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Distress call

Published 15 October 2000
Style Magazine
379th article



All shipshape: Michael Winner with the kitchen staff, waitress, and, far right, Sally Canning (Georgina Hristova)

I don't eat in Dorset very often. "Who does?" I said to myself as I drove across the Hampshire border into the sleepy seaside town of Mudeford. I like these little adventures. The Ship in Distress pub had been recommended by Peter Crome of Chewton Glen, a hotel manager of many qualities, spelling not being one of them. He thinks denim is spelt with a capital D, if you recall another of my little histoires de manger.

We entered through the back door into a cluttered restaurant painted light blue. I spotted a jolly, attractive blonde lady. My friend, the photographer Terry O'Neill uses a wonderfully accurate, if cruel, phrase about personal appearance. "The butter's melting," he says, usually referring to women who were once beautiful. In the case of Sally Canning, her good cheer conquered all. "Are you the owner?" I asked. "It depends if it's a complaint," replied Sally. She goes round her customers saying: "Are you all right, darlings?" Nothing wrong with that. It shows she cares.

Sally bought the place four years ago and filled the walls and shelves with an enormous selection of pictures and knick-knacks. "They all came from car-boot sales," she explained. I believed her. "It's very relaxing," commented Georgina. It might have been, were it not for the relentless "bong bong" of the piped music. Still, the place was nice. So were the guests. Locals, dressed up for Sunday dinner.

Georgina ordered a small Mudeford dressed crab salad followed by pan-fried monkfish with lardons, pied blue mushrooms and fresh parisien herbs in a white-wine butter sauce. I, being a poor boy from Willesden, chose cod and chips, which they do for lunch but was not on the dinner menu. I did go all posh by having moules to start. These were accompanied by five packs of Handy Freshener, with a picture of a lemon on the wrapper.

"The mussels have a rather English taste," I dictated onto the tape. "This means they're a little quiet. The sauce is also a little quiet." But they grew on me. I ate them all.

"I like this place," observed Georgina. "It's unpretentious." I stifled a burp. Something I don't always do. "My fish is very good fish," pronounced Georgina. Then she said it was a bit overcooked, then she said the whole mixture was very good.

Sally sailed in with a plate for an adjacent table. "Tiger prawns," she announced triumphantly as she carried them toward the customer. A few minutes later her voice echoed from the adjoining room: "That's all for you-oo!" She'd make a marvellous Butlins redcoat, I thought.

"My son and heir to the overdraft, he works here," said Sally, determined there should be no secrets. "It's his night off" "He must be very handsome," said Georgina. "Do you have a photo of him we can see?"

"My Gawd!" I thought. "The only thing worse than seeing photos of other people's babies is to see photos of their grown-up sons."

Luckily, Sally had a photo, but didn't know where it was. She was irrepressibly cheerful, bless her. She smiled a lot.

Remarkably, all six desserts on offer were made on the premises. As I studied the menu, a young waiter came to the table and asked: "Are there any inactive glasses?" We found him one and he went to the next table and said: "Are there any inactive glasses here?" I think that's very intelligent.

"Lemon posset," explained Sally, "is a very smooth creamy mousse, but it's smoother."

"Could I have a tiny slice of pear and almond tart?" I asked. "You can share mine," Georgina offered. "You're having the peach tatin," I said. "You only ordered it 30 seconds ago."

"Oh yes," she said.

"We won Seafood Pub of the Year in Pub Food magazine," Sally suddenly informed us, with righteous pride.

Georgina pronounced her peach tatin "excellent". I scored my pear and almond tart as good-plus. The lemon posset was very fine indeed. Then I waited for a chocolate brownie that had been forgotten in all the excitement. It arrived with honeycomb ice cream and chocolate sauce. It was pleasant; not quite chocolatey enough, but very acceptable. The desserts were honest and not grossly refined, but they worked well.

Georgina said the music was extremely tiring. Which it was. The bill came to a good-value £37.65, excluding service. I gave them £50.

"Sally looks very much like Shirley MacLaine," Georgina observed.

"I don't know what glasses you've been wearing lately," I responded as we walked out of the fire door.

"Take care on the steps," said Georgina.

I know I'm decrepit, but even I can manage three steps. Still, it's nice that someone cares.



Letters

I found the letter from John Barnett (Style, October 8) very odd. I stayed at La Reserve de Beaulieu recently and there was no dress code of jacket and tie, as he said. Men were not asked to wear tongued shoes, nor was anyone charged extra for ice. I checked this out with Mr Winner himself, and the great man assured me that he recently complimented La Reserve on the liberality of the dress code in its beautiful dining room.
Don Black, London

Several years ago, we dined at Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons courtesy of some grateful clients. We had an enchanting meal and, knowing it would be a "one- off", I asked for a menu as a memento. However, unlike Cath Stobbart (Style, October 1), our experience left us with a bitter aftertaste. Not only was £7.50 added to the bill, but we were sold a menu from the previous winter. I suppose we should congratulate them for their ingenuity in making a handsome profit from something of no value whatsoever!
Diana and Alan Langleben, London

I am an Englishman living in New York and love food. However, I am amazed by the lack of etiquette that exists in top restaurants here. For instance, having one's entree arrive while still enjoying one's appetiser, and staff clearing away plates while members of the party are still eating. I would like to hear your views. What has been your most memorable eating experience in New York?
J Vanvliet, via e-mail

Every week I thoroughly enjoy seeing Mr Winner in his beautiful Winner uniform, featuring a pair of overwashed blue jeans and an oversized open shirt overhanging his very expensive and impressive belly, beside his impeccably dressed friends. I must confess, I am especially envious of Mr Winner "showing off" his hairy chest, as my wife would not allow me near a zoo in such a costume, let alone a restaurant.
Niels Hollander, Weybridge

Michael Winner rarely seems to venture north of Hampstead - perhaps his LearJet will only travel south - but he could do a lot worse than visit my local fish restaurant, George and Angela's. Although, on the night we went, neither George nor Angela were in attendance, the food was still absolutely exquisite, particularly their speciality, gateau de peche. Come on up north, Michael - 'appen you'll have a reet good time.
John Woods, Crosby

Send letters to Style; or e-mail: michael.winner@sunday-times.co.uk