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Wiltons carpeted

Published 16 June 2002
Style Magazine
466th article



Michael Winner with a portrait of Jimmy Marks at Wiltons (Georgina Hristova)

A shock has occurred so traumatic it rates near the bottom of my restaurant experiences. I've been served, for the first time in almost 60 years, a below-par dish at Wiltons. It was described as bakewell tart. It was so dull, so inept, so lacking in the oomph the real thing possesses that I sighed in disbelief.

You're saying: "What on earth is Winner on about? A bakewell tart can't cause trauma." Under normal circumstances, it wouldn't. When I had an appalling bakewell tart at Green's, round the corner from Wiltons, it was a nonevent. But I've been going to Wiltons, feeding place of prime ministers and aristocracy, nearly all my life. I was taken by my parents when it lived in King Street. Then it moved to Bury Street, then to Jermyn Street.

It was run by the best restaurateur ever. His name was Jimmy Marks. He served perfect food. Simple, prime ingredients that were never mucked about. The fish was the most luscious and tasty possible. The meat was perfection. The vegetables were clean, clear and delicious.

Marks himself, with his cockney accent and dark grey suit, swayed past the restaurant booths as if he were at sea. He rocked to compensate. He was also a prodigious restaurant manager.

I wish he'd been there to taste my bakewell tart. I can see him now, rolling away from my booth, holding the plate and calling out to his wife in his gruff, wondrous voice: "Lucille, how did this get here? Who's responsible for this? We must never serve things like this in Wiltons." From time to time, I'd have heard his voice echoing down from the bar area near the door, remonstrating and carrying on.

I've eaten more meals at Wiltons than anywhere else. When my office was in Sackville Street, I dined there at least six times a week. I enjoyed the best food imaginable. Marks was very attached to me. If the place was full he'd let me sit at one of the little tables in the bar area. Now everyone does that. Lucille would say: "Nobody's allowed to eat at the bar tables, Jimmy."

"Michael can do what he likes," was Jimmy's reply.

He was planning his 90th-birthday party. Danny Kaye come, and other luminaries. As it drew near, Marks faded. He sat at a table by the door, dying. He couldn't remember anything. I'd say, "Goodbye, Jimmy," and Lucille would hiss in his ear: "It's Michael."

Jimmy died in 1976, a few days before his 90th birthday. We shall never see his like again. Wiltons, owned by Rupert Hambro, carried on. It wasn't quite as good, but it was still excellent. Rupert changed the dress code so diners had to wear ties, except For Sunday lunch. That's when my photo was taken. Rupert even had a special Wiltons tie made and kindly gave me the first one off the press.

There's a chance Wiltons may now sink into what is laughingly known as "progress". "Steering a new course at Wiltons" was the headline for an article by the serious and excellent food writer Fay Maschler. That filled me with terror. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. There's a new chef from the Connaught - Jerome Ponchelle. A new managing director now runs the restaurant, the very elegant Margaret Levin. Ms Levin appeared only briefly on my last visit. She was lunching with two chefs. She mentioned their names as if I should be impressed. Jimmy Marks would never have deserted his customers for a couple of cooks.

Ms Levin assured me M Ponchelle would be introducing new dishes. The one thing Wiltons doesn't need is new dishes. If their bakewell tart is anything to go by, they could put the restaurant away. Fay Maschler perceptively wrote: "Steamed scallops with ginger, lemon grass and a hint of garlic can be found at any Chinese restaurant near where you live." She chose turbot. Lemon grass in Wiltons, indeed. Marks must be spinning in his grave.

At his Wiltons, you got sausage and mash, Irish stew, Lancashire hotpot: traditional English dishes combined with the best of English produce. He did a rice pudding with cream that was indescribably brilliant. He kept golden syrup under the bar just for me. That made it utter perfection. The Women's Institute in Derbyshire can undoubtedly make marvellous bakewell tarts. Wiltons cannot. The rest of my recent lunch was potted shrimps, fried fillets of plaice with batter that was not quite as robust as before, and superb creamed spinach. The melba toast was lovely. All in all, it was very good. But changes are on the way. I'm sure they'll make things worse. They usually do.



Letters

I feel Mr Winner came down a little hard on the waiter at Hakkasan over his mastery of percentages (June 2). He states: "You can't have 40% and 90%, it has to add up to 100." He is, of course, only partly right; 130% is statistically possible - it just means 30% more people are eating at the establishment than anyone has actually realised.
David Milton, Leeds.

I have absolutely no style, I do not frequent restaurants and I cannot even begin to comprehend Michael Winner's lifestyle. And yet I read his articles avidly. Can anyone explain why - and if it is wise for me to continue?
Colin Richards, Sheffield.

Could Michael Winner please desist from referring to St Christopher School in Letchworth (June 2) as a Quaker establishment. It is not. Friends' School was founded in Clerkenwell in 1702, and others include The Mount and Bootham, York; Leighton Park, Reading; and Ackworth, Yorks. All have a long tradition of excellence.
Judy Harman, Bath.

I am a follower of Michael Winner's column and have found nearly all of his recommendations agreeable. However, I recently visited Wiltons, on the recommendation of another critic, Fay Maschler. Quite honestly, it was one of the worst meals I have had for a long time - from dried-out bread with the smoked salmon to rubbery fish and overcooked vegetables.
Michael Kelly, by e-mail.

In light of Michael Winner's new- found status as a bagel connoisseur (May 5), can I suggest a visit to Brick Lane Beigel Bake on the eponymous street in London's East End? Here he'll find them made in the traditional manner (small and chewy, as opposed to the tyre-like version inflicted upon us by our American cousins), sporting a traditional price tag (starting at 12p each) and in all the traditional varieties (only plain - no choco-chip-cinnamon-raisin nonsense here). I appreciate that the East End isn't his normal stomping ground, but it is well worth the trip.
F Brady, London.

There seems to have been a spate of correspondence about lavatories in this column recently. Enough already. I'm eating my breakfast.
S Corsini, London

Send letters to Style; or e-mail: michael.winner@sunday-times.co.uk