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The extra smile

Published 21 January 2001
Style Magazine
393rd article

Glad to see you: from left, Ilaria Turi, Michael Winner, Sonia Mailet and Tim Tolley (Martin Magee)

Surly receptionists who greet you with a blank stare and the words "Do you have a reservation?" should go to Vong, at the Berkeley hotel in Knightsbridge. Everyone smiled as I entered. That's rare. You felt the Vongies were glad to see you, unlike many places where the customer is clearly an intrusion into the lives of the staff.

The original Vong in New York was started by someone so meaningful that he's only called Jean-Georges. I rate him highly. When Vong opened in London five years ago, it was extremely fashionable. The chef at the time was Tom Dimarzo, a musician from New York who fell out with management. He phoned me to see if I could find him another job in London, which he'd grown to love. The present chef, Tim Tolley, is also from New York. I get the impression he might be happy to go back. But the food remains excellent. Tim described the cuisine as "a fusion of French style with a lot of Asian ingredients". He also called it "French-Thai".

Georgina, being highly practical, asked me: "Do you want to do the photograph now before you get spots all over your shirt?" It's rare I get through a meal unblemished. But I didn't like our photo. Not Georgina's fault at all. Tim looked surly. I looked ridiculous. Nothing new about that. So I dropped in again with Martin Magee, my favourite taxi driver, and he took another picture. I added the smiling head of reservations, Miss Ilaria Turi, and the smiling head waiter, Miss Sonia Mailet, in recognition of their splendid work.

The dining area of Vong looks like an Essex schoolroom marginally tarted up. The chairs are very hard. They're cloth-covered, but someone saved on padding. I normally like hard chairs, but these went a bit far.

I'd been in a few weeks before my official visit and the service was smarter. This time I waited, and then had to call someone to take our order. Georgina asked for crisp sweet-and-sour sea bass with mushroom broth. I loved the rabbit curry, so I chose it again. For starters. Georgina had crab spring rolls, prawn satay, lobster daikon roll and some other stuff. I had sauteed foie gras with ginger mango. They gave us some rice biscuits with ginger and peanut-butter sauce. Eventually.

Georgina polished off her enormous tray of starters, finishing with some white streaky things. "They're pickled sprouts," she said. They looked like white beans to me. Then she drank a second large orange juice. "You've had enough to feed 10 people," I said. "Funny how you're the fat one and I'm the slim one," she replied.

Then we got a freebie middle bit of garlic soup served with frogs legs.

"They all look very bland, the customers here," I observed. "It's not a chic group."

Georgina said: "I'm chic."

Things brightened up as very strange people paraded down the stairs in front of us. There was a girl with a shaved, tattooed head. Her ears were pierced all over and covered in jewellery. Her weird-looking companion could have been a model. "Very distressing sight," said Georgina. Then a couple of old ladies, vastly over-made-up, tottered towards a table opposite.

Georgina had a spoon with her main-course bowl of white rice to serve it with. I didn't get one with mine. "Where are the mushrooms?" she asked, looking at her fish. I pointed out that it said mushroom broth. She thought the food was wonderful. My rabbit was superb. For dessert I had crushed strawberries, vanilla panna cotta, strawberry sorbet. Georgina had mango-and-tamarind floating island with coconut tapioca. "Where's the mango?" she asked. "Inside," I said, prising it open. The waitress wore a very short miniskirt.

Vong is a successful example of a big hotel renting out restaurant space to an outside operator. I'm appalled to hear that Claridge's, a hotel in the same group, is thinking of relinquishing its only restaurant to an alien operation.

They've spent a fortune redecorating. The centrepiece is a modern chandelier resembling a gorgon's hairstyle. "It cost £250,000," staff whisper in awe. The redecoration is fine. But a hotel of that calibre should be able to run its own restaurant without palming it off to flaky outside chefs, particularly as the restaurant serves marvellous English food. The three-course Sunday lunch, £31.62 including service, coffee and petits fours, is incredible value. I had excellent asparagus, historic chicken pie - I could have had roast beef and yorkshire pud - and a stunning selection of desserts. All immaculately served. Any group that plans to fire the chef and staff and pass such a key element of its hospitality to an outsider is letting down British hotels in a big way.

  • Next week: my verdict on the new Sandy Lane Hotel.


    My sympathies to Marco Pierre White for feeling obliged to spend his birthday with a lowly restaurant critic (Style, January 7). However, he probably reasoned that only Mr Winner could afford to come armed with a 40-year-old claret - and for a mere 39th birthday, as well. Mr White must be looking forward to the big four zero.
    Paul Harrod, London

    Congratulations to Michael Winner for condemning those rude people who turn up late. I would rather be half an hour early than half a minute late, and have had many meals spoilt because some rude invitee did not know that 7.00 for 7.30 meant that the meal would be served at 7.30. Like the man said: "L'exactitude est la politesse des rois."
    Norman T Shepherd, Bristol

    Peter Cowling (Style, January 7) is so intent on making Michael Winner look foolish he has shot himself in the foot. Mastermind may have finished on television, but it has been running quite successfully on Radio 4 for the past three or four years, chaired by Peter Snow. For my part, I would welcome its return to the screen, if only because the black chair would make such a lovely backdrop for Mr Winner's snowy-white curls.
    Sue Dorman, by e-mail

    I can't stand it any more. I know controversy sells, but why Michael Winner keeps prostituting his good nature for column inches is beyond me. I have lived in London for four years, during which time I have had countless sightings of Mr Winner, one of which took place in the Ivy, where he was good enough to wink at my girlfriend. The one constant to these encounters is his beaming smile and congenial nature. So come on, Michael, the game is up: why not admit to being a gentle man and start enjoying your soup?
    John Bromwich, by e-mail

    Dare I offer a morsel of advice in the interest of Michael Winner's continued good health? A few years ago I worked as a waiter in a most superior restaurant. It is a sad reflection on human nature that I discovered it to be a great mistake for a guest - particularly a high-paying one - to complain before he received his meal. What was done, surreptitiously, to the order of "a difficult bd" was far too unspeakable for your pages. Discretion is the better part of valour, and nowhere more so than in a smart restaurant. You'd be amazed what some guests unknowingly consume.
    Dick Richards, by e-mail

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