Published 7 April 1996 Style Magazine 144th article
In search of the real thing: Chris Rea and Michael Winner at the Sandy Lane Hotel in Barbados (Vanessa Perry)
"It was bad enough getting thrown out last night for being incorrectly dressed when I looked smart," said my friend Chris Rea, "but to be asked to leave a place that doesn't even serve real parmesan cheese . . . !" We were at the excellent lunch buffet in the Sandy Bay, the casual restaurant of the Sandy Lane Hotel, Barbados. "Just a min, Chris," I said. "You mean, down here at night, when it's an Italian restaurant run by real Italians imported from Sicily and Rome, they serve fake parmesan?" "You get some sort of Kraft catering pack," replied Chris, smiling.
Not only is Chris an exceptional singer and musician (and about the only modern singer whose CDs I possess), he is Italian by birth, and he and his family ran an Italian restaurant in Middlesbrough. This is a man who has to be taken seriously. "It's not possible, fake parmesan at £1,500 a night!" I thought, as I headed to the buffet, where a whole roast pig looked so real you expected it to get up and trot away. There stood Robert Earl of Planet Hollywood and other catering fame. "They don't serve parmesan cheese here," I casually informed him. "Chef!" said Robert imperiously. "Give Mr Winner some of your 14-year-old parmesan!" The man in white disappeared and I whiled away the time testing some of the yellow granulated stuff that I, the great food expert, had thought was merely rather tasteless parmesan. Now, taught by Chris, it was clear this was not even a distant, illegitimate cousin of the parmesan family.
The chef returned with a marvellous slice of real parmesan. "Come," I said, leading the poor chap to the dining room set by the beach and the sparkling sea. "Here Chris," I said. "Parmesan!" The chef looked glum. "You don't serve this on your pasta, do you?" I asked. "No," he admitted. "Please do so for Mr Rea and I," I said. The next day, the usual granulated stuff was back on display, nestling in front of a tureen of spaghetti. Sitting on top of it were cubes of what I took to be parmesan. "Why haven't they grated it?" I thought. But, at times, the Sandy Lane is very strange. They billed me £600 for golf lessons this year. Nobody in the world has ever seen me near a golf course! Meanwhile, back in the dining room, I told Chris we were now getting real parmesan. "No, we're not," he said. "But those little squares. . ?" "Provolone," said Chris. "Not nearly as good."
The food and beverage manager, a nice Swiss chap called Peter Hoehn, had the misfortune to be passing by. I held aloft my mini-tape recorder, a frightening moment for anyone. "This is provolone!" I said, pointing to the yellow cubes. "Er . . ." said Mr Hoehn. "I wish to inspect the container that your granulated, supposed parmesan came in," I went on. "Take me into the kitchen so I can view it in its natural state. I would like to see how it is labelled." Mr Hoehn searched for a way out. "Very difficult," he said after a pause. "So your answer is no," I persisted. "Basically, yes," said Mr Hoehn, and he fled.
For the remaining days. I stood in the kitchen and watched them grate real parmesan for me and Chris. This is another little matter the Sandy Lane's charming manager should address. Preferably before the hotel, which has gone from Forte to Granada, changes hands yet again. Although I niggle a bit (a bit!), it is a jolly good hotel with the best staff in the world. But there is a weak spot. While I'm sure the hotel is not dishonest, I've checked 10 of their bills during the years of my visits and the overcharging has been quite substantial on every one of them. They repaid it graciously, some to me and some, at my request, to a local Barbados charity. But come on, chaps. Get a bill-maker who's more on the ball, please!
Which reminds me, I made an error in my account of Sun City, the horrid beyond belief South African "fun palace". I worked out they overcharged me 62% on my bill. A number of you wrote to me about this. You said if my bill was £3,340 (which it was) and they repaid me £2,308 (which they did) the overcharge was not 62% but 224%! Thank you Mr Simon Kaminsky of Manchester, among others, whose maths is far better than mine. Well, I can't be good at everything! I admit it, cheese and adding up are not my strong points. So what? You're not perfect!
I know Michael Winner likes to provoke, but in his column of March 24 he exceeded himself. I have been a client at the Poissonnerie de l'Avenue for more than 25 years and it has expanded from one tiny room to a magnificent triple-fronted restaurant, with a super seafood and fish shop next door. This restaurant is one of the only consistent purveyors of top-class seafood and is carefully supervised by its owner, Peter, and an experienced staff who care and try hard. I think Mr Winner would have done the restaurant a favour if he had "continued to ignore it all his life".
Stanley Silver, Hadley Wood, Herts
Has Le Palais du Jardin, London, become a victim of its own success? On booking a table for 10pm, my husband, his parents and I arrived promptly, in good spirits after a wonderful evening at the ballet. We were told at the reception that our table wasn't ready and that we would have to wait at the bar until it was. Forty minutes later, we were shown to our table with no apology. My starter of smoked chicken and prawn salad arrived looking a mess and unappetising. The waiter admitted it had slipped across the plate on his way. Next the main courses arrived, except for my mother-in-law's, who had to wait another five minutes for hers. Finally, my mother-in-law, after specifically asking a waiter for a decaffeinated coffee, was told by another waiter that the coffee he had brought to the table was not decaffeinated so back it went. Needless to say, we decided not to pay the "optional" service charge that had already been added to our bill. This was met with cross-examination by a waiter! I first went to Le Palais du Jardin when it had just opened and was impressed with the service and the reasonably priced food. It is such a shame when restaurants overstretch themselves and let standards slip.
V R Carpenter, London SW18