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A poor boy's Journey to a land of bread with honey

Published 23 February 2003
News Review
502nd article

The Iceman: Winner with the Albinas and, kneeling, Machowiak (Gerladine Lynton-Edwards)

People write asking why I don't reply to questions in your letters. The reason is lack of space. If I reply under the letters, there'll be less room for your letters. If I reply in the article, my food, hotel and travel tips will be reduced.

I will, however, respond to a highly important question asked two weeks ago by Stanley Glicksman, of Harrow. Mr Glicksman wondered why he and his friends, who come from Willesden, saw no sign of me in their youth, when I claim to be a poor boy from Willesden.

Well, Stanley, I started life in a bijou mini-mansion in Alexander Avenue, Willesden. In 1940, when I was five, we relocated to Cheltenham. There I attended junior school and my parents put me down for Cheltenham College. Sadly, the headmaster told them: "The Jewish quota is full."

Mumsy, who always had a good turn of phrase, replied: "I thought that's what we were fighting the war about."

This was a clever riposte, but cut no ice with Cheltenham College. So I ended up in Letchworth, Hertfordshire, where, for 11 years, I attended a bizarre co-educational, vegetarian, Quaker school called St Christopher.

In London we lived in Lancaster Gate and later Holland Park. Then, aged 17, thanks to a Westminster tutorial establishment, I got to Cambridge University. Thus Willesden failed to witness my journey to puberty and beyond.

I reckon it's 81 miles, as the crow flies, from Cheltenham to Ripley in Surrey. This is of no importance unless you happen to be a crow. But it brings me to our restaurant - Michel's - in Ripley High Street, adjacent to a Suzuki showroom.

I recently bought one of those. Not a showroom. A Suzuki Grand Vitara. I'm rather pleased with it.

I chose Michel's from a food guide as I was returning to nearby Reigate (where I ate well at Tony Tobin's Dining Room) in order to prepare two more TV commercials for esure insurance. These I, again, produce, write, direct and star in.

Michel's is in a nice building which the owner, Michel Albina, assured me was a mixture of early Georgian and Queen Anne. Michel Albina is not the Michel of the restaurant's name. He bought it in November 2001 from the original Michel, who was the owner-chef and has since left.

"You're obviously French," I said to Michel. "I'm Lebanese," he replied.

I asked him what he did prior to buying the restaurant. "I was in property and before that I was in the market," Michel said.

"You had a stall in a market?" I responded. "No, I was in the stock market," explained Michel patiently. I thought it best to shut up and order.

It's only right that i should be treated better than anyone else wherever I go. In this respect Michel told me, in a conspiratorial voice: "If you want to go a la carte, you can. I'm not offering a la carte for the rest."

I decided the set lunch at £21 for three courses, excluding coffee and petits fours at £2.75 and service charge, was quite adequate for a poor boy from you know where.

I ordered "mixed leaves salad served with crispy Parma ham topped with poached skate with blackcurrant dressing", followed by "pan-fried rib of beef served with vegetables in Yorkshire pudding finished with tomato coulis". Geraldine chose the salad followed by "papillote of salmon served with julienne vegetables scented with tarragon".

The bread, made with molasses, honey and cumin, was truly excellent. The salad was tasteless, the blackcurrant dressing a mere decorative smear on the plate. Geraldine asked for olive oil and added salt in the hope of getting something to taste.

The beef was okay. The yellow sauce on it was meaningless. I'm afraid most meat fails by comparison with what is delivered to me by R Allen of Mount Street. So I left much of my steak. But the Yorkshire pudding was historic. Geraldine greatly enjoyed her salmon.

For dessert I had "cold lemon souffle with pistachio custard". It wasn't a souffle, more a bland sort of mousse.

Michel's is perfectly all right as a pleasant local eating-place. The room is likeable and Michel Albina and his wife Dorothy - she's from Liverpool - are superb and caring hosts. They're aided by a lovely Polish girl, Danuta Machowiak.

The only bit of service I found silly was when I asked for ice to go with my still mineral water. "It's cold, it's come from the fridge," said Michel.

"It doesn't stay cold," I pointed out. "Liquid, particularly in a glass, will soon go to room temperature. Can I have some ice, please."

I got it. But I shouldn't have had to ask twice.

Winner's letters

News Review regularly carries a restaurant review by somebody called Michael Winner. Why is it always accompanied by a photograph of Liberace's mother?
Christopher Wood, Salvigny La Grande, France

I'm surprised Michael Winner can't remember a more bizarre sight on the beach in Barbados than protesting horse riders (Winner's Dinners, last week). A regular excursion is the Jolly Roger galleon, which arrives laden with revellers heralded by the thump of loud music. Two second world war landing craft then transport the group to the beach to swim and sunbathe. But not to the Almond Beach Club where we stay, but nearer to Sandy Lane and Mr Winner!
Simon Nettell, Shropshire

Visiting Barbados, we decided to hang the expense and eat at the Lone Star, where everybody who is anybody dines. My main course consisted of lumpy rice and tired-looking curry. The maitre d' had the grace to apologise and remove the charge from our bill. We ordered from the sweet menu, but nobody saw fit to do anything about our order. The couple next to us had waited 45 minutes for someone to clear their plates. All around us were demands to be served, to no avail. We were told later the chef had walked out. He clearly had more sense than the rest of us.
Don Carey, Hampshire

I have received the tariff from Jean Shrimpton's Abbey hotel, Penzance. It invites me to take a "winter brake" and says if I have a query I must not "hasetate" to contact them. I don't think I'll bother.
Francis Bennion, Budleigh Salterton

I recently spent my birthday at the Leela in Mumbai. I reserved at Fiorella, its highly rated Italian restaurant. My starter of carpaccio of beef was so good I told the staff it had been "historic". As the table was cleared I was asked: "Your lamb, sir, was this also historic?" Itried to explain the origin of my compliment, but it seems you're not that well known in India.
Gregg Smith, Huddersfield

I feel Alex des Monstiers has achieved a success with his photograph (Winner's Dinners, February 9). MW out of focus is a definite improvement.
Roy Salter, Surrey

Send letters to Winner's Dinners, The Sunday Times, 1 Pennington Street, London E98 1ST or e-mail michael.winner@sunday-times.co.uk