Published 10 November 1996 Style Magazine 175th article
Lake aside: Michael Winner and Romano Scotti, chief concierge at the Villa d'Este (Vanessa Perry)
If you were at a highly exclusive and expensive hotel on Lake Como and you heard a group of 68 people were coming from The Mail on Sunday, would you (a) commit suicide, (b) hide in your room, or (c) go out as much as possible? There is nothing untoward about The Mail on Sunday, and when its advertising department representatives arrived they were nice, lively girls who behaved far better than me. But when I am at a supposedly legendary hotel like the Villa d'Este in Cernobbio, I don't want any groups, be they Mensa, Exchange & Mart, Feathered World or a Playboy centrefold excursion. On second thoughts, the Playboy lot I could tolerate. The lobby seemed to be always full of people with clipboards checking out people without clipboards. One evening at 6.30pm, I returned to my suite to hear screaming and drunken laughter from below. On the lakeside terrace was a large gang of men and women in tracksuit bottoms, trainers and bomber jackets with advertising on them. The leftovers from a local car rally. When I complained, the duty manager said: "It will be over shortly!"
As we entered the Villa d'Este, an extremely charmless PR lady, Jean Salvadore, told me: "You must eat in the Grill Room." She reserved a table for us. When I got there, it had an uninterrupted view of the service entrance to and from the kitchen. I complained and the maitre d' said: "It's against the wall." So were the partisans shot during the second world war.
I had been the previous night to a charming restaurant in the village called Trattoria del Vapore. Now, having exited the Grill, I stood at the concierge desk. They called the hotel car to take me to their other local choice, Terzo Crotto. We got in, zoomed off, and were taken to Vapore again. The driver had been told the wrong place! Still, I had a nice bean and pasta soup, some decent small macaroni with tomato and basil, and a terrific zabaglione. Our suite had the most awful, bilious green carpet, a bathroom so small it would have been demi-monde in a council flat, and so denuded of what is usually placed there for the guests it almost made the awful Reserve de Beaulieu look good. When Vanessa requested an adaptor plug to recharge her video they didn't have one. When I went down to breakfast the first morning and asked if the orange juice was fresh, l was told it wasn't! This at a bed and breakfast rate of £375 a night! They squeezed some when I insisted. The room service breakfasts arrived speedily, but they were the worst. A heavy croissant, and Vanessa said, rightly: "The rolls are really horrible, they're just like rolls!" Both milk and yoghurt were asked for one breakfast and not delivered. The butter was in those tiny, ludicrous Lurpak plastic and silver-paper cartons that you get on British Airways. The tea was not hot. The face flannels were not replaced two nights out of four. When I asked where the English papers I'd ordered were, a concierge said: "They're under your door." When I told him they weren't, he sent up the wrong ones, This is not Orient Express-style management, but then it isn't an Orient Express hotel.
On the plus side, the chief concierge, Romano Scotti, is superb. The grounds and views are spectacular, the hotel has an attractive old grandeur, diminished by the fact it has over-widened its clientele. On my first night, Ms Salvadore led me to the dining room so I could choose a table. At 6.30pm it was locked. "Perhaps you're frightened someone's going to steal it," I said. We had dinner there as guests of the manager, a very nice chap called Marco Sorbellini. He had the good sense to go to Thailand the next morning. I had one of the best spaghetti dishes ever, with bottarga of mullet roe and fresh tomato. I put grated parmesan on it. Later, Marco said: "We don't normally put cheese on a fish spaghetti." "You didn't tell me not to," I responded. "We like our guests to feel free," Marco replied. "Then you laugh at us," I said. I meant that nicely. The meal was fine. Okay mixed grilled fish, very good raspberry souffle with a peach sauce. Pleasant room. But one good dinner does not a hotel make. The Villa d'Este is fine if you're the boilermakers' union planning a "conference". If you're a high-expectation, individual traveller like me, forget it.
We were delighted to read Michael Winner's article (October 27) regarding the "gourmet" meal he enjoyed in the car park at Highcliffe. We have enjoyed this area for many years and have spent many family holidays here. In fact, we loved the place so much that we bought a small flat overlooking the sea and spend many relaxing weekends here. However, Christchurch borough council is planning to build a two-storey leisure complex consisting of a flat, two restaurants and two shops on the site, exactly where the ice cream vendor stands. This, of course, has upset us greatly, and the residents association is at present lobbying the council with a view to throwing out these plans. We were hoping that if Mr Winner were of the same opinion as us, he might contact Christchurch borough council and tell them that they are making a serious mistake.
Richard and Jennifer Haynes, Christchurch, Dorset.
At a recent meal at the Oyster Bar, Loch Fyne, the crab platter (£16.50) could not have looked better: two exquisite langoustines full of tender, tasty flesh; an impressive-looking brown crab; a dozen or so miniature scallops, fresh but in need of dressing to create a taste; an army of mussels with black shiny shells, sans sand, sans barnacles, sans beards, and, alas, sans flavour. There were clams, too, but are we meant to eat these unappetising creatures? Still hungry and hoping for flavour, I elected to have mussels in garlic butter. Garlic and butter must have been in short supply, for what arrived was a tasteless moules mariniere. I was told that both butter and garlic were in the sauce, but neither I nor fellow diners could detect the presence of these magic ingredients. Most food products offered by the Loch Fyne Oyster company are smoked - I think this is sensible marketing.
B C Binns, Altrincham, Cheshire.