Published 9 February 1997 Style Magazine 188th article
Madchester: Michael with Caroline Aherne, aka Mrs Merton (Vanessa Perry)
I have only been to Manchester twice. Once doing publicity for The Sentinel, and recently to record The Mrs Merton Show. I never stayed the night. On my Mrs Merton visit I was surprised how jolly everyone looked. Even at midnight the streets were rampant with gaggles of attractive young people. But where to eat?
The guidebooks were not helpful. No Michelin stars, no Red "Meals". Vanessa was once there dancing in 42nd Street; she recommended a Chinese place. A brave production assistant at Mrs Merton said, "Yang Sing". I reserved in my most authoritative manner, to impress upon them that I wanted a large table in a good position and, since you never know when TV shows end, they should hold it from 9.30pm. If I was late they could charge me extra.
Mrs Merton was a delight, a lovely woman. They served me the worst cup of earl grey tea I've ever had. When Mrs M finished with me, our extremely efficient driver, Lee Power, took me in a strange truck-like thing - obviously Granada can't afford limousines - to Sticky Fingers, Bill Wyman's newish place. It is an absolutely stunning room, an old theatre, and they've retained the height and the organ pipes. Unlike the one round the corner from me in Holland Park, it is spacious, gracious and a delight. The food's good at my local, but the ambience leaves something to be desired. I wish I could wave a wand and swap it with the Manchester one. We only tried their strawberry milk shakes, even better than in London - "More bite" said Vanessa. Then off to Yang Sing.
Harry Yeung opened it in Princess Street in 1977. He looked dishevelled, he'd been up all day, and somewhere hidden away his wife was wishing he'd leave me and take her home. His brother Gerry resembles a Harvard Law School graduate. "I'm much younger," said Gerry. I was glad. I'd asked Harry if he was Gerry's father.
Harry went into a highly philosophical explanation of why he did not serve aromatic crispy duck. "This is not Peking Duck," he explained. For aromatic crispy duck you have a duck (surprise!), boil it in a herb soya sauce, then it's dried before it's deep-fried and served. Peking Duck was a special force-fed duck bred in Peking (another surprise!) that built up a huge layer of fat so that, when roasted, the skin becomes very crispy. The delicacy was the skin and the fat. I had one in Hong Kong in 1962 when I was doing publicity for Play It Cool. The harbour was all little huts, fires burning to cook on at sunset, with sampans dotted about and a warm breeze as I took the ferry. One of the most memorable moments of my life. The Peking Duck was pretty good too.
Now to the burning question all Manchester is waiting to be answered. Why does Harry Yeung refuse to do aromatic crispy duck? "It's not Cantonese style," he explained. "It's too filling, there's too much to eat. If people have the duck they won't try my other creations." He pauses triumphantly. Then adds: "And the restaurant will make less money." I'd already figured that out.
I thought the food was tasty, though it was all a bit gooey for Vanessa. I tried a roast pigeon, which appeared on my plate with a dummy white swan. Even the pigeon head was sitting there staring at me. With it was a mustard sauce and a spicy sauce. I had Peking-style dumplings, asparagus in a Sichuan sauce, bean curd with two sauces, prawns and scallops with a light saffron sauce, spicy nut dumplings, corn dumplings, spring onion in a pancake and more. My only dinner ever in Manchester, pleasing, I hope, for readers who write that I solely haunt the effete and overstylised south.
In the south I was impressed by the film-premiere party at the Natural History Museum for John Cleese's Fierce Creatures, a splendid romp if ever I saw one. My favourite caterers have always been The Admirable Crichton; they still are. But Rhubarb put on a terrific display for 600 people around the brontosaurus or whatever it is whose bones fill the centre of the room. Six serving areas all offering something different. From Thai food through to roast meats and sausages and mash to fish and chips. The f and c were particularly good. Fried before your eyes. A waiter even stood in line for me to get ice cream and doughnuts. "If you're alive when we come back, we'll meet then," said Mr Cleese, critical of my overeating. Sweet fellow. Nice someone cares.
By my calculation Michael has been mentioning Vanessa for about three years. At last she has written her side of the story - but it's not enough. Michael is entertaining and long may he condemn bad service. But please let us hear more from Vanessa.
Linda Bell Norwich, Norfolk
So M's squeeze, she of the winsome smile and Kodak Instamatic, gets miffed "when the maitre d' is all over him and practically ignores me..." (Dinner with Winner, January 26). She "shuffles demurely in the background, smiling apologetically". She "suddenly finds the menu very interesting and large enough to hide behind". Not to mention having to ask M to find out what's inside the puff pastries. Am I the only one thinking the woman has a voice and presumably a brain of her own? Why can't she ask the waiter what's in the pastries? With rights come responsibilities. If she wants the maitre d's respect and attention she's got to come out from behind that menu, move the table to the best view regardless of other customers, wave her napkin and loudly voice her displeasure.
Lesley Levy Enschede, Holland
I was shocked to see one of your readers recommending a restaurant in Barbados that serves fillets of dolphin (Letters, January 26). How can anyone kill and eat such beautiful and intelligent creatures?
Cynthia Patterson Gerrards Cross, Bucks