Published 22 April 2001 Style Magazine 406th article
Girl power: Michael Winner and Natasha Ladenis at Incognico (Georgina Hristova)
I first observed Natasha Ladenis, the boss of Incognico in Shaftesbury Avenue, in her pram. It was not a sight I enjoyed, as the pram obstructed the narrow hallway of my apartment building in Cornwall Gardens. I lived on the first floor, Natasha on the third. I had tried unsuccessfully to seduce her mother, Dinah-Jane, before Natasha was born. A serious suitor then appeared and I'd nod to him as we passed on the stairs. He later married Dinah-Jane and they begat Natasha. That was when I bombarded Madame Zissu, Natasha's grandmother and my tenant, with solicitor's letters. "Get that pram out of the hall," they said in threatening terms. "You're in breach of your lease." The family Zissu moved on from Cornwall Gardens, and so did I.
Thirty-five years later, I was a dinner guest at Chez Nico in Park Lane. As I entered a lady threw her arms round me. "We knew you'd come eventually," she said. "How lovely to see you." We parted from our embrace and she pointed to the receptionist. "There's Natasha," she added. I had no idea who the woman embracing me was and no idea who Natasha was. To cap it all, Nico Ladenis, whom I recognised only from photos, appeared. He embraced me, too. "Michael, how marvellous to see you again," he enthused. "This family are all nuts," I thought. "They think I'm someone else."
We were, in fact, old Cornwall Gardens neighbours. Nico was the suitor turned husband, although when I met him he worked in the advertising department of The Sunday Times. After our reunion we remained very friendly, except for grandmother Zissu, who'd retired to the south of France and viewed me with less than total warmth. I asked after her. "She's 91 and still as feisty and terrifying a woman as she ever was," said Natasha fondly and with righteous pride.
Although he occasionally threw people out, Nico Ladenis is the sanest and nicest chef I have ever met. He and Marco Pierre White achieved their three Michelin stars on the same day and, by coincidence, handed them back the same week, Marco because he no longer wished to slave in the kitchen, Nico because he was retiring. He retains Chez Nico in Park Lane under its old chef, Paul Rhodes, who is superb.
Nico is also mentor to a new business. which includes Incognico. I'd been there a few times for a pre-theatre snack. It was always first-rate. The delicious warm apple pie is as good as you'll ﬁnd anywhere, and the service exemplary. The room is a dreary brown, the favourite colour of the overused restaurant designer David Collins. Brown probably featured traumatically somewhere in his youth, and he's been taking it out on the rest of us ever since. On a recent return for dinner I was glad to see Natasha had bought elegant, panelled glass mirrors and oil paintings to cheer the place up.
Incognico is a hundred yards north of the Ivy and is attracting some theatricals. I was shown the table where Lord Lloyd-Webber often sits. My own choice was a corner table, but it was a bit close to others, so we moved to our pre-dinner table, facing the bar area. Even that was too close to the table behind, where a particularly noisy man kept laughing much louder than should be permissible.
All the food was memorably good. I ate rather simply: gravadlax, an entrecote steak with bearnaise and flat mushrooms with garlic and breadcrumbs, followed by champagne jelly with citrus fruits and ice cream. Georgina was more adventurous, with ravioli of goat's cheese followed by breast of guinea fowl with lentils. "Extremely balanced taste," she opined. Then, seeing the inevitable stains on my shirt, added: "We should have taken the photograph before you ate."
If Incognico is good news, a letter from a reader, Miss D Atkinson of Bray, Berkshire, is not. "As you kindly paid for the PR and her assistant at Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons," she wrote, "can we expect you to pay for her now she is responsible for your favourite hotel, the Sandy Lane?"
I was indeed amazed to find the restaurants PR and her aide on my bill at Le Manoir. I shall check carefully if Jo Vickers and I are ever at Sandy Lane together. Dermot Desmond, the owner of the hotel, told me very firmly that he'd never have journalists there for free. I note that policy has been speedily abandoned. Ms Vickers is offering free trips all around. The resulting reviews will doubtless take no account of the freebie. At least I always pay my way. Everywhere. And I'm not reimbursed by this newspaper. Please, don't send money. It's a kind thought, but I'll manage.
It was a memorable and historic delight to see Michael Winner sitting in Manzi's (April 8) wearing a suit and tie - and with his shirt tucked into his trousers.
Fred Beckett, by e-mail
Michael Winner complained about the taste and texture of his whitebait at Manzi's (April 8). Perhaps he was simply eating it too early in the year. The Royal Academy of Arts Dining Club, founded in 1813, used to assemble at Greenwich each year to eat whitebait. But they waited until May.
Edna Weiss, London
Style (April 8) names David Tang as the world's greatest name-dropper. Is Winner slipping?
Malcolm Boulter, Shrewsbury
In response to Andrew Bainbridge's letter (April 8) about people who work in public relations, one can, in fact, have "a PR" - although in my own professional circle, PR stands for "per rectum". Perhaps not a suitable subject for the dinner table.
Dr Amelia Bolgar, by e-mail
Wasn't Michael Winner lucky with the Hotel de la Cite in Carcassonne (March 25)? When we visited, it was pouring with rain, and there was a howling gale with it. It was before 6pm and the city was closed to cars, so the hotel said we had to go to the public car park and wait for the hotel transport. Three-quarters of an hour and two phone calls passed (kindly made for us by the car-park attendant) before a hotel car finally arrived. At the hotel, the receptionist was elsewhere. So we waited for yet another 15 minutes before getting to our room. There, the wind was still blowing and it continued to howl loudly through the modern but ill-fitting plastic windows, keeping us awake all night. The remainder of our experience was reasonably pleasant, but nowhere near enough to encourage a return visit.
Geoff Leggett, by e-mail
My husband and I recently took our son, daughter and a close friend to dinner at a much-advertised hotel restaurant in Nottingham. The wine waiter recommended the house wine. Our friend asked him: "What is the house wine?" To which he replied: "Carafe." When asked again what they served as the house wine, the waiter snatched the wine list, sighed deeply and stabbed it with his finger. "Carafe!" he snapped again. "That's what it says, so that's what you get."
Mrs Elizabeth Rawcliffe, Nottingham