Published 7 January 2001 Style Magazine 391st article
The late show: Michael Winner with Marco Pierre White and Mati Conejero (Georgina Hristova)
I'm extremely intolerant of people who are late. If someone agrees to be somewhere at a certain time, they should keep their word. I'm not interested in hearing that the traffic was heavy. I can't recall ever being late for an appointment, and the roads aren't cleared for me. I frequently walk out if people are late. I've walked out on Marco Pierre White and his business partner, Jimmy Lahoud, on separate occasions. So when I dutifully turned up at their restaurant, Drones, at 7.55pm, for an eight o'clock assignation, I was surprised they weren't there. Only Jimmy's girlfriend, Tessa, was present.
I sat, muttering petulantly: "This is my last dinner with Marco." I'd have left were it not a celebration of his 39th birthday. So I hung about until Marco and Mati turned up, 35 minutes late. Marco, with considerable charm, admitted he had made a mistake. A remark that went down like the proverbial lead balloon. Drones, in Knightsbridge, the latest venture of the MPW empire, has a menu design and food very similar to his other places, the Mirabelle, Belvedere, Quo Vadis and Criterion. Marco strongly objected when I said that and, with difficulty, found a few items I hadn't seen before.
The room is ghastly. It's designer David Collins at his worst, and that's saying something. There are brown walls, differently papered in the outer room to the inner one. Marco muttered: "Can you believe a designer who runs out of wallpaper?" Long rows of black leather banquettes face tables and the chairs opposite. This is standard restaurant layout, which I hate. The Ivy and Le Caprice offer round tables or square tables where diners can sit and see each other without some of them facing the wall. The gloom was alleviated by lovely Cornel Lucas pictures of movie stars. He's a famous 1950s stills photographer, still going strong. There were not enough of them, but more are to come. Cornel used to live in my street. So did David Lean and Michael Powell. It was quite a movie area.
About two-thirds of the way through the meal, the lighting suddenly bounced up to fairly bright and everything looked better, if not sensational. Marco has a considerable talent for taking these bland, gloomy Collins designs and improving them with additions of his own. He saved the Mirabelle and Belvedere. He's got a formidable task at Drones, but I'm sure he'll manage.
Georgina ordered turbot, but that was off. She had French onion soup, which she thought terrific. Marco suggested I start with a salad of pigs' trotters and black pudding with sauce gribiche, followed by lobster a l'amioricaine. They were both excellent.
All the food was good. I tasted a lot of everyone else's. It's what I call "ponced-about" food. A bit of this, a bit of that. It's worked on. It's not what I want very often. But it's extremely popular and this is a fine example of it.
A waiter arrived with extra sauce for my lobster after I'd finished it. Marco said: "Michael, you shouldn't eat so quickly." Then they brought hollandaise for my broccoli after I'd finished three-quarters of it. Nobody seemed interested in taking our dessert order. So I slapped the table repeatedly with my left hand while chanting endlessly: "I want to order my dessert." Eventually, Marco broke off from his conversation to call a waiter: "Pierre, Mr Winner's having a ..." He stopped at saying "fit" or "tantrum", but I wouldn't have minded. When my tarte tatin of pears arrived, it was superb.
As it was Marco's birthday and, other than his choice of restaurant designers, I think very highly of him, I had "prepared" a Haut Brion 1961. This is an extremely serious wine and needs to breathe. Having highly expensive wines opened as you sit at the table is absurd. Some wines need four hours or more to breathe. I opened my wine at home, let it breathe in a decanter and took the decanter to Drones. Sometimes I pour the wine back into the bottle, with the sediment thrown out, and carry the recorked bottle into restaurants. Marco approved of this whole procedure, which cheered me up greatly.
We sang Happy Birthday To You rather feebly at some time during the meal - which Marco hated. Then, towards the end, a single candle appeared, flickering, on Mati's panna cotta. So we sang it again much more robustly, and I clapped madly and called for a speech. I dictated into my tape: "Marco was considerably unamused." But he's a splendid fellow. He arrived wearing a long black coat trimmed with black mink on the collar, and a black fedora. He looked exactly like a 1930s theatrical impresario. That's another plus.
I see that Michael Winner is contemplating entering Mastermind, choosing Kensington High Street as his specialist subject (Style, December 17). Is this really such a good idea, since his mind now seems to be in such a poor state that he has forgotten Mastermind ended several years ago?
Peter W Cowling, Horsham, W Sussex.
I was most encouraged to read David Townsend's letter suggesting why Mr Winner might have found his meal at Le Duc so disagreeable (Style, December 17). In the north, we have a similar expression: "He's p***ed on his chips."
Gordon Berry, Bradford, W Yorks.
It worries me greatly that a man with such self-confessed impeccable taste as Michael Winner should have opinions on certain of my local dining establishments that are so at odds with my own. It may simply be that, being a common sort of fellow, I am easily impressed by great food, ambience and friendliness, and less concerned with the more pretentious aspects that Mr Winner clearly thrives upon. Over the past 12 months, I have had the pleasure of dining at all of the following restaurants, often to entertain business clients: L'Ortolan, Le Manoir, the Waterside Inn and the Fat Duck. All are fabulous, all provide great food and all offer a really memorable dining experience. All, however, are very expensive. If I wish to spend my own money, then the Sir Charles Napier, in Chinnor, is still top of the class. The food is a minor notch below these premier restaurants, but the ambience and staff certainly make up for it.
David Rowley, by e-mail
In terms of panache and elan, the Soggy Dollar Bar in White Bay, Jost Van Dyke, British Virgin Islands, is as far removed from the Sandy Lane hotel in Barbados as it is possible to imagine. And yet it has the same X factor that makes you tingle with excitement. You swim the last 50yd to and from the yacht (Soggy Dollar, geddit?) to one of the 10 best beaches in the world (The Sunday Times, passim), where the bar and a two-storey Hemingwayesque hotel stand like two old lovers admiring the view. George and Paulette from ol' fashioned Texas preside over the bar and restaurant, where the dinner was, to borrow Mr Winner's phrase, historic. This place is paradise. Let's call it our little secret.
Kevin Coyne, Aughton, Lancs.