate myself of that illusion. Mr Winner flits about these grotesquely overpriced feeding troughs and complains like a fussy spinster, or glows with self-satisfaction when being sucked up to by some chef or manager. Of course, I'm no doubt suffering from the "politics of envy", as Mr Winner, being a Tory, might allege. But there is a certain joy in reading that he pays an exorbitant £15.50 (September 24) for unsatisfactory tea at a posh joint, while I can get a substantial, wholesome and cheap three-course meal for less than six quid at, say, the Gordon Cafe in King Street, Aberdeen.
Michael Ross, Peterhead, Scotland

I enjoy reading Winner's Dinners; it is always witty and full of interesting tips. I also sympathise with the gruesome problems Mr Winner must face in his travels, confronting strange mores and arcane foreign languages. And yet... The menu of the Splendido (Winner's Dinners, September 17) in Portofino sounds succulent, indeed. The search for "tagglialini". however would leave most of my compatriots mystified, as would that for "porcello" mushrooms. "Por-Cello" means "piglet" when referring to the four-legged variety and "lewd-lecherous" when referring to the two-legged species. Italians, on the other hand, are very keen on "tagliolini ai funghi porcini", as no doubt Mr Winner's friend Fausto would confirm.
Antonio Armellini, Italian Embassy, London, W1

My wife and I recently enjoyed cups of tea in the mountain-top cafe on Snowdon. Having climbed Crib Goch and walked, or more accurately clambered, along the ridge to Crib y Ddysgl and thence upwards to the peak, we were hot and thirsty. The tea was delicious and most welcome. Should Mr Winner follow in our footsteps, it would be interesting to know whether he could delight in the simple produce (no choice of teas) offered in this mountain-top cafe, which we found to be possibly as historic as the magnificent scenery.
Chris Martindale, Cambridge