Published 30 September 2001 Style Magazine 429th article
If Cap-Ferrat fits: from left, Michael Winner, Rachel and Gerard de Thame, and Georgina Hristova
Those of you who follow the international price of the club sandwich should know it has risen to £37 at the superb South of France hotel La Reserve de Beaulieu. This compares to £18 at the nearby Grand Hotel du Cap-Ferrat in St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat. When a friend, the eminent director of television commercials Gerard de Thame, suggested dinner at the Grand Hotel, I demurred. The Grand is much admired by some. It's an opulent building with beautiful gardens. But to get to their pool beside the sea, you have to walk through the gardens to a public road, then wind your way down narrow paths in gardens beyond and then take a funicular lift to the pool. By that time I'm too exhausted to lie down, let alone swim. I'd never eaten at the Grand, but I once had a drink there. A particularly awful band, under par for a barmitzvah in Hendon, was warming up. It put me off my rather indifferent bellini.
The restaurant of the Grand is on lovely terraces facing the gardens. I decided to change my mind about going there. Gerard had brought his incredibly expensive Ferrari by train from England for his two weeks in Beaulieu. Thus he could enjoy driving on the coast roads and appear at hotels looking highly impressive. As a former Ferrari owner of 20 years standing, I wasn't surprised, a few days after our dinner, to see Gerard's car lifeless outside La Reserve. Three hotel staff were pushing it out of the way. "Maybe," I suggested on the night, "I should go ahead of you in my rented Volkswagen convertible and scatter rose petals?" Gerard thought this ridiculous. "Just follow me," he said. So I drove a respectful distance behind as he whizzed up the mansion-lined streets. At the imposing entrance to the Grand hotel, their efficient doormen took both cars - mine with disdain, Gerard's with pride - to the parking area.
The walk from the slightly odd lobby to the terrace is down narrow stairs with linoleum treads, probably purchased from a council block in Epping prior to demolition. The bar has photos of celebrities who've stayed at the Grand. It's otherwise undistinguished. But once on the terrace, sitting under the Mediterranean pines, you're in the glamorous aura the South of France is famous for providing.
With considerable generosity I permitted Mrs de Thame to sit facing the gardens while I looked at the hotel. Rachel used to be a model. She was unquestionably the most beautiful girl who ever entered my office - and that's saying something. "I bring greetings from my mother," she said to me eight years ago. "Who's she?" I asked. "Gita Cohen," replied Rachel. At that time. Gita dealt superbly with the house seats at the National Theatre. We spoke often, but, wisely, Gita never revealed she had a lovely daughter. I made a few phone calls, but failed to get a date because, unknown to me, Rachel was going out with Gerard. Or possibly she thought I was unsuitable. Many years later, with Rachel now a famous TV gardening expert, she greeted me at La Reserve as I looked out to sea, ruminating on what to order for lunch.
I was extremely impressed with all the staff at the Grand. They were welcoming and charming. Quite rare for France. The maitre d', Christophe Prosper, has been there 10 years. He assured Georgina the orange juice was "pressed a la minute". The chef, Jean-Claude Guillon, came to greet me. He's been there 30 years. A comparative newcomer was the food and beverage manager, Aniello Russo. He recently joined from the Carlton Tower. When asked to order, I paused and then said: "Give me the chef's signature dishes." This is a phrase I'd never used before. Try it out at Pizza Express.
Some superb warm foie gras with stewed figs arrived. Then sea bass with artichokes, olive oil "and things cut up". Thus I dictated into my tape. It, too, was excellent. I was recommended the fennel soufflee, which sounded awful but was historic.
Gerard interrupted my reverie of deep appreciation to tell me about the glasses. "They're the best in the world," he said. "How do you know?" I asked. "Because they're Riedel," said Gerard, "from the Sommeliers range. They have a different glass for every type of wine. You can bend them." "Nonsense," I thought. But Gerard was right. "I just pinched the top of the glass and it gave in a bit," I announced. "Crystal, not glass," corrected Gerard. Gosh, they're knowledgeable in the world of TV commercials. They leave a poor boy from Willesden far behind. Still, it's nice to have sophisticated friends.
Michael Winner's recent article on La Mamounia in Marrakesh (September 9) awoke memories of my visit some years ago. When I rang to discuss accommodation, the reservations manager was extremely helpful in describing the various rooms and suites in great detail. I decided on one of the suites, but before confirming the reservation asked "Has it got a sea view?" There was a long pause, before the manager finally said: "Monsieur has not been here before? La Mamounia is at least 100 miles from the sea." Nevertheless, we went and it was magical.
Stanley Silver, Hadley Wood, Herts
As a perennial visitor to the Cote d'Azur, I thought Michael Winner might be interested to hear about the astounding dinner I had recently at La Cantine des Gourmets in Nice. The restaurant is a new project for the chef Claude Gillon, previously of the Michelin-starred Le Florian, and is a true hidden gem in the backstreets of Nice. I have yet to have a better meal in France. A main course of foie gras, sauteed melon and plums was a masterpiece. I strongly suggest Michael try it when he is next in the area.
Sam Richardson, London
To comment on the continuing debate on children in restaurants, my wife and I take our nine-year-old son, Jamie, to a wide variety of restaurants, and have done so regularly since he was five. Familiarity with the experience, together with gentle guidance, has ensured that he knows how to behave in this and other social situations. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of many adults, whose loud and intrusive behaviour when dining out demonstrates only too clearly that they never benefited from this early training. Quite simply, bad behaviour should not be tolerated, irrespective of whether it emanates from a child or an adult.
Keith Crampton, by e-mail
I recently wrote a letter to Michael Winner to which he kindly replied. Unfortunately, his suggestions on where to buy his book, Winner's Dinners, are proving hard to follow. I am unable to get to my local WHSmith, and while it may be possible for me to log on to www.sunday-times.co.uk, I seem to have mislaid my credit card. Perhaps Winner could donate one to the prison library (a book, that is).
Mark Rennie (GF5327), HM Prison, Brixton
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