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New faces

Published 23 July 2000
Style Magazine
367th article

Feeling Hungary: from left, Aniko Levai, Viktor Orban and Michael Winner (Georgina Hristova)

So this young man turns up at the Hampshire picnic given by Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and I ask: "What do you do?" "I'm the prime minister of Hungary," he says. "Are you sure?" I ask. "You look so young." "I'm sure," he says. "Do you have a card with your name on it and Prime Minister underneath?" I inquire. "I've got a wife," says Viktor Urban. "Will that do?"

In fact, Viktor, aged 35, was the prime minister of Hungary and a very nice, bright person, too. His wife, Aniko Levai, was not only highly pleasant but very beautiful. And - most importantly brought with them absolutely splendid Hungarian food.

The party was to celebrate the millennium. Apparently, in Beaulieu they decided to wait a bit. Perhaps not sure it would really happen. Also, there were some Hungarian dancers who turned out to be an English group dressed up. The previous night I'd been asked to dinner and missed out not only on the food but on a Hungarian opera where many played the role of mosquitoes. His lordship enjoyed it, but found it difficult to follow.

I'm not normally mad about picnics. This one was first-rate. The Hungarians produced a sausage called kolbasz, mainly pork, some very tasty salami, some excellent paprika, and pogacsa, a bread roll with goose-fat scratchings in it. The fried goose scratchings on their own are called topotyiu. Totally historic. "You must try the goose liver," said the prime minister. "The French don't want us in the European Union because it's so competitively priced." He also told me that the Hungarian forint was very weak, so the populace didn't give a damn if it was replaced with the euro - and they largely dealt in dollars or deutschmarks anyway. "I became prime minister because the Hungarians are fed up with the past. We need something new, we need a new situation, we need a new man," said Viktor as I grabbed some salad, noting the aristocratic, bone-handled cutlery. I later enjoyed the chocolate dessert prepared by Fiona, Lady Montagu.

"Like the job, do you, Viktor?" I inquired, conversation being one of my strong points. "Yes. Yes, it's quite entertaining," said Viktor. "Anthropology is one of my main interests and when you're in power, you get a lot of information about human beings. I like to manage the affairs of the country and I like to follow how people behave. The Hungarians are very complicated, far more complicated than any other nation."

I visited Hungary once, in 1964. I stayed in Budapest at a beautiful, ornate old hotel, the Duna. The prime minister told me it was pulled down and replaced by a modern Sheraton. Khrushchev had just been deposed as Soviet leader and there were Russian tanks in the street. But I do remember exceptionally good food and highly decorative gypsy violinists.

I'd like to mention two other matters concerning Edward's picnic. Edward to me, Lord Montagu to you. His son makes ice cream, which was being sold from a van. It was a rather hard but delicious vanilla. And I was distressed to have to buy a Coca-Cola from a nearby vendor. More so when I got back and noticed under the table of our roped-off area that there were many cans of it lying gratis and unattended.

I now switch from England en fete to the end of an era in London's West End. Jeremy King sat with me weeks ago at The Ivy to tell of his departure and that of his partner, Christopher Corbin. They leave in September. The Business section of this newspaper was the first to inform the public. I was saddened to read that Luke Johnson, chairman of the Belgo group who bought them out, declined to pay tribute to Chris and Jeremy. I've been part of London's restaurant scene for a great many years. Places and people come and go. Nobody has equalled the achievements of Chris and Jeremy. They created three restaurants, The Ivy, Le Caprice and J Sheekey, all of unparalleled quality and ambience.

As important as their food is the skill with which they select clientele. You know that Ivy regulars, many of them working in what is laughingly known as "The Arts", will always find a place. Even if other people have to wait for weeks. The resulting atmosphere is perpetually pleasing. It's unheard of for any business to remain the same after the founding bosses leave. Particularly restaurants, which lean so heavily on the personal charm and presence of the owners. I hope their three places hold on until Jeremy and Christopher start again somewhere else. If you want backing, fellas, call me. And thank you for giving so much pleasure.


Michael Winner's review of the Mason Arms (Style, July 9) aptly sums up the treatment meted out to customers who have had the misfortune to dine there. Gerry Stonhill and his staff have mastered the art of arrogant, offhand service. I can only leave it to your imagination how guests who are not celebrities are treated. The first time we went, we thought it was a joke. The joke was on us - it was just as bad the second time.
Anthony Johnson, Oxfordshire

Poor Mr Winner. It must have been terribly upsetting for him that the host at the Mason Arms preferred a motorbike to grovelling at his feet. And that the servants failed to leap to attention at his every command. And that his guests were unable to see the manner in which every member of staff cowers from his very vision. But, on a more relevant note, was the food not actually pretty good? Is not this the place that Raymond Blanc goes for lunch? I wonder why? Winner was right about Claridge's - 9 out of 10 was spot on - but he is wrong about this one. Hostelries these days have average food and too little character. If the Mason Arms is not to his taste then that's great - perhaps nobody will come and spoil it for the rest of us.
Rick Francis, by e-mail

While I deeply sympathise with Michael Winner's experience at the Mason Arms, I have to smile. My close friend Maria, whose book about her mother, Marlene Dietrich, attracted a lot of sharp criticism, maintained that all publicity was good publicity. "The more venomous the criticism, the more books I sell," she always said. I fear that Winner's article will give the landlord of the Mason Arms a full house, even if people only go to see if he's right. He might even put up a sign: "As featured by Michael Winner".
Gerry Berger, by e-mail

I am interested to hear what both Michael Winner and Style readers think about cigar-smoking in restaurants. I had dinner a few weeks back in Alastair Little's restaurant in Frith Street, London. At the neighbouring table, three men lit up big cigars and kept them going during our whole main course and dessert. We asked to move, but the smoke and the smell were everywhere. We would have enjoyed a pizza in a smoke-free environment more than this £300 meal in cigar fumes. We wrote to Mr Little, but he has not replied. Don't we also pay for the ambience? I feel cheated.
Siri Dal, by e-mail