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Our little secret

Published 6 May 2001
Style Magazine
408th article

The Portofino things in life: left, 'Mr Puny', Luigi Miroli, with Michael Winner (Georgina Hristova)

I get very nervous when taxi drivers say, "I'll go down the back doubles." It means you then zigzag tortuously through narrow, obstructed streets. I was recently going west down Curzon Street to Park Lane. The taxi driver veered off. We went at a snail's pace round right-angle corners in Shepherd's Market, got stuck behind a lorry and ended up in Park Lane, having taken much longer than if we'd sailed down Curzon Street - a straight line with more lanes.

I'm a totally historic London driver. The best. I know exactly what traffic lane to be in at any moment. This is very important. Driving is for the staff. But when I do it, I challenge anyone to get from one London location to another quicker than me.

There exists the restaurant-adviser equivalent of the back-lane taxi-man. They always know a place nobody else knows. Usually, there's a reason nobody else knows it: it's absolutely terrible.

Two great professionals who I like immensely, Fausto Allegri, once the greatest concierge in the world, now the best guest-relations manager, and Carlo Lazzeri, the young restaurant manager of the Hotel Splendido in Portofino, ganged up on me. "Ah, Mr Winner," they said, "you haven't been to Concordia."

Portofino is a tiny place. I've been going for years. I'd neither heard of, nor seen, Concordia.

"It's at the back, opposite the police station," said Fausto. "But the food . . . " Carlo went into a daze. "The man looks for special recipes, Mr Winner, it's marvellous."

I was duly booked in. If you walk toward the hills, away from the lovely harbour of Portofino, you enter a no man's land desolated by the town's only charmless buildings. Concordia is in one of them. There's no view, just cream walls, hideously bright lighting, a tiled floor and yellow tablecloths. "Like a hospital," said Georgina.

The food wasn't awful - just considerably less good than you can get nearby. Octopus salad, anchovies and sardines, a bread and cheese thing, fried, with pumpkin flowers, and potatoes. Langoustine came with oil, garlic and too much chilli. The scampi with Georgina's spaghetti was complete, head and all. She rightly couldn't be bothered to get it out of the shell, so she left it and ate the spaghetti. That was far too salty. So was the sauce with the local tanuta fish. The dessert - panna cotta - was okay, but I've had much better in London's Assaggi. "The setting is so awful I can't wait to get out," I dictated. The chef-owner, Stefano Maconi, should walk down to the harbour and study the kitchen of Puny - an incredible restaurant with a stunning view, run with immense charm by "Mr Puny", whose real name is Luigi Miroli.

It looks like a minor trattoria, facing the little boats in the harbour and two tree-covered hills, one with a castle on it, the other with a church. Puny, aged 69, works day and night, sweating, moving with great speed, serving, preparing, hosting. He is a marvel. "My mother's 98. She's in the window, there," he said.

"Why's that limousine parked outside?" I asked. A policeman guarded a large car on the cobbled square, where no vehicles are allowed. "That's Silvio Berlusconi," Puny whispered. Il Signor Berlusconi, media mogul, former Italian prime minister, head of the Forza Italia party and likely to be prime minister again, sat with his family at the next table. We tried trofiette with green beans and potatoes, penne with shrimps and zucchini, sea bass cooked in tomato sauce, black olives, oregano, basil, garlic, olive oil, white wine ... everything is staggeringly good. This is one of my favourite restaurants. The next day we had cheese focaccia, pappardelle with basil sauce, tomato sauce and parmesan in the mix (the best pasta ever, equal to Harry's Bar in Venice - and that's saying something), then tiny anchovies with boiled potato, olive oil and lemon. You can eat food identically described at many different restaurants. Some, like Puny, do it absolutely brilliantly, others don't.

There are very few great restaurant tables in the world. Puny's front table facing the square and the harbour is one of them. The next-best food in Portofino is at the Splendido, with a lovely view of the harbour from high on the hill. The only problem with the Splendido is me. I've recommended it so many times, it's now much more crowded than it used to be. Readers keep coming up to thank me for writing about it, explaining that's why they came. The price of guiding you properly is that I have less space by the pool. If that isn't sacrifice, what is?


Michael Winner hit the nail on the head recently, when he described some restaurant food as being "ponced-about plate decoration, instead of good, wholesome food, simply cooked". I have been in the catering business for more than 50 years, and recently the standard of food has plummeted. I have been presented with dishes that are a delight to behold, but which soon prove to be concocted from tasteless ingredients, highly seasoned with herbs and spices. The flavour of vegetables straight from the garden is a joy. The taste of fish straight from the sea needs no additive. I feel sorry the youth of today will never know what they're missing.
Michael E Vinall, by e-mail

I recently dined with friends at Tuscan Steak, one of the restaurants at the St Martins Lane hotel in London. After drinks and an acceptable but somewhat overpriced dinner, we examined the bill. This indicated a tomato juice at £2.50 and two virgin marys at £4.50 each. Our waiter was unable to explain the difference in price, so he invited over a more senior colleague, who informed us quite seriously (though we were giggling like hysterical children by this time) that there was a material difference between the two. When challenged to explain further, he told us that he could not disclose the added ingredients in the virgin mary (all £2-worth), as that was "chef's secret". The only secret I can share is that my friends and I will not be dining at Tuscan Steak again.
Antony Montague, by e-mail

I was amused to read the correspondence sparked by Richard Barton's frustrations regarding West Midlands restaurants (April 15). Mr Barton has clearly not dined at the Glasshouse restaurant in Worcester. The head chef, Calum MacCrimmon, exercises a flair and imagination that many London chefs would envy. I do, however, agree with Mr Barton's observations of the natives, who unfortunately would not know a decent restaurant if it took off their white socks and tickled them on the feet.
Steve Diamond, by e-mail

I am yet another 15-year-old who reads Michael Winner's column. My analysis of this (rather dire) situation? Well, I think that Mr Winner's appeal to a teenage audience lies in the fact that we can identify so much with his frequent temper tantrums, immature behaviour and need to show off.
Kate Malachim, by e-mail

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