Published 19 March 2000 Style Magazine 349th article
Away match: Michael Winner with Ilse of the Oud Huis Amsterdam, Bruges (Miss Lid the third)
I don't often take risks. I go regularly to the same places. So when I recently decided to spend a weekend away, the question was - where? I decided on Bruges. I'd last been there in 1956 when I made my first ever movie, a documentary entitled This Is Belgium. It rained a lot that summer, so it was finished off in East Grinstead. It made it into the Guinness Book of Records as the only film about Belgium ever shot in Sussex.
My first problem was: there's no legendary hotel in Bruges. In the Michelin Guide it has one three-star restaurant and two one-stars, but the highest-rated hotel had two black towers (three is top) and was modern. I hate modern. Among one-tower hotels listed, two were coloured red. For those who understand the Michelin Guide (and I've never met anyone who does) red means Hotels agreables. Neither place could offer much, but the Relais Oud Huis Amsterdam came up with a junior suite.
Bruges is easy to get to. You take a private Learjet from RAF Northolt, and it's a half-hour flight to Ostend. The hotel was a 10-minute drive. It's a lovely 18th-century house on one of the beautiful canals. The junior suite was an attic with a high, pointed ceiling and four tiny windows looking onto rooftops; very gloomy, not much furniture. I phoned downstairs to an immensely charming 22-year-old girl, the only person in charge. "Ilse, this is the worst room I've ever been given!" I said, trusting the message would get through. Ilse appeared, quite unworried, with a bunch of keys and showed us six other rooms, all of which were worse. The next day someone failed to turn up, so we moved to a real suite, pleasantly furnished, with three large windows overlooking the canal.
Breakfast was served in a historic, high-ceilinged room with lovely, tall, carved doors, an old fireplace with a log fire burning, a period chandelier and views over the canal to marvellous old buildings opposite. The butter was not wrapped. Excellent jam was in a tin-lidded pot and there was a good buffet of everything including a whole smoked salmon, cut so you could easily remove strips. The tea, coffee and fresh orange juice came with miraculous speed. I definitely recommend this place.
We took our own boat for a trip on the canals; there are tourist ones for real people. The streets, galleries and churches are fabulous. The food is excellent, the Belgians jollier than I remembered. I tried all the starred restaurants, but for now I'll tell you about two "ordinary" places.
It's always wise to ask the best restaurateurs where they eat on their days off. Phillipe Serruys, owner-chef of Den Gouden Harynck (one Michelin star) said, "Try Heer Halewyn. It's where the in-crowd of Bruges go." Later he left a panic message at the hotel that I should take cash because they didn't accept credit cards. The Heer Halewyn is a small bistro-like room featuring brick walls with maps on them and a charcoal grill in front of a roaring log fire. Two old ladies sitting close to it were going redder and redder. I'd eaten a lot of rich food, so the tasty grilled steak with jacket potato was most welcome. Miss Lid had an extremely good kebab. I started with a fine salad with cheese and walnuts and ended with vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce. All very nice. The in-crowd of Bruges didn't look much like the group you see at San Lorenzo in London, which sports more plastic surgery per square loot than anywhere in the world. And superb, much under-rated Food. But they were a wholesome lot.
Bany Sonnavella, maitre d' of De Karmeliet (three Michelin stars) suggested a place just off the market square, Breydel de Coninck. He said it was famous for mussels. It was packed for Sunday lunch, so I prostrated myself before Caroline Janssens, a statuesque blonde at the counter. Her husband, Fernand, is chef and owner. She led us upstairs to a table for six by an open window facing whitewashed walls and flower baskets. "You may have to share," said Lieve, the waitress. I looked so shocked that she thought better of it. I got some really incredible white, very cold beer made in Bruges. Miss Lid had fried scampi that were very tasty. I had moules in cream sauce, one of 11 sauce options. They were good, but not South-of-France good. The chips were absolutely sensational. Home-made. You very seldom ﬁnd that today. The grand finale was a superb apple pie with whipped cream and ice cream. An enormous portion. Totally historic. So was Bruges. I shall venture into the unknown more often.
Some months ago I dropped a note to Conrad Gallagher, one of Ireland's leading chefs, concerning a grim evening my wife and I had experienced at his newly opened restaurant, Mango Toast. Last week I left a message to the effect that my initial correspondence had not been answered. To date, I have still heard nothing, and can only assume that my queries have somehow gone astray. Otherwise one would have to conclude that Gallagher is sublimely indifferent to those who are less than overwhelmed by the quality of his fare.
Stephen Ryan, Dublin
My boyfriend and I recently had a disappointing experience at the Sir Charles Napier near Chinnor, Oxfordshire. Towards the end of our meal we wanted to see the dessert menu, but after spending some 25 minutes trying, unsuccessfully, to attract a waiter's attention, we gave up on more food and settled in a couple of chairs by the fire in the lounge to try our luck ordering coffee and the bill. Service was still unforthcoming. To add insult to injury, a waitress asked if we could move to the bar (standing room only) so she could seat a group of post-meal coffee drinkers she had been looking after that evening. We resisted, saying we were waiting for service, but she was insistent, so, feeling demeaned, we moved. The bill came to £130, excluding service. Naturally we didn't pay the gratuity - and we made sure they knew why.
Fiona Stephenson, by e-mail
Michael Winner is wrong when he suggests that the Scots having been smoking salmon only for the past 20 years (Style, February 27). In the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, I regularly ordered oak-smoked salmon from Scotts Fish Shop in Kirkwall, Orkney.
MH Laing, Geneva
I have tried for some time to persuade Roz, my delightful wife, of the value of Michael Winner's column. Personally, I find it entertaining, normally in the bathroom on Sunday morning, but she seems to find it infuriating, and is obviously concerned that she's married to someone who thinks otherwise. I thought her attitude might have mellowed a bit, since we have just come back from the Caribbean, so I asked her what she thought of Michael Winner now. "Pompous git," said Roz.
Steve Shepherd, by e-mail