Published 25 June 2000 Style Magazine 363rd article
Michael Winner with Geert Van Hecke and chicken pie at De Karmeliet (Miss Lid the Third)
The 24-year-old American chef from the US ambassador's residence in Brussels declined to give an opinion on the three-star-Michelin food served at De Karmeliet. Timothy Byres sat there in a corner, with his wife Brianne. He wore no jacket, but a nice blue spotted tie. They were the only other lunchtime customers. He'd travelled to Bruges to sample the supposedly wonderful food. On the whole I found it awful. Marginally worse than the Waterside Inn at Bray - and that's saying something.
We started off with drinks in a lovely atrium overlooking a small garden. Bany Sonnavella, the maitre d', was upset when I ordered chicken pie. "It's enormous, it's for two people," he said. "I'll pay for two people and leave some," I volunteered.
"It's not a question of paying," said Bany. "Can you take it home with you?"
"How can I take it home?" I replied. "I'm in a hotel."
"It's a whole chicken," persisted Bany.
"Well, let the staff eat half of it," I said.
The main restaurant was not so attractive. Yellow washed walls and paintings ranging from nice to awful. No cohesion. There was piped music coming from black loudspeakers hanging in the corners of the room. Disgusting. Bany recommended I get in early and order a dessert of pasta with cream in it.
I started with roast langoustine and bits and pieces. Miss Lid had coulis of eggplant, tartare tomato and slices of mozzarella with goose liver. "It doesn't mix, the taste, with the goose liver," she said. I took some goose liver. It was excellent, went very well with my langoustine. Miss Lid got a bit overexcited when they brought her Coca-Cola with lots of ice when she'd asked for none. She spilt it all on the table. They laid down a cloth backed with silver paper, which was odd. It rustled throughout the dinner.
Miss Lid enjoyed her risotto greatly, but my chicken pie was unspeakable. They served half of it. The chicken was very light and lacking in texture. I've never tasted anything like it. It resembled a mousse of man-made, or false, chicken. It tasted of nothing. Also, I don't think the chef, Geert Van Hecke, should expect you to eat salad with the same knife and fork you've been eating hot chicken with. They do a wonderful chicken at Claridge's, but I went totally bananas last time I was there. After an excellent lunch and exemplary service I got into my old, beautifully preserved Bentley and found the doorman had placed a bionically adhesive round sticker on the blue leather armrest. When we took it off, some of the leather surface came with it.
I returned in peak hysteria and told the doormen what I thought of this. The next day the general manager, Chris Cowdray, apologised profusely. Apparently, the sticker had recently been manufactured for guests' luggage to show staff their room number. It must have stuck to a doorman's arm and thus to my car. "We're trying it on some luggage now," said Chris.
"God help anyone coming to your hotel with ﬁne leather luggage," I said. "It'll be destroyed."
"The sticker was not a great idea," Chris glumly agreed.
Back at De Karmeliet, Miss Lid tasted my chicken and pronounced it, "Absolutely terrible: no flavour or taste." It was one of the worst dishes I've ever been served. Then they brought new napkins and put the side plates on the right. "I want to know why these side plates are on the right," I said to Miss Lid. "I've never had a side plate on the right."
"They want to annoy you," she replied. "They want you out of here as quick as possible."
Some petits fours arrived before the dessert. I ate a small eclair that tasted as if it had been in the fridge. The recommended pasta and cream dessert was memorably terrible. The pasta was very overdone and chewy, particularly at the edges where it was sort of caramelised. You had to work very hard to pull a piece off to eat. Miss Lid found her banana greatly overcooked. I tried it and it was. The ﬁnale was partly saved by some historic honey bread cakes.
When our mint tea came it tasted ghastly. I'd asked for fresh mint, but it didn't seem like it. When I inspected, there was dried mint under the fresh mint. At another place I was told they put Earl Grey in the mint tea to add colour. All this goes to show that three Michelin stars don't always mean much. If you want a culinary treat in Bruges go to Den Gouden Harynck. One star only, but I've never had better food anywhere.
If Michael Winner should ever again suffer an excess of hot chilli, as he did recently at Yatra (Style, June 11), a remedy better than water is a mouthful of plain boiled rice.
Jes Davis, by e-mail
A researcher in the year 2400 looking for contemporary accounts of social mores related to diet, food, tastes, appetites, nutrition and formalised behaviour patterns at the turn of the millennium would find a treasure trove in the archives of The Sunday Times under Winner's Dinners. Winner is a latter-day gastronomic Pepys. I feel the archives should include a good photograph (or painting) of Michael, ensuring that the bulge caused by his tongue in his cheek is subtly, but not stridently, obvious.
Michael Jefferson, by e-mail
I was driving through Buckinghamshire in the Bentley, thinking about Sir John Gielgud and his pavilion, when I beheld a sight that, in restaurant/hotel terms, saddened me as much as the passing of the great thespian. The Bell at Aston Clinton has gone, to be replaced by Duck In, a brilliant play on words reminiscent of Gielgud himself. The simultaneous passing of the two seemed strangely connected; we shall not see their like again.
George Roberts, Hadley Common, Herts
The recent correspondence regarding the bad habit waiters have of holding glasses by the rim reminds me of a poem written by that great bard Sir Les Patterson (Australian cultural attache):
What can I get you this evening?
Said the waiter whilst picking his nose.
I'll have two boiled eggs, you bastard;
You can't get your fingers in those.
Tim Cullimore, Lausanne, Switzerland
I was not surprised to read of Michael's bad experiences at Indian restaurants in London (Style, June 11). If he ever finds himself in Yorkshire, however, he really should try The Indus, in Doncaster. Opened more than 30 years ago, it has a photo board displaying pictures of the owner with Michael Jackson, Richard Branson, Prince Naseem etc, and has catered for film premieres as well as Ian Botham's charity walks. The decor, food and service are all excellent, and the atmosphere unrivalled in any Asian restaurant I have visited anywhere in the world.
John Din, by e-mail