Published 30 March 1997 Style Magazine 195th article
Unforgettable: Claudio Pulze, Kam Po But and, seated, Michael Winner and Camilla Jessel at Memories of China Kensington (Guillano Movio)
At last I have a serious claim to fame. I have founded a restaurant. Were it not for me, Memories of China Kensington, a small but beautifully formed restaurant on the western approaches of Kensington High Street, would not exist. For years the space was an Italian place, Al Gallo d'Oro, run by a nice chap called Renato. I spent many hours there, sometimes in the company of famous persons such as Peter Falk, Burt Lancaster, even Frankie Howerd. My table was halfway up on the left with a china cockerel featured on an adjacent shelf. Otherwise it was 1960s regulation Italian, white tiled floors, rounded wood chairs with cane backs and bottoms, brightish lights and an odd selection of oil paintings cluttering the walls. The food went from okay to oh dear to diabolical.
Restaurant life changed, but not at Al Gallo d'Oro. On the few occasions I went in later years, Renato would crow over how wonderful his offerings were as we ate dried-up ham, ageing smoked salmon and much worse besides. "Get a decent chef in," I'd plead with Renato when I saw him walking past the Odeon Kensington on his way home or to his restaurant, according to the hour.
Finally, Renato made a life-changing decision. With customers dwindling, he asked me to come and give a comprehensive, written report on yet another chef and what he was offering. It was six pages, single-spaced, of the worst review I have ever given anything. I destroyed it all, from the food to the service to the individual waitresses to the presentation. You name it, I killed it. I concluded that as Renato seemed totally out of touch with restaurant life in the 1990s, the best thing he could do would be to sell up. A few weeks later he rang. "Can you find me a buyer?" he asked.
Quick as an overweight ﬂash I rang my friend Claudio Pulze. Signor Pulze is not a household name, but he is the man not far behind a great many of London's best restaurants. He has the Michelin two-star Aubergine, the excellent L'Oranger in St James's and the Canteen at Chelsea Harbour (with my pal Mike), one Michelin star each, Memories of China in Ebury Street and the appallingly run Zafferano in Knightsbridge. Claudio hot-footed it round to Renato's and, before you could say spaghetti bolognese, it had changed hands and reopened as Memories of China Kensington.
This was particularly nice for me as it is the second nearest place within walking distance of my house, the ﬁrst being the wonderful, family-run Il Portico. Thus Al Gallo was transformed from its Italian origins by the addition of some white paint, some red stick-ons with Chinese writing and a few other minor decorations. They kept the 1960s Italian chairs. Claudio, whatever other considerable skills he has, will not win the award for Most Money Spent on Restaurant Transformation, 1997. That is for sure.
What matters is that he brought over Kam Po But, the brilliant chef from Shanghai and Ebury Street, a first-rate team of presenters headed by Guiliano Movio, and voila, marvellous food, cheap at the low price, and very pleasant, too. I went recently with my old friend from the days when debs were debs, the Hon Camilla Jessel, whose stately home, Londonderry House, has just transmogrified yet again to become the Metropolitan hotel, led by Nicholas Rettie, the tip-top man who ran the Halkin, and boasting London's most difficult to get into restaurant, Nobu. Back at Memories of . . . the Hon Miss Jessell [sic], who herself wrote a glossy cookbook entitled The Taste of Spain (no, I won't go into that further) and I had a superb lunch. Scallops in some slightly hot sauce, a white fish with fried seaweed, crispy duck of outstanding standard, some nicely fried thin strips of meat with rice and veg, all topped off by Haagen-Dazs chocolate, vanilla and pink with blobs on ice cream accompanying superb toffee apples and toffee bananas.
That was a good meal! Although it's only been open a few weeks, we Holland Parkers have discovered it big. It's already turning people away every evening. I have changed my table to one in the bay, the ex-cockerelly spot being a bit too near other people. In the lobby there are photos of the late sagacious and charming Ken Lo, who discovered the trade name with Paul McCartney and other luminaries. They should put me up there, really. On seconds thoughts, no. It might frighten the customers.
Michael Winner's column is one of my favourites. From it I know he spends a lot of time in the south of France (one evening we sat a table or two apart at La Reserve). He might be interested in a small place at which I have eaten recently in Beaulieu - Les Agaves. The food and service are excellent and it even has parking at the nearby railway station.
Russell Palmer, London SW7
Michael Winner mentions a picture of Christine Keeler by Vasco Laszlo (February 2). Could this be Vasco Lazzolo, who painted society portraits in the 1950s and 1960s? He was a good friend of my late father, who owned Le Bon Viveur in London's Shepherd Market, and I still have the portraits of my parents that he gave my mother as a token of his appreciation for the many introductions my father gave him.
Gordon Davico, Aylesbury, Bucks
Is Michael Winner ill? Every time we see his photo, his face is contorted into a rather strained expression. Has his private jet been clamped? Has his bank misplaced his millions? Or has one of his victims extracted their revenge with a strategically placed cucumber?
Nick Reeve, Wollaton, Nottinghamshire
Does Michael Winner drink wine? It seems to figure less in his reviews than whine. Some time ago, in a rare acknowledgment to Bacchus, he boasted that he had paid several hundred pounds for a bottle of wine one lunch time. For this he was castigated by a reader. His reply was that he did not drink, but that he had bought it for an important lady guest. More recently, he wrote about ordering two different wines for Vanessa Perry, while he himself, he says, had "dishwater" ale, followed by a ginger-beer chaser. This, despite having once said that he never drinks "anything other than wine from bottles with famous names". But, if he doesn't drink the stuff with food, when does he drink it? We deserve to be told.
David Eliades, Twickenham , Middlesex.