Published 24 August 1997 Style Magazine 216th article
Thumbs down: Michael Winner outside Maison Novelli in Clerkenwell
Having had nice times at Novelli W8, both with food and service, I was pleased when a newspaper editor asked me to dine at the posh part of Jean Christophe Novelli's group, Maison Novelli in Clerkenwell. The food was excellent, the room okay - not as nice as W8. Everything else was a nightmare - except my fellow diners, who consisted of the editor, his lovely fiancee, who is a solicitor, his elegant deputy editoress, if I can use that word without being arrested by the thought police, and Vanessa. A party of five, as they say! I arrived at Clerkenwell, a place I can live without, I alighted from the Rolls and entered the door to a small hall that is Maison Novelli. A brusque lady said: "Do you have a reservation?" Not hello, not a smile, not a greeting, just the question. That always annoys me. I once looked over the reception counter of a Hilton hotel. Propped up facing the staff was a card with the word "Smile" in large letters. How intelligent, I thought.
I remained silent and climbed the stairs to the first-floor dining area. On the way up, another woman faced me. She had obviously been to the same charm school as the first one. "Are you with someone?" she asked, presumably not meaning Vanessa, who was with me, but someone of enough stature to permit me to enter and eat.
I arrived in the restaurant to be met by a formal-looking man, Giusseppe Vurchio, the front-of-house manager. He seemed to be in charge. "I have just had a depressing welcome," I said, never one to keep quiet. "You can read about it!" Then I sat down to hear a horror story from my host. His group of three had arrived to be shown a dreadful, small table in the middle of the room. He informed Mr Vurchio I was his guest and would certainly not sit there. "Why?" asked Mr Vurchio! He then ungraciously moved them somewhere better. The proffered table was all right-for three people, just okay for four, for ﬁve it would have been "How many students can we get into the phone box?" It was later used for three customers. The place was never more than half full. When we left, Vanessa said: "It was like they didn't want people in the restaurant." They were well on their way to success.
I found all this odd because three days earlier I had told Jean Christophe we would be there that night and he had them give us some muscat and champagne with his compliments. The service was poor to dreadful. The food was lovely, but it was all incredibly slow. They should send Eric Chatrouit, their maitre d' from W8, to sort this lot out: he's tiptop.
The wine service was particularly odd. I was host for the wine; the editor for the food. I ordered the best available. The white, Puligny Montrachet, was decanted and poured. As I don't drink much, it took me a while to realise there had been no effort made to refill our glasses. We had now eaten our first course. The wine waiter came over and said: "Shall I serve the red wine?" "We haven't finished the white, have we?" I questioned. "No," he said. "Would you pour the white then, please," I asked. The wine waiter walked away! After a short wait, I said to my hosts: "Am I going mad? Did I not ask to pour the white wine?" "You did," said the editor. His deputy reached for the ice bucket. Seeing this, a member of staff, not the wine waiter, took over and poured. At least half the decanter had been left waiting. Were they hoping to drink it in the kitchen? I neither knew nor cared. It was ridiculous. When I got my wine bill, the two bottles came to £293.82. This included a "suggested gratuity" of £38.32!
I have a silly habit of not looking at bills at the time. When I get home I sometimes read them. I have no objection to a 15% gratuity being added, I usually pay more, but I do think it's steep for opening and serving two bottles of wine. I recall once Marco Pierre White graciously repaid me by way of donation to charity the far larger gratuity on a wine bill at the Restaurant. When it comes to wine, if it's a really large figure, a 5% gratuity is generous.
When we left, Signor Vurchio came down and handed his card to me through the car window. "I haven't been with Jean Christophe long," he said. "I hope you'll be back." To quote George Bernard Shaw: not bloody likely!
A recent correspondent, E Smith (Style, August 3), accuses provincial restaurants of being "stuck in the 1970s". Mr Smith is in Barnsley, Yorkshire. In my experience, Yorkshire folk will eat stewed bricks if one serves them up cheaply enough. On God's own side of the Pennines, here in Lancashire, we have Michelin-starred restaurants by the bucket. For a state-of-the-art culinary treat, Mr Smith should pop across the M62 to Milnrow to Meme's restaurant.
Peter Keeffe Milnrow, Lancs
Your column is perhaps the most pompous self-important load of effluent this side of Crinkley Bottom. What makes you believe that you should you be received by restaurant owners any more favourably than any other Tom, Dick or Harry? You're not royalty, and you're not a superstar, but of course I can't answer for what you may think of yourself, though I've a pretty good idea. Why not be gracious for a change: relax and I'm sure you'll enjoy your meals more. You could even live longer.
Duncan Brown, Beckenham, Kent
I would like to thank you for writing on us (Style, June 22, Fat of the land). People have travelled miles to eat exactly what you had. They even come with the article clenched in their hands, with everything underlined.
Mrs N A Soanes, Royal Oak Farm Shop and Tearoom, Beckley, Oxon