Published 19 May 1996 Style Magazine 150th article
Our man in Morocco: Michael Winner with Mohammed Zkhiri and the musicians at Yacout (Vanessa Perry)
Where do you think that handsome Mr Adrian Gill and I have been, between us, for 18 years? No, not waiting for our plates to he cleared at Le Gavroche. We were both pupils at a ghastly vegetarian-only school in Hertfordshire called St Christopher's Letchworth. Adrian for seven years, me for 11 until I left under a cloud. The way I normally depart. By another coincidence, when I was at La Mamounia in Marrakesh, Adrian phoned me and suggested we had dinner. Sadly, by the time we got to it, he, being very sociable, had invited four other people. Me, being greatly unsociable, rudely (but I'm forgiven!) declined to sit with people I'd never met. I went instead to Yacout, quite the most beautiful restaurant ever and owned by the British honorary consul in Marrakesh. To get there, you drive down tiny alleys with potholes in the road, little shops lit up at night with wooden slats leaning from them and old men in skull caps at the side of the road gesticulating as they talk. On past a fountain with multidecorated tiles until a man in a red fez with a black tassel and in flowing white robes opens the car doors for you.
He takes you to an ancient wooden door, which leads to a real Arab garden with a pool, lanterns, trees and palm trees round it. You are then shown up steep stone steps to the top of a tower and given a lovely view of the old city of Marrakesh. Sometimes drinks are served on the flat roof, but on our night it was a bit nippy. So we went down to an old hall, which had once been the central courtyard of an elegant villa. Big pillars above, a balcony round it with more arches, large, ornate carved lanterns on the floor with candles in them, candles in the hanging chandelier and an enormous stone bowl in the middle of the room full of multicoloured rose petals floating on water. A two-piece band sing and play stringed and drum instruments. Our consul, Mr Mohammed Zkhiri turns up. "When the British looked at me they liked my face and said we'd like you as the honorary consul." He is a very smartly dressed Moroccan. Nine years ago, he opened Yacout as a restaurant.
Always keen to know where I stand, I asked: "So, if I lose my passport, you open the drawer, take one out, stamp it, and I'm okay?" "No," said Mohammed. "I pass the details on to Casablanca." Mustn't lose my passport, I thought.
Moroccan meals are superb but have a certain sameness about them. We had the Moroccan salad, many bowls - aubergine, carrots mixed with cinnamon and sugar, tomatoes and paprika hot and minced - no knives or forks, you're meant to scoop it out of the dishes with the bread. For wine a Moroccan Cabernet Medaillon 1990: mild, pleasant, but Bordeaux needn't panic. Then lamb and prune in puff pastry, and couscous with chicken and lemon. They even changed the water glasses for the second course! Then they served a whole chicken for me alone! You don't starve in Morocco! Then tiers of patisserie.
At 10.15pm. a man in a red fez put down a rug and two more musicians came and sat on green cushions with old-fashioned instruments and chanted in a rhythmic, stoned way. It was very good. I must get this as background music at home, I thought. The one with castanets spins his fez and the black tassel twirls round like a propeller. This is an experience I enjoyed.
I must commend to you another, similar, restaurant called Le Tobsil, also in an old villa in town and owned by a French lady, Christine Rio. This has wrought-iron balconies, only two musicians here, but they come on towards the end of the evening and do a little dance in the central area. Also extremely jolly. However, the most heroic thing in Marrakesh is mint tea. They have it very sweet, poured from individual little, silver teapots, or you can have it sugarless. They take green Chinese tea, like little nuts, which they told me were imported from England. You pour boiling water over them and that should be it. Then you add fresh mint to the pot, cracking the stems open. Pour more boiling water over the lot, add sugar or not. Either way, it is totally sensational. I am now addicted. You see, that's what travel does. It changes your life.
I recently had to cancel at short notice a two-day stay at the Lower Slaughter Manor in the Cotswolds, due to my wife and daughter falling ill. An offer to debit the entire cost of the two-night stay to my charge card and be allowed to postpone the visit to another weekend was refused and I was reminded of the cancellation charge of 75% if the rooms weren't relet. They would, however, offer me a £100 discount when I returned, which meant it would cost me £240 (including discount) just to walk through the door on a later occasion. Overwhelmed by their generosity, I advised the receptionist that we would try to come on the second day if we were able, but to go ahead and try to relet the rooms if possible. The owner's attitude when I telephoned the following day to establish whether the accommodation had been relet was not at all pleasant. Other hoteliers might have inquired after the welfare of my family, but it was assumed that I was calling to negotiate with her and, in my mind condescendingly, she advised me that their policy remained the same. These cancellation costs will be covered by my charge card insurance anyway, but do these people have such a popular hotel that they can afford to behave in such a way?
Simon Franklin, Esher, Surrey
We were interested to read that Clifford and Petra Pell (Style, May 5) had their worst experience in a Whitby bistro. So did we, but it wasn't the same one. This Easter, we visited Spinks Bistro in the town and were disappointed by the starter-sized pasta dishes served as a main course (at main course prices). Our usual expectation of pasta sauce is that it should cling to the pasta, not drip to the bottom of the bowl. The salad (£4.50 each for a few shreds of lettuce) was dressed with an evil-tasting vinegar in which only a few blobs of oil were visible. With our mouths effectively anaesthetised, it was then impossible to taste whether the wine was any good or not. The mineral water came in a jug (£2) with no indication of its provenance. The manager didn't deign to speak to us about our dissatisfaction, but sent up a waitress who asked if we had eaten Italian before. Yes, both in and outside Italy, and we had never had a duff Italian meal until this one. A fiver was knocked off the bill, but the evening was ruined. Such places let down (a) Italians and (b) North Yorkshire's reputation for hospitality and big portions. The latter is fortunately held intact by Whitby's Magpie Cafe (well worth weathering the queue for a fish supper) and by the hefty wedge of game pie at the Hart in Sandsend, just five minutes' drive out of Whitby.
Alison Turnbull and Robin Thomas, London SE24
How Michael Winner goes on about the Sandy Lane. One Christmas (we were living in Rio) we felt Barbados was the ideal place to cool off. Where to have Sunday lunch? Sandy Lane, we were told, was the only place, and the buffet was a memorable sight. Admittedly we were about 25 minutes late Barbados is, after all, for relaxing. The buffet was a memorable sight. Table after table bore long lines of turkey skeletons. What the other dishes had borne will for ever be a mystery. Every scrap of food had vanished. Our fellow diners, rotund and red-bellied, were replete. A waiter brought us some bread rolls and what I think was cheese. Nobody suggested a refund or a free drink. The place stank of midday sweat and sun-tan oil. And that, gods be praised, was our one and only experience of the Sandy Lane.
Pamela Walters, Sudbury, Suffolk