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Small is beautiful

Published 13 January 2002
Style Magazine
444th article

Full house: Madame Nicole Rubi with Michael Winner (Georgina Hristova)

If I were gay, my mother would have considered David Furnish a perfect candidate for live-in boyfriend. He's good-looking, immensely charming and clever. His Elton John TV documentary, Tantrums and Tiaras, was masterful. I first didn't meet Elton in 1969, when he recorded a background song for my Olympic movie, The Games. He was then Reg Dwight, session singer. When he became famous, Twentieth Century Fox released his efforts on the soundtrack album, misnaming him Elton Johns. Elton's record company sued. The album was withdrawn. Years later, I bought Elton a copy in New York for £400. "It was at CTS Studios in Bayswater, the song was Denver to LA, written by Francis Lai. David Katz was the booker." Elton recalled the second he saw the album.

I was by the pool at La Reserve de Beaulieu with Hal David, the vastly famous lyricist who, with Burt Bacharach, wrote some of the biggest hits of the 1970s. He said: "We went to a marvellous restaurant last night, La Petite Maison in Nice. Elton John was there. The lady's crazy. She offers champagne and then drops the glasses." This seemed a splendid recommendation.

The next day, Michael Caine came to see me at La Reserve and pronounced La Petite Maison his favourite restaurant in the world. So I gathered my friends Gerard de Thame, the doyen of commercial directors, and his wife, Rachel, the most talented flower on TV's garden-advice circuit, and off we went.

La Petite Maison is on a corner near the old Nice flower market. The owner is Madame Nicole Rubi. She was dressed for action in a black boiler suit and sported an elfin haircut. She led me to a central table. "I'm sorry, the side tables are taken. That's Manoukian," said Nicole, with a flourish toward a table laid for 14 people. Manoukian is someone terribly sociable who's connected to the Sultan of Brunei. He's the sort of person I imagine having elegant cocktails with King Zog. "And that's Elton," added Nicole, indicating a table on my other side ready for 16 people.

The Maison is a simply decorated bistro. A film poster here, some twigs and leaves on the tables there. We spent much time studying the menu and ordering. Then Madame Rubi breezed up. "I've made a menu for you," she announced.

"We've just ordered," I said. Madame Rubi muttered something about local fish. "Fine, we'll have it," I acquiesced. Rachel, who doesn't eat lobster, stuck with her Charolais beef fillet. Madame Rubi wafted off. "I think she's quite cute," said Georgina. "I think she's barking mad," responded Gerard.

Georgina said to me: "Put on your tape, 'Mr de Thame is worried about his food.' "

"He should be," I said. "I would be if I was him." Then I added: "Go with the flow."

Later I dictated: "The bass is good, the batter is good, the sauce is good. I don't know what this is, it must be a prawn."

"It’s stuffed zucchini," advised Georgina. There were scrambled eggs with truffles, a risotto with truffles, and a toasted French-bread sandwich of truffles. They comprised an absolutely superb starter.

David Furnish came to the table next to us. He greeted me most pleasantly. Elizabeth Hurley, who I like, didn't notice me. Janet Street-Porter spoke to me. The Pet Shop Boys looked round and smiled.

"Elton est fatigue," said Madame Rubi, explaining his absence. "It happens," I said, sympathetically. I noticed a large table top and three extra chairs being carried downstairs to the spot where a tiny table was ready for Elton's bodyguards. To say the place was crowded and noisy would be putting it extremely mildly.

Then came lobsters, a plate of macaroni cheese with truffles, plus hot sea bass, onto which Madame Rubi poured olive oil. She put a hand on my shoulder. "You like?" she asked. By the time I was saying "Very much", she'd gone to the next table.

After we'd finished our main course - everything was prodigious - the noise and activity were peaking to astronomic heights. I waved my plate, wanting someone to clear it. But it was hopeless. "Shall we have dessert at the hotel?" I suggested. Gerard speedily agreed. I thanked Nicole, assured her I'd be back, and left. People later described her desserts to me. They sounded utterly historic.

Outside, I dived into the chauffeur car. Gerard and Rachel were looking in a window. "You've got to see this, it's the most famous truffle shop in the world," called Gerard. "We're holding up a line of traffic," I shouted. "Get in the car." I've never even seen King Zog. Believe me, I can live without a truffle shop.


Following Mr Winner's recommendation, I went to D'Chez Eux on Avenue Lowendal in Paris. I wouldn't consider it a disappointment, but it's certainly nothing to write home about either. If Mr Winner is looking for "no fancy food" the next time he's in Paris, I recommend Les Bookinistes, located near Notre Dame (order the chestnut cream soup as a starter). Unfortunately, the wine list leaves something to wish for. But then, these days, what doesn't?
Marcus Dunberg, Copenhagen

The thought of Michael Winner turning up with a van at Columbia Road market (December 30) is highly amusing. Could Mr Winner please tell me what day he's visiting? I'd like to be there.
Denise Abbott, Hitchin

There are some people who assert that anybody who writes articles about matters of which he or she is totally ignorant is nothing less than a charlatan. I am certain that Michael Winner would be among the first to repudiate such a scurrilous remark and would be happy to take part in a blind tasting to prove himself. The rules are simple: 12 dishes will be served to him blindfold; if he recognises half of them, then he is entitled to call himself a food critic. Should he fail, however, then I shall be forced to agree with those who call him a charlatan.
Michael Colesnic, by e-mail

Shoot me down in flames if I err, but isn't Michael Winner acquiring a dramatic facial resemblance to the late Barbara Cartland?
John Martin, by e-mail

A few weeks ago, Michael Winner offered to buy dinner for the three customers that he had once kept waiting for their table at Gordon Ramsay's restaurant in Royal Hospital Road. Does the offer apply to others that he has inconvenienced? I only ask because, in November, we booked a table at Ramsay's restaurant in Claridge's for 9.30pm. Four of us waited 80 minutes for Mr Winner to finish his food. Our first course was served after 11pm. As things turned out, we received a heartfelt apology and an offer of free dinner from Gordon Ramsay, which more than compensated for the delay - although Mr Winner is, of course, more than welcome to extend his largesse if he feels so inclined.
Nicola and Guy Joseph, London