Published 21 March 1999 Style Magazine 297th article
Gang of four: Mario Tardis, Martyne Audet, Vanessa Perry and Michael Winner at Mario's
Trust nobody except me. I don't. An example is the half-Dutch, half-French island of St Martin in the Caribbean. Everyone told me: "There's lots of good restaurants." Absolute nonsense. When David Frost visited the hotel La Samanna, where I resided, he said: "When we stay here, we never leave the complex." I can understand why. The whole island is tackily developed - there's nothing else to do. I went on a drive-around. I've never seen so many Burger Kings in my life.
When I arrived, the New York super-crowd was heavy with advice. "You've gotta go to Mario's," said the ultra-heavyweight music-business lawyer Allen Grubman. "Be sure to have the duck," said Morton Bin. He was in "international barter". I didn't understand that, but it entailed offices all over the world and the words "fourteen hundred Jaguars" came into the conversation.
It seemed you couldn't just phone up and book Mario's, it was full for ever. I decided to visit and apply my legendary charm. Mario's is in a hut on a canal overlooking a junk yard. Martyne Audet, the wife of chef Mario Tardis, sat at her computer fending off would-be eaters. "We have no four tables for three weeks," she said into the phone. "You have to be here seven o'clock sharp," she informed a customer who'd actually been allowed in. "What's your ambition in life?" I asked. "Sell the big ship and go home to Canada," she replied. After a bit more chat, Martyne agreed I could come that evening. "I normally have a table for four," I said. "There's only one four table I'm letting two people sit at," said Martyne. "That's reserved for the manager of La Samanna and the lady whose family used to own it." "A hotel manager's getting a better table than me?" I exclaimed in horror, as I walked out tripping over a wire. It provided power for Martyne's computer. "You've destroyed my wine list!" she shouted as I left. "Oh well," I thought. "Shouldn't join if you can't take a joke."
Maybe Martyne thought better, of it. Perhaps my line about hotel managers getting well above their station, which I repeated endlessly around La Samanna, had some effect. Either way, when we arrived, John Volponi, the highly pleasant manager, was at a table for two. We were shown to an excellent, round table for four in the corner. At night the place looked very nice. Candles on shiny wood tables, the ripple of light on the water, sunflowers everywhere. Martyne had not succumbed to greed and packed people in. Tables were well spaced. She was a superb hostess and order-taker.
The service was like lightning. I tasted Vanessa's black bean soup. It was totally brilliant. My sense of smell is much diminished by years of cigar smoking. People say: "What do you think of that smell?" and I'm blind on it. I could smell, with great clarity, my Maine steamed mussels in a tomato, parmesan and fine herb broth. They weren't nice. "They smell odd," said Vanessa. There was no real taste in the mussels and the sauce was a bit strong. I had chosen the main course "signature" dish of half duck, honey-garlic glazed and crisply roasted, served with caramelised onion, mashed potato and sweet-and-sour sauce. The duck was shiny white. I've never seen anything like it. The texture and taste were poor. The veg were okay. Vanessa had grilled tuna accompanied by gnocchi in tomato sauce and blue cheese that was smeared over everything. It was an extraordinary dish. "I think the blue cheese is such a strong flavour it tends to dominate everything else; it's kind of a mishmash of flavours," Vanessa said kindly. Dessert was crispy profiteroles with ice cream and chocolate sauce. Nice and gooey, rather like they served on TWA in the 1970s. The sorbets were a bit sickly, but pleasant.
Back at the hotel my New York group were in shock when I reported my thoughts on their favourite, much-praised restaurant choice. "You ordered the wrong thing. You should've had the veal chop," said Allen Grubman. "Martyne thinks you're so charming, you'll have to go back." "Why should I?" I replied. "Go on," said Allen,"be a mensch." For non-Yiddish speakers, that means be a man, be big, give her a second chance. "I liked the duck," said Morton Bin, who stood witnessing the proceedings. Then he thought for a moment. "Mind you, it was white," he added. Totally fair as ever, I have fully reported to you the complimentary views of La Samanna's New York superati regarding Mario's. So, they think I'm a schmock. I can live with that.
I always enjoy your column on Sunday, but could do with seeing more of you on TV. Perhaps you could replace Clarkson on Top Gear. After all, you both drive Ferraris.
Gary Keenan, Stranraer, Wigtownshire
R S Kent (Style, February 28) suggests restaurants should provide party tables where like-minded strangers can get together. Party tables certainly didn't work in my pub restaurant: in my experience, the larger the table, the smaller the number of people sitting at it. My largest table was invariably taken by a real-ale drinker with a pipe and a wet dog.
Clive Lucas, East Cowes, Isle of Wight
We recently had dinner at China Jazz in Berkeley Square, London. As we were handed our menus, we were told by the waiter that two dishes - fragrant duck and Mongolian lamb - were not on the menu that day. I found this odd, but accepted the fact. However, as we were finishing our main course, I noticed the dishes being served at other tables. When I inquired what was going on, I was told that the owner of the restaurant had changed his mind in the course of the evening. There seemed little point in debating such a banal reply at the time, but on leaving, I learnt from another member of staff that the dishes had, in fact, been available all evening. I can only conclude that it is left to the whim of the waiters what customers are entitled to order.
Michael Fielding, London NW1