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The Brasserie band

Published 20 June 1999
Style Magazine
310th article

At La Brasserie: Michael Winner is joined by Henrietta Graham, Annabel Ropner and friends (Vanessa Perry)

As we fled from Cliveden, Vanessa suggested the Fat Duck in nearby Bray. That's first-rate. Heston Blumenthal, the chef-owner, could have restored my faith in lunches after the Cliveden debacle - the only time in my life I've walked out on a meal. But Heston was full to overflowing, so we continued into town, ending up, about 3.30pm, at La Brasserie in the Brompton Road. This was recommended by my neighbour, lyricist supreme Don Black. It's next to similarly busy, buzzy, bistro-type places. They gave us a nice table, the old debris removed from it and the cloth changed with great speed and precision. We started where we left off. ordering bucks fizz. Unlike at Cliveden, the glasses were spotless. Interesting, isn't it, that reader Victoria Campbell King, there on the same day as me, was given dirty glasses, too? l also agree with the Daily Mail reporter who found his whole Cliveden experience marked by mediocrity. He said his orange juice didn't leave a residue - the reason given to me to excuse smears and lipstick - because it was from a carton. I'm sure mine was, too.

At La Brasserie the two-course set lunch is £14 - £19.50 if you add the Brittany prune flan with cream, which I did, and it was excellent. Compared to the overpriced £45 at Cliveden, this is a bargain. Here, the orange juice was definitely fresh. So good that I ordered bucks fizz galore and diners - all regular readers - joined me for a photograph.

Vanessa had caesar salad followed by haddock. I had buckwheat pancake filled with eggs and gruyere cheese, then braised rabbit with cider and prunes. Whoops! I've just realised I had prunes twice - must have been a subconscious desire to get Cliveden out of my system.

La Brasserie is very French, pleasingly decorated with glass-bowl lamps hanging on chains. The precision of the service contrasted totally with the out-of-gear non-rhythm at Cliveden. A well-run dining room is a icy to behold. Rather like the Royal Tournament, where they take old cannons to pieces, run them across the arena on ropes, and reassemble them in a flash. It took me two weeks, and l had to write twice, before Cliveden even sent my bill. Then they didn't charge me for some key items. How dare they? Only friends can buy me food or drink.

When you think back, you often see a pattern where one was not visible before. Once I actually finished a lunch at Cliveden. Vanessa commented that her sea bass didn't taste fresh. Today, reading guests' comments, "not fresh" seems a habit at Cliveden.

Then the general manager wrote to me trying to excuse it, saying: "The fish is Cornish. Cornish sea bass provides a meatier taste than that of its Mediterranean counterpart, which may explain Miss Perry's concern."

That sounded odd. I sought opinions from top chefs at Nico Ladenis's restaurant, at Claridge's and at Wiltons. Ail said Cliveden was talking nonsense. Sea bass was the same all over.

As Cliveden's came from Cornwall, according to them noted for its meatier-tasting sea bass, I spoke to Mr de Rozarieux, a leading light of the Cornish Fish Producers' Organisation. He said the only sea bass he'd heard of that tasted different were cheap, farmed French and Spanish imports. He, too, opined there was no way sea bass taste varied according to where it was caught. "Unless it's from Sellafield," he added. Touch of Cornish humour there.

So it seems at Cliveden the customer is always wrong. It's not dirt, it's residue from orange juice. It's not old sea bass, it's from Cornwall - so that explains everything. It's a pathetic attempt at flimflam. Because of them I'm attacked in Scotland. Deputy general manager Jorg Bockeler produced a ludicrous report on my every movement - I must see if I can get a copy under the Freedom of information act. Cliveden's managing director, John Tham, refuses to give me one. The report said that when I got tea without cakes, scones or sandwiches, I remarked: "Are we in Scotland?" in fact, I said, about the absence of edible items: "Where are they coming from, Scotland?" Mr Bockeler is German. Maybe my remarks suffered in translation.

If you want a nice day out somewhere within reach of London, keep well away from Cliveden. Try the French Horn at Sonning. A beautiful village, a lovely river location and superbly run by the Emmanuel family. I've taken Bob Mitchum, Jack Lemmon, Peter Falk, Michael Caine, Roger Moore, and even some people who aren't famous. They all loved it. You'll get real orange juice, clean glasses, fresh fish - and a roast duck to die for. What more could you want?

Winner's letters

I have followed with interest your report on Cliveden (Style, June 13). The appalling conditions you encountered are no surprise to me for I lunched there some time ago with two friends and felt it was almost "Fawlty Towers revisited". Upon arriving, I was immediately struck by the mustiness and untidy entrance hall, matched by the lack of courteous attention by the staff. The food was forgettable and the prices exorbitant: overall a definite no-no for a repeat visit. It is refreshing to have somebody speak out on behalf of less vociferous diners about this poor, overpriced hostelry. Cliveden seems to think it is doing its customers a favour by allowing them through its doors. What they should remember is that we have a formidable array of good restaurants from which to choose.
David Mason, London SW1

On the same day as your visit to Cliveden, my family and I were lunching there to celebrate my daughter's 30th birthday. Your report echoed my sentiments on this overpriced place. On arrival, we were told to "find a seat", even though I had booked a private room and a champagne reception. The champagne was already poured with no sign of a bottle or chance of a second glass. My younger children's orange juice glasses were just as filthy as you described them. Lunch was disgusting and the kitchen cooked entirely the wrong menu for the children, who then had to wait a long time for the correct dishes. Coffee and birthday cake in the private room consisted of a messily iced cake at a vast price and a small pot of cold coffee. I could go on, but you know the scene anyway. The staff looked scruffy, as did the influx of National Trust visitors, one of whom remarked to my husband as he was paying his bill: "This place needs some dusting, dunnit?" So much for elusive and exclusive Cliveden.
Victoria Campbell King, Weybridge, Surrey

So Michael Winner finally bares his soul and reveals his idea of "probably the best country hotel in Great Britain" (Style, May 30). Will it be the impeccable Cliveden? The stylish Babington House? No. Mr Winner likes Chewton Glen. Certainly, Britain boasts no finer monument to overstuffed chintz and suburban low camp. But "the best country hotel"? Let's just call it an insight into the Winner taste.
Paul Caplin, London W11

Chewton Glen isn't "probably" the best country hotel in Britain, it is definitely the best. Your observations will only serve to ensure that the standard increases even further for others like myself.
John B Reddington, Reading

Send your letters to Style; or e-mail: michael.winner@ sunday-times.co.uk