Published 6 July 1997 Style Magazine 209th article
Managing to be good: Michael Winner with Colin Smith of Chez Moi (Vanessa Perry)
Food is not the most important thing in a restaurant. If it was, we'd just go to the best-cooking places. These have a cathedral-like atmosphere, are full of men in suits, and overprices. Most of the time we find restaurants with ambience: maybe local, for ease of access, cheerful, pleasant, comfortable.
There is a key, vital element. Who are you dealing with? Who looks after you? Will there be some personal rapport? Will you feel safe in their hands? If I have no confidence in the owner or maitre d', I'm out of it. The food may be all right at Zefferano, but the room is so poorly run I never go.
Of the three-star Michelin places, I like Nico Ladenis at 90 Park Lane most. He and his family make it particularly pleasant. Nico is a great chef, and dotty. Once, having invited Roger Moore and Michael Caine, I arrived first and noticed there were no chairs in the entrance hall. I was concerned, as Rog had a bad leg. "Nico," I said, "didn't you have chairs here?"
"Yes," said Nico.
"Where are they?" I queried.
"I took them out," said Nico.
"Why?" I asked.
"Because people sat in them," replied Nico.
This was becoming existential.
"I put them behind that screen," added Nico, as if explaining everything.
"Nico," I continued, somewhat nervously, because he can be temperamental, "why are your chairs behind the screen?"
"Customers sat in them and ordered drinks," said Nico, as if to an idiot.
"Was that a problem?" I muttered.
"Of course," said Nico. "I don't have waiters for this area - we had to send them from the dining room. At lunch, people would sit drinking and not go in until three o'clock or later, so I removed the chairs."
At that point, Roger and Christina Tholstrup entered. I was allowed to take a chair from behind the screen, where they rest to this day, and we had an excellent dinner.
I take the view that if the owner of a restaurant can't bother to be there, why should I? That doesn't mean the Sultan of Brunei has to take my order personally at the Dorchester Grill, although he'd certainly do better than last time I was in. Vanessa's bread sauce didn't turn up, nor did my pommes souflees. For that, I was given the ludicrous excuse that the potatoes weren't right. They always have been at Claridge's. Oh well, Michael DiFiore usually does okay, but he must encourage his staff to write down orders. When a waiter says "Don't worry, sir, I'll remember", I get palpitations.
Among owner-occupiers I greatly admire are Colin Smith at Chez Moi in Holland Park and Barbara Deane a mile away at Chinon. Their style is light years apart. Barbara is sometimes brusque. On my first visit I found her revolting. She has since won me over. Whenever I recommend Chinon - Deane's boyfriend Jonathan Hayes is a great chef - readers go, get insulted and write wonderful letters. One said: "I pointed out the window was dirty and this dreadful lady said, 'Why not wash it yourself?' "
While Barbara can be forceful, Colin Smith is so low-key that any lower and he'd be 50ft under. Chez Moi was Princess-Margaret fashionable in the 1960s and has changed little since. It does incredible borsch, far better than another nice place, Kaspia, which has Russian pictures around the walls. The boss there is Augustin de Larragan, so elegant that when he came over to me I nearly curtsied. His lady friend was regal, too.
I go to Chez Moi as much as any restaurant in London. There is a Victorian bronze of a baby smoking, with real flame in an appropriate place. It is all very discreet, very comfortable. I only mark it down because of the French head waiter.
I often say to Colin: "How can someone as charming as you have a man like that?" He just shrugs and brings me my final d'or, as good a dessert as you can get, a pancake with cream cheese, syrup and who knows what. The goujons of sole are excellent, the scallops are terrific. All in all, an absolutely marvellous place.
The finest restaurateur ever, who provided the most continuous supply of great food, was the late Jimmy Marks at Wilton's in St James's. He swayed from side to side in his dark grey suit. "This way, m'lord," he would say in gruff, cockney tones as he escorted toffs to their banquettes.
When there was no room in the restaurant they set up a table for me in the bar.
"Nobody's allowed to sit in the bar," complained his wife, Louise.
"Michael can do anything he wants," replied Jimmy firmly.
There's a real great. Not many of those around nowadays.
How long should one expect to wait for a restaurant owner to reply to a constructive letter of criticism? Last November, I wrote to Jean-Christophe Novelli at Maison Novelli in London about a good meal appallingly served. His manager assured me that he would get back to me shortly. I am still waiting for a reply and am wondering what my next step should be. Revenge is a dish best served cold.
Jeremy Zimmerman, London NW5
My wife and I recently ate at Shrimpton's restaurant in Haslemere, Surrey, where we had previously dined with pleasure. Service was good, as was our starter of melon with sorbet, and the main course of duck was appetising, if untidily presented. With dessert and a bottle of modest wine, the meal came to a middling £60. Settling up, I commented that the vegetables were "school-dinnerish" (limp and overcooked) and the fruit salad poor (pieces of woolly apple, orange and a few grapes in a small dish). At this point, we were approached by the proprietor, who turned out to be the elderly gentleman who had been coughing and hawking at a corner table. We were told that we would doubtless not be returning, and were hurried through the door.
M T Figg, Hindhead, Surrey
Some of Britain's most innovative chefs come from Scotland (Gordon Ramsay of Aubergine, in Chelsea, for instance), but to read Michael Winner's column you'd think that culinary skills stopped at Carlisle. Isn't it about time he ventured across the border to see where all that talent is coming from?
Simon Brown, Edinburgh