Published 25 July 1999 Style Magazine 315th article
Alford one and one for all: Michael Winner with Becky and David Salisbury (Vanessa Perry)
I'm not really a pub person. There's very little in them I wish to buy. A packet of crisps maybe, a half-bottle of Petrus 1989 currently wholesaling at about £400 including Vat, Coca-Cola, which at least fits well in a beer glass and, if you empty the entire plastic container of bar ice into it, will just be okay. All right, you don't see half-bottles of Petrus in pubs. If you did. I'd go more often.
Instead of driving to the Ivy for Saturday lunch, where the cloakroom girl kindly keeps her eagle eye on my 1975 Bentley illegally parked outside, Vanessa redirected me to the Alford Arms in Frithsden. I did not jump for joy. It was very pretty. White stucco, on the edge of a charming Hertfordshire village. Excellent countryside. Trestle tables outside were too communal and too uncomfortable for one in my delicate condition: I think the medical term is egomania.
"Who's the owner?" I announced on entering. "It's myself," replied a nice young man. "I'm David Salisbury, as in cathedral. My wife Becky's behind the bar." All this seemed fairly comprehensible. He'd kept a table for six people for the two of us. Being in a benign mood, I didn't ask him to carry it outside, where the tables were ropey and people sat on benches. David has had the inn about six months. He used to run the Slug and Lettuce in Bayswater. There's a place I can live without.
"My favourite's the fishcake," said David as I surveyed the menu. Who am I to argue? For a starter I chose roast ham, bubble-and-squeak hollandaise and poached egg. "Good choice," said David. And I did it all on my own! Vanessa picked aubergine, chilli and coconut soup followed by warm, sweet onion and parmesan tart.
All this is optimistic for the backwaters of Hemel Hempstead. I would describe the food as robust to highly pleasant. Vanessa said her soup was, "delicious, very different, like an Indian soup". I was impressed to see an N on the menu next to anything with nuts in it, because there are people who drop dead if they eat nuts, and that could be very inconvenient for the staff. Recently, a famous Los Angeles businessman, married to the widow of a huge screen legend, was at a Beverly Hills dinner party. He unknowingly ate food cooked in peanut oil and collapsed. There was a doctor present who bashed his chest to stop him choking and promptly broke two ribs. Then he gave him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. But the doctor had been eating the same nuts, so the man breathed in a double whammy and died. This has been quite a talking point among movie folk. But it's dying out now, if I can put it that way without being considered indelicate.
The bread-and-butter pudding was nice. It's very important that the bread is a little crispy and has some firmness. This was not firm, but it was a pleasing taste. The warm chocolate brownie was very good. This was crisp and then went runny in the middle. Then Vanessa's mum arrived, so I thought I'd give our photo an 18th-century flavour by including her dog. Its name is Chino. The Alford Arms is highly pleasant. Not historical, amazing-quality food as you get from Sonya Kidney at the Churchill Arms in Paxford, Gloucestershire, but good Middle England fodder, nevertheless.
I wish I'd never mentioned Cliveden. Not because they don't want me back, I never want to go. But because everyone comes over with horror stories of their time at Cliveden, which they assume I'm fascinated to hear. There was the property-tycoon chap from Mayfair who had a sizable, miserable lunch party and got dried-up slices of beef. "They knocked £500 off my bill when I complained," he told me. "I think it was due to your article." I was driving through St James's in my open 1970 Mercedes sports when a posh man yelled: "I agree with you about Cliveden." Half the street turned to listen. And coming out of my regular, local haunt, Chez Moi, I bumped into my brilliant friends Harold Pinter and Lady Antonia Fraser. "You were absolutely right about Cliveden," said Harold. I sent him a note by hand with a stamped, addressed envelope asking if he'd write a letter to this page. Harold reasonably replied that he was too busy for such things. "More power to your elbow," he concluded. Pity. Pinter on Cliveden would have been a real treat. Might even have inspired a new play: The Caretakers Homecoming to the Birthday Party at Cliveden. I'll have two centre stalls, row H, please. And a packet of Maltesers.
I'm sorry that Dennis Smith (Style, July 4) was disappointed by the one- star Merchant House in Ludlow. It's one of the best one-stars I've been to. If he knows of dozens of unstarred London restaurants all better than the provincial one-stars, perhaps he could let Mr Winner have the list for a future report.
Jim Bentley, N Yorks
It has taken me a while to get over the shock of your column about Frederick's in Highcliffe (Style, June 27). Shock, first of all, at seeing you in the flesh (and being rather well behaved), but worse, at being described as an "elderly couple". I am 52, but look 40, and my companion that evening is not elderly either. And "quietly" dressed? Since when was an orange jacket quiet? I'm happy to agree with your verdict on Frederick's, though. Certainly worth another visit.
Lily-Ann Ribberink, Chalfont St Giles, Bucks
Am I alone in being driven demented by the service in expensive restaurants? Today's waiters seem to think that pouring water into my glass too often counts as service, yet when I want attention I have to let off a lightning flash to be noticed. They then interrupt mid-conversation to ask if I am enjoying my meal - not only infuriating, but plain bad manners. I do not wish to have someone lean across me to place my pudding spoon and fork about my plate, where they should have been at the start of the meal. Nor do I want the table to be ruthlessly "dusted down", regardless of necessity. Give me an old-fashioned waiter who treats me with calm courtesy and manners, who does not invade my privacy with unnecessary fussing, but takes pride in giving me what I need with the minimum intrusion.
Robert Hiscox, London
Some time ago, I spent a week at Cliveden and was very satisfied. The whole place was spotlessly clean and comfortable. The food was satisfactory and the staff pleasant and caring. It is only fair to point out, however, that since my stay the management has changed. When I was there, Cliveden was a military hospital and I was one of the patients.
Stewart Owen, London
Sorry to disappoint you, but we loved Cliveden when we ate there last month for my sons' 18th and 21st birthdays. The staff couldn't have been more attentive and the French dining room is out of this world - where else can you get such a fantastic view and dine off the Astors' dining table?
Larraine and Stephen Gooch, via e-mail
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