Published 29 August 1999 Style Magazine 320th article
All dolled up:Eric Nicolas, Michael Winner and Claude Laage (Vanessa Perry)
Nomansland is not a first world war no-go area, it's a village on the edge of the New Forest. I've seen better-looking villages and, for that matter, I've seen worse. It spreads out along one side of a cricket pitch, the other side being the forest. When I arrived, the cricket area contained a solitary brown cow.
The Restaurant and Bistro Les Mirabelles, with the Nomansland Methodist church on one side and the Lamb Inn on the other, was the reason I'd journeyed from Chewton Glen. The hotel's owner, Martin Skan, recommended it. He said it was near where he lived, and Vanessa and I should drop in for a drink. On the day of our travels Mrs Brigitte Skan provided impeccable, written directions. Far better than the Downing Street ones I was given for Chequers when I dined with Mr and Mrs Tone. But Brigitte and Martin Skan remained at their hotel, so the drinks invitation vanished. Instead, I entered the New Forest in my rented Peugot 306 convertible, niftily avoiding a sign saying "Beat Remorse, Don't Kill A Horse". It was Robin Hood Land all the way - I know he hung out in Sherwood, but these forests all look the same - until I came across this enormous Rolls-Royce dealership in the middle of leafy lanes. The locals are obviously richer than they appear, I decided - narrowly avoiding three ponies and two cyclists.
Les Mirabelles sports a brown picket fence outside. Inside, every table has a French doll on it. Claude Laage, the co-owner, explained: "Instead of flowers, which you have to change every week." Very French, that. Claude showed us a nice corner table where, he assured me, if I stayed until 3pm I could see the cricket. At 1pm I had a view of a vulgar station wagon with lots of chrome on it. Claude and his fellow Frenchman Eric Nicolas opened up here five years ago, after working together in nearby Romsey. There was huge drama getting Eric, the chef, to have his picture taken. "He's not photogenic," said Claude. "Nor am I."
"Why should they care?" I thought. "Never stopped me."
I went into the kitchen to charm Eric out. "I'm busy cooking," he said. "Better get the photo done before the lunchtime customers come then," I murmured consolingly. Eric's a dead ringer for Stan Laurel's friend Oliver Hardy. He never minded having his photo taken. Persistence paid off and I was able to turn my attention to the food.
There was a very posh, large menu, as well as a blackboard menu headed "Pigs", with a picture of a pig on top. There was a substantial selection of half bottles of wine, which is excellent and rare. The place is very Provencal, with hops wreathed around arches. My pastry basket with scallops in it was genuinely tasty, with a nice sauce. Vanessa's john dory was not on the bone. Fish always tastes less interesting filleted, unless it's fried. Hers tasted of very little. It was accompanied by a sort of raspberry sauce. Then I had the fondant au chocolat. At £4.70, it's the most expensive dessert, the next being the 'selection of fine cheese' at £4.60 and, for the extremely curious, the cheapest is the selection of sorbets at £3.10. Mine was a very good hot chocolate mousse, runny on the inside, crisp on the surface, sitting in a sea of creamy custard.
A tough-looking man in a white T-shirt with enormous muscles studied the menu outside. He called out "Warm goat's cheese!" to his off- screen girlfriend in a voice of pure amazement. He read on, pulling faces from time to time, shouted "Steak!" and looked cheerful. Then he entered the restaurant, then he went out again. He was obviously a gourmet of discernment, so I sought him out in the Lamb Inn when I'd finished. He said his friend had brought his grandmother along and she didn't like things such as frogs legs. Salmon mousse was also a definite no-no. "I shall go there, to Les Mirabelles," he said. "I've heard it's superb." It's nice to know Eric and Claude have something to look forward to.
On the way back, I paused in a New Forest lay-by at Alan and Nora's Super Softee. For Those Who Prefer the Best. It was rather good ice cream. Creamy and light. "It's because I put two mixes in," explained Alan. "Most people only use one." Three little girls with white ponies by the van wore brightly coloured hard caps. Free-range ponies roamed on the other side of the road and, further down, people were flying kites. The south of France it ain't, but it had real English charm. And that's not to be sneezed at.
I hate to say I told you so, but on this occasion you thoroughly deserve it. A few months ago I wrote to you about our hilarious experience at the Malmaison hotel in Manchester, which was actually far worse than your own at its sister establishment in Glasgow (Style, August 15). It seems the staff have migrated over the border and given you the same treatment.
June Silver, Hale Barns, Cheshire
Surely Michael Winner's experiences at the Malmaison in Glasgow could easily have been avoided by a loose translation of the hotel's name: Ill House.
Daniel Dixon, London
Congratulations on your recent foray north of the Watford Gap (Style, August 8). I was relieved to note that you travelled by aeroplane, thereby reducing both the time spent in these barbaric climes and the opportunity for meeting the uncouth peoples that inhabit them.
David Barber, Ormskirk, Lancs
I recently spent an evening at a restaurant in York where the chairs were old and hard with no padding, and totally out of proportion with the height of the table. This was made of thick planks, with a surface area not much larger than a chessboard and just as cluttered. Every move had to be carefully considered to ensure that nothing was knocked over. Do restaurants really expect people to eat in such uncomfortable circumstances?
Peter Black, Bishopthorpe, Yorks
Mr Winner should extend his gourmet quest with a visit to the Mechanics Arms, Easington Colliery, Co Durham, as I did recently. After an aperitif of six bottles of Newcastle Brown Ale, the curried sardine toastie was simply out of this world.
E J Wilson, Durham
My wife and I have just returned from a two-week tour of France staying in small hotels belonging to the Logis de France association. The Logis are independent, owner-run establishments where, for about £14, you can have a superb four- course meal. A decent bottle of wine is about £12, and aperitifs generally about £3.50. The total cost: about £23 per person. The Logis association has now extended to Ireland; if only it would spread further into Britain, so that more of us could enjoy the genuine pleasures of dining out at a respectable price.
Peter Clare, Abingdon, Oxon
Like you, I am a poor boy from Willesden. Would you like an apprentice by any chance?
David Mendoza, London