Published 12 January 2003 News Review 496th article
Three's a crowd: Allan, Winner and Mortillaro outside Floriana (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)
Restaurant recommendations are totally useless. Unless they're made by me. Someone I must have thought highly of, or I wouldn't have gone, recommended Floriana in Beauchamp Place, Knightsbridge.
"They've got the chef from Harry's Bar," they said. "It's marvellous." So, slave-like and easily led, off I went for Saturday lunch.
Floriana was never on my dining list. I'd visited once before to attend a pathetic party for the launch of the Sandy Lane Hotel organised by my least favourite PR, Jo Vickers. She once had me pay for herself and her assistant when a group of us lunched at the Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons. Miss Vickers no longer represents Le Manoir or Sandy Lane.
At Vickers's fiasco party there was large bar looping around the entrance level of Floriana, but that is now gone and it's a fairly pleasant dining area with speckled brown and white chairs which are already collapsing. I went through three before I found one safe to sit in.
The general manager, Vincenzo Mortillaro. is extremely pleasant, but not a patch in the meeting and greeting league compared to Mara and Lorenzo Berni a few doors down at San Lorenzo, or Valerio Calzolari and Michel Lengui round the corner at Scalini.
The chef at Floriana was not the chef from Harry's Bar. I should explain: "Harry's Bar" refers to the English Harry's Bar in Mayfair, which is nothing to do with the one in Venice. It's an exceedingly posh dining club owned by the distinguished Mark Birley. The food's not as good as in Venice, but still excellent. The seating is very cramped. Nowhere in London are so many titled and distinguished bottoms settled on such tiny chairs.
The chef at Harry's Bar is apparently consultant to Floriana and Floriana's chief chef once worked at Harry's Bar, but not as top of the totem pole. He wasn't at Floriana that morning anyway, so it didn't make much difference.
"Matteo's his sous chef," explained Vincenzo. "He's very good as well."
It was 11 minutes past one and only two other diners were present. Possibly the excellence of the food had not hit the marketplace.
"Do you want me to look at the toilet?" asked Geraldine. "Why?" I asked. "Well. it's part of it, it's got to be important," she replied. And off she went.
I was shown the back room of Floriana. That, too, was empty. "Do you ever get customers here?" I asked as we returned to the deserted front room.
"Normally, Saturday they come in late," said Vincenzo.
"How late?" I asked. "About two o'clock they start coming in," replied Vincenzo, looking at his watch. Then he added: "I hope."
Geraldine was impressed with the stainless steel toilets. I was not over-impressed with the food. It all looked very nouvelle cuisine. They spent a lot of time organising the squiggles.
By 20 past one I was eating rather tasteless marinated herring, crab meat and balsamic vinegar. The crisp, Italian "music bread" was exceptionally good. I wanted more but no one offered it until my main course came, and then it was too late.
My roast rabbit, potatoes, bacon and shallots were bland. During the second world war, when my father ordered chicken, he used to ask: "Is it rabbit?" In those days they often palmed rabbit off as chicken. Although I always thought, if they were doing that, why should they tell him?
Geraldine loved her tuna with olive crust. For dessert I had chestnut mousse with cinnamon sauce. It was like a canape. There were two tiny splodges of chestnut and what looked like chocolate ice cream, which had not been mentioned on the menu. It was, at best, all right.
Floriana's front room seats 36 people. By the time we left around 2.30 it was pretty full. By comparison, San Lorenzo, which seats around 170, is always packed to capacity for Saturday lunch with people standing shoulder to shoulder in the bar waiting for seats. The food is infinitely better and it's much better at Scalini, too. So there's no real reason for Floriana.
My chauffeur is odd. He'd rather spend weekends with his family than with me. So being a perfect employer, I let him off. Instead, I rented Ken and his Mercedes. Ken was a lovely man who used to drive the great film producer Sam Spiegel. Then, most unfairly, Ken retired to Spain.
Now I mostly use Allan. He tends to move when traffic lights change from red to yellow rather than wait, looking into space, even when they're green. Here we are outside Floriana. I decided to put his photo in The Sunday Times. It's little things like that which keep them happy.
Unlike Mr Horten (Winner's Letters, December 29) I had the opposite comments from my friends when my letters were published. My last was in June yet just before Christmas an acquaintance remembered it and complimented me. I have become a minor celebrity in our county because of this and everyone thinks Michael Winner is a good friend of mine.
Grace Ciappara, Northampton
I enjoy reading the letters from the great and rich detailing their dissatisfaction with expensive places they eat at. It makes me glad I live in Norfolk where I can get excellent food and wine in good country pubs for a fraction of the cost and with much less hassle. I also pride myself that I can produce anything that a top restaurant can in my own kitchen. I will keep reading and continue to feel smug.
Julia Corby, Norwich
On a trip to Killarney, my wife and I stayed in a hotel used by Yanks who'd do anything for Ireland, rather than live in it. The dining room was packed for breakfast with our overweight cousins cramming their frames into chairs. The head waiter, on hearing our accents, was thankful for a friendly face. With his hand over his mouth, he chuckled: "One of the Yanks wants a typical old-fashioned Irish breakfast. I haven't the heart to tell him that's a mug of tea and a thick slice of bread a with jam."
John Barry, Newry, Co Down
I don't know if John Johnston (Winner's Letters, last week) expects miracles from the grossly overstretched NHS or whether he has been paying privately to dodge the queues. But on behalf of the medical profession, I offer him a humble, profuse and sincere apology for however he has been wronged.
Dr Anthony Earnshaw, Leicester
The New Year's Eve party at the Hempel, London, was excellent but was let down by brunch the next day. The waiters had to be constantly prompted to serve tea, coffee and orange juice. When tea eventually arrived there was no sugar or milk. Our full English breakfast was supposed to include toast, which did not arrive. After asking for it, it came burnt and with no butter. The bill for two for the whole event was almost £500. I will not be returning.
Martin Haggett, Malvern
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