Published 3 November 2002 News Review 486th article
Slow motion: Norman, Winner, Lynton-Edwards and Elton in the Rib Room (Nigella Lawson)
Charles Saatchi said: "I want to meet your new girlfriend, let's have dinner." I was expecting to go to his house in Belgravia, which boasts a staggering collection of modern art, none of which I understand. Instead Charles invited us to the Rib Room at The Carlton Tower Hotel, a regular haunt of Mr S and his delightful friend Nigella Lawson.
The room has brightened up since I was there many years ago. Everywhere you look you see people working in white outfits. It's either a lunatic asylum or a restaurant. It was very hot, so we all took our jackets off. The assembled, amusing, group was: Charles and Nigella, me and Geraldine Lynton-Edwards (well known Sunday Times photographer), Matthew Norman (extraordinarily witty columnist), his wife Rebecca (ditto), Charles Elton (TV producer) and Lucy (his wife).
Mr Elton professed to be a major expert on movies. I asked: "Who was the American male lead in the 1962 British comedy We Joined the Navy?" This stumped him. Eventually I revealed it was Lloyd Nolan. For an amateur Mr Elton was pretty good on films, but you can't beat a wizened professional like me who's been studying them and participating for over 50 years.
Mr Elton did offer one "gem" of a dinner story. "This hotel's been bought by Colonel Gadaffi," he announced. Actually, it's still owned by Sheikh Mohammed but I liked the idea of a beaming Colonel Gadaffi image adorning the Rib Room, like Colonel Sanders at Kentucky Fried Chicken.
"Would you like my recommendation," said Charles Saatchi, "prawn cocktail." I'm easily led. I ordered it - and a sirloin steak. Nigella said the rib was best, so I changed to rib. No one asked how I wanted it cooked. Nigella said: "Have it without gravy." I acquiesced. After all, she's a real food expert, I'm an imposter.
The prawn cocktail was spectacularly good. A marvellous 50s dish, soft, large prawns, nice sauce and crisp lettuce. That was just as well as it was the only food I'd see for over an hour.
"You couldn't call the service nippy here," I complained to Matthew Norman after a three-quarter hour wait for a steak. "I saw them take the cow outside just now. They're still killing it," he said helpfully. You definitely have to live to a good age to be served in the Rib Room.
"It's normally quick," said Nigella. "We do a quick version." "A quick version here!" I muttered in amazement.
When the meat eventually arrived I looked at Rebecca's plate and said: "What is that, dear?" "It's beef, dear," said husband Matthew.
"What's that then?" I asked, looking at something else. "More beef, dear," said Matthew.
The TV gentleman had a sirloin, Geraldine liked her sea bass with Jerusalem artichokes and sweet potatoes. "I haven't got a potato," I observed. "Why haven't I got a potato?"
"Would you please get Mr Winner a potato," Nigella asked sweetly. The waiter looked baffled. Eventually I got one. The vegetables and the butter arrived later. To say the service is terrible at the Rib Room is a gross understatement.
"How was your potato?" asked Matthew. "It was fine," I answered. "It didn't look crispy on the outside," said Nigella. She was right. It wasn't top class. But the meat was very good, if you can survive long enough to get it.
For dessert I ordered an orange sorbet. This threw the waiter completely. "It's on the menu," I said, pointing at it.
Nigella said: "Why would you order a sorbet?" "Because I'm fat," I replied. "You mean you'd like an ice-cream but you lack the courage of your convictions," said Nigella. She was right.
Geraldine had a chocolate torte. It included marshmallow, which was cloying and terrible. "This is horrible, this is horrible," said Geraldine about her dessert. I tasted it. It was dreadful.
"I'm getting cold now," I announced. "Can I get you a blanket," said Matthew. "Or a romper suit." "I used to wear romper suits," said Nigella.
A man sang at the piano. Nigella requested songs for people at our table. "What would you like?" Charles Saatchi asked me. "Ten minutes of silence," I replied.
I'd asked for the general manager when I entered the lobby at 8 o'clock. At 11.20pm the executive assistant manager came to see how things were going. "He should have come earlier," I said as he left.
"An hour too late. Make a note of that on your tape," said Matthew. "The most expensive hour of his career." Then, with a splendid imitation of me: "Look, dear, when I came in I said, 'Where's the manager?' and it's taken four hours. Unbelievable." It was a jolly evening.
While enjoying a sandwich in the drawing room of Brown's hotel, we were surprised to see a mouse scuttle across the carpet. We informed the waiter, who said it was not unusual. He would inform the duty manager. The manager never appeared but another mouse did. I passed on the details to Westminster council, which told me it had received a similar concern regarding a Soho restaurant. In this case the waiter's retort was: "Are they in here too? They should be in the kitchen!"
Shirley Racher, London
I sympathise with your views on kippers. After several months of powdered egg, "soya carne", "hocki" (a large Bolivian rodent) and the occasional snake, a well cooked kipper is the one dish I craved for on my return to Britain. In fact, I have found some beautifully cooked kippers aboard the Virgin train from London to Liverpool.
John Blashford-Snell, London
We have just returned from a weekend in Venice. It was very nice apart from our meal at Harry's Bar. Just what is it you like so much about the place? The atmosphere was claustrophobic and dispiriting, with waiters bustling about as if on army manoeuvres. I paid nearly £40 for seven small scampi, unadorned but for a small green salad. My husband's turbot was served with a small dish of tartare sauce that tasted suspiciously as if it had come from a bottle. My pumpkin soup starter was not a patch on my own recipe and the puddings were sweet and sickly. Oh dear, Mr Winner, you owe us a good meal - £230 worth to be precise.
Gabrielle Fletcher, Ludlow
A recent dinner at Raymond Blanc's Le Petit Blanc in Manchester was made all the more memorable by the applause from other diners at the departure of a particularly loud and pompous customer. He could give even you some ideas on the art of complaining.
Andrew Palmer, Manchester
I was delighted David Tyler did not enjoy his fish soup at Bar du Port in St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat (Winner's Letters, last week). Hopefully, this will deter the masses from discovering the Riveria's most perfect hideaway and will leave the establishment to those of us who appreciate it.
Siobhan Pitel, London
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