Published 27 September 1998 Style Magazine 272nd article
To the Hilton: restaurant manager Ahmed Maiden with Michael Winner and John Fraser (Sophie Lane)
Mr Fraser, first name John, has worked for me for 50 years. He started when we were at St Christopher School, Letchworth, Hertfordshire, a Quaker, co-educational boarding school of dubious qualities. John got two shillings and sixpence a week to make my bed and clean the room (12½p in today's money) and sixpence every time he went to the outdoor wooden sinks to do my share of the washing-up. The headmaster called John in one day and told him: "It's a disgrace - a senior boy making the bed of a junior. It's against the principles of the school, it's the power of the purse."
Mr Fraser reported this to me. "What do you want to do, John?" I asked. "I'll keep taking the money," he said. He still does, and he's worth every penny of his slightly increased remuneration. We often have lunch together in my house. Recently I decided we would go out. "Ah," I hear you say. "A well-earned treat, anyone who can put up with you that long deserves the best. Marco Pierre White, Nico Ladenis . . ." Er, no. The London Kensington Hilton up the road. We'd neither of us ever eaten there, although I do drop into the privately rented Hiroko, which is part of it, a first-rate Japanese restaurant with Mohamed Ibrahim from Egypt in charge.
Today we walked through the bustling lobby, past the Crescent Lounge, serving some sort of food, I know not what, but it does it until 2.30am. Thus into the Market Restaurant, a large room with a tented buffet in the middle. The manager, Ahmed Maiden, was wonderfully welcoming. I can think of many maitre d's from posher places who should come to learn his technique. He handed us the a la carte menu, which included Warm oysters Rockafeller (sic). "I shall have the buffet," I announced. "That's interesting," said Ahmed. Later I learnt what he meant. The buffet wasn't really there. It was a kind of mirage. They don't do a buffet at lunch, only in the evening, at £19.50 inc Vat ex service, eat as much as you like, coffee and bread thrown in.
The buffet had been set up for a conference of people who'd just left. "Any other customer would have been told a la carte only. But they were afraid of you," explained the hotel manager, Kasim Gurses, on the phone that afternoon. Accompanied by Irish Muzak we walked round the counter, Ahmed, Mr Fraser and me. Watermelon, taramasalata - "Very refreshing, goes with everything," said Ahmed. Lots of salad and cold meats, then cakes and fruit salad. Then the hot stuff: roast beef casserole - "Very tempting, looks very nice," said Ahmed, keeping up his commentary. Chicken stew, Vegetables - "Very refreshing [refreshing was one of Ahmed's favourite words], vegetarians love it." Then there was the trout with moules, cauliflower au gratin, which looked highly lacking in gratin, and much more.
"I'll have the melon," I said. "Very summery," said Ahmed. I liked him, he was positive and cheerful. "I want your autograph before you go," he added. The watermelon tasted good, but there were no black seeds. I asked Ahmed how they got the seeds out. He went into a convoluted explanation that "before it's born" they put half of the melon underground, thus no seeds. "This is from experience of parents," said Ahmed. "What parents?" I asked. "Mine, in Morocco," said Ahmed.
Then I tried some taramasalata. "Very pleasant," said Mr Fraser. I'd say fairly pleasant. "It goes well with the bread," opined Ahmed. The bread was awful. For my main course I had beef stew (adequate), new potatoes (undercooked), cauliflower au gratin (okay, but not gratin), pasta (soft and meaningless), vegetables (nice). Mr Fraser particularly liked the beans. His chicken was "quite all right".
For dessert we looked at the carrot cake and one called "Margarine and vanilla". "Beautiful, I suggest you try it," said Ahmed. "I'll do as you say, I'm easily led, but I don't know about Mr Fraser, he has a mind of his own," I said. Mr Fraser took the identical cake. "A sort of mousse consistency," said John. On balance, perfectly reasonable.
A French girl came over and put some chocolates on a plate. "Petits fours," she said. I looked at her. "Petits fours," she said again as if explaining to an idiot. I looked blank. "I said it in the French way," she said. "She's French," explained Ahmed. Then Doug Goodman from Teddington arrived and said: "I organise conferences here, I think the place is absolutely brilliant." Looking for a discount, I thought to myself.
At close of play, Ahmed led me through the hotel hall and showed me out. He never did ask for an autograph.
I finally realised a dream and enjoyed a bellini in Harry's Bar in Venice yesterday. What style, what chic, such divine staff (who favoured me with kind, knowing smiles when I mentioned your name). And how reassuring to see the "no shorts" policy so strictly, yet politely, enforced. Thank you for your informative column. Next stop will be the Cipriani for the lunchtime buffet.
Sarah Bates, Chester
I am sure that it must be very depressing for Michael Winner to know that more than 90% of his restaurant reviews will give him cause to complain. To overcome his depression, I recommend he visit the Hoste Arms at Burnham Market in north Norfolk. The menu, service and surroundings are superb, and the standard never alters. As this hostelry is enjoyed by people as wealthy and important as Mr Winner, he should feel at ease and have no need to ask the staff if they know who he is.
Christopher Hackett, Rothley, Leics
In response to Michael Winner's recent article regarding Henllys Hall Hotel on Anglesey (Style, August 16), I am moved to recall the one occasion that I visited the establishment, approximately two years ago. It was to celebrate a family event and our host was footing the bill for 60 or more guests. The food was almost edible despite being, in the main, cold - presumably unintentionally given that it was a roast dinner. The final insult, added to surly and incompetent service, was when one member at our table asked for cheese and biscuits as an alternative to the sweets on offer and was charged £2.50 before his order was accepted. Mind you, my 80-year-old mother said it was £2.50 well spent as her pudding arrived, well, minus the pudding. She was presented with a dish of custard (cold, of course).
Caroline Holmes, Wales