Published 5 August 2001 Style Magazine 421st article
Good samaritan: Benito outside his restaurant with Michael Winner (Georgina Hristova)
It was a grey enough day to nudge me from my sun lounger at La Reserve de Beaulieu on the Cote d'Azur. Jean-Claude Delion has further improved La Reserve with rooms for treatments, steam baths and other exotic things. He's also placed very heavy balustrades in front of the sun loungers, where previously there were slender poles. These were less glamorous, but provided a much better view of the sea. Nevertheless, La Reserve remains Winner's "Best Hotel in the World", jointly with the Splendido in Portofino.
I set out to revisit Alassio, where I'd spent an Italian holiday in 1948. Then it was a small coastal village with barefoot, ragged children. We drove through the unmanned border crossing outside Menton into Italy, where it's initially less developed, more old-fashioned and more peaceful. Ventimiglia, the first Italian town, is old and beautiful. It appeared we wouldn't make Alassio in time for lunch, so we stopped in Ospedaletti. A quiet street with 19th-century houses, iron balconies and hanging washing looked onto a railway line and the sea. It was pure 1960s Sophia Loren. We chose the modest Ristorante Il Samaritano Da Benito. This had a tent extension with plastic windows. Two French people sat at one table, four Italians at another. I went inside to see Benito, the entire staff of one, working in the kitchen. He brought us some orange juice and Coca-Cola. I'd presented Benito with my biography-brochure in three languages, which is used at movie festivals. On the cover is a fetching photo of me and my director's chair. Benito appeared totally uninterested. Outside it announced "English spoken". A major exaggeration.
I went back to the interior. "Do you have some ice?" I asked politely. "You don't need ice," said Benito, repeating it to make sure I understood English. "Well, I want it. Have you got it?" I asked with a smile. "Yes, we have, but you don't need," said Benito again. "If you've got it, why don't we use it?" I suggested good-humouredly. I also took back my biography-brochure, which Benito had left on a shelf.
Benito brought us a bowl of ice, roared with laughter, and called out "Bellissima" to the next table. He was certainly cheerful. He provided some excellent crusty bread. The French couple left. Benito then had to give ice to the Italian family of four because they'd seen us have it. Georgina was eventually served spaghetti with baby octopus. This was preceded by loud banging from the kitchen. "Why should you bang spaghetti?" I wondered.
Benito returned with fried calamari for me and asked for the brochure back. I never knew he cared. He perused it, made a long speech in Italian, which I didn't understand, and said: "May I read the gentleman?" He showed it to the Italian family. They seemed impressed. This was the brochure's greatest ever outing. Georgina took a superb peach from a Bruit box on a centre table. Benito insisted on taking her inside to show her how to make espresso - which she never drinks. When he came out he instructed Georgina: "You make two coffee for the gentlemen - you know how to do." Luckily for the Italian family, Georgina stayed seated. Benito laughed a great deal. "Soon I bring you some bacon and egg," he said to the Italian family for no reason at all. Then I think he asked me to phone his son in Australia, before deciding it was midnight there so it was best forgotten. Then he went into an unintelligible yarn about how he slept or did not sleep when he went to Australia. I liked Benito. He was funny and courteous.
That's more than I can say for the greeting from the Ritz hotel, Piccadilly, when I phoned to book Sunday lunch. It was the most bizarre and grossest behaviour the "hospitality industry" has ever revealed to me. It was provided by a flaky former manager of other hotels, who now has a tenuous relationship with the Ritz. He'd picked up the phone when he shouldn't have. Giles Shepard, the Ritz's charming boss, was rightly appalled and apologised profusely. So he's forgiven.
Instead, I went to The Fat Duck in Bray. Heston Blumenthal is an amazingly talented chef. The decoration for his tarted-up restaurant leaves something to be desired, but the food was utterly historic. The addition of seven freebie bits and pieces between courses was a bit much. However, a small, foamy "milk shake" of green tea and lime sour was one of the greatest tastes ever. I could have done without potato lime jelly and maple syrup being fed into my mouth on a teaspoon by the waiter. I may be incontinent, but I like to pretend I retain my faculties.
Michael Winner writes (July 22) that he has never come across roast asparagus: "Nor did I have any particular wish to." He is missing out -one bite and he will think he has arrived in heaven.
Duncan Clarke, by e-mail
I note that Lord Glenconner (July 22) is Michael Winner's next-door neighbour, and that they are in the habit of dining together. I seem to recall that when he used to have house parties on Mustique, he would gather his newly arrived guests together and lecture them on how to behave towards servants. Anyone being rude to a servant, so he informed the assembled company, would be required to leave immediately. It did not seem to occur to him that he should not be inviting people in the first place who did not know how to treat servants properly. Perhaps Michael would raise this matter with him when they are next both at table.
Iain MacMaster, by e-mail
I cannot believe Michael Winner is still able to recommend the Trattoria San Marco in Venice (July 8). We went there a few months ago after keeping his previous article about the place. The salad was old and droopy, the fish extremely average, and the staff were extremely rude when we pointed out that the salad was tired. Whenever we passed the place, it was empty. I wonder why?
Jo Harrigan, by e-mail
Michael really must stop it. I have let him off the hook in the past for mentioning Trattoria da Romano on Burano (initially because we followed his advice and went there ourselves), but now he has mentioned it for at least the third time - AND told his readers to "tear out the information and take it on their next trip". I can just imagine the boat to Burano filled with Sunday Times readers, clutching their magazines, and I am not a happy woman. What if I can't get a table? I shall hold Michael responsible. Didn't his mother ever tell him that there are some things you should keep up your sleeve -and not just your arms?
Lorna McDonald-Smith, by e-mail
Our enjoyment of the good food at Shepherd's in Pimlico recently was ruined by a couple at the next table who smoked eight cigarettes between them during their meal. The staff were pleasant and regretful, but unable to help. Perhaps Michael Winner could ask Richard Shepherd to think about this?
Judy Buckley, by e-mail