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Oh waiter, what's this yacht doing in my soup

Published 13 July 2003
News Review
522nd article

All aboard: Winner with Gilbert and Annie Vissian at the African Queen (Gerladine Lynton-Edwards)

Dudley Andjel, from Bradford, introduced himself to me by the swimming pool at the Splendido in Portofino. Dudley manufactures cloth. He sent me some.

I took it into Huntsman, the super-posh tailor in Savile Row, where their boss, Terry Haste, knocked up a jacket. You may have noticed how my clothing has improved. On the other hand, you may not.

From time to time I buy 2½ metres of cloth from Dud and have things made. Although it's easier to drop into Brioni in Bond Street for an off-the-peg. Cuts out that endless toing and froing for fittings.

Dudley has a house in Eze in the south of France, just east of Beaulieu, where I often stay at the historically superlative and wonderful La Reserve de Beaulieu. Their club sandwich is £44 from room service, but a mere £35 by the pool.

Dudley recommended the African Queen in Beaulieu. It's one of those cheap and cheerful places that stretch along the local ports. Some are very good. Some are not.

"It's got a wonderful atmosphere," said Dud. I went one rainy day for lunch and thought it extremely dreary. I returned a year later for dinner.

The AQ is quite famous. David Niven used to go there. Other stars have wandered in and out. Gilbert Vissian and his wife Annie own and run it. Gilbert was a waiter there 34 years ago. He eventually bought the place.

He gave us a front table facing a little road. On the other side of the road were more tables, low hedges and then the yachts in the harbour.

I can't stand yachts. On a recent visit to the superb Cipriani in Venice their distinguished hotel manager, Natale Rusconi, had permitted yachts to park right in front of my table near the swimming pool.

These tables used to be delightfully tranquil. They overlook a lagoon, a small island and the distant Lido. Suddenly there were two yachts with fat men (I should talk!) behaving loudly and eating off plastic table cloths. It was horrendous. Even the waiter said: "They should put the boats further down," indicating an area which would have not obstructed we sensitive diners.

But back to the African Queen. There's a simple menu with pizzas and things and a more sophisticated one offering lamb and couscous and more. A waiter was showing a plate of dead fish to diners so they could choose.

"How do they know they got their exact chosen fish?" I wondered. I ordered a Coca-Cola. It was flat and horrid. Maybe it was draught and not from a bottle. It had no fizz at all. I asked for a bottle. They brought a screw-top plastic bottle, which had liquid in it little better than before.

Gilbert was utterly contemptuous of the word "Coca-Cola" when I ordered it, so what did he care! I'm also worried about the Coca-Cola in England. On recent tastings it seemed thinner than usual and lacking body. I must write to my pen pal Douglas Daft, Coke supremo, and seek an explanation.

At the African Queen I had ham and melon. Both poor. The ham was fatty and tough. I left most of it. Geraldine thought her stuffed courgettes were terrific She tasted her rose and said: "It isn't as good as the Vaux de Provence at La Reserve de Beaulieu."

"Of course it isn't," I said, "the Reserve has two Michelin stars. This is a cafe."

They had Maxim's water, which I place equal bottom with our English Blenheim water. My pizza was excellent. Thin, not cloying. I forget what was on it, but it was a triumph. There was a large queue of people at the desk waiting to be seated.

The waiter, Jim Mavo, had been wonderfully assiduous regarding my two fried eggs. He asked if I wanted them put in the fire with the pizza or fried separately and placed on top. Geraldine ordered stuffed loup. She was not pleased with it. A fish soup with potatoes turned up too. That was outstanding.

Cars were endlessly passing close to us. A green Rolls-Royce went by twice. It had a beige vinyl roof. Very 1970s. It was like a concours d'elegance without the elegance. Except for the Rolls - and the vinyl roof knocked that out.

I said my mint tea was considerably better than the previous night at another harbour place, Le Sloop. "You didn’t have mint tea at Le Sloop," said Geraldine. "You had it at Les Agaves." It's nice to have someone with a memory in the group.

The bill came in an African Queen VHS cassette container. I enjoyed the movie more than the restaurant.

Winner's letters

I note with interest that Jackie Marinetti (Winner's Dinners, June 29), "a regular writer to this column", was a guest at dinner. I'm also a regular writer. How come I've never been invited to dinner with Winner?
Stanley Silver, Hadley Wood, north London

An advert in The Sunday Times last week offered this mouth-watering fare: "Chicken Provencale. Tender chicken with red pepper and fine French herbs". lt was one of four "exquisite" recipes from a new range. As they're pre-packed, Michael could carry some in his Saab. I can see him laying back at 90mph, hands gripping the wheel, eyes closed, while Geraldine baby feeds him with a spoon. Would she mention, I wonder, that the advert was for cat food?
Will Holland, Battersea, south London

Michael offers a nose-thumbing, informative dissertation on food, cars, helicopters, restaurants, hotels and people. Only Shakespeares Malvolio could possibly usurp Winner's position.
Michael Jefferson, Hayling Island, Hampshire

How to spot celebrity restaurants. On trying to book, a recording tells you to ring again in six months. If the restaurant honours your booking be prepared to sit by the toilets, the kitchen, or the bar. On receiving a "good" table because of a cancellation, you are told to leave by 8.30pm. Perhaps the beautiful people can watch themselves eating. If I want to watch feeding time I'll go to Whipsnade. The chimps and elephants don't look much different.
Patrick Nolan, Leeds

My wife and I were having breakfast at Cliveden. Our orange juice was fine, freshly squeezed, no lipstick on the glasses. Not so for the lady at the next table. She ordered a buck's fizz, tasted it and sent it back because it was fizzy! Was she perhaps Michael's sister?
Mike Gardner, Somerset

At a "Moroccan" gala dinner at the Savoy two ladies asked for mineral water. The waiter replied: "No water, only wine." Later another lady asked for coffee. Reply: "No coffee, only tea." Throughout, the service was slightly worse than self-service would have been. A joke.
R H Stapylton, Northolt, west London

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