Published 27 May 2001 Style Magazine 411th article
From left: Michael Winner with Jean-Jacques Jouteux and Dominique Calcerano at Le Provencal (Georgina Hristova)
Surprises in restaurant world are usually unpleasant. My dreadful meal at Manzi's, my muted disappointment with Green's, my shock-horror at Spoon in the Sanderson hotel. So it's nice when a surprise is on the plus side. Thus it was when I visited Le Provencal in St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat. I'd first been taken there by Andrew Lloyd Webber when he was just plain "Mr" seven years ago. It was a short walk from his south-of-France villa, which, without seeking my advice, he later sold. This diminishes the pleasure of my visits to the Cote d'Azur, because he and Madeleine aren't there. Le Provencal used to be very good. I recall a fine dish of potatoes and anchovies. Then the owner, Jean-Jacques Jouteux, a lovely man, but temperamental and mercurial, suffered the death of his male friend and had heart problems. Things took a turn for the worse. Le Provencal lost its Michelin star and is now out of the guide altogether. So when I decided to give it a second chance, it was with no real expectation of success.
St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat is surprisingly unspoilt. No high-rises, preserved fantastic villas, lovely trees and flowers, stunning bays and little beaches. Even in high season it isn't crowded. St-Jean and the adjacent Beaulieu are all that's left of the south of France that used to be. Le Provencal offers a few tables outside. Inside are nice rag-rolled walls with garlands of flowers painted on them by Jean-Jacques's late friend, Rene. Also tropical plants, vases on pedestals and a white scottie dog asleep On the tiled floor. There's a view of the port of St-Jean, and opposite, the bay of Beaulieu - all reflected in mirrors around the room. The food I received was, quite simply, among the best I've ever had. Jean-Jacques chose, and cooked, some of the items. But the chef is now a young protege, Dominique Calcerano. The excellent waitress was Jean-Jacques's sister Michelle.
The bread was exceptional, always a good sign. It came from a baker in Beaulieu. Georgina had three rolls and observed: "Look how small they are." In fact, they were quire large. I started with quail pate. Georgina had calamari and artichoke, which she pronounced "delicious". The sauces with everything were historic. I had a memorable lobster risotto, and on another occasion, lovely, fresh langoustine: succulent, not chewy like the ones you get in London. Georgina had a freebie starter of nage de loup au jus de bouillabaisse. It had half a date with it. Georgina is paranoid about figs. She decided, the date being nothing to do with anything, she was going to get fish with figs. "If figs turn up, I shall eat more bread rolls," she announced. The main course that night was saint pierre on a pancake of pasta. "A most delicate and wonderful taste with the sauce," I dictated. Georgina poured salt over hers. The desserts were a superb selection: a little cake, peach in a sauce, chocolate mousse, sorbet, creme brulee and more.
My description of the courses may be a little vague. But Le Provencal, even if rejected by the Michelin Guide, is going through a golden period. I hate to recommend it, because I know you follow my advice to the letter and it will become overcrowded. I spoke at a charity lunch at Claridge's recently. A guest said he'd just been to the Hotel de la Cite in Carcassonne because of me, and then to the Auberge du Vieux Puits, many miles away in the hills. "The taxi fare cost a fortune," he protested. I considered reimbursing him, but decided against.
I turn to the highly important matter of bakewell tarts. Many people wrote and spoke to me about them after I mentioned the odd one I was given in Green's. The greatest bakewell tart ever, and a taste experience I treasure, was devoured in a small hotel in the Peak District in 1984. Alan Bates and I stayed there when making a movie. I've just discovered, after considerable sleuthing, it was baked by the owner's aunt, Hattie Critchlow. She lives near Buxton in Derbyshire. Hattie's 82, bless her, and she sent me the recipe, explaining they must be made with raspberry jam. I became so overexcited, I asked her to cook me a bakewell tart. Hattie agreed. I shall send a chauffeur-driven car to the Old Vicarage, where she lives, to bring it direct from her oven to Holland Park so I can enjoy it still fresh. This will cost more than £300. So what? A historic bakewell tart is priceless. But wouldn't it be awful if Hattie's cooking skills had gone off? I shall report.
Mr Winner's description of a bakewell tart (May 13) has left me speechless (no small task, as my husband would testify). May I suggest that Mr Winner visits Bakewell in Derbyshire to sample one made from the original recipe?
Kay Fieldhouse, Cambridge.
Mr Winner says: "Although I'm sometimes, inaccurately, called chauvinistic, I have great respect for ladies" (May 13). Strange, then, to see the accompanying photograph of himself and David Vickerstaff with two such ladies, neither of whom were named, but simply dismissed as "... and waitresses". Could it be that he has already forgotten their names? Did they mean so little?
Sean Kiely, County Wexford, Ireland
I can assure your reader Joanna Koenig (May 13) that Chinese people have a far greater knowledge and understanding of food, good or otherwise, than the average Caucasian is ever likely to possess. Michael Winner should continue to dine in Chinese restaurants that enjoy Chinese patronage.
Robin Ross, Gourock, Inverclyde
As a Bulgarian, I started reading Michael Winner's column only because of Georgina. Coming from a poor country, I haven't got a clue about food and restaurants. But I'm pleased she's having a good time with him and getting a decent meal at least once a week.
Vera Atrill, by e-mail
I recently had occasion to stay near Moreton-in-Marsh, Gloucestershire, and chose to stay at the Churchill Arms, Paxford, on the strength of Michael Winner's sparkling reviews. Expecting a "winner", I was disappointed, not only by the surly lady serving us and the lack of milk for our tea in the morning, but by the twin beds pushed together with a headboard propped against the wall. I can only conclude that Mr Winner is able to command a level of service that is unattainable for ordinary folk.
Samantha Kellard, by e-mail
I thought Mr Winner would be amused at the action taken by the manager of the Kveldsro hotel in Lerwick, Shetland, to resolve my many complaints about the quality and temperature of the food being served. Taking me to one side, he said that, as they were obviously failing to meet my standards, it would be best for all concerned if I left the hotel. Needless to say, I happily obliged.
Colin Caulfield, by e-mail
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