Published 7 November 1999 Style Magazine 330th article
O lucky man: Michael Winner with Harry Murray, Jenner Harding and Claire Randall (Miss Lid)
I didn't intend to visit Lucknam Park in Wiltshire. I was thumbing through my 1997 Egon Ronay Guide (the last year it came out) and there it was. I phoned at four o'clock on Friday. The general manager, Claire Randall, was apologetic. "We can only do a room in the courtyard," she said. "The best suites are in the main building."
"Ask someone there to leave," I suggested. "I can't do that," said Claire. "They're already in."
"Tell them it's a health hazard," I advised. "And I'd like a hire car."
Later, Claire rang back. "All the car-hire places are fully booked." she said.
"Stand in the kitchen and say, 'Winner'll pay £300 for the loan of your car,' " I continued, trying to be helpful.
"Our staff are very well paid," responded Claire huffily.
"They'll still be glad of a few hundred quid extra," I said. "I couldn't do that," replied Claire.
"It's 6.30pm on Friday," I said. "The helicopter lands 11am tomorrow. That's masses of time to get a proper suite and hire a car."
We glided along a few feet above the lawns, past a fine avenue of beech trees, to land in front of the lovely Georgian manor house. "We?" I hear you say. "Who exactly is we?" For the time being, no names, no pack drill (if you recall that old expression). I shall call my fortunate companion Miss Lid. That stands for Lady in Danger. Although I am far too decrepit to be dangerous. Waiting to greet us was Miss Randall and the managing director of Lucknam, Harry Murray. On entering the exceedingly elegant and welcoming hall I was surprised to see Jenner Harding, their restaurant manager. I'd last observed him getting my breakfast at the Sandy Lane Hotel, Barbados, on my final day there before they pulled it down. Jenner was the maitre d'. There ensued interesting gossip about Sandy Lane's management. Shortly thereafter I learnt Jenner had moved on from Lucknam Park. Even when you use helicopters you can't keep up with staff turnaround in the catering world.
We were shown to a lovely suite in the main building. A gleaming hire car was waiting, proving everything is achievable when you try. Exhausted by the 40-minute flight, we sat on the terrace and Jenner provided coffee and biscuits, but no napkins - even though one of the biscuits was chocolate and sticky. The next day at tea a very county [sic] lady in jodhpurs came to an adjacent table. They wouldn't serve her, so she stormed off. She returned with a dog and a male and female companion. "I've been 25 minutes trying to persuade three receptionists to give me tea," she announced. "They're all sitting doing nothing. Any competent food critic would mention that," she added, staring intently at me. "That counts me out," I said. "I'm excluded if the critic has to be competent."
Apparently it was residents-only for tea. She got three gin and tonics. A man sat down on my other side, leaving his Ferrari in the driveway, blocking the view. "I'm told no cars are allowed outside the hotel," I dictated loudly into my tape. "Someone leaves a horrible red Pininfarina there and nobody does anything because, mistakenly, they think it's a car of importance."
The Ferrari owner obviously heard that, because he got up and drove it away. When he returned he said to his seated girlfriend: "Big walk." "I know it is," she said. The final table was taken by a Private Eye reader, who dumped the magazine down and started smoking. This annoyed Miss Lid, who made clear remarks about air pollution.
Apparently our suite had recently been inhabited by Barbra Streisand and her newish husband James Brolin. I notice she didn't sign the room guest book. I wrote: "On balance a first-rate hotel. Thanks." This was possibly overcautious. I think Lucknam Park is a find. Tastefully decorated, elegant, very beautiful setting and nice countryside around it.
For dinner, I had terrine of baby leeks and langoustine, a boring, triangular slice. I asked for crispy duck but got pink sliced duck, which
was actually very good; so was its own confit of puy lentils and a hermitage sauce. Miss Lid greatly praised her salmon. The poached peach was fine.
Breakfast was excellent. I particularly admired the way Mr Murray and Miss Randall worked the room that early in the morning. I asked Jenner if the kipper was fresh or deep-frozen. He thought about that for it While. "You've just said everything, haven't you?" I observed. "Every picture tells a story," said Jenner and giggled.
Miss Lid commented she'd smelt cigar smoke the night before coming into the suite from the lounge below. I hadn't noticed. Maybe, I surmised, that was why Barbra didn't sign the guest book.
Much of your review of Gordon Ramsay (Style, October 24) echoes my own recent experience. I took my wife there to celebrate her birthday and had one of the two best meals I've had this year. Every aspect of the occasion was superlative, from the fantastic food to Jean-Claude's attentive service. Unlike you, I found the wine waiter excellent and had the best bottle of Puligny Montrachet I've had in a long time. Gordon even had time to have a few words with my wife. In my opinion, restaurants do not get better than this, and I'll be amazed if they fail to receive three stars in next year's Michelin guide.
Paul Smyth, by e-mail
I fail to understand how you can think that the Waterside Inn is the most disappointing restaurant in the UK (Winner Awards, Style, October 17). I am a frequent visitor to a variety of good-quality restaurants and find the Waterside the best of them all. I suggest you go at lunchtime, when you will be able to appreciate the delightful setting of the restaurant, as well as the food. Order the set menu, which costs about £30, then spend the money you have saved on an extremely expensive bottle of wine. After that, I am sure you will reassess your views.
Mrs JM Clarke, Maidenhead, Berkshire
You frequently report on the quality of the bread you are served, yet you do not comment on the coffee. For many people, coffee, like bread, can be the crowning glory of an excellent meal or, as is often the case, the anticlimax of an indifferent one. One can only assume that either you do not take coffee or that, for some reason, you take no interest in this part of the meal.
Anthony Lawson Smith, Henley-on-Thames
Michael Winner suffering at the hands of abusive restaurant staff is surely undeserved. Mike is a model of placidity: he never displays any signs of ego, and tantrums are contrary to his demeanour. In fact, so quiet and demure is this fellow that when I offered to sell some film magazines to a dealer recently, the only one he refused was the one featuring dear old Mike on the cover. He is obviously too self-effacing for his own good.
Donovan Winter, London
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WINNER'S DINNERS:THE BOOK A collection of Michael Winner's reviews is published by Robson Books, priced £16.95. Sunday Times readers can buy it for the special price of just £14.95. To order, call The Sunday Times bookshop on 0870-165 8585