Published 18 January 1998 Style Magazine 236th article
Italian job: Michael Winner and Sara Ramazanogi at ASK Pizza e Pasta
Jeremy Thomas, famous film producer and recently departed chairman of the British Film Institute, was outraged. "It's gone," he said. "It's the only place where you could turn up with 10 people without booking and always get a table." He was referring to Al Basha, an Arab restaurant that had been, seemingly for ever, on the corner of Holland Park and Kensington High Street. It was within walking distance of my house, so was graced, from time to time, with my custom. I had noticed, a few days earlier, that it had transmogrified into rather a smart-looking, somewhat more downmarket restaurant called ASK Pizza e Pasta. Having lived in my manor since 1947, I keep a wary eye out for new arrivals. Down that end of Kensington High Street, away from the throng of the eastern section, shop and restaurant turnover is somewhat high. Here today, gone tomorrow.
As I Walked down Melbury Road and turned left along the high street on my way to check ASK, I dwelled upon my fractious relationships with the local tradesmen. There was an Indian-run dry cleaners; like them. Crackers, an Arab speciality food shop; greatly like them. Hallpike, old-fashioned jewellers and clock place - adored the father who died recently, find the son too clever by half. A nod to Calib Hussein from Pakistan sitting in his mini-supermarket. Not a nod to the men in Kodak Express - fell out with them, ditto with the chemist. I like the other jewellers, love Pino in Il Portico restaurant on the other side of the road; view the recent arrivals, Violetta (shoes) and Pegaso (men's clothes) with approval - hope they last.
Thus into ASK Pizza e Pasta; extremely well designed, lot of space, comfortable, tiled floors, packed out. And it had only recently been opened. I learn from a very efficient assistant manageress, Sara Ramazanogi, that ASK stands for Adam and Sam Kaye, sons of Philip, who ran a well-known chain called the Golden Egg in the 1960s.
Vanessa ordered Brunello di Montalcino, described as a "smooth, classic Tuscan wine". The best you could say was that it tasted odd. We left nearly all of it.
I gave them multi marks for being prepared to put fried eggs on their pizzas. Orsino, which I like, won't do that. Not long ago, Orsino introduced an odd rule: don't offer the customer bread and olive oil, which used always to be placed on the table. Only give it out if it's specifically requested. I must ask the owner, Richard Polo, how much he saved on that little wheeze.
I started with grilled goat's cheese on beef tomatoes and ciabatta bread, called a chevre grill. It was two tartlets, mounted with tomatoes. I saw no goat's cheese, but the crust was rather good. Overall pleasant. Vanessa had mozzarella and garlic bread. She found a lipstick mark on her wine glass. "Sorry. It would be yours, wouldn't it?" said Sara. Vanessa then had a vegetarian pizza and I had del figone pizza with pepperoni, mushrooms, gorgonzola, mozzarella and tomato, plus two fried eggs. They were okay to pretty good.
Sara asked if I had tried their chilli oil, which was in a glass with ASK in big red letters and Chillioil spelt as one word in blue letters underneath. It was only moderately hot. I could live without it, quite honestly. Vanessa had been listening to my tape recording. "Chillioil is in green letters, not blue," she said helpfully.
Having studiously ignored me, the manager, Paul Clarke, then came over. "I like to let everyone get settled in before greeting them," he said. I noticed he'd led a lot of people in right at the start, well before they settled. In fact, he settled them himself. I mentioned this en passant, to show I was wide awake.
They didn't have banoffee pie. "The supplier let us down," said Sara. Since there were only three desserts other than ice cream, that was a third of the dessert menu gone. Sara strongly recommended the chocolate cake; she suggested I have it hot. It had a very weak, frothy texture, and a taste only vaguely related to chocolate. I didn't like it at all.
Then in came Hylda Gilbert, dowager-looking, with voice to match, her lorgnette hanging round her neck. Hylda is the wife of my good friend, the film director Lewis Gilbert. I've known them both for years. "If he says one bad thing about this place, I will murder him," Hylda said to Sara. "I could be dead," I thought.
An odd way to go, really, for not being 100% enthusiastic about a pizza place. Still, dead is dead, doesn't matter how you got there.
Over Christmas, I booked for a three-day break at Selsdon Park Hotel in Croydon. The staff were friendly and efficient and my room extremely comfortable. But I regret to say that Christmas Day lunch was a fiasco. Because of extensive advertising, there were more than 500 people booked, and seemingly, an acute staff shortage. On Christmas Day, I arrived at the restaurant at 1.30pm to find it completely full, and a line of people waiting for tables. I returned at 2pm to find an even longer queue, which, against my better judgment, I joined. More than two hours later, I finally called it a day and retired to my room, where I made tea and ate an apple to ease my hunger pains. I know that, like me, many residents expressed their disgust to the management. It is sad that this otherwise lovely hotel allowed greed to spoil what could have been a memorable Christmas break.
Robert Beerman, London N7
As a frequent visitor to the Drummond Arms in Albury, Surrey, I really must take issue with Mr Winner's comments (Style, December 14). The ham at the Drummond is always excellent, and I have never been offered processed cheese, as Mr Winner claims he was. I gather that processed cheese is never purchased. I can only assume that Mr Winner was piqued by the fact that, out of hours, there was not a full staff circling around his table.
Mrs D Mitchell, Address supplied