Published 29 June 1997 Style Magazine 208th article
Firm friends: Michael Winner and Denis Le Cadre (Vanessa Perry)
I had escaped from the Normandy Hotel, Deauville, and was heading for Honfleur. I knew not what to expect, but after Normandy, Wormwood Scrubs would have been a relief. I turned from the coast into a tree-lined lane and there it was: a very attractive Edwardian house with grey tiles and carved fretwork - the Ferme Saint Simeon. Would this save my weekend?
We were shown to a suite which, surprisingly, I liked. It had violently coloured wall paper with large pink and red flowers, two white leather sofas, and the door frames and beading picked out in pink to match the carpet. Not like my ultra-conservative decor at home, but proof that privately owned French hotels can hold their own with their over-fussed English cousins. A balcony looked onto a lawn on which sat a helicopter, backed by an old barn and lovely trees. A french window led to its own garden with two deckchairs.
Soon came the moment to test Denis Le Cadre, the Michelin-starred chef. Lunch was served in a pretty orchard at the back of the hotel. Xavier Parent, the concierge and general aide, showed us to a table. He was charmingly good, even though when I said "Xavier Cougat" he had no idea what I was talking about. In case you haven't either, Xavier C was a famous Latin Amercian bandleader who appeared in many of the great MGM musicals. I tried to explain that Senor Cougat had a highly renowned, buxom young singer-wife, but I don't think Xavier P was interested in buxom young women - he was far too busy - so I concentrated on lunch.
I was glad to see that, unlike in England, the wine list had a lot of half bottles. It was a pretty good list, the most expensive item being a Chateau Petrus 1993 at £550. I had asparagus in a puff-pastry case with sauce mousseline, Vanessa a terrific salad - only the French can make salad interesting. I had mackerel as a main course, which was fine.
Vanessa ordered cheese. Three tiny bits arrived. Even British Airways offers a wider selection. I did a little number - time they knew I was not easy. "Where is the cheese trolley?" I asked. They produced a large wicker tray, which had four local cheeses on it, and that was that.
Service was leisurely to very slow. The desserts ordered at one o'clock still hadn't arrived by 2.30pm. At 2.31pm we got an avant dessert (first time for me), which was cherries in custard. Then came hot apple pie and a chocolate sponge thing, which were excellent. We finished them at 2.50pm - luckily nobody was in a hurry.
Xavier said we should look at the old town on Honfleur a short distance from the hotel. Honfleur is a masterpiece. I can absolutely recommend it to you. If you go to Le Harve it's moments away, and you could do far worse than stay at the Ferme Saint Simeon. I recall Henry V or some similar bombast was always attacking Honfleur. It hasn't changed much since. Beautiful old cobbled streets. The port of perfect proportions resembles a particularly attractive stage set.
I had a first-rate pizza at Pizza Gino, sitting overlooking the little boats and the harbour cafes - although it was odd that Gino, from Brindisi, served cappuccino with cold whipped cream on top.
Next day, I looked out of the hotel window and an excellent blonde lady was in the helicopter. Then it took off. She didn't wave to me.
We had three dinners at Saint Simeon. It's run by the family Boelen. Mother, Michele, has all the severity of a headmistress high on discipline. Full of warmth and welcome she isn't. She kept a strict eye on everything, but in spite of a No Smoking notice on the table, a lady sitting next to us lit up on arrival. When I told the waiter I found that offensive, he did nothing. Madame's sons Bruno and Jean-Marie help manage the place and the chef is married to her daughter Marie-Pier. None of them speak English. But then the French are too arrogant to learn English and the English are too stupid to learn French.
The food was largely brilliant. Best ever filet of pigeon with an onion sauce and little potato pancakes. Spectacular lemon sorbet. Disappointments included thin slices of fried potatoes with lobster, which was rather sickly.
But don't let minor criticisms put you off. Honfleur is historic, the Ferme is good.
I recently ate at the Walnut Tree near Abergavenny. Service was slow and haphazard, and my underdone guinea fowl had to be dispatched to the kitchen for further attention. When it returned, more had been added to the plate, but my vegetables, including the house bubble and squeak, had disappeared. I asked for their return, but it appeared they had been thrown away. Since (at 9.30pm) there was no more to be had, I became irritated - vegetables are an important part of any meal. The cost of the guinea fowl was removed from my bill, but I shall not be returning in a hurry. The atmosphere resembled that of a works canteen and the cooking generally left much to be desired. The proprietors would do well to remember that less is often more.
Dr Richard Sparks, Cardiff
I very much admire Michael Winner's forthrightness and honesty in demanding decent service from the hotels and restaurants he visits, and his antics are a source of great amusement. Has he, I wonder, ever considered setting up a correspondence course for frustrated restaurant-goers?
Mrs J D Berrington, Stoke-upon-Trent
Emma Goodson's mouse sighting at the People's Palace (Style, June 15) is not the first such experience at this venue. Like her, we saw a mouse wandering about the restaurant when we ate there early in April this year. Also like her, when we complained we were met with indifference from the staff. Perhaps the mouse gets special consideration because it is one of the regulars. We are certainly not in that category.
Rita Broe, London W12