Published 12 May 2002 Style Magazine 461st article
Down the river: Michael Winner with, from left, Enda McCarthy, Derek Creagh and Lindsay Jones (Georgina Hristova)
I'm a great fan of Heston Blumenthal, a young chef I first told you about five years ago. At the time he was unknown, serving stupendous meals at The Fat Duck in Bray. Even then, they vastly exceeded the skill and taste of his tired neighbour, Michel Roux, at The Waterside Inn. I've visited regularly as Heston got first one Michelin star and then two. I'm sure he'll get three before long.
So when I learnt Heston had opened the Riverside Brasserie in the Bray Marina as a less grand establishment, being less than grand myself I decided to visit. Heston may be very good at cooking, but he's no genius at giving directions. He faxed some to me. I set off in my overjazzed-up all-black Saab convertible, which looks as if I've stolen it from a minor drug dealer. I'm extremely fond of it. I bought it just second-hand from a former managing director of Saab City. Wives of very distinguished, titled friends greatly admire it. I ended up on the outskirts of Maidenhead, which is not where I'd intended to be. So I wiggled through lovely countryside to Marlow. I normally go over the bridge there and turn left to Bray. Heston was cooking Sunday lunch, but took time off to give me new directions to the Brasserie. These involved passing The Fat Duck, taking a couple of turns even I could manage, and voila, there was the marina and the Riverside Brasserie. It had a simple interior, with chefs cooking behind a bar, and an even simpler exterior, with metallic tables on a wide deck overlooking and very close to the River Thames.
I was greeted by a man in a blue check shirt. "What do you do?" I asked. "I'm one of the waiters," he said. "Who's the restaurant manager?" I asked. "I am," he replied. His name's Alan Dooley. The chef is Derek Creagh, who worked for Heston at The Fat Duck and also at The Square in Mayfair. I had a most unpleasant conversation with their deputy restaurant manager recently. He considerably lacks the charm of his boss. The Brasserie offered some discordant piped jazz and very freshly squeezed orange juice. But no napkins. So I nicked two from a table inside.
My official starter was boudin blanc with braised lentils. It's a soft sausage made of wood pigeon and foie gras. I liked it. Before that they brought a freebie pork terrine for Georgina and asparagus and smoked haddock soup for me. Georgina wanted the soup, which was superb, so I had the pork terrine. plus an order of soup. The terrine was okay. but too salty. The bread was unspectacular. A lady in a group stopped on her way out and said: "You should come here for breakfast, we all do." That was one of the stranger offers I've had.
Then I chose a rib-eye steak with sauce a la moelle - which they told me was bone marrow - with french beans and chips. I was assured the chips were made on the premises. Georgina noted the table behind rne, and said the chips looked great. I looked round. They did seem spectacular. Large, hand-cut and of a crisp, golden exterior. The man at the table, seeing me eye them, offered one to me. "No, thank you," I said, not wishing to deprive him. Then I decided their appearance was to good, I couldn't resist. I took one. It was definitely the best chip I've ever eaten. Its taste and texture were beyond belief. This was a major experience. So I took another, with permission of course. My steak was fine. "It's covered with a rather 1950s peppery sauce." I dictated. "Is that criticising or approving?" asked Georgina. "I'd like to think about that," I answered. Georgina thought her bream with hazelnut couscous and sauce bois-bourran was exemplary. The apple crumble was disastrous.
As the man had been so generous with his chips, I asked if he and his girlfriend would like to be in our photo. He was Enda McCarthy, an account executive at J Walter Thompson. A considerable coincidence, as I was to star in a major commercial for them two days later. His girlfriend, Lindsay Jones, works for JP Morgan. Enda looks after the Kellogg's Cornflakes account. I'd like you to know, Enda, I'd be happy to feature in a commercial for Kellogg's Cornflakes, even though I haven't eaten any for a while. This is more than I can say for a famous, popular restaurant group that I declined, even for a vast reward, to lend my name to. I'm no pushover, in spite of what you may think.
I arrived at The Lygon Arms, Broadway, which is part of the Savoy Group, having requested a quiet room, but was shown to one that seemed to be inside a generator, and so I was moved. I went there to destress, but found myself feeling worse than ever. The breakfast was the worst I have ever encountered. There was only one jug of juice, grapefruit, which seemed to have gone off. The toast was like shoe leather, and the tomatoes tasted peculiar. When my food was replaced, it was brought to the wrong table. I wasted no time in booking into the Broadway Hotel across the way. I wonder what Mr Winner's experience would be.
Stephanie Biber, London N8
My wife and I have sold up and moved out of London to a rural idyll in Shropshire. Just about every aspect of our lives is improved, but for one thing: the standard of service in restaurants is well below that which we are used to in London. There appears to be a critical shortage of career waiting staff here in the provinces. Many establishments rely on teams of wet-behind-the-ears teenagers who are clearly revising for their GCSEs in between tending to their tables. Tardiness in taking orders seems to be the norm, items are frequently forgotten, and cutlery is cleared away but not replaced. We have even had to instruct staff on the correct order in which to present courses. This lack of finesse can turn a simple lunch with friends into a nerve-shredding experience. Surely some remedial domestic-science programme is needed?
Anthony Wilding, by e-mail
I last wrote to Mr Winner when he was flitting between Miss Lids (Ladies In Danger) like a fly in a pantry. I assure you that, had I got the part, he would not now be faced with the irritating dilemma of Sunday luncheons (April 21). My traditional roasts are legendary, and I would gladly knock up a historic lunch for him, washed down with a wholesome glass of Blue Nun.
Linder Lid, by e-mail
I know Michael is a meat-and-two-veg sort of chap, but do I sense a growing obsession with a good rump? On April 28, for example, he said that "Luna looks terrific", but would she be improved with a little fried zucchini, in thin strips? Mr Winner should be old enough to know that there is a difference between a good side of beef and an educated blonde, just as we can discern between a tasty morsel and a tired old ham.
Lily Bevan, by e-mail
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