Published 21 February 1999 Style Magazine 293rd article
Ringing the changes: from left, George Bottley, Simon Cornacchia and Michael Winner at the Bell Inn
Peter Cook was wearing a large toy sheep on his head. It was John Cleese's 50th-birthday party. Being a generous man he'd taken the Bell Inn at Aston Clinton, Buckinghamshire, and was having a three-day bash for his friends. This was fancy-dress night, with some of the wittiest speeches I've ever heard - and that was just mine. It was a few years ago, and the only time I'd been to the Bell. Until recently, when I dropped in for Sunday lunch. The brochure says that the Bell helped to pioneer the country-house hotel concept. True, except industrialisation has taken over and it now sits on the A41 amid dreary suburbia.
It's a listed 17th-century coaching house with the inevitable modern annexe. You sense that it's faded as soon as you enter. Everything could do with a lick of paint and brightening up, all of which would make it worse. I liked the down-at-heel atmosphere and the desperately non-chic clientele. The dining room is odd. The nicest part of it is a corridor leading to a rather dull interior room. The corridor has tables in it, a view to a small garden on one side and a large garden the other. The large garden is a chipped mural painted on the wall.
The three-course lunch is £19.50. Coffee or tea with sweetmeats (there's a word Terence Conran doesn't use), £2.75 inc VAT, ex service. To get to the dining area you pass flagstone-paved bars with log fires. "The rooms are strange," said Vanessa. They were, but not unpleasant. After lunch, I chucked four new logs onto a dying fire. George Bottley, an elderly, scholarly director of the place, looked quietly aghast. "We normally let the fire die down in the afternoon," he murmured as flames rushed forth to cheer things up. There goes today's profit, I thought.
Vanessa said her freebie starter of salmon mousse was delicious. She was equally enthusiastic about her hot cream of cauliflower soup with arran mustard. My first course was an enormous portion of crisp confit of duck set on lentilles du puy, crisp potato and light poultry jus. I liked it. I thought the roast beef was poor, and even though they did fresh Yorkshire pud for me - I insist on that everywhere, never have it off the trolley - it wasn't great. The bread-and-butter pudding was better. Vanessa liked her halibut filled with wild mushrooms, spinach and Madeira jus. "You could taste what it's supposed to be," she added.
George Bottley showed us round the nice, amazingly cheap rooms and suites. You felt he and his fellow directors were somewhat lost in the modern world. "It becomes increasingly difficult," he said sorrowfully, "because everyone's looking for theme restaurants and God knows what." The Bell used to have a Michelin star. Now it's in genteel decline. It's no longer the fashionable place to go. Other, more ponced-up locations have taken over. But there's something very, comfortable and well worn about it. I think you should support the Bell. Just to cheer George up a bit.
I'd like to tell you of another recent Sunday, this time in the Dorchester Grill. I ordered pommes soufflees, those delicious little bags of fried potato. John, the assistant maitre d', returned. "The chef can't do them," he said. "He doesn't have maris piper potatoes." I'd sent the Dorchester the recipe for pommes sonfflees and they'd eventually managed it. "You tell the chef if he can't do them, I shall phone Claridge's and ask them to bring some over," I said to John. "They've always managed to produce them." John returned with another "Not possible". I went to the desk, took the phone by the reservations book and rang Claridge's. "Do you think they'll send them?" I said as the phone rang. "They'll be delighted to shaft us," opined John. "Ah," I said. "Claridge's restaurant? I'm in the Dorchester Grill. I'd like a portion of pommes soufflees delivered here as soon as you can." "Absolutely, Mr Winner," said a voice on the other end.
To the eternal and huge credit of Claridge's, 19 minutes after putting the phone down I was eating their brilliant pommes soufflees in the Dorchester Grill. Later, I rang Paul Pam their chef, to thank him. "What potatoes did you use?" I asked. "Cara," he replied. I rang the Dorchester kitchen. "What potatoes do you have there?" I asked Henry Brosi, their chef. "Cara," he said. I wrote to the Dorchester's executive chef, Willi Elsener, and suggested he gave pommes soufflees lessons. Willi replied saying he would and he'd be delighted if I came to see for myself and then joined him for lunch. That's service.
I recently wrote to Michael Winner raising a query about one of his articles. I received a handwritten and very chatty reply - quite unexpected. As an Australian now living in England, I'm often astonished by courtesy, unlike my friends who take it for granted. Forget the quibbles on this letters page. The bottom line is: "Manners maketh man."
June Delahunt, Wigan, Lancs
In his diatribe against orange juice in a recent issue (Style, January 31), Mr Winner was absolutely correct. If the consumer has paid for something, he should expect it to have been made to his most exacting specification. He should stop at nothing, taking any complaint, however small, to the highest available authority. Some years ago I went to see the film Death Wish. I did not think it was very good. Would Mr Winner be kind enough to drive down to Devon so that we can arrange a refund?
Matthew Burnham, Exeter
Like you, we feel that the courtesy and efficiency of restaurant staff can leave a lasting impression. My husband hates bad service and keeps threatening to sign Michael Winner on the bill. Naturally, I consider this an unfair slight on your generally placid nature. By the way: did you use a stand-in for your photo a few weeks ago (Style, January 24)? I have to say you looked suspiciously like Barbara Cartland. Are you putting work her way?
Lesley Charnock, Long Crendon, Bucks