Published 3 March 2002 Style Magazine 451st article
Return match: from left, Michael Winner, Albertino Cadeira and Carlos Anaia (Gerogina Hristova)
I went to the Connaught hotel restaurant on July 16, 1995. It was a ghastly experience. The restaurant manager, Jean Pierre Chevalier, pompously referred to on the menu as the "directeur du restaurant", promised me a corner table and gave me something horrid next co the central serving area. An unbelievably arrogant waiter put down my then girlfriend, the delightful and sweet Vanessa Perry. She ordered a Poussin. "Bread sauce and gravy?" asked the waiter. "Yes please," said Vanessa, adding: "Could I have some stuffing?"
"Stuffing and bread sauce?" said the waiter, in an appalled voice. That's like an electric prod to me - people who insult young ladies with an absurdly superior attitude. "Yes," I said, coldly. "Madame would like bread sauce and stuffing. Just get it." Vanessa has since met a nice young man, has a delightful baby boy and is very happy. We remain friends.
I decided to try the Connaught again and wandered in after lunching at the Dorchester Grill to check the tables. A courteous waiter pointed out Princess Diana's table and others. Back at the entrance desk, I said: "I'll phone soon."
Jean Pierre Chevalier was there. "You can't reserve tables in advance," he said. As I was prepared to make peace, I said nothing. But this remark was so absurd, a few moments later, I stopped the Bentley in Belgrave Square and telephoned. "I don't know any restaurant in the world where you can't book," I said.
"We have to hold tables back for regular hotel customers," said Mr Chevalier.
"That's reasonable," I said. "If I phone on Sunday morning, can I book for Sunday lunch?"
"Yes," said Mr Chevalier.
"How far ahead can I book a table?" I asked.
"Three to four days," replied Mr Chevalier.
"Thank you," I said. Then I thought: "This man is unbelievable. He's just told me that if people want to book ahead for an anniversary or birthday, they can't." This was definitely the most ridiculous nonsense I've ever heard from any restaurant employee.
Being benign, I phoned the Connaught one recent Saturday and booked a table for the following day. The dress code for Sunday lunch is tie and no jeans. Utterly absurd for 2002. Only one other restaurant in London demands that on Sundays - the Ritz. I hear Gordon Ramsay is to take over the Connaught restaurants. Gordon is marvellous. At Claridge's, guests can wear sweaters at dinner. He'll sort out the Connaught.
I put on an immaculate grey herringbone sports jacket by Terry Haste of Huntsman, black silk trousers from Maxwell Vine of Sackville Street, a white silk shirt by John Brian of Savile Row and black handmade suede shoes by Bally. My Turnbull & Asser tie turned out to be dark brown, so I switched to a Makro cash and carry black silk, labelled "Michael". They used to do very good silk ties at Makro.
We entered the hallowed portals of the Connaught. Georgina was looking particularly beautiful. Two staff said: "Good afternoon, sir." Georgina was appalled. "It's as if they can only see one person," she complained. We were given a small banquette table. I noticed the table at the other end was larger. Two men settled next to us. One immediately started smoking. The assistant restaurant manger, Carlos Anaia, was on duty. He asked if we'd like to move. Very on the ball, I thought. We switched to a larger, round table. Carlos was particularly good.
There was some excellent melba toast already there; the bread was superb. After trying to palm me off with dreary Hildon water, they admitted to having far superior Malvern. The orange juice was absolutely fresh. My smoked salmon quenelles with champagne was a terrific starter. The roast beef was good, the Yorkshire pudding the best ever. Georgina's chicken pie was exemplary. Gordon Ramsay should send his chefs here to learn how it's done.
"I'm beginning to find the dark panelling a little claustrophobic," I dictated into my tape. "Guilty conscience," said Georgina. Figure that out if you can.
For dessert, I had an almost perfect, light bread-and-butter pudding and some nice "sherry trifle Wally Ladd". Mr Ladd was a pastry chef at the Connaught.
The restaurant was nowhere near full. The guests could have come from a 1950s Ealing comedy. "I like that," said Georgina. "I feel safe." The service was impeccable. The three-course price, £43.13 a head, is substantially more than comparable places, including Gordon Ramsay at Claridge's, which I inspected after lunch. It was packed. Eight people sat at the alcove cable I used to occupy with one guest. No question, Gordon's making Claridge's enormous profits. He should get a half-million-pound bonus. At least.
I am surprised at the "carping" comments on the letters page about the money Michael Winner spends on food and accommodation. He rightly tells us what he pays for meals and services. His column is to inform and entertain his readers. He does it rather well.
Michael Jefferson, Hayling Island, Hants
Michael Winner asks why knives at Villa Nova are engraved with "Christofle Hotel France". While staying at the Carenage Bay Hotel on the Caribbean island of Canouan, I noticed that the knives were similarly engraved. A little research on the internet reveals that Christofle Hotel is a manufacturer of cutlery supplied to the catering industry (yes, I know, I really should get a life).
Dr Michael Spira, London
Having recently spent a most enjoyable holiday at Villa Nova, I thought Michael Winner's article (February 17) was a bit rich. He says he found it depressing driving to Villa Nova through "housing estates" and "golf courses", and yet he condones the very people who are responsible for these monstrosities by raving about the newly "restored" (sic) Sandy Lane hotel. I found the drive from the airport wonderful. It reminded me of how Barbados was 25 years ago. Having lived on the west coast in the 1980s and 1990s and watched the horrendous changes there, I can only thank God that Lynne Pemberton has had the balls to offer us a haven away from the cretins who have destroyed the St James coast.
Gloria Stewart, Dorset
To celebrate my mother's 80th birthday, I took her and three of her friends to Le Petit Blanc Brasserie in Cheltenham. It was a great disappointment. We had to collect our drinks from the bar and ask for menus. We ended up with no vegetables, and could not find anyone to describe the breads or advise on wines. I wrote a letter of constructive comment and, in due course, received a reply. This appeared to have taken my points on board, until I was told that my "faith" would be restored by a free bottle of house wine on my next visit - within three months of the date of the letter.
Nigel Forsyth, Hambledon, Hants
Sadly, my love of good food has obliged me to diet. In need of inspiration, I had the happy notion of pasting the weekly pic of Michael Winner into my food diary. I am becoming positively sylphlike.
Marianne Bartram, Towcester, Northants
Send letters to Style; or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org