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Belly laughs

Published 5 May 1996
Style Magazine
148th article

Show time: Robert Barge, the dancer and Michael Winner (Vanessa Perry)

You could say my arrival at La Mamounia was less than perfect. No, no, let's be clear; it was disastrous. I flew into Marrakesh from Malaga in my rented private jet (show-off!) to a lovely little airport with blooming flower beds, fountains, all just as it should be. The Moroccans were charm itself as we wandered through immigration, out to the hall . . . but no limousine from the Mamounia as promised! "Not possible!" I thought. The pilot phoned the hotel. The car was sent. In faxes, clear as anything, we'd asked for it at 1.30pm, they'd intended to send it at 3.30pm. I was not amused. After checking in, the receptionist said: "Would you wait in the lobby, Mr Berge, the general manager, wants to welcome you." "Can we go to the room?" asked Vanessa, not having heard this. "Apparently not," I replied huffily. Then, "I'm going to the room, now!" When we got to the suite I decided to go to the toilet. I hate the word loo! "You can't," said Vanessa. "It's locked." "What do you mean, 'It's locked'?" I asked. "It's locked," she replied. "Is someone in it?" I queried. "No, it's just locked, they've gone for the key." I couldn't even be bothered to pursue that.

I had to phone London. The hotel instruction book was totally clear. It said I should dial 0, wait for the dial tone, then dial 00, wait for another dial tone, and then get on with it. I tried. I tried again. And again. It didn't work. I spoke to the hotel operator. "They cancelled the dial tone two months ago for international calls," she said cheerfully. This was going from worse to beyond belief! Things could only get better. And, mercifully, they did. I threatened to shoot Abdelkrim Temsamani, the concierge who'd messed up on the car. He took that quite cheerfully, as he did later when I threatened to kill him for messing up a restaurant booking. The Morrocans are very charming, you can only like them. M Robert Berge, who looks like Adolphe Menjou, neat, small and French, was gracious and helpful. His number two, M Mohammed Chab, who is Moroccan and extremely tall and looks like M Chab, was also good as gold. But the hotel has a problem that M Berge and M Chab, excellent as they are, can do nothing about. It is quite simply too large. It is a big operation. It has five restaurants. a casino, a nightclub, shops: strange tour groups can be seen wandering around the lobby, which itself has been redone in a "hotel anywhere in the world" way, grand though it may be. Yves Saint Laurent, who lives nearby, takes tea there.

The food ranges from okay to historic. But the sun loungers around the lovely hotel pool are too many and too close (I soon got living space for yours truly!) and large as the gardens and poolside area may be, at peak times they aren't large enough. It is a delight to hear the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer five times a day, but the hotel, from the outside, looks like a 1950s council block. If you face the incredible flowers and trees of the gardens as you lie in the sun, you're fine. If you look back, towards the hotel, it's ugh. The suite itself was comfortable (bathroom far too small), with a spectacular view. On the left, the old city of Marrakesh, in the middle, the pool and gardens, on the right, fields without ghastly buildings anywhere - and at the back of it all the towering, snow-clad Atlas mountains. That's worth sitting on a south-facing terrace for!

I first tried the hotel's Moroccan restaurant, a somewhat overdone confection with arches and carving, but pleasant. The meal was as good as I have ever eaten in my life. You start with what is described as a Moroccan salad, which is not one meal in itself but three. A variety of sweet tomato, sort of mushed, aubergines, brains, liver, cucumber like you've never tasted. Twelve bowls. all exquisite. Then incredible lamb in a bowl with soup-sauce, then a couscous, then sliced oranges and then a dessert that beats everything. Sweet puff pastry with crushed almonds in layers with cream and/or custard and milk. I describe it poorly, but it is spectacular. You get a Moroccan band thrown in, with a belly dancer who does two runs around the tables, the first time whirling a baton, and the second time in a new, turquoise dress. If that isn't value for money, what is?

  • PS: The pool buffet, terrific, does the best chocolate mousse I've ever eaten. And I am a big chocolate mousse eater.


    Our worst restaurant experience was a visit to Anderson's, self-billed as the best bistro in Whitby. We arrived on time, but were kept waiting 45 minutes without being offered a drink. When we were eventually seated and the food arrived, the moules marinieres were full of smashed shells, the fish cakes were more like potato croquettes and the wine was barely drinkable. We sent back the food but were soon faced by a second bowl of moules with almost as many smashed shells carefully hidden at the bottom, and a complimentary bottle of the same wine. The main courses were bland and dried out, not surprisingly, as we had seen the chef leave the kitchen half an hour before and sit down in a corner with a drink. We did not dare try a dessert, but left £50 lighter and thoroughly dissatisfied.
    Clifford and Petra Pell, London N3

    Curious to find out the truth behind the terrible notices given to the new mega-restaurants opening all over the West End of London, we decided to try the Avenue in St James's Street. On arrival, we were given a friendly welcome, were ushered into a large, pleasant, airy room with well-spaced tables and comfortable chairs, and served delicious, attractively presented food from the small but interesting menu, by the charming and highly professional staff. We had no expensive wines; as a matter of fact, two of our party only drank water, but we were in no way made to feel cheap or guilty about this. The prices, while high, are in line with those of similar establishments in the area. We had a superb evening out. Do critics give a thought, when exercising their egos, to the harm they can do by rubbishing months of grinding effort in a paragraph?
    Mrs G R Jeffries, London NW1

    With respect, real parmesan would not (could not) be served as a "slice" (Winner's Dinners, April 7), as the real thing, properly aged, would crumble. Parmesan is therefore cut using a stainless steel pointed "cutter" designed for this purpose, and the end product is a lump, rather than a slice.
    Ron Zanre, Chislehurst, Kent

    I read Winner's Dinners avidly and, like Mr Winner, I like value for money. We often have lunch out my husband is a retired RAF pilot and I work for the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. We tend to go out of Staffordshire, as the choice here is not good. Recently we decided to have lunch in the Garden Room of the Cavendish hotel, Baslow, Derbyshire. The menu contained a good choice. My husband had darne of salmon at £9.50, which he quite enjoyed. I decided on sirloin steak in a peppercorn sauce (BSE be damned!) at £14 (vegetables were extra). The steak was unbelievable. I have never had escalope of sirloin before. I asked for medium rare, but it was cut so thinly, you didn't have any choice but to have it well done. I sent it back. The head waiter said he was sorry but the steak was served this way "in the area"! Very condescending. Another steak came, I ate it to keep the peace, but it was poor quality. We left without leaving a tip and did not have dessert or coffee. It is a busy hotel with a strong tourist trade, so why should they have to bother? On our way home we called at the Peacock hotel at Rowsley, Derbyshire, a delightful country-house hotel. The staff were friendly and obliging and we had a good home-made trifle and bread and butter pudding. The young lady behind the bar made our day with her fresh and lively personality. It was totally the opposite of the condescending attitude of the Cavendish. I do not mind paying, but I hate to be treated badly.
    Chris Steed, Stafford, Staffs