Published 9 September 2001 Style Magazine 426th article
Warm welcome: Michael Winner with Christine Rio and staff at le Tobsil in Marrakesh (Georgina Hristova)
"The Belgians are buying houses in the medina," said Abdelkrim Temsamani, the chief concierge of La Mamounia, as their Mercedes took me from Marrakesh airport to the hotel. "Belgians, Germans, Swiss, many Europeans," he added. This saddened me greatly. Also, the news that a lot of the old buildings there are being turned into boutique hotels or rooming houses. I discovered Marrakesh 10 years ago. It was magical. Now signs of desecration are looming. More hotels, more building. Extra flights each day pour in tourists who eventually destroy everything.
The medina of Marrakesh is in the ancient, walled town. Some visitors are too scared to go there. They also think they need a guide to protect them from villainy in the souk. Both places are much safer than London. The medina has narrow alleys with high walls either side. Groups of Moroccans gather by small shops as cars squeeze along the tiny streets. Go through an unassuming door and you find yourself in a marvellous mansion with amazing tiles. You can buy a luxurious residence for £30,000. Philippe Cluzel told me that when I went to his French restaurant, Le Pavilion, in one of these old villas. "You mean I could get this for £30,000?" I asked in amazement. "Yes," said Philippe. We sat in the central courtyard listening to the muezzin calling Muslims to prayer. There were orange and fig trees all around. Philippe keeps last year's oranges on them for decoration. "I hope they don't fall on your plate," he said. "You mean on his head," said Georgina.
The food in Marrakesh is usually very good indeed. Some of it is historic. Philippe's tops the "very good" list. I had hot foie gras with mango and ginger, Georgina had john dory with saffron sauce. Then I had confetti de canard maison. "It's crispy duck as in the Perigord," explained Philippe. I've no idea what happens in the Perigord, but I'll find out, I thought. I know I liked it, because when I went and tried to order it again, it was off and changed to chicken tandoori. I also had a memorable chocolate millefueille - which wasn't. It was three crunchy biscuits made of chocolate with cream between them and a chocolate sauce around. Philippe used to be a Parisian antique dealer and looks like it. He's well dressed and neat. He runs a good restaurant and has a boutique hotel, La Maison Arabe, a few doors away.
The best restaurant in Marrakesh is Le Tobsil, owned by another French runaway, Christine Rio. This is one of the greatest places in the world. It's also in an old Arabian mansion, where two local musicians in Berber robes play attractively "stoned" music. The food is totally historic. I had a pastilla of vegetables, a sort of fried-vegetable pie. It was a major taste experience. Then we had a Moroccan salad - many bowls of everything from sheep's brains to mashed aubergine. The setting is deeply romantic, with the roof open to the stars, old balconies around the courtyard, beautiful hanging lights and lovely candelabra. Another time, I had pigeon pastilla and a spicy fish casserole. Christine paces the room marshalling the traditionally dressed Arab staff. She's one of my all-time favourites.
Book for Marrakesh now. You can sunbathe well into November and then again in February. Easter's a good time. All the flowers are out around the pool of La Mamounia. The hotel has a superb Moroccan restaurant. The poolside open-air place offers very tasty food, including my favourite, Moroccan Fanta, which is nothing like the jaded version we get in England.
The Aman group has opened the Amanjena, a few miles out of town in scrub-like surroundings. It's a fake old Moroccan hotel, but luxurious and much visited by Aman groupies and others. A young Swiss couple, Pierre and Marieke Baumgartner, run it very Well. You should also visit Chez Ali, a marvellous circus-cum-cabaret with Berber horsemen firing guns all over the place. You eat in tents. It's touristy, but very good.
The old-time favourite, which hotel concierges still recommend to American tourists, is Yacout. It used to be terrific, but they now seat guests in an odd extension by a pool. They do a classical Moroccan set menu. "This is a very average restaurant," observed Georgina. "One of our guests referred to it as function catering," said Mr Temsamani. He's right.
The best thing about Marrakesh is the Moroccans. They have immense charm, warmth and vitality. They should be imported to teach the English and French staff in London hotels and restaurants how to behave in a welcoming manner. On the other hand, that's a lost cause. So they may as well stay in Morocco.
Next time Michael Winner is en route to Alassio (August 5), he should make time to visit Baia del Sole in Laigueglia. The restaurant is located right by the sea and the chef-patron is a student of Gualtiero Marchesi, one of Italy's leading chefs. Her modern Italian style of cooking is excellent -and great value at about £25 a head.
Ron Zanre, Chislehurst, Kent
As restaurant owners in the deepest Dordogne, we rarely see Michael Winner's column, but a customer inadvertently left us a copy, so we were able to read the recent correspondence concerning children in restaurants. At our own restaurant, as at most in France, children are actively welcomed. The French enjoy eating out en famille. After all, how else will children learn to eat in restaurants? In our experience, French children, who have dined out from infancy, generally behave impeccably, whereas British children do not. Enough said.
Stewart and Sue Edwards, Abjat sur Bandiat, France
I noticed that, in a recent photograph, Michael Winner was wearing a jacket that had only three buttons on the cuff. Surely four buttons are now considered de rigueur?
Eric Downham, Kingston-upon-Thames, Surrey
On a recent visit to Fish! in Guildford, we twice had to send back our chips because they were undercooked. Surely this is the ultimate failure: a fish restaurant that can't cook chips?
Maggie Barnes, London
Lest anyone believe that Mr Winner's statements are in any sense authorative, please allow me to point out that, contrary to his experience (August 19), you can indeed land by helicopter in the Grand Canyon. The art is to book with a helicopter company that has not had its landing rights taken away by the Hualapai Indians for consistent abuse of the privilege. I am surprised - nay, delighted - to have achieved something that has eluded the great man himself.
Ian Murray, Bozeat, Northants
The photograph of Michael Winner being pounced upon by three great danes that accompanied his column on Michael's Nook (August 26) was the best ever. In case you decide to honour this historic shot with a caption competition, here's my entry: "Yum, Winner-lot!"
Thomas Kell, by e-mail