Published 13 August 2000 Style Magazine 370th article
Slice of life: Michael Winner at The Muffin Man, with Elizabeth and George Salman (Georgina Hristova)
In my never-ending search for good snack places, I listen intently to my neighbour, lyricist supreme Don Black. Mr Black is to me what canaries were to coal miners. In days gone by, the canary would be carried clown the mine in a cage. If it died, there were dangerous levels of gas, so work was called off, at least temporarily. Don Black is the canary of Kensington High Street. He wafts into various restaurants that I wouldn't dare enter. If, on his return, he is capable of speech, I deduce that the place is safe and investigate.
Don's a splendidly lyrical fellow, but sometimes kinder than necessary. He strongly recommended Balans, which I enjoyed for one visit, but Don often returns. There he met a waiter who was to be the lead in Singin' in the Rain at the National Theatre. He's even been more than once to a Thai restaurant that recently opened near the bottom of my road, serving the worst food I've ever eaten. Nevertheless, I was particularly interested when Don spoke of The Muffin Man in Wright's Lane, close to Barkers department store.
I've always liked tea places. London used to be full of them. Gunter's in Curzon Street was particularly posh. I visited The Muffin Man prior to a theatrical outing. Nowadays, I prefer to eat before the play and then go home to enjoy hot chocolate and Marmite on buttered toast. Does this imply senility? The full title of the place is The Muffin Man and the Kensington Gift and Craft Centre. I can't imagine why. It looks like a Cambridge University cafe: simple, with wooden chairs and glass-topped tables. I was reminded of The Copper Kettle in King's Parade, which has a wonderful view of King's College and in my day was run by two little old ladies serving marvellous teas. Now it's drastically downmarket, for tourists only.
The Muffin Man sported a large display of cakes. The waitress assured me they were all home-made, although only some had "home-made" written by them on the menu. Georgina ordered carrot passion cake with earl grey tea. I decided on two buttered crumpets with jam, a lemon cake and tea. The menu boasted items such as Muffin Man rarebit with cheese and ale, cheese and apple salad, and chicken in a mild curry dressing with apricots and avocado. "It's very cheap for home-made," said Georgina after scrutiny.
The boss brought our stuff over. He's from Jordan and used to have a big Arab nightclub in Earls Court. He announced, "I like catering," and told us his name was George Salman. Then his Polish wife, Elizabeth, joined him. She makes the lemon tea bread cake in her kitchen at home and her husband makes the Queen Mother's cake on the premises.
I said: "Bring over the cakes. I'm an official taster." Then I said: "I don't think this is earl grey tea." Georgina responded: "It's not, but it's very pleasant anyway." I ordered a cheese and apple salad as well.
The waitress asked, "Don't you like the cakes?" because I'd left most of them. "I'm only tasting a little bit of each," I explained. "I'm an official taster, that's my job. I never finish anything. I just taste." This seemed to satisfy her.
My cheese and apple salad never turned up. The waitress looked confused and said she'd forgotten it. Then she came back and announced: "We've run out of apples." When we went to have the photo taken, a mass of smoke suddenly poured from the kitchen. George rushed in. His toasted chicken sandwich had caught fire. My meal was compliments of the house, so I gave him £20 for the staff. I thought: "The waitress will reckon that if she gets £20 for forgetting the cheese and apple salad, she might get £100 if she forgets an entire meal." George said: "Tell them why I burnt the sandwich." I said: "Because you were talking to me, George." He said: "Yes."
We got into the Rolls Phantom and went to see Cooking With Elvis, which was robustly vulgar and contained one of the funniest lines I've ever heard.
I have occasionally referred to my low opinion of the public relations fraternity. In the old days, it was said that the idiot of the family entered the church. Now, he or she becomes a PR. I'm encouraged in this view by a package from Paul Dingle of Catalyst PR. He says: "I hope you will enjoy the Russian chocolates enclosed with this letter enough to continue reading to the end." Mr Dingle's letter was posted on July 18. It was received three days later. The Russian chocolates were labelled "Best before June 2000". My case rests.
If Michael Winner fancies taking several hours over a meal one day, he would be well advised to go to Nine The Square in Winchester. We had booked a table for 8.30pm and, thinking we might be late, phoned to ensure that they would keep the table. Yes, that will be fine, we were told, it's just that if you arrive after 8.30 there might be "a bit of a wait" for food. Feeling decidedly peckish, we duly arrived at 8.20 and had ordered by 8.30. When, at 9.20, the starters had not arrived, we asked the waiter if he could speed these on a bit. In order to avoid the almost unbearable prospect of a similar time delay with our main courses, we asked, when we were about halfway through our starters, if the waiter could check their progress. The result was that the mains turned up with almost indecent haste, the waiter's accompanying remark being: "While the chef apologises, sir, he would just like to make it clear that this is not a fast-food restaurant." Indeed not, we thought, and I'm sure that the group sitting opposite us, who were there when we arrived and, by the time we left, had still not been served their main courses, would have agreed.
Victoria Brown, by e-mail
Before we married, my wife and I were taken to dinner at the Grill Room at the Cafe Royal. We so enjoyed the meal and the wonderful surroundings that we decided to have dinner there on our wedding night, which we duly did. Every year after that, we returned to the same table to celebrate our anniversary. Imagine our horror, then, to discover that it had turned into the Private Room at the Meridien. For the past two years, we have been forced to dine elsewhere - at the Dorchester and La Tante Claire, neither of which was the same. Could Michael Winner not use his influence to have the Cafe Royal returned to its previous status as one of the most beautiful restaurants in London open to all?
Dr Victor Kateck, Chigwell, Essex
We have recently come back from a rainy weekend in Bruges. Thanks to Michael Winner's recommendation of Den Gouden Harynck, the highlight of the trip was our dining experience. Although the restaurant was fully booked, we mentioned his name and got a table. Philippe and Marike Serruys were great and made us feel very special. However, in view of Mr Winner's driving experience in Bruges, we decided to leave the car behind and walk there.
Judy and Brian Cohen, by e-mail
Send letters to Style; or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org