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You can't get the service these days - but I can

Published 15 June 2003
News Review
518th article

Run of the mill: Winner with Liz and Andy Cottingham and Gary Clarke (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)

I'm bemused by readers outraged because I sometimes get better service just because of who I am. It reminds me of the old Jewish joke (not me, another one) where Mr Cohen goes to the theatre and the manager says: "I'm afraid we have no seats left." Mr Cohen says: "If the the Queen turned up you'd find seats for her, wouldn't you?" The manager says: "Yes, we would." Mr Cohen responds: "I've got news for you. She's not coming. I'll have her seats."

The Ivy is still the most popular restaurant in London because it holds back tables for celebrities. Whilst you may wait weeks to get a reservation, a famous person can get in just like that. Others are permitted to go and ogle.

I'm drawn to these ruminations remembering when I recently studied a route advice Peter Crome, the almost historic manager of Chewton Glen, had prepared. It was to help me on my journey to dinner at The Mill at Gordleton, a restaurant in nearby Lymington, Hampshire.

I read it, perplexed. "I'll drive in front and lead the way," offered Peter.

So I entered my unbelievably expensive to hire convertible Mercedes SLK 230, which Peter ordered. It arrived from London on a tow-truck. It was ghastly. The vision was poor, the cheap-looking dashboard seemed to take a third of the view. My less posh Saab convertible was sitting in the garage at home. I only use it about four times a year. The chauffeur takes it out and exercises it.

Next time I'll helicopter down again, but have the chauffeur bring Saab. Thus saving money and getting a better ride.

I duly followed Peter to Gordleton Mill, where I besported myself before the co-owner Liz Cottingham. Her husband Andy is the other proprietor.

"Your table was booked for 9. It's only 8.15," she said with a hint of panic.

"Nine!" I exclaimed. "Peter Crome never told me that."

"Yes he did," said Geraldine as if dealing with a senile idiot. "You just weren't listening."

Liz indicated their best table, which she'd reserved for me. Four people sat there eating. Next to it was an empty table, a tiny bit smaller, but so what. Any port in a storm.

"I'll have that one," I volunteered graciously. "It's booked in half an hour," advised Liz.

"Let them wait in the bar," I suggested. "You'll make extra profit from their drink." This supreme logic worked, and we sat down.

Liz and Andy have had Gordleton Mill for only a few months. They also own a beach cafe at nearby Mudeford. "This is a huge step for us," said Liz. "It would have been a huge step for me to eat at 9 o'clock," I replied.

Inside, Gordleton Mill looks like a 1940s roadhouse. Outside is a pond with ducks. Some hot and excellent rolls were offered. They're bought from West Country Fine Food.

"They come in dough," Liz explained, "then we bake them for four minutes in an oven."

She added: "We make our own sultana walnut bread for lunchtime." Not much help to me. This was dinner.

Andy ("I was born and bred in the forest") took our order. He meant New Forest. I started with pate of fresh chicken livers with mixed leaves, toasted brioche and apple chutney. I dictated: "Very, very nice. Delicate taste. Interesting."

I followed with rump of Welsh lamb marinated in Provencal herbs with garlic, spinach leaves and a rich lamb gravy. "They should have a steak knife for this lamb," I said to Geraldine. "Liz will have to go to a hardware store and buy one." There were three enormous pieces of lamb and a lot of veg. It was pleasant, but I left most of it.

Geraldine started with a trio of salmon; warm poached, oak smoked and marinated. "This is just scrumptious," she said. She went on to seared scallops and roast loin of cod. She liked that, too.

I ended with sticky toffee pudding with walnuts, banana ice cream and coffee sauce. I expected it to be white but it was dark brown. I later realised I was thinking of treacle roll, which is white. Toffee pudding is meant to be brown. I don't like that colour. It puts me off. It was adequate. The chef is Gary Clarke, who was busy. He only appeared for our photo.

When I left, fearful of losing my way back with Peter Crome's route advice, some headlights flashed as I entered the car park. It was Peter himself waiting to lead us to Chewton Glen. That's what I call service. "He wouldn't have done that for us," you say. Probably not. Frankly, I don't give a damn.

Winner's letters

One wonders if Mr Winner is in the market for a new PA. I refer to an ad in last week's Appointments section of The Sunday Times for a job involving working 365 days a year, mostly in the Med and the Caribbean, lots of flying, bag carrying and "any grot work that needs doing". It finishes by warning applicants that they will be working for an "inconsiderate, insensitive and demanding swine". Come on, Michael - have I rumbled you?
Dom Pleasance, Bedfordshire

I've just got back to my college room after a few friends and I saw Mr Winner and his dolly in Trinity College, Cambridge, this sunny Saturday afternoon (June 7). Although he gave us a look of "Don’t you know who I am?" we'll be attending the curry house by Magdalene Bridge tonight to spy on him. No doubt he'll be there. I wonder if he will contribute to these poverish (sic) students' meal?
Matthew Atkinson, Sideny (sic) Sussex College, Cambridge

My wife and I are soon to holiday in Italy. Does MW have any tried and tested strategies to use when seated next to overexcited Americans? Should I tell them to "Calm down, it's only a restaurant"? And does anyone know how much the fine is for throwing a mobile into the hotel pool?
James Woods, Staffordshire

Harden's guide to "top" UK restaurants trumpets San Carlo, Birmingham, for "outstanding service and a delicious and tasty range of dishes". Okay if you're prepared to accept that "Insalata Adriatica" should include crabsticks. We ordered ciabatta, but despite two further requests it never arrived, although it was on the bill! Forty minutes after our crabsticks had been cleared - nothing. We called the maitre d', who returned, after a lot of shouting in the kitchen, to say we were lucky to have had our starters. Ten minutes later the linguine boasted one prawn, four clams and 10 empty clamshells. The mixed fish grill consisted of horribly overcooked, and by now cold, tuna, salmon, one prawn and a couple of unidentifiable pieces of fish that had clearly died of old age. This for £17.95 with no vegetables, salad or even a piece of lemon. Twenty minutes after we'd asked for the bill it still hadn't arrived.
Hugh Wilson, London

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