Published 20 January 2002 Style Magazine 445th article
Chinese checkers: from left, Ronald Harwood, Wai Hung Ho and Michael winner at Shi Hon Mei (Georgina Hristova)
Chinese restaurants are difficult. Mr Kai in Mayfair used to be good, but it’s gone off. There was a brilliant one at the top of Earls Court Road years ago called I Ching. Peter Lam, the manager, was highly eccentric. I went in once and joined my friend, the film director Lewis Gilbert, who'd been there for an hour. "Do you notice," said Lewis, "nobody is eating?"
"Don't worry," I said, "I know them well." I called Peter and ordered, saying: "Bring it immediately." For 20 minutes, only nuts appeared. Then Peter came in, flourishing a roast duck. He displayed it to us as proof food was coming. Then he showed it to all the other tables. Then he vanished. Apparently, the chef and kitchen staff had walked out and Peter was desperately trying to find replacements. No food turned up for another hour.
Nowadays, I frequent Memories of China in Pimlico, where Kam Po But is a master of Chinese cuisine. But it's unwise to put all your noodles in one basket. So I was pleased to hear a restaurateur I admire, Claudio Pulze, was opening Shi Hon Mei in the Fulham Road, premises he'd used for Zaika before moving it to Kensington High Street. Claudio said he'd be in Spain on the night of my visit, but he sent the suave operations director of his cuisine collection (a pompous title if ever there was one) to welcome me.
Raj Shanna was head waiter at the late, lamented Canteen when it opened. He showed me to a table that could easily sit eight people. The other tables were mostly ghastly. Small square things in rows, where one person faces the wall and the other into the room, and the people next to you are far too close. Georgina pointed to a door and said: "That's a fire door. If there's a fire, we're out." Decor was absent to the point of it being deeply insulting. Claudio never spends a lot on the appearance of his restaurants, but this resembled a corridor in the DSS office in Lewisham. Or what I imagine that would look like.
I always start with a bowl of prawn crackers, so I asked for some. After along time, and two reminders, a tiny dish came with just enough crackers to accompany a modest drinks order. They were brown and too spicy. A lady at a table nearby had white prawn crackers. Why was I not offered a choice? I asked for white ones with some difficulty. The waitresses seemed to be fascinated by the ceiling, the floor and the walls. They obviously found the customers unattractive. Sit down the reader who said: "What do you expect, with you there?"
The famous play and movie writer Ronald Harwood came to the next table with his wife, Natasha. Ronnie once told me he always went to sleep in the afternoon. "Noel Coward said it was essential to get into bed," he advised. When Ronnie wakes up, he has chocolate biscuits and tea.
I'd left it to the chef, Wai Hung Ho, to choose for me. After a while, some excellent honey-barbecued spare ribs arrived, together with pork dumplings, seafood spring roll, won tons with chicken and spicy prawns. Most of it was good, but not up to Kam Po But's standard. Then came below-par duck and pancakes. This was followed by steamed sea bass, mercifully not on a bed of spinach, chilli beef, lamb hotpot (which the waitress said was beef), sweet-and-sour chicken and bok choy, which is a vegetable. It was not outstanding.
Ronald Harwood decided to put me right. "This is seriously good, and you can tell your readers it's fashionable because you saw me here," he said. I've done it, Ronnie. just as you asked.
The desserts were better than the usual Chinese selection. There was an excellent red-bean pancake and a fruit platter in a pastry parcel. I greatly liked both of them.
As I was leaving, Ronnie waved his hand to call me back. I once beckoned like that to the supremely marvellous Mara Berni at San Lorenzo. She gave me a mouthful I shall never forget. But I don't mind being summoned. I dutifully went to stand by Ronnie.
"I want to ask you something," he said. "Do food critics pay for their meals?"
"A great many of them accept freebies," I explained. "Those that don't are reimbursed by their newspaper. I neither take freebies nor get reimbursed. I spend my own money. I've just told Raj to be certain to send me the bill."
"Good for you," said Ronnie. I left potentially poorer, but with Ronnie's praise ringing in my ears.
Mr Winner will be relieved to know that "those cakes with marzipan round the outside and four different-coloured squares in the middle" (January 6) are called battenburg, and are readily available in places called "shops". Mr Winner may not have noticed the arrival of these new inventions that allow us common people to be fed. My husband asks me to point out that there is no longer any legal obligation to have a man with a red flag walking in front of our cars.
Clare Jenkins, Newtown, Powys
It is very kind of Michael Winner to educate us simpletons on how to make tea, coffee and scrambled eggs (January 6). Where would we be without him? Perhaps he should take over your recipe pages, although given his obviously limited knowledge of cuisine, I fear he would be unable to fill the space. I also note the contrast between his views on other people's cooking and his total praise of his own efforts. Could there be a certain element of self-delusion here?
Robert Ovens, Chester
I recently booked a table for the new Conran Zinc Bar and Restaurant in Edinburgh and gave them my mobile number so they could contact me. A few days later, I received an unsolicited text message promoting the virtues of said restaurant. Needless to say, they will no longer receive any business from me after this intrusive marketing.
Paul Gillon, by e-mail
Having recently dined at Gordon Ramsay's new restaurant in Claridge's and been treated to a fabulous meal, I was amazed to read Mr Winner (whiner?) complaining about something as inconsequential as a drinks tab (January 6). If this is all he can find to criticise, perhaps he should thank his lucky stars - or alternatively, get out a bit more.
Allan Devereux, by e-mail
I have just returned from a new year break in Marrakesh, where we stayed at the Amanjena spa. This has been voted best hotel in the world by a business- traveller magazine. There are no rooms but individual pavilions with swimming pools. Service was beyond reproach and some of the meals were as good as any I have ever had. Maybe when Michael Winner is next in Marrakesh, he should visit this special place. He may change his mind about how good the Mamounia really is.
Alastair Head, by e-mail
Send letters to Style; or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org