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Ark angel

Published 27 July 1997
Style Magazine
212th article

Sail on: chef Nick Wilson, matre d' Eric Chatroux, Jean Christophe Novelli and Michael Winner at Novelli W8 (Richard Berthinet)

I first wrote about food in a letter to the editor of the Ronay guide complaning about the Ark, a gloomy restaurant in Kensington Court, which revealed one of the most memorable sights ever: chicken in some grossly congealed sauce, so awful I still have nightmares about it.

"How dare you include this dump in your guide," I wrote (or similar words, the exc=act text of my missive being lost to mankind).

The editor of the guide telephoned me.

"Confidentially," he said, "we're not putting the Ark in our next edition."

The Ark carried on for a number of years, then sank. I read that Jean Christophe Novelli, a nice chap I'd met when he cooked at the Four Season on Park Lane, was to take over the premises. I always worry about people who use three names. Two is quite enough. Would you think more of me if I called myself Michael Robert Winner? Of course not. Chefs, particularly, seem addicted to the extra-name syndrome. It must be something to do with the atmosphere in the kitchen.

A colour photo of JCN duly appeared in an ad in my local freebie magazine. He had a lock of dark hair carefully placed to fall over the left side of his forehead. He referred to himself as a "critically acclaimed chef". I gave him 6½ out of 10 for my sunday lunch at the Four Seasons: "Marked down because of the room; cooking worth more". I decided to telephone Novelli W8.

A girl said: "Jean Christophe is taking photographs. He will call you back."

I took that to mean he was being photographed, doubtless with aides in attendance to make sure the lock of hair fell attractively. After a while, JCN returned my call. I welcomed him to my manor and asked if I could come to dinner that night.

"We are overbooked, I will have to call you back," said Jean Christophe.

"You are the boss now," I said, "not an employee. Bosses can do anything."

Jean Christophe thought about that for a moment and said: "All right, what time?"

"Between 7.45pm and 8pm," I replied.

I greatly believe that customers should turn up at the time for which they booked. On the rare occasions I find that difficult, I telephone. The establishment is usually surprised by my courtesy. Everyone seems surprised when I behave well, which is almost always.

We set out early, parked in Kensington Court and walked to the pedestrian bit that joins up with Kensington high Street, then to the exact location of my congealed chicken disaster. But what was this? No Novelli where Ark had been. I was near to panic.

At some place - I knew not where - Jean Christophe Novelli was pacing up and down, confronted by hordes of apoplectic customers he had turned away for MW, and cursing in perfect French the day he taken my call. I got through to directory inquiries on the car phone, found out it was the other ex-Ark, the one nearby, in Palace Gardens Terrace, where M Novelli reigned. When I arrived, only two minutes late, Jean Christophe was nowhere to be seen. I imagined somewhere a line of photographers waiting patiently to encapsulate him and that lock of dark hair. Ah, such is fame.

Eric Chatroux, the maitre d', showed us an excellent position. We faced an endless row of tables with many people sitting opposite each other - so many, I assumed there was a mirror and I was seeing them doubled up. This was not so. The room is long, thin and most attractive. Purple is the prime shade. It is on the paintwork, on the menus - and a man two seats away wore a shirt that matched it perfectly.

The bread was dull and tedious, but everything else was very good indeed. This is a cheerful, inexpensive bistro, with real taste to the food. I started with home-smoked stuffed goose neck, gizzard and mixed leaves. It sounded surgical, but tasted great. Vanessa, who is even more critical than I, pronounced her pan-fried celeriac and potatoes, goat's cheese and mozzarella terrine "very good".

My main course, poached rabbit leg a la ficelle, stuffed piperade risotto and pepper juice, was a delicious caserole and the accompanying veggies undercooked to perfection. Desserts were equally up to standard. How the turgid Kensington Place a few yards away keeps going against this stylish competition, I cannot imagine. Their place is noisily cavernous. Novelli looks like a hut - probably because it is a hut.

Jean Christophe even turned up to greet me and see me out, perhaps grateful I was going. I went back another night - it was just as good. Now, if he could move it to the bottom of my road, life would be even better.

Winner's letters

We recently booked a night's stay at the Hotel Normandy in Deauville. Just before we went we read Michael Winner's article on the hotel (Style, June 8) and were worried that the place we remembered had gone downhill. Our fears were unfounded. Although traditionally furnished, the hotel was extremely well kept and the staff were probably the best that we had ever come across. The hallways were beautiful and elegant. The room was of impeccable proportions with a view of the promenade and the sea. We have been to many of the hotels featured in Mr Winner's column, but can think of none that are better. The only things that we could find to complain about were the weather - and the Brasserie Miocque, which featured in the same article. This was very ordinary and not even worth the comment.
B Ford, Chesterfield, Derbyshire

Has Michael Winner ever considered coming to Ireland to give the restaurant trade in this country the benefit of his expert opinion? It would be an interesting exercise. Many of the meat dishes and cuts are different to those in England, including the likes of tripe, bodice and skirt. The fish is also delicious, and the displays in the market in Cork well worth a few minutes of anyone's time.
Peggy Johnson, Ballinhassig, Co Cork

I much enjoy Michael Winner's column, although I don't always agree with it. But he has hit the jackpot in Honfleur, which is a charming place. I stayed at the Ferme Saint Simeon many years ago and it is superb.
J F Drakeford, Alicante, Spain