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French twist

Published 31 March 1996
Style Magazine
143rd article

Bonsoir Michael Winner with Philippa and Delphine Rostang at La Bonne Auberge (Vanessa Perry)

Trinity Lane, Cambridge, was one of the university's great sights. High brick chimneys, wonderful old roofs and dormer windows, the rear of rooms facing onto Trinity's historic Great Court. I have filmed it many times. I screamed when I saw it recently. The windows had been replastered in some ghastly, shrieking, out-of-place Essex-man type brown. Gone was the old-looking, traditional white plaster that had been there for centuries. I was so upset I wrote to Sir Michael Atiyah, the Master of Trinity. He answered with some waffle about how using brown avoided the "streaky staining" that appeared on white plaster. I never saw that. I now see a great street destroyed! Rise up in your thousands! Write and complain!

There's no point in moaning about the Copper Kettle in King's Parade, That, too, is gone for ever. It used to be the archetypal great place for tea. A lovely old building with a spacious room on street level and then up winding stairs to a nice first floor. Both overlooked King's College, one of the most impressive architectural masterpieces ever built. The large glass windows still look out onto King's, but the wonderful scones, teacakes, fruitcake, sandwiches, pots of tea on crisp white tablecloths - that's all gone. So, of course, have the two old ladies who ran it in the 1950s. Now, it's wooden benches and tables, no cloths, self-service, utter rubbish, ghastly wrapped sandwiches, so awful that I, the most gluttonous tea-eater ever, could find nothing. I settled for a sticky bun and some make-it-yourself tea, where you add milk and sugar from nasty containers. Even the bun was horrific.

I think the best place at serving a greatly enhanced version of that stuff is the National Theatre. I refer to the intermission and pre-performance caffs set among the cavernous concrete walls. I like the National. It's well run and even puts on terrific plays. But, oh dear, the restaurant! I ate in it first when I'd been to some "do" where Alan Ayckboum spoke, and I got so carried away I donated a seat to his new theatre in Scarborough. My finale was lunch with Michael Codron and Sir Cameron Mackintosh. Both terrific people. I kept worrying because I had no money and Scorpios always like to pay the bill and leave everyone indebted to them. I recall I had something described as sausage; could have fooled me. I've tried to blank out what I ate and I've almost succeeded, although I also remember an object that looked like an apple tart but certainly didn't taste like one. A solitary visit later was no better. The National has succeeded so well at everything else, even in making the interior like a minor antiques fair, which I mean as a compliment. They should really get their restaurant fixed or closed down.

Another place that's changed unbelievably since the 1950s, when it was considered the best restaurant in the south of France, is La Bonne Auberge near Antibes. Under Joseph Rostang, its pink stucco front with crinkly tiles, overlooking the railway line, the Route Nationale 7 and the sea, was a mecca for highly sophisticated food-lovers.

Then, one year, I looked in the Michelin Guide and it wasn't even there! "Gone to pot, son took over," people told me. Driving back from Joan Collins in St Tropez, which took for ever, I stopped off at La Bonne Auberge for an early dinner. A nice, fresh-faced young man came out of the kitchen and secured a good table for me when I became difficult. This was Joseph's son Philippe. The whole atmosphere of old-money posh is out the window. Strange blue lamps on blue pillars, pink curtains, the inner room no longer as good as the outer. But here is quality of a different sort. Only French people came in, as opposed to mainly tourists before. A great deal of bonsoir-ing and smiling from the locals. Philippe and his young wife, Delphine, have made the place their own. The lobster ravioli - great. Souffle de quenelle Jo Rostang, a tribute to Philippe's legendary dad - delicious. Snail casserole - remarkable. Petafine dauphinoise, a creamy, soft cheese - exquisite. The millefeuille Bonne Auberge - great, in an all-custard and flaky French way.

Evening turned to night and, outside, different-coloured trains passed to and fro. Silenced by the thick glass, soundless cars whizzed along the N7. Around me, cosseted, was a piece of French theatre. Old ladies here, a family there, a tiny dog everywhere. How wonderful to see that not all "modernisation" is a disaster. Whatever you do, Philippe, don't let Sir Michael Atiyah redecorate. Anyone who can mess up Trinity College could blow your little restaurant out of the planet. I'd rather that didn't happen. Not now I've rediscovered it.


The British enthusiasm for French food and ambience is reflected in the huge high-street upsurge of cafe-style establishments print the magic words poussez or tirez on the door and the customers flock into the numerous Cafes This and Cafes That. But a couple of visits to the Dome Cafe in Richmond, Surrey, recently made me aware that it is not enough to stick up a blackboard menu covered in inaccurate Franglais. What, for instance, is "garlique" sausage - there's no such word in English or French dictionaries. Garlic in French is ail, as most schoolchildren should know, and certainly staff at the Dome should have a good smattering of GCSE French, shouldn't they? Perhaps it was a joke! Next on the menu was vichisoise (correct French spelling vichyssoise) and so on. Not that spelling is crucial, but it did bode badly for standards generally. We had lemon syllabub seemingly an enormous splodge of aerosol cream with a sprinkle of lemon zest, tres yucky. Two hot chocolates were too milky, too sugary, and pas du tout chocolaty. I'm sure people will soon tire of places that mimic the style of the wonderful cafes we find across the Channel, but which can't deliver the high standard of food and drink that normally goes with them. Maybe English cafes should stick to cream teas and fruitcake.
J Abraham, Hampton, Middlesex

My partner and I ate at the Midsummer House in Cambridge recently. The restaurant is in a converted house, overlooking the river. The food is exquisite. I had artichoke stuffed with anchovies on avocado, my partner had melon stuffed with salmon tartare. We followed with lemon sole parcels with salmon mousse and roast pigeon with (enormous!) snails. The vegetables were an inspiration; absolutely perfect. The wine list is one of the most comprehensive we have seen outside Paris. The service was almost perfect; the only quibble was that they should have emptied the ashtray more often - we smokers feel ostracised from politically correct society as it is! The bill was horrendous, but we somehow didn't feel as though we had been ripped off.
Amanda Crick, Cambridge