Put in my place by a 12-year-old parking attendant
Published 5 October 2003 News Review 534th article
Family affair: Winner with, from left, Elisa, Dominique, Manon, Christian and Hugo at the Ostalapia (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)
At the dreadful, ill-managed Hotel du Palais in Biarritz I stood, tape recorder poised, at the concierge desk asking directions to La Ferme Ostalapia, a restaurant suggested by Geraldine's ex-husband. You can see we're all very friendly!
Two men were on duty in splendid uniforms. One spoke. The other nodded approval as I repeated the directions onto my tape. "You go toward St Jean de Luz on route nationale 10. Outside Biarritz there's a slope down and a slope up. At the top of the slope there's a little bridge, a very small bridge with no signpost. Go left there and the Ostalapia will be signposted."
So off we went in my horrible, rented Opel convertible with the narrowest sun visor I've ever seen. I'd guess about three inches of it. We left Biarritz, going up and down many slopes. But there was no sign of the little bridge on the left. We reached the next town, Bidart, and drove through that. We stopped at a restaurant and asked the way. We went astray. Then back on the nationale 10 through the next town, Guethary. Outside that was a bridge on the left over a motorway which turned out to be the right one.
The Palais directions were useless. Ever wishing to be helpful, I wrote correct instructions showing how to get from the Hotel du Palais to La Ferme Ostalapia and presented them to the concierge.
By the time we got to La Ferme I was frustrated and weary. It's a lovely Basque farmhouse with rooms dating back to the 17th century. Two young girls, about 12 years old, were in charge of parking. I was entering the car park when one of them ordered: "Keep on the road, go behind the Volkswagen." I meekly obliged.
The area is like Constantia in South Africa, which has similar farm-type restaurants. This one looked onto fields, forests and hills. There may have been vineyards too. I'm not a horticultural genius.
"I've come to a farm in the middle of the country and they can't squeeze an orange!" I muttered. They only had "plastic" orange juice. They had plastic tablecloths, too, red-checked. I ordered axoa d'espelette, a shoulder of veal cut into little pieces and cooked with sweet peppers. It's like a veal stew with mashed potatoes. This was truly historic. One of the best dishes I've ever eaten.
When we were taking our photograph I'd noticed steak going by and ordered that as well. It was in strips and rather chewy. "Ah," I said to Geraldine, "roast potatoes!" But they were thick-cut chips with the steak. Absolutely sensational. I even forgave the place for having paper napkins. I'd started with chipirons sautes. "Baby octopus and they're famous," explained Geraldine. They were dead so I couldn't ask for an autograph.
Two musicians appeared in 18th century Basque costumes with red slits in their sleeves, singing and plucking stringed instruments. They wore glasses. "Better to see what cash they get from the guests," I thought as I gave them some euros.
The pud was xareta, pronounced shareta. You'll find that useful when you enter the Basque region. It was a chocolate, creamy cake with a bit of something in the middle. It was all right.
The place is owned by Christian du Plessis, the chef, and his wife Dominique. Their daughter Elisa and their niece Manon were the car park attendants. I like to see youth gainfully employed. I don't know why they stopped them going up chimneys. Son Hugo works in the kitchen. There's a pleasing family atmosphere. In the lobby they've got sun hats for the guests if it's hot, shawls in case it's cold, and reading glasses. That's excellent. I definitely recommend the Ostalapia.
I wonder about my friend, the super-cook Gordon Ramsay. He sent me an invite to the opening of the Savoy Grill - and it came a day late. His invitation to the opening of Marcus Wareing's Petrus in the Berkeley hotel arrived two days after the event. Does Gordon secretly not wish me to attend, fearing I might frighten potential customers? Or is his organisation adrift?
In fairness, my invite to the opening of his Boxwood Cafe was on time, and a splendid party it was. I also got asked to the opening of Angela Hartnett at the Connaught on time. That was very crushed but I enjoyed it.
Last Sunday I ate, yet again, at Angela Hartnett's Menu room. I rate her and her restaurant manager Helena Hell absolutely top. The ladies have turned the Connaught into a place of joy. And with a three-course set lunch including lots of added bits and pieces at £25 ex service, it's a real bargain.
Having spent 25 years dining in the world's finest restaurants I'd always assumed any bad service I received was due to my being neither male, rich nor famous. It's comforting, reading your column, to realise that being male, rich and famous is no guarantee of better treatment. At the Michelin two-star Le Champignon Sauvage in Cheltenham I had the audacity to return a tasteless dish only to be told the chef liked it and I'd be charged.
Lesley Knight, Gloucestershire
Is it too much to ask you to show respect in front of Tennyson's statue (Winner's Dinners, last week) rather than looking round to summon the nearest waiter? He wrote what could be your punchline: "I must go down for my tea again."
Barry McCanna, Normandy
Are you testing how many Cambridgeans read your articles? The statue of Tennyson is in the chapel of his alma mater, Trinity. Not in St John's, it's inferior neighbour.
Rachel Causier, Cambridge
I had lunch at the Cricketers, Clavering, Essex. I'd be interested to hear Jamie Oliver's reaction to the meal served at his dad's restaurant. Two slices of lukewarm pork with "boil in the bag type" vegetables and tasteless roast potatoes. Perhaps Mr Oliver Sr would benefit from being in the next intake of his son's trainees.
Sylvia Davies, Crouch End
Mr Leimbacher, manager of the Hotel du Palais, Biarritz, never spoke to me about your article (August 24) where you criticised him and praised me. I was "advised" by the management not to show it to other members of staff, but I did. Most of them were extremely delighted you got it spot on and found the worm in the apple. Your restaurant hostess, however, was told in very gentle words that her work contract would not be renewed. I now work for an auctioneer. My best regards to Geraldine and to you, sir.
Mireille Hess, Biarritz
Fred Somners (Winners Letters, September 7) was surprised to be charged extra for fresh orange juice in Spain. I often stay in a village near Granada and take breakfast on the terrace overlooking the orange groves. I have to pay for bottled apricot juice as orange juice is not available.
Bernice Foreman, Edgware
Send letters to Winner's Dinners, The Sunday Times, 1 Pennington Street, London E98 1ST or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org