Published 18 August 1996 Style Magazine 163rd article
Richard and Helen Bunney
with Michael Winner (Vanessa Perry)
I'd had an excellent Sunday lunch at Inverlochy Castle (I'll give it seven), including the best Yorkshire pud ever, but "Enough is enough," I said to Mr Michael Leonard, the ubiquitous manager, "tell me somewhere to go this evening." "The Old Station Restaurant," Mr Leonard replied carefully. "It's not very grand, but . . ." "Please phone them," I said. Mr Leonard called Mrs Helen Bunney. "I may not be doing you any favours . . ." he cautioned. "Oh, give me the phone!" I said, grabbing it. "Hello darlink', it's Michael Winner. What we need is a large table not too close to anyone else." "No problem," said Mrs Bunney, cheerfully. Later on, we set off. If I was the comedy version of an American tourist (and believe me there were a few of them at Inverlochy Castle!) I would call the Old Station Restaurant "cute". It is a genuine, working station: Spean Bridge, on the London Midland Scottish, now Scotrail, one stop before Fort William. It is everybody's idyllic picture-postcard station. Little overhanging, woodworked roof with flower baskets, lovely flowerbeds all around, wonderfully squared-off hedges, a bridge to rolling fields and, on the other side, a village and majestic mountains.
Five years ago Helen and her husband, Richard, got it, did it up and voila! A restaurant. It takes up all the station buildings, so I couldn't help feeling sorry for any passenger who wanted to go to the toilet. It is decorated with old railway advertisements, there's an upright piano and two fireplaces with reproduction Victorian tiles. The tables are well spaced out, the murmur of Scots voices extremely pleasant. We sat in a bay overlooking the gravel platform. I started with honey and ginger soup, very tasty, real Country stuff. Vanessa had, well, I can't remember, but for her main course she had baked goats' cheese with salad leaves, which she described as a bit rubbery and heavy!
The Royal Scotsman drew into the station, and a few people came to peer at it. It's a sort of Scots Orient Express which takes tourists around the Highlands. Two chefs from it walked by our window left to right and waved at me. I noticed other station signs saying Drochaid an Aonachain, which I was told means Spean Bridge in Celt! Then I ate some duck breast, fashionably sliced as rawish steak, with apricot and lemon sauce, very good. Carrots a bit overcooked, but they tasted of carrots, cabbage tiptop, nice roast potato with a crisp skin. Mashed potato with nutmeg, too! Mozart piped through as I had white chocolate cheesecake. The whisky ice cream was off, so I chose homemade vanilla. Both okay, cheesecake better. A half bottle of Chateau Curson 1990 (ugh!) was undrunk. If this restaurant was moved to Holland Park it would be a terrific local and I'd go there a lot. Then I decided to inspect The Royal Scotsman. The chefs, Alan and Neil, were standing behind a large bucket of live lobsters. The guests were either in bed (I was shown a cabin, quite pleasant) or in a carriage-lounge tapping their feet to a left-handed fiddle player. The train only takes 32 people, and I once knew a highly significant Hollywood screenwriter who came on it every year. At half past 10, I drove back to the hotel and it was still a reasonably light evening.
Staying in the north (how dare people say I never go out of London!). I once visited the Copthorne Newcastle. Some of the best staff ever and an enormous, dramatic suite overlooking the River Tyne. I was on one of my police ceremonies, but took time to visit my tax office. Only in England could they put the Film Industry Unit tax office in Newcastle, when all ﬁlm people work from London! This is nothing to do with food really, but I thought my inspectors Mr Baty and Mr Scott might like a mention!
I will finish on a high note. The nicest man in restaurants is Mr Bill Offner, the doyen of them all. He once owned the Stork and the Pigalle and what is now Tramp (where he's still a partner) and much more. His story about his late partner, Al Burnett, seeing a piano bar in Las Vegas and putting it into the Pigalle where it was so heavy it sank to the basement below, is hysterical. Bill is something to do with Toto, an Italian restaurant in Knightsbridge, hidden away in Lennox Gardens Mews. It's far better than the so-called fashionable Italian places that have sprung up. The chef, Paolo Simioni, and the restaurant manager, Mario Endrighi are great professionals. And there is an added plus. It's not even in the Ronay guide. I think that's invariably a sign of excellence.
As a student at London University I find it difficult to agree with Mr Winner's opinion of the quality of food in some restaurants. What he describes as "inedible" would probably be "heavenly" to me. I come to this conclusion after two years of eating at Hughes Parry Hall, one of the catered university residences. Each student has £2.25 per day to pay for two meals. The money may as well be poured into dustbins, just as the food is, after we have tasted it. Should Michael Winner like to taste a different version of cod San Francisco or one of the other "delicacies" served to us, I would be delighted to accompany him to "le refectoire de Hughes Parry" any evening during term.
Jenny Baggs, Cambridge.
Michael Winner is spot-on with regard to James Sherwood's group of hotels (Restaurant Watch, August 11). My husband and I have just returned from a short sojourn at The Hotel Splendido in Portofino. Idyllic! I wonder if Mr Winner has ever been to the Chateau de la Chevre D'Or at Eze Village in the South of France? If not, I think he would find it worth a visit.
Jennifer McLarens Belair, Luxembourg.