Published 1 August 1999 Style Magazine 316th article
Isle be loving you: Michael Winner at La Santal with Elaine and David Potter (Vanessa Perry)
One of the oddest meals I've ever eaten was in St Martin early this year. Among the highly robust New York music-business group at the excellent hotel La Samanna was an archetypally polite and quiet British family, who were, in fact, South African. Mum, Elaine, had once been a reporter on the Insight team of this newspaper. Her husband, David Potter, was a rightly acclaimed computer genius who is chairman and chief executive of Psion. They met in Sevenoaks and live in St John's Wood. Together with children, they ventured to La Sammana, where I was told in hushed tones that they were friends of the owner, James Sherwood.
They were very nice people and suggested we have dinner. I booked La Santal, a poshed-up hut overlooking the sea, tented in pink- and cream-striped, pleated silk. The white, ornate wooden chairs were padded in dark blue. The lady at the desk was extremely snooty. "Winner? You have a reservation under Winner?" she sneered, lips curling. "I'm going to seat these two people, I'll seat you after that," and she flounced off. Later, when she said: "We have pure orange juice. It's not fresh but it's pure," I knew I was in never-never land. "It's all white, this place," I said, looking round. With the Muzak going it felt like a Jewish wedding. "Bar mitzvah," said Mr Potter helpfully. I asked the waiter if the chef could do some vegetables with Vanessa's main course mahi-mahi. At first he said: "No," adding: "There are too much people." It didn't look packed to me. "Would you like the famous souffle?" asked the waiter. "Two Grand Marniers, one chocolate, one vanilla," we replied.
I'd ordered a Carton Charlemagne Grand Cru. Then suddenly thought: "I don't think the wine list showed the year of any vintage." I went to the desk and looked. "We don't put the vintage because the stock always changes," said the woman. "So the price stays the same whether it's a good year or bad!" I exclaimed. Nobody cared. The head waiter assured me ours was 1994.
The bread was terrible. I felt I was chewing gum. When the wine came it was 1991, not 1994. The gazpacho was like nothing I've ever tasted: it could have been tomato soup with HP sauce added. "There's some fennel in it," said David Potter. He should be the food critic, I thought. He can identify ingredients. I can't.
I ordered a chicken casserole and got roast chicken with a sauce. I didn't dare say anything. In spite of being told the chef was overworked, we got Vanessa's vegetables. Vanessa left most of her main course, but said It was "All right." My chicken tasted of absolutely nothing. It was like chicken at a bar mitzvah for thousands of people. David said: "All we need is a few speeches." Vanessa thought her fish tasted fishy, meaning a strong taste and not correct. I asked David how he would describe his meal. "I think the decor is the most important thing," he said cautiously, then added: "One of the better meals I've had." "Was that a good chicken, David?" I asked in amazement. "No," he replied. Then David got a vanilla sauce in his Grand Marnier souffle. "The basis is all the same," the waiter said. The whole thing is bizarre. I'm the most sweet-toothed person in the world. I found the souffle sickly. "It's also enormous and it's not properly cooked either," said David. "It's too soggy," said Vanessa. I have never left a souffle in my life, but I couldn't eat that one. Famous or not. "The same, I'm afraid, is true of me," said David. This was a grossly mediocre dinner with very interesting people.
I only had one good meal in a St Martin restaurant, at the Fish Pot in Grand Case. It's run by Kristal from Macedonia with husband Jean-Marc from Normandy. Lovely salmon and cheese tartlet. The French onion soup was good. Snapper and mahi-mahi were excellent, with a real, French-tasting sauce. Desserts reasonable; profiteroles, always tricky, were poor. We were with Steven Saltzman, son of the celebrated James Bond film producer Harry Saltzman. Harry sold me my 1966 Phantom V Rolls-Royce for £8,300 in 1968: The showroom price rose to £350,000 before they stopped production. Harry had his initials in gold on all the doors. I had to change my name or have the car resprayed. Afterwards my chauffeur took me to one side and asked: "What can you see?" "I can see the initials HS embossed under the black paint," I said. So I had it resprayed again. I tell you, Rolls Royces are nothing but trouble.
We are two policewomen from the northeast of England. On a recent trip to London we followed your recommendation and dined at San Lorenzo. Next time we thought we would try the Ivy, having read about it in Winner's Dinners. We would love you to join us because we are both greatly entertained by your column and know you would make a wonderful lunch companion.
Suzanne Knight and Carol Davison, Tynemouth
I don't understand why Michael Winner comes in for so much criticism. He performs a public service by nailing erring restaurants to the deck. Surely he is only after value for money.
Colin Peck, London
I enjoy the column and your views, but why are you seemingly unable to travel outside the Home Counties (except when you go to totally out-of-the-way places)? great restaurants do exist away from the southeast. One of my favourites is La Petite Maison in Bottesford, near Grantham on the Notts/lincs border. I go there three times a year and it is always worth it.
Martin Garvey, by e-mail
Having read that Christopher's was a good American restaurant in which to celebrate July 4, we went for dinner the day before with an American visitor. The menu made reference to customers showing consideration when it came to smoking (which we thought was nice of them), but to our horror, while waiting for our starters, we noticed that the tables wound us were happily buying cigars from the waitress. In other words, cigar-smoking was actively encouraged. The restaurant has two rooms and could easily offer a non-smoking section, and yet it chooses to subject non-smoking customers to the unpleasant smell of cigars. Needless to say, our American visitor was not impressed and we will not be returning.
Ellen Wade, London
I received a lovely letter from Rudding Park hotel in Harrogate, thanking me for filling in the guests' questionnaire after a recent stay. My comments had been highly complimentary, but what impressed me was their promise to mark my file so that the one little niggle, a fridge for my vodka, would be taken care of on my next visit.
Judge Barrington Black, London