Published 27 October 2002 News Review 485th article
Market forces: Michael Winner with Susan and Denis Madden (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)
Last year I did a TV programme called Celebrity Sleepover. I was taken, not knowing my destination, to a council house on the Herts-Essex border owned by the Maddens. Denis sold flowers from a stall, his wife Susan was utterly superb, her daughter Rachel, 21, ran her own beauty salon, son Matthew was a builder. I greatly enjoyed myself.
I later invited the Maddens to dinner at my house. We keep in touch. A great benefit of this friendship was an introduction to the Columbia Road market in Hackney, a gem of small 19th-century architecture, sporting, on Sundays, an amazing display of Stalls and little shops.
It centres on garden stuff, plants, bushes, cut flowers, that sort of thing, but also includes clothes, arts and crafts and very good food. Last year I ate at The Perennial, a perfectly pleasant restaurant.
I intended to visit again with a van to take away my market purchases, but, typically, that was too much trouble. Instead, as my chauffeur has Sunday off, I rented it Mercedes with driver. I'm capable of driving my Bentley or the Saab convertible, but daughter Rachel's car was vandalised there only a few days earlier.
Denis was performing a highly energised, mesmerising cockney sales pitch at his flower stall. "How did it go today?" I asked. Denis pulled a face and made a wobbly hand movement.
"Well, you sold everything," I said. "I had to bash it up," explained Denis. "I had to get on the rattle." That means he had to sell the flowers cheaper, so he didn't make as much as he could.
"A real heartbreaker," he added. "There just wasn't the weight of people here today."
We were settling round a wooden table decorated a la Miro in Laxeiro, a Spanish restaurant in Columbia Road. It's owned by jolly Isabel Rios. She's had it for eight years and for 18 years before that ran it as a delicatessen. She lives above.
It was full and very lively. Isabel promised me a selection. Albondigas sounded odd, but apparently it's meatballs. I like meatballs. We had them, plus calamari, a sausage called choriso alvino and a lot of other stuff which I enjoyed but failed to note properly.
The crema Catalana dessert was delicious. The Spanish do those creamy things wonderfully. "Just the right texture," I dictated, "just the right crispiness of the thing on top."
They also had banana crepes. They were pretty good, too. I can totally recommend a Sunday trip to the Columbia Road market. Denis is about the second stall on the right as you enter. Be sure to spend lots of money. His flowers are very good value.
I have been a number of times to Angela Hartnett's "new" restaurants at The Connaught. I'm subjecting her to a particularly thorough investigation. She's coming out splendidly, although I do have quibbles.
Last Sunday in The Grill Angela excelled herself, producing some impeccable pommes souffles. These are little, blown-up, fried potato balls. Her boss, Gordon Ramsay, attempted them at Claridge's for me. And failed. The Dorchester gets them right occasionally.
I congratulate Gordon on discovering two of the most historic restaurant managers ever. The lady in the Connaught's main dining room, stupidly named Menu, is a lovely Swedish girl called Helena Hell. She is exemplary in efficiency and charm. She's almost, if not completely, equalled by Jayne Brealey in The Grill.
I thought of these two when I recently visited Wiltons, an old favourite of mine. I was greeted by their newish restaurant boss, Margaret Levin, as if I were a kitchen porter who'd been caught nicking the cutlery.
Wiltons is still good, but the food is not what it used to be. Only their oysters remain unbeatable. They've dropped ghastly Blenheim Water for the dreaded Hildon and the chips are bought in, pre-packed, from a restaurant supplier. One of the managers said: "The previous chef bought them frozen," as if that excused everything.
At the Riverside Brasserie, in a hut in the Bray marina, they cut their potatoes in the kitchen and make chips brilliantly. Wiltons, in St James's, should be able to do the same.
And where are all their great pictures? The wall of my booth used to display an excellent 19th-century Italian coastal watercolour. Plus other interesting old art. They're all gone. Now most of Wiltons's pictures look like prints inherited from the Ramada Jarvis chain of cheap hotels.
As I left, I greeted two friends, long-time Wiltons aficionados. One was not enjoying his crab salad. His wife had already sent back her smoked salmon. I do hope Wiltons soon recaptures its previous glory.
How many Michelin restaurants has MW been thrown out of? At the one-star Hibiscus (Ludlow), my starter was four tiny ravioli parcels. The main course was two square inches of sea bass, one small potato and a carrot. In the visitors' book I described it as "a parody of nouvelle cuisine". The owner collected it from the table i returning to snatch dessert menus back and asking us to leave. Unless they are Michael Winner, are customers now expected to remain mute if displeased?
Dennis Smlth, Chessington
I am sick of correspondents' whinges about smoking in restaurants. Any restaurant's policy on smoking is down to one person - the proprietor. If the decision is made to permit smoking then those who do not like it are free to go elsewhere.
Geott Morley, Hartlepool
The long elusive chestnut cream meringue (with tacky centre) of your heart's desire is regularly on the dessert menu at the White Hart Inn, Corfe, Somerset.
Jeanne Weech, Somerset
Mantecare (Winner's Dinners, last week) means adding a touch of butter or other liquid to the risotto a couple of minutes before the dish is ready (a risotto takes 18 to 20 minutes to cook) and keeping the lid on so that all vapour is retained.
Ermanno Nuonno, Twickenham
Your experience with kippers mirrors mine. I've given up ordering them in hotels as so few chefs appear to know how to cook this wonderful delicacy As an alternative, I invariably choose poached smoked haddock. A properly cooked kipper is the finest example of the Brltlsh breakfast. Still, at least I can get one at home.
Tony Bolton, Hertfordshire
We recently visited the Bar du Port in St-Jean-Cap Ferrat, described by Andrew Lloyd Webber as "the best value in town" in your article of September 15. We also tried the fish soup, which you described as "very tasty". The Bar du Port does not stick in my mind as the "best value" but I remember very clearly that the fish soup was awful. On your next visit to the south of France you should both head for Cannes and try the Restaurant Felix on the Croisette. It serves superb fish and is excellent value.
David Tyler, Pinner
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