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The only thing undercooked was the atmosphere

Published 29 June 2003
News Review
520th article

Winner with Giorgio Locatelli, Giovanni Baldino and Giorgio's wife Plaxy (Nicholas Cowell)

I have suffered moments of restaurant incompetence so great I remember them with horror. Eight years ago, at Zafferano in Belgravia, the restaurant manager was Enzo Cassini. He still is. Enzo probably owes his job to me as I recommended him to my friend Claudio Pulze, who was a director of the company owning Zafferano.

I always say I don't go to restaurants, I go to tables. But I'm quite realistic about this. My regular table at Colin Smith's greatly missed Chez Moi in in Holland Park was often taken by the excellent playwright Simon Gray. I'd phone Colin and ask "Am I allowed in tonight?" Sometimes I got a yes. Other times Colin said "I'm afraid your table's taken." So I'd seek sustenance elsewhere.

One night I called Enzo and reserved at Zafferano. As I approached I could see through the glass window three people were already sitting at my regular table. I entered the restaurant and asked Enzo why this was.

"I have a better place for you", he said pointing to a ridiculously small corner table wedged in by one party of eight people and another of 12 people. It was the most ridiculous location ever.

"I'm doing you a favour", said Enzo. "The air conditioning in the kitchen has broken down. Your normal table is near the stairs down to the kitchen. It's very hot."

This was total nonsense. I don't believe the air conditioning had collapsed. When I stood by my usual table the temperature was exactly the same as it always had been. I departed. But not before informing Enzo it was totally pathetic to try and kid a kidder. I never went back.

The chef at Zafferano was Giorgio Locatelli an excellent man and a supremely talented cooker. On Valentine's Day last year Giorgio opened his own restaurant Marylebone, unsurprisingly called Locanda Locatelli. The A to Z restaurant group, which owns Zafferano, lost not only Giorgio, but also Gordon Ramsay from Aubergine and Marcus Wareing from L'Oranger. To lose one great chef is unfortunate. To lose three is profligate.

It worked out very well for Giorgio, whose restaurant is now, deservedly, one of the hottest tickets in London. Needless to say, he did not take Enzo with him. His new place is run by a charming man, Giovanni Baldino, and Giorgio's very beautiful and welcoming wife Plaxy. She's the daughter of the renowned film and TV writer Clive Exton. Ten Rillington Place is one of his many movies.

The food at Locanda Locatelli is absolutely marvellous. The customers less so. The room lacked joviality and atmosphere. I was brought culatello, which Giovanni told me was the best part of the Parma ham. Then a salad of steamed prawns with lemon and black olives.

My side order was risotto with prosecco wine and scallops. It was so good I tried in vain to stop eating it all as I didn't want to spoil my main course of pan fried kidneys with mushrooms. Everything was masterful. Except the air-conditioning, which didn't seem supremely functional. It was too hot. But not too hot to spoil my dessert of chocolate and banana beignet, jasmine ice cream and violet jelly.

Just as I was thinking what a nice meal I'd had, Giorgio produced six separate home-made ice creams, all of which were incredibly good.

My dinner group, including Geraldine, declared the food terrific. There was Nicholas Cowell the witty and lively brother of TV's so-called Mr Nasty, Simon Cowell. Simon, like most people supposedly difficult, is absolutely delightful. He was in America. Then Nicholas's girlfriend, the lovely Kate Aylwin, an expert interior decorator, and ex-glamour model Jackie Marinetti, a regular writer to this column. Jackie's a genuine bird expert. She scrutinises them in strange parts of foreign lands. Places I would not dare to enter.

I finish on a recent incident concerning meeters and greeters. I phoned Zaika, the rightly renowned Indian restaurant in Kensington, to make a reservation and asked to speak to the restaurant manager. He was away but his deputy was there. The rude and confrontational receptionist, Caroline Walker, insisted on hearing my name (although she refused to give hers when asked) and that I tell her in advance what it was I wanted to speak to the deputy restaurant manager about.

Why should I have to audition for the honour of talking to a deputy restaurant manager? I finally said: "Cement production in Afghanistan." I still had to call back to get through to the man I wanted! What a ridiculous start to an evening. Vineet Bhatia, the superb chef and co-owner of Zaika, is exceedingly polite. He should train his staff to be the same.

Winner's letters

Do you have a picture of Winner wedged into the hairdresser's car (his Saab convertible) featured in Winner's Dinners on June 15? I'm a huge fan of Toad of Toad Hall.
Alastair Hetherington, Athens, Greece

My wife longs for a pristine, second-hand Saab convertible. As Michael's has a noble pedigree and is used only about four times a year may we head the queue of prospective buyers when the time comes for its disposal?
Richard O’Dell, Hampshire

You printed, on June 15, my son's letter about spotting Mr Winner in Cambridge. Matthew has invented a number of words including "decorangement" which he tried (almost successfully) to get into the Oxford English Dictionary. But I think "poverish" was just wrong. I've told him for years to check his spelling! Matthew and his friends did go to the curry house by Magdalene Bridge - but Mr Winner didn't show.
Mrs Deb Atkinson, Southport

You don't need to be a reader of Michael’s column to appreciate that we Brits don't have a natural affinity with the grand idea of "keeping the customer satisfied". Why do so many people of a certain disposition go into public service industries when they patently abhor the very notion of serving the public?
Huw Beynon, Llandeilo

If food and service are bad, after waiting for a bill for five minutes you and your party should get up and go. This will either produce the bill at the speed of light - or not. If the latter, how will they trace you since you're unlikely to return. If you meekly accept poor service you'll continue to receive it.
Eleanor M Coker, Ashford, Kent

When we booked at Le Pont De La Tour they asked for our phone number. We were told it was in case any of our belongings were left behind!
Alice Playle, London

I was intrigued to learn last week that as well as the advert you do for us, you also sweep our floors. Could this be why my office is looking so clean?
Peter Wood, Chairman, esure, Reigate

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