Published 2 June 2002 Style Magazine 464th article
From left: France Gendron, Michael Winner and Toby Aldenhoven (Georgina Hristova)
When Hakkasan opened, some people described it as very chic. It's near the junction of Oxford Street and Charing Cross Road, in a gloomy alley named Hanway Place, where I once directed a movie with Billy Fury. The entrance looks like the back way into a carpet factory. A young man on the pavement had a clipboard. I said: "What do you do?" He said: "I strike your name off when you come in." He used a yellow marker. I noticed only two other names struck off, so bookings were obviously on the low side. As I walked downstairs he called out: "I hope you like the food more than Chris." He was referring to St Christopher School, Letchworth, a co-educational, vegetarian, Quaker establishment that I attended from 1941 to 1952. During the war, they served pupils grass from the cricket pitch. It was totally indigestible and made us ill. But we produced the best milk in Hertfordshire.
I took myself away because it was educationally disastrous. After a few months at a superb tutorial establishment, run by Miss KM Hobbs MA (Oxon), I went up to Cambridge at 17. I finished with a degree in law and economics, aged 20.
Toby Aldenhoven was the man with the clipboard. I said: "Did you go to Chris?" He replied: "Yes, but that's all behind us now." He was absolutely right. Incidentally, the extraordinarily elegant AA Gill went there too.
A Frenchman in a green suit stood behind a long desk. He didn't smile or say "Good morning", just, "Is there anything I can do for you?"
"I've come for lunch," I said. This seemed fairly obvious as it was lunchtime, but perhaps he thought I was there to read the gas meter. He then spoke the dreaded words: "Do you have a reservation?" I said: "Yes, Michael Winner." He asked: "How do you spell it?" Then he showed me to a good table in a dark restaurant with clumsy Chinese-type fretwork and low-hanging, black-shaded lights.
Jason Li, the restaurant manager, came up and said: "How are you, Mr Winter? Good afternoon, sir."
"He got my name wrong," I said to Georgina. "He didn't greet me at all," she replied. "If I was Mrs Cherie Blair he would have greeted me."
Things were saved by France Gendron, a charming and efficient waiter from Australia. He advised: "The chicken dishes are not fantastic meals compared to some of the others." We gave a complex order, including Chinese dumplings with chicken, Chinese chive, peanut and dried shrimp, which I think was called a chui chow dumpling, but don't rely on me. Then stir-fried roast udon with pickled vegetables in a xo sauce, poached Peking dumpling with chicken, prawn and dried shi'take, scallop shumai with tobiko caviar, red rice organic pork with ginger and Shao Hsing wine, and so on. I particularly asked for some prawn crackers. France said: "I'm going to go quickly through the list." And then: "Are you happy with it?"
I was not happy with the prawn crackers. They tasted sharp and stale, as if they'd been standing around a long time. They were awful.
France came back, saying: "We've got some good food here, I guarantee you'll enjoy it."
"I didn't enjoy the prawn crackers," I responded. Then Jason Li came with two glasses of champagne. "These are complimentary," he said. We declined them. "It would have been more complimentary if he'd greeted me at first," said Georgina.
The dumplings were good but a bit rubbery. The duck and noodles main course was pleasant, as was the pork. France cut it into five pieces. "I won't have any pork," said Georgina, and straightaway was there with her chopsticks, eating it. She described it as "very tasty". I agreed.
There's nothing precise about Hakkasan's food. It's jolly, canteen-like and very edible. "We do a chocolate banana pudding," said France. "Ninety per cent of the people who come here eat it." I asked: "How many people eat the marinated pineapple topped with a coconut cookie and coconut sorbet?" France said: "Forty per cent." I said: "You can't have 40% and 90%, it has to add up to 100."
"I'm not an accountant, sir," said France. True. But he was a jolly good waiter. So I took him up to the pavement to get some fresh air and have his photo taken with Toby. Two very nice people. I enjoyed meeting them.
A few days later, I saw Hugh Grant eating at Hakkasan in the movie About a Boy. This has nothing to with anything. I just thought you might like to know.
While in a selfish way I'm delighted at Michael Winner's constant criticism of the Palace Hotel in Gstaad (May 19), I think it only polite to keep the jibes pointed towards the service and facilities. Personal criticisms of Ernst or Andrea Scherz or slurs on the Swiss seem somewhat beneath him, although I'm pleased he rightly commends Gildo as being an exemplary maitre d'.
Allister Mannion, San Francisco
We'd never tried Gordon Ramsay's cooking, so I made a booking at Claridge's and was granted the "honour" of a table with only three months' notice. We found the food very disappointing and the portions akin to the bad old days of nouvelle cuisine. When we explained this to the charming head waiter, his reply was: "If you want Gordon's proper cooking, you have to go to his restaurant. He doesn't cook here very much. We have to water down his dishes to cope with the number of covers." Gordon's name is writ large over the door. Do we have a case under the Trade Descriptions Act?
Ambrose Fieldman, by e-mail
It is astonishing how often Mr Winner writes of restaurants that I know well and yet fail to recognise from his descriptions. He says that Residenz Heinz Winkler (May 19) is pretentious and undeserving of its three Michelin stars. I have always found both the food and service at Heinz Winkler to be sublime. Herr Winkler has always come out of the kitchen to greet us - and I have never been aware of unnaturally cold toilets.
Marilyn Benzing, Cambridge
It was no coincidence that the lovely Georgina found the toilets cold at the Residenz Heinz Winkler, where the food was merely "adequate", while those at Restaurant Obauer, where she decided definitely to return, were "beautifully designed with exquisite towels". In my time as a commercial service manager with Lloyds Bank, I invariably found a correlation between the state of the toilets and the state of the business.
Mike Mogano, Solihull
I'm with Stephen Phillips (May 19) on the use of bin numbers at the Ritz. It avoids embarrassment for both diner and waiter when attempting to order wines such as Buitenverwachting. My South African wife assures me that "Boat'n'ver-vack-ting" is near enough ... but who's to know?
Roger Baer, by e-mail