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Heart and sole

Published 8 April 2001
Style Magazine
404th article

In deep: Caroline Edge and Michael Winner at Manzi's (Tony Cruz)

Sole used to be very popular. There was grilled sole, fried sole, sole Capri - that's grilled with curry and a curried banana in the middle. I liked that. It was one of 23 different varieties at the old Wheeler's restaurants. They've changed hands since and lost quality.

I enjoyed a nice grilled sole at J Sheekey recently and another at Bibendum. I used to go there a lot, so it was good to find Bibendum still on form. Fish, which once only came from the sea, are now farmed on a huge scale. Sea fish are swimming in circles in man-made tanks, getting fat and tasting vastly inferior to those from the ocean. A whole generation has no idea of the real taste of anything. They're fed a lot of ponced-about plate decoration instead of good, wholesome food, simply cooked. The late, great Jimmy Marks of Wiltons - still an excellent place - wouldn't keep fish in the fridge overnight. Overtons, a posh restaurant nearby, came each evening to collect Jimmy's leftover fish and sell it the next day. You don't even see sole much now. Sea bass is the usual offering.

So it was with a considerable feeling of goodwill that I revisited Manzi's, an old-fashioned fish restaurant off Leicester Square that I used to like. I hadn't been for 10 years, but two of my receptionists said it was still good. This proves it's dangerous to trust the views of staff.

My dinner guest was Mrs Caroline Edge, the glamorous grandmother. You may recall that she was once married to a rock star (among others) and accompanied me to Memories of China, Kensington, when we got tired, curled-up pancakes and old, hardened duck. I still go to Memories of China, Pimlico - that's superb.

Manzi's restaurant manager, Tony Cruz, advised us to sit downstairs where it's bright, overlit and old-fashioned. There are red-checked tablecloths, fake loaves of bread hang above the bar and there's an appalling mural on the ceiling of what could be cancan dancers. The restaurant was opened in 1928 by the Manzi fiamily. Mrs Manzi apparently still appears in the morning.

"Where's the whitebait from, Tony?" I asked. "It's frozen," he replied, adding, "but it's very nice." I chose whitebait followed by goujons of sole. Mrs Edge said: "Winnie, what about a mixed grill thing?" I said: "No, I don't want a mixed grill, that's for two people."

So Mrs Edge had clams to start. I tried one and they were horrible. Tasteless and poor texture. "Too cooked," said Mrs Edge. "But the sauce is delicious." I took a bit of the sauce. It was okay at best.

My whitebait were memorably dead. Dead taste, dead texture, quite awful. I know they weren't meant to be alive, but life was something they had long forgotten. Then came a large portion of sole goujons. "There's nine pieces of fried sole," I stated. "Eleven," said Mrs Edge sharply. Then she counted and agreed there were nine. After I'd declared them terrible, Mrs Edge tried a bit. "Wishy-washy," she opined. "There's hardly any fish in there. It would be great if the batter was good, but that's not great batter," she continued. There was no succulence or freshness to the sole. It was memorably poor. I tried Mrs Edge's halibut after she said: "It doesn't have any flavour." She was right.

I recalled when I was once planning lunch with the excellent serious food critic Fay Maschler. Fay said: "Whatever you do, don't tell them we're coming. I never book in my own name." "They must know who you are when you get there," I said. "Yes," replied Fay, "but if they know in advance they might get in food specially for me."

Since then a number of restaurateurs have said: "We couldn't have got that in specially for you, Mr Winner." So I realise that this does happen. "Well, they didn't bother to get anything in tonight, did they?" said Mrs Edge. "Too much shwaaoorr . . ." and she whooshed her hands in front of her as if pushing everything away. "It was both greasy and not tasty." I dictated into my tape.

Tony asked how it was. I said: "Tell the chef to go to Wiltons and learn about goujons of sole - I'll pay his bill." Tony came back with some tale about how the goujons were made of particularly fresh sole, just for me. "The goujons of sole were absolutely terrible, Tony. End of story," I said.

Manzi's isn't what it used to be. Fish isn't what it used to be. Culinary life isn't what it used to be. Only I remain unsullied by the times in which we live. Be thankful for that.


Why all the secrecy surrounding the surname of Michael's friends Wendy and David (March 18)? Surely even Mr Winner must be offended by "friends" who don't want to be associated with him.
JoAnne Good, by e-mail

I fear that both Michael Winner and his correspondent Andrew Wiltshire (March 25) have missed the main point of a visit to Arsenio's in Funchal, Madeira. If they were "entertained" by the same lady as were my wife and I last April, then they should consider themselves fortunate to have experienced genuine fado singing. This translates to English as "misfortune" or "fate". While not to everyone's taste, it should be experienced at least once during a visit to the island - or to mainland Portugal, where it originated. One of the features of Arsenio's is its fado singing, so they should not have been surprised to be assailed by it. And, no, we did not buy her cassette tape.
Robert George, Swansea

In reference to Min Edmonds's letter (March 25), if she thinks she's got problems, consider this: I'm only 26 and already a big fan of Winner's Dinners. Her letter has caused me to contemplate my own advancing middle age. Help.
Anya Weaver, by e-mail

I read Winner's Dinners every week. And I'm only 15. Fear for the children.
John Dobson, by e-mail

I was interested in Michael Winner's comparison of the Sanderson hotel (March 11) to a block of flats in Kazakhstan. I write from Uralsk in Kazakhstan, near the Russian border. There is bleakness here, but in Almaty, backed by wonderful mountains, there is a beacon in the gastronomic night. The restaurant is called Old England and serves fresh food, in itself a miracle, for most of the year - although in summer the bazaar is awash with beautiful smelling produce (except, that is, for the horse and camel meat). I see the restaurant as good over evil. Do visit it if you're ever passing.
Rod Bowker, by e-mail

Michael Winner regularly refers to conversations with "the PR" for a hotel or restaurant he is visiting. PR stands for public relations or press relations. You can't have a "PR" only a PRO (officer), PRC (consultant), PR lady, gent or nuisance. Now he knows.
Andrew Bainbridge, Society for the Prevention of Bloody Awful English