Published 22 December 2002 News Review 493rd article
That Riviera touch: Winner with the Cirinos at Hostellerie Jerome (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)
Would you like to know where I've had Christmas lunches for the last 45 years? You wouldn't. Good, then I'll tell you. I started off the period, commencing 1958, mostly in Cannes. The weather at Christmas is usually rather good. It's not uncommon to see people swimming, though not in large numbers.
I went because my parents lived there. We'd eat either in the Casino - very fine until they pulled it down and replaced it with a concrete bunker. Or at La Bonne Auberge, once the top restaurant on the coast, now still excellent but more casually run by the next generation, or at L'Oasis in La Napoule. That was wonderful but was once mysteriously burnt down, rumour had it by the local mafia. My appetite was somewhat dampened in the 70s seeing large marks on the walls of Mumsie's apartment where she'd taken valuable oil paintings left to me by Dad and sold them to pay her gambling debts.
In 1975 I had Christmas lunch with Miss Hammersmith at Harry's Bar in Venice. And in 1976 with a statuesque black dancer who'd just finished playing the West Wind in the musical The Wiz on Broadway. We ate at Mimo's Taverna Flavia in Rome. It's not in the Michelin Guide, but it's still going strong and it's marvellous.
Now I'll jump to 1982 when I first went to Barbados. I'm currently there on my 20th Christmas visit. The Sandy Lane Hotel has undergone various incarnations and a bevy of managers but is definitely now at its best. The restaurant manager, when I first arrived, was Frankie Browne. He was fired or left, but I'm happy to say, looking as much like an all-in wrestler as ever, is now back as manager of the beachside Bajan Blue restaurant where I shall have Christmas lunch this year.
I may have been responsible for Frankie's return. I described last year's two European restaurant managers as probably recruited from a furniture catalogue and then said that was unfair to furniture. I stated the local Bajan staff were much better. So now we have Frankie below and Michael Forde, another very good Bajan ex-employee, running the posher L'Acajou above.
If you're in Barbados feel free to say hello. If you're in London, a merry Christmas to you. If you're in the south of France, I have a significant recommendation: the Hostellerie Jerome in La Turbie. This is one of the best places I've eaten in. It has two Michelin stars, which sometimes means a lot and sometimes little.
It's up a cobbled alley in the old part of a hill town between Beaulieu and Monte Carlo. The owners are Bruno Cirino, the chef, and his wife Marion. She dresses in a simple, elegant style and boy, does she work. She doesn't order people about. She takes the orders, serves when necessary and is a grand, but superb, hostess.
My friend, the ex-three-Michelin-star chef, Nico Ladenis, who moved to France, said Bruno was a bit tense. But he seemed reasonably jolly when dragged out of his kitchen for the obligatory photo.
The Hostellerie Jerome is open this Christmas Day. It's almost worth a trip over just to go for lunch. Don't sit on the little balcony, the chairs are naff and the tables too small. But in the castle-like dining room it's very comfortable with marvellous acoustics. You can even hear people at your own table.
The freebie on my first visit was a very delightful minced duck tartlet, followed by scampi in a fish soup with a cheese topping. All the ingredients were superb. Then I ordered rognon de veau, a whole kidney roasted in its fat, perfumed with rosemary, mustard sauce, girolle mushrooms and potatoes.
The waiter showed me the kidney before serving. It was absolutely enormous. It could have fed a family of 10. Then he took it away. "Maybe he's giving it to a family of 10," I thought.
With it were wonderful potatoes, mashed but in a casing, rather like duchesse potatoes but better, the mushrooms and a terrific puree spinach. I had to leave a lot, it was just so large. But historic.
On my second visit I had a starter of scampi with white beans and pan-fried foie gras. It was as good a course as I've ever eaten anywhere. I made a note on my tape: "Although this is very posh there are off-the-tourist-bus people dining here. One table of French people has come in now. They're not off the bus. They're kind of Honda Civic." This shows how I sit dictating ridiculous nonsense into my tape. Why are you nodding in agreement? You're reading it.
It must be a "Ramsay" thing. Your reader's comments on ironing the tablecloth at the Connaught (Winner's Letters, December 8) rang a bell with me. A recent lunch at Petrus was declared over by the restaurant as the iron came out to prepare the tables for the evening. It is clearly the upmarket version of the "Hoover soundbite", which I remember from my days of relative penury and was used to clear me and a partner from an establishment wishing to close.
Neill Macklin, London
My wife and I dined at L'Acajou, Sandy Lane, last week. The ambience and food were excellent but the service was less than attentive. I was left to pour the pre-dinner champagne, the wine did not arrive until partway through the first course and the theatrical gestures adopted by waiters to indicate they did not see me calling for attention were extraordinary. To cap it all, the bill was £100 more than it should have been. It was amended speedily, but without apology for the error.
Dr Ken Reay, London
Your beloved La Mamounia is past its sell-by date. The best hotel in Marrakesh is the Villa des Orangers. Book a suite with a private rooftop terrace and order a chicken tajine for dinner - there is no contest!
Brian Glockler, Monaco
Are you proud to be British? Uncertain? May I recommend dinner at the Savoy. A history of the restaurant was given to our table by the waiter - "Sir Winston Churchill dined at table No 4, and his table was left empty for a year after his death as a mark of respect." But I felt most patriotic when the bellboy brushed my jacket down while I relieved myself. Rule Britannia!
Paul Buzasi, Chelsea
I suspect that the waiter at the Smugglers Haunt, Port Eynon, was correct when he told Mr Anderson he would not be able to tell the difference between fresh and frozen fish, as long as it was defrosted and cooked correctly (Winner's Letters, December 8). He could have been more subtle, though. What he should have said is: "All our fish is caught fresh."
Keith Salmon, by e-mail
I went to the old Connaught. I have been to the new. Old was better. There was no nonsense, such as the waiter who brings your dish towards your table being stopped short by one of several senior waiters who then inspects it theatrically for imperfections before allowing it to be served. If the food is not good enough to leave the kitchen it should stay there until it is. The main restaurant, called Menu for equally silly reasons, is saved only by those members of staff who have survived the hotel's change of ownership.
Michael Cole, London