Published 5 April 1998 Style Magazine 247th article
Taking a seat: Heston Blumenthal with Michael Winner and chair at the Fat Duck in Bray
At last Bray in Berkshire has a good restaurant. I certainly don't count the Waterside Inn as one. So much did I consider Bray a gastronomic disaster that when people recommended the Fat Duck in the high street I thought, no. One Sunday I succumbed. I rang up to hear that the owner-chef, Heston Blumenthal, had injured his foot and wasn't there. No point going without the boss to complain to. I phoned a few weeks later. "We are absolutely full," said Mr Blumenthal. "I'll take your number in case we get a cancellation." "Tell me," I said, "on any given Sunday, do you ever not get a cancellation or a no-show?" "Very seldom," said Heston. "Then I'm coming at quarter past one, table for two. Worst that can happen is we have to find some funny place for me to eat. See you." I like doing that. It puts all the responsibility onto the restaurateur. They always rise to the occasion. Heston was no exception. When we arrived at the inn-type room, he had a nice corner table for us.
The trouble was the chair. Nasty, spindly, 1960s wrought-iron gone wrong, with a very tiny, cushioned seat. This is impossible, I thought, eyeing two old-fashioned wooden chairs at the table in front. I informed Nigel, who seemed to be in charge, that I might ask to change. This worried Vanessa. "Those wooden chairs don't have a cushion," she said. I sat in agony for a few more minutes, then got up and started the switch myself. "If that table has one wooden and one metal chair, the world will not explode," I said to Nigel. "Not at all," he replied, as he helped me, although a bit later a second metal chair was brought to match the other one I'd just put at the table opposite.
It's a serious menu. You can tell they mean business because of all the posh French words. The bread was ghastly: cold, nasty texture. Augurs ill, I thought. I started with lasagne of langoustines, pig's trotter and truffles. Excellent, memorable. Vanessa had escabeche of mackerel, carrots and saffron. She hated it. Too fleshy. Didn't worry me: I ate her portion. Then I had fillet of venison, gateau of potato with epoisses, confit of chestnuts and shallots, sauce poivrade. I have no idea what all that meant, but it was definitely good.
Just as well, because Vanessa hated her main course, too, so she ate my chestnuts. She almost had roast-pepper marinated monkfish, tarte pissaladiere, sauce barigoule. "You don't want to taste all these flavours," she said. "You want to taste the fish, because that's what you ordered. I could have had tofu with all these sauces and wouldn't have known the difference." I ate a lot of hers. Seemed fine to me, but she likes simple cooking and I eat anything.
It all took a long time to arrive. I watched every plate going across the room in case it was mine. We got there at 1.15pm and the main course arrived at 2.40pm. Even for a Sunday, that's a bit slow for me. My dessert spoon came from the Yuri Geller collection. It was very bent. Since everything took so long anyway, I ordered chocolate coulant with ice cream (please allow 25 minutes). Nigel said it was an Italian meringue mixed with sweet pastry. It's put inside a cake mould, frozen ganache of chocolate is forced into the centre, then it's covered and baked in the oven.
Poor Heston in the kitchen had reported to him my cries of "How many more minutes!" and "Isn't it ready yet?". "If you take it out too soon, it collapses," he told me later. It was one of the great chocolate puddings of all time. Even Vanessa liked it; she nicked as much as she could. She also enjoyed her apple crumble, so the meal ended on a high note.
Heston, a nice young man if ever there was one, turned up. He thinks the family came from Latvia years ago; he thinks there was some interbreeding, cousins marrying cousins; he's absolutely certain he once worked in his father's office-leasing business as credit controller. His culinary experience seemed limited. He met Marco Pierre White while working briefly at Le Manoir and then did a couple of weeks in the Canteen. Whatever - it did him proud.
He made good.
I told him about my chair problem. "It's a pity, because we've got one of those metal chairs that was specially made for my father. He's 28st," said Heston. "Where is it?" I asked. "Upstairs," said Heston. "We'll bring it down if you come again." That's an incentive if ever there was one.
As Mr Winner describes the lavatory seats of Gstaad but not the snow (Style, March 15), he is evidently more comfortable being piste off than off piste. However, had he visted the Hotel-Restaurant Mont Blanc at Crans-Montana, he would have saved enough money to present the owner-chef, Jean-Pierre Gasser, with a gold-plated loo seat as an indication of his own undoubted satisfaction and everyone else's relief. A three-course menu costs £25, and is served on a wide terrace with a panoramic view of the Valais alps. It is a member of the Relais du Silence, which says it all: neither sight nor sound of the worst kind of children - other people's. There is fish to pass the scrutiny of any north London housewife, a herbed carpaccio of beef that melts as it touches the tastebuds, and portions delicate and tasteful, explaining the absence of trans-Atlantic accents. If the gods stop for nectar on their way to earth, it must be here.
His Honour Judge Barrington Black, London NW3
I have just enjoyed a two-course meal that was absolutely wonderful. But the whole experience was marred by the complete absence of lavatory paper in the restaurant's ladies' room. I appreciate that this is probably not a problem that Michael Winner has encountered much personally, but I feel that only someone of his standing could really empathise with the discomfort and embarrassment I felt. I hope that he might find time to offer his words of wisdom on the correct handling of this delicate matter - entirely at his own convenience, of course.
Brenda Love, Wimborne, Dorset
Here's a prices saga for you. My wife and I visited the Compleat Angler at Marlow, which, as I'm sure you know, is a posh hotel and restaurant on the River Thames. Posh maybe, but how do you justify £5.25 for a dry martini and tonic, and £3.05 for a Kaliber? That's £8.30 for the pair, and still the waiter forgot a slice of lemon.
John Cole, Southsea, Portsmouth