Published 31 October 1999 Style Magazine 329th article
Floating down the Riviera: Roger Heyd, Christophe Cussac and Michael Winner
I'm in the embarrassing position of having to explain to you the recent absence from this page of the very lovely Miss Vanessa Perry, whose views on culinary matters we all enjoyed. I must reveal that, sadly, some time ago we parted. She is a wonderful girl and we remain good friends. To drown my sorrows I departed for the south of France to one of my favourite places, La Reserve de Beaulieu, only to face further distress. I held the hand of the new assistant manager, Estelle Wicky, looked into her eyes and said: "I have not slept in a room such as you allocated me since I was a student at Cambridge." This is what happens when I make places popular. But Miss Wicky's heart was melted and shortly thereafter I was moved to more suitable accommodation.
La Reserve has completed its transformation from ill-run, taken-over-by-the-bank dump managed by the appalling Gilbert Hirondelle, to top-of-the-tree treasure. The man who did this, the local hotelier Jean-Claude Delion, now has a two-star Michelin restaurant under chef Christophe Cussac, and the Winner's Dinners "Best wine waiter in the world", the highly expressive Jean-Louis Valla. He also boasts a second Winner Award: "Best view from a swimming pool". On your left are the stark rocky hills leading up to the Grands Corniche, ahead of you the sea, and to your right the historic villa Kerylos, a wide bay curving round to David Niven's old house in St Jean Cap Ferrat and the distant harbour of St Jean itself. To stand on the rail and gaze is a real pleasure.
I even made friends with the pool attendant. I'd always found Gerard Lucas unwelcoming. But he saved me from deep embarrassment. My friend Rog (as in Moore) brought his boat into the small breakwater area by the swimming pool to take me to L'Eden at Plage Mala, Cap d'Ail, for lunch. "Get aboard," commanded Rog. But the damn thing was wobbling up and down as well as to and from its moorings. With the entire hotel watching from the rail, I screamed and shouted that this was an athletic event too far. Rog got so enraged he rushed from the boat and tried to push me on. But, arms flailing, I resisted. It was M Lucas, pulling at this rope and that with tireless energy, who finally stabilised things enough for me to make it aboard. Rog, highly embarrassed, dropped me off later at Monte Carlo, where it was calm and I took a taxi back.
The food was so good at the hotel that I ate in quite a lot. The excellent maitre d', Roger Heyd, had only one bad habit: he's one of those restaurant chiefs who believe they can memorise orders without writing them down. Mashed potatoes were missed again and again because of this. But it was on the subject of fish that I found M Heyd enlightening. I often ask: "Is this fish fresh?" So I was surprised when Roger said: "Fish shouldn't always be fresh." "Are you seriously telling me," I said, "that fish is better kept hanging about?" As I strolled by the pool, I got busy on my mobile phone, first calling Nico Ladenis. He explained that fish got rigor mortis, they convulsed and tightened up. "You shouldn't eat the bigger fish fresh from being caught," said Nico. "You've got to let the rigor mortis get out." He reckoned at least two days for sea bass. "Some people say you should put dover sole in the fridge for a week, but I think three to four days is enough." Marco Pierre White, fisherman supreme, thought you could eat sea bass the day after it had been killed, a day later for sole. "It should never smell fishy or taste fishy," he added.
Having been thus educated, it seemed churlish to point out that the inscribed photo of Marvin Hamlisch in my suite was dreary. He's a nice enough chap, but frame him and you may as well frame me. La Reserve has a marvellous collection of signed photos of guests current and long-gone. from Bogart through Bacall to Yul Brynner. But they tend to keep the best ones in little-seen corridors and staircases. After discussing the matter with the management, Mr Hamlisch was replaced in my suite by Walt Disney - there's a valuable signature - Clark Gable went on the main stairs instead of Lino Ventura, and then Clark was replaced by Bing Crosby. I think moving stars around is as much fun as moving tables in the dining room. They did a bit of that, also, to ensure my total happiness. You see, I'm easily pleased. But then you knew that already.
You recently received a letter from a couple (Style, September 19) who had cancelled a reservation at Club Gascon in London's Smithfield after the restaurant was inflexible about their booking. They may console themselves that they did not actually experience the place first-hand. We did. Three of us opted for the £30-a-head set menu, but the fourth member of our party wished for vegetarian dishes, which were virtually absent from the set menu. We were told it was absolutely interdit to order three set menus if you had an a la carte diner at your table. I ended up with precisely the same food as on the set menu, but priced, needless to say, at significantly more than £30. So here are another four people who will be avoiding Club Gascon in future.
Gordon Dixter, London
I had always thought that "freshly squeezed orange juice" meant that, somewhere in the depths of the kitchen, oranges were being cut and squeezed just for me. So I was surprised to read an advertisement in my local paper for a company called Sunjuice Ltd that was supplying a newly opened hotel. The advert announced: "Our juices are produced daily to the highest standards," and went on to boast that it supplied some of "the country's most prestigious hotels and caterers, to whom we deliver on a daily basis". I note that, although juice is squeezed daily and delivered daily, it does not specify that these two activities are happening to the same juice on the same day. If "freshly squeezed" is written "Freshly Squeezed", does that make it some sort of trade name rather than a description? Or am I just naive?
Dr Clare Jenkins, by e-mail
Driving along the A614 recently, I discovered a sign for an establishment called Winner City. While obviously delighted that you have decided to become a restaurateur after all these years as well as a critic, I was a little surprised that your first venture should be a Chinese restaurant located adjacent to a filling station. I am sure, though, that your well- known tact and diplomacy, coupled with unrivalled views of the pumps, will provide the ambience we all seek.
Chris Bateman, by e-mail