Published 19 January 1997 Style Magazine 185th article
Sun, sea and scran: the Lane's Max Sciuto with Michael Winner (Vanessa Perry)
It was 11.20pm shortly before Christmas. I was watching Judy Garland on television. My suite doorbell at the Sandy Lane hotel, Barbados, rang. Who could this be? Vanessa was asleep, recovering from a day of paragliding and water-skiing. I dragged myself from Miss Garland. At the door, a bellman handed me a sheet of paper. What was so urgent that guests should be dragged from their slumber or who knows what other nocturnal activities? I read: "Sandy Lane hotel has today been purchased by International Investment & Underwriting Limited." "Goodness me!" I thought. And here I am clad only in a bath towel watching The Best of Ed Sullivan. Without stopping to wonder why this news, important as it was, could not have been slid under the door, I read on. It was divulged, in case guests were not aware of International Investment & Underwriting Limited, that it was acting on behalf of Mr Dermot Desmond and Mr J P McManus. Would Messrs D and Mc raise my bill to more than the £1,500 a night it was already costing? Would they stand to greet us as we toddled down to breakfast? And if so, what about guests who ate in their room? Would Mr D and Mr Mc visit them personally? It was all too much to contemplate late at night, so I retired to bed.
In case you think £1,500 a night is a bit steep, let me assure you I consider it jolly good value. It was my 15th year in a row and I made certain of securing my place for next Christmas. Indeed, I proclaim 1996-97 the best Lane period ever. Not that it is perfect. Basil Fawlty is alive and well and managing, from time to time, sections of the Sandy Lane hotel. One day I ordered earl grey tea for two on the terrace, with sandwiches. After 40 minutes we got tea for one, the single cup resting on a plate, not a saucer, and with three sandwiches that should have been different, all the same. The next day I ordered identically, plus scones. Twenty minutes later I rose impatiently. Our waiter was agitated. "They've run out of scones," he said. I advised him to serve what he had. By this time the tea was stone cold; he'd switched to pastries, but it made little difference as there were no plates to eat off.
At 11.26 one night we studied the room service menu and rang them. After a while a man answered and said: "There's nobody here." He suggested when room service turned up he would have them call me. By this time we had gone off eating (rare for me!) so when they called, 12 minutes later, I was rather abrupt. I could go on listing like events. The strange thing is that the extraordinary style of the Sandy Lane, unlike any other top-class hotel I have ever stayed in, is, in retrospect, rather endearing. One feels if it were ever made really efficient a great deal of its charm would go. What would guests have to talk about on the beach?
The food used to be poor to awful. When I wrote this three years ago Rocco Forte instituted improvements that brought the excellent chef Hans Schweitzer from England and some Italians for the lower restaurant. Changes were made in decor and buffet-building. Since then it has been good. This year I ate 27 meals in the hotel - all fine, some memorable. The hotel hero was Max Sciuto, who comes from Piedmont, Italy. He cooked in the lower, Italian restaurant before but, for the first time, had the run of the place. He produced the best pizza I have ever eaten, remarkable bruschetta, lovely fried zucchini, many historic pastas including a Sardinian one, areccette, made with semolina, and a lemon sorbet that left me breathless with admiration. Max is pictured here in his off-duty gear - in the restaurant he is elegance personified. I do hope the new Irish owners like pasta or I'll be in terrible trouble.
I shall proffer a further report on Sandy Lane, so much is there to tell. How a northern pub act stirred high emotions, how we fought the battle of the beaches and lost, and other significant tales. You can go there for a fraction of my price, out of season. I recommend you do. Meanwhile, next week I will relate a ghastly experience in a central London restaurant before returning to the Caribbean. Management of the Sandy Lane will be proud, I am sure, to know I will speak of them again. A second crack of the whip, you might say.
My wife and I recently took the Trans-European Express sleeper from Rome to Paris. Thrilled at the thought of a non-self-service meal in the dining car, we booked dinner; we were given reservations for the second sitting and shown the four-course menu and the a la carte. When we arrived, salivating, at 9pm we were almost the only diners, but were told that all we could have was one plate of salad and a couple of cannelloni - take it or leave it. The salad was passable, despite the dressing coming in foil, but the cannelloni . . . as bad as it can be, ours was worse. The waiter told us proudly that "all our food is carefully prepared in Paris". The only luxury was the bill - £60.
Ambassador F Vreeland, Rome
I usually find Mr Winner's dining-out stories most amusing, but must spring to the defence of Michel Roux and his lovely Waterside Inn, which he recently criticised. We ate our best meal of 1996 there (we were a party of 10), a dinner that included a veloute soup with chunks of black perigord truffle - a dish to die for! Remember, dear Michael, that the writer's public may be as fickle as the restaurateur's! A portion of humble pie and an apologetic phone call to Mr Roux and he may put on the veloute for you!
R A Docherty, Croydon
I paid a visit to a strange hotel on the island of Elba - a cross between Colditz and Fawlty Towers. On the first day of our visit, we were served a dinner consisting of cold, watery rice soup, followed by a piece of chicken accompanied by cold roast potatoes, and a dessert of cold custard. When I complained to one of the owners, he informed me that he was giving me what the holiday company we had booked through had paid for. "If you don't like it, you can move out," he told us. Unfortunately, this proved to be impossible. On the following nights, the dinners were even worse, if that was possible. The food was cold and inedible. We complained. The chef even refused to heat up my dinner when I took it into the kitchen. Breakfast in the establishment was basic, but this could have been endured if the bread on any given morning had been fresh. The same type of bread was also used by the hotel in their so-called box lunches. All in all, it was thoroughly unpleasant. As I remarked to other diners one evening at dinner, were similar food served at Wormwood Scrubs, the prisoners would soon be up on the roof.
Dermot Doolan, Dublin