Published 3 December 2000 Style Magazine 386th article
Oslo service: Michael Winner with, from left, Masiel, Tony and Maria Sanchez (Mrs Lagoudakos)
I don't like St John's Wood. It's meaningless. My friend Johnny Gold of Tramp has a lovely, bijou Victorian house there. As for the rest, dump it. But from time to time. people have strongly recommended to me a "hidden gem" restaurant - Oslo Court. A recent adviser was Mrs Betty Ross, an imperious elderly lady whom I see dining in Claridge's either alone or with her granddaughter.
"Have you been to Oslo Court yet?" she asked in a piercing tone.
"No," I responded from my alcove table.
"Why not?" she said. "I told you to go."
So I phoned them. A man said: "Yeah."
"Are you a restaurant?" I asked.
He said: "We are at the moment."
"You mean you may not be next week?" I said.
"Who knows?" he replied.
"My name's Michael Winner," I volunteered, determined to progress the conversation. There was a pause.
"I hear you have a very poisoned pen," he said.
"Not on Tuesdays," I responded. "Everyone says I should visit you."
"When do you want to come?" he asked.
"Tonight," I stated.
"You're not serious?" he said. "We've got nothing until 9pm."
"I'm very old, I have to go to bed early," I explained. "Can you do 7.30pm?"
"We'll fix it," he agreed. He turned out to be Tony Sanchez, father of the Spanish family who owns the place.
An hour later, I parked the Bentley between dull blocks of flats, entered the lobby of one of them, and was directed to the restaurant.
Tony's daughter Maria, an extremely charming girl, showed me a small comer table. "Can I go there?" I asked, pointing to a larger table in another corner. "This is the best corner, trust me," said Maria. I went to sit down, but Maria beckoned to another chair. "I'd like you to sit there," she said. I was so gobsmacked that I sat meekly facing the ladies' toilet while Mrs Lagoudakos, my long-suffering receptionist, got the best view.
The food started well. The bread with garlic butter inside was warm. Excellent melba toast was on the table. It went with the upright fanned-out pink napkins. "It's similar to Craxton Wood," announced Mrs Lagoudakos. This was apparently some northern country club she frequented years ago. The low ceiling made it claustrophobic; the tables were all set for six or eight people.
When the diners arrived, it was very overcrowded. A single man sat alone with a large Marks & Spencer bag. They'll be collectors items soon. Then five other men arrived to join him, one of them, the food expert Lloyd Grossman, carrying a Harrods bag. "The latkes are good," he said to me. Actually, they weren't. Rather like overdone hash browns.
There's an enormous menu. and they announce many extras. The service is superb and the staff are very nice. Mrs L had lobster cocktail, which she thought was chewy. I had whitebait, which were all right, and asparagus, which was a bit undercooked. Not as tasty as some I'd had at Claridge's a few days earlier. My main course was half a crispy roast duck. "What happens to the other half?" I asked the waiter. "We serve it to someone else," he said. "What if that person orders it an hour after mine?" I asked. I got no answer. The duck was a bit tough. All the food was plonky. No finesse. Not refined cooking, but enormous portions. Mrs Lagoudakos thought the sauce with her fillet steak was rich and sickly.
It started to get very cold indeed. I put this to Maria. "My father Tony came down and touched the buttons," said Maria. "There's a gale here," I said to a waiter. "On Saturday night it's very useful," he explained. "But this is Tuesday," I said. Eventually, just before I was going to exit with frostbite, it went back to bearable.
An amusing, very fey fellow announced the desserts with many lavish hand movements and wide smiles. "Apple strudel, its lovely . . . blueberry tart, my favourite . . . creme brulee, our speciality." His name was Neil. He refused to reveal his nationality until after we'd eaten the desserts. He was half-Egyptian, half-Russian and from Bognor Regis. "He's so sweet, bless his heart," he said to Mrs Lagoudakos, referring to me. That was very odd. The creme brulee was too sticky, the strudel quite pleasant. Mrs Lagoudakos hated her "stewed" hot berries with ice cream. "If I did this at a dinner party, I'd be ashamed," she said with finality.
In fairness, I must state the place was packed with St John's Wood families. They clearly all loved it. Oslo Court is a wow in north London. Who am I to argue?
Are there two hotels named La Mamounia in Marrakesh? We have just returned from a delightful stay at a hotel bearing that name. On arrival, we enquired of a member of the management staff whether Mr Michael Winner was in residence. The man claimed he had never heard the name before - although, on further inquiry, he admitted that he had heard of Michel Roux.
AJ Stafford, by e-mail
Perhaps Mr Winner would consider dropping in on Britain's oldest inn, The Royalist, Stow-in-the-Wold, where, according to the Financial Times, the chicken comes stuffed with a chestnut mouse. Would the guru agree that it is traditionally the mouse that is stuffed?
Faith Hines, Torquay, Devon
How pretentious can one person be? Richard McCann's assertion (Style, November 19) that dining out is about pleasure, fun, etc, is preposterous. It is principally about food, good food, that turns up within a reasonable time. Has Mr McCann never been hungry when he is about to eat in a restaurant? And has he never had other places to go afterwards? Maybe Mr McCann should always dine at The Ivy and the rest of us can dine at restaurants where there is good service as well as excellent food.
Liz Doyle, by e-mail
Having frequently referred to his friend Willy De Bruyn as "the world's only amusing Belgian", Michael Winner obviously falls into that unfortunate subdivision of the (global? British?) population that sees Belgium as a nation incapable of humour. I must say, I expected a pinch more respect for a country that boasts the second-best cuisine in the world. In any case, Michael hasn't had the chance to meet the other amusing Belgian. Well, Mr Winner, here I am. Take me out to dinner.
Diederik De Vilder, London