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Mysterious desserts from the women in black

Published 15 December 2002
News Review
492nd article

Michael Winner with Robson, seated, chef Philpott and Ross (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)

Jeremy Robson is one of those rare people who are so nice it's impossible to be cross, even when he or his company does something extremely irritating.

He's the boss of Robson Books, which was bought a few years ago by Chrysalis. One of his most distinguished authors is me. I say that with a smile. Which might be more than Mr Robson could muster on the same subject.

I was due in Waterstone's in Hampstead High Street to do a bit of book signing for The Winner Guide to Dining & Whining and give my "lecture" on life and art. Mr Robson said he'd take Geraldine and me to dinner after the event. He strongly recommended Philpott's Mezzaluna in the Finchley Road.

Finchley Road is not a place I've ever dined in. I'm highly suspicious of the Hampstead area as far as restaurants go. And particularly suspicious of Finchley Road. It runs from St John's Wood in the south to the North Circular Road in the north. It has only figured in my life twice. Both times when I was around 14 years old.

First I visited a block of flats adjacent to Finchley Road Tube station where lived the marvellous Welsh character actor Mervyn Johns with his beautiful daughter Glynis. I went to get their autographs. A bit later, in a cafe in Finchley Road, a bearded old man read my handwriting and assured me I'd end up in a monastery. Don't laugh: this is still possible.

Philpott's Mezzaiuna is in a particularly barren part of Finchley Road. It's north of Hendon Way and before it reaches the bustle of Golders Green. I recall a bingo hall being on that stretch once. But I never visited it. The dining room has black ceiling fans, rather strange prints on the wall, one of a body, one of a red splurge and one, above my head, of a prisoner in Bergen County sheriff's office. There are some rather tacky Venetian masks hanging through an arch and a tiled floor. I would not call it an elegant space.

Alex Ross, the co-owner - his partner David Philpott is the chef - gave me their card. This was black type on dark red. I've never seen anything so ridiculous. You couldn't read the address at all.

Ice, lemon and Evian still mineral water came with admirable speed. They normally serve Panna but they'd got Evian in specially for me. That's intelligent thinking.

We got leek and potato soup with Parmesan oil as a freebie starter. It was pleasant. I said to Jeremy: "What's your wife's name?" Then I said: "I could have asked her. She's sitting on my left." Jeremy said: "Carole." Carole said: "You don't like talking to women do you?" Jeremy added: "With an e on the end."

I'm glad we got that sorted out. I chose a starter of crisp mackerel, rocket pistachio anchovy and paprika. By the time it arrived I'd forgotten what I'd ordered. Geraldine said: "What's that you're eating, mackerel?" I said: "Yes, it probably is." It was also pleasant. No more and no less.

Then I had a grilled Dover sole on the bone. This was very succulent, nice and with a lovely texture. It was served hot, which is more than my fish was at the Connaught. Also very tasty little potatoes. I'd have liked some butter to put on them but they only had olive oil on the table.

A waitress gave us the menu. I said: "Apple crustata, what does that mean?" She immediately rushed out of the room. Alex came and explained: "She only got as far as the starters on her training manual." After a long wait I said to a waitress: "Could you investigate where our desserts are." She said: "They're coming."

She obviously had no idea whether they were coming or not. Jeremy said: "Would you find out where they are?" The waitress went back and stood exactly where she was before, in the middle of the room with her arms folded.

Just as I was getting extremely irritated, the desserts appeared. Mine was slices of baked apple in a caramel sauce. The apple was very good. With it was an indifferent mousse with pastry top and bottom. The pastry was tough and stringy. The waitresses, all with black hair, were dressed head to toe in black. I wondered if they had to dye their hair to match the costumes.

The chef took for ever to change his apron for our photo. "Come on," I said to Alex, "Miss Lynton-Edwards is in a creative mood. It only lasts three minutes, so get the chef out quickly."

He arrived eventually. You can see the result.

Winner's letters

Ross Anderson's reference to ferry staff (December 8) recalls a delicious experience when crossing the North Sea. On being asked if aspargus tips were available, the dining room steward's brow furrowed, then cleared as if struck by a lightning bolt of inspiration. "no sir, but we do have Benson & Hedges."
Joost van der Broek, Grassington

Winner stalks the chefs of town
Moves reputations up and down
He's pompous true, but that's the trick
Keeps his repute in first class nick
It's all a laugh from which he profs
Because we're daft to read the stuff.

Charles Wilson, Isle of Man

Recently your photo shows you without a female partner. This is a shame. Perhaps you'd be interested in inviting me (a 45-year-old divorced but happy lady) and my 10½-year-old daughter out for a meal.
Shelley Robinson, Stanmore

Eeh, I'm fair pleased to see you've been getting up north again (November 24) where value and service mean more than pompous restaurateurs and pretentious waiters. Three of us discovered Compo's in Oldham by accident and enjoyed our non-expensive meal despite the presence of Norah Batty and Clegg looking down from the walls. I had an excellent turkey dinner, Christmas pud and a mug of hot chocolate all for under a fiver at Asda in Hartlepool. The staff were smiling and helpful. Value or what?
Ross Brewster by e-mail

What a pity you had such a dreadful meal in Siena (December 1). You should have gone round the corner to Osteria Le Logge. You'd have eaten very well and might even have had your picture taken to be placed alongside those of Sting, George Michael, George Clooney, Fidel Castro and other friends and patrons of the charming owners.
Rosalind Fell, Brussels

As a native Lucchese living in Scotland I was delighted to read of your positive visit to Bucadisantantonio. I rate it as the best within the walled city. You refer to it's lack of a Michelin star. It did at one time hold this accolade, but it lost it recently as it was viewed as catering too much for the tourist market. On my last few visits there were more Americans and Germansdining than Italians, but the food was as genuine as ever.
Adrian Pieraccini, by e-mail