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A prune tart adds bottom to my truce with Conran

Published 12 October 2003
News Review
535th article

A peace of cake: Winner with the Conrans, seated, and Wood (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)

I started writing about food to get revenge on Terence Conran. I'd suffered an awful meal at his Le Pont de la Tour restaurant near Tower Bridge. Tepid food, unremarkable quality, poor service, a restaurant manager who went bananas when the coffee was stone cold and I asked tor hot.

I wrote to Conran very politely. He replied, snidely: "Thank you for your film script. I shall certainly investigate the situation." That was 12 years ago. I've heard nothing. I assume the investigation is still ongoing.

Matters concerning my self and Sir Terence then got worse. When I gave the Savoy lecture. a high point in what is laughingly known as the hospitality industry, The Times reported: "Winner weighed in to the industry - or 'you lot' as he called them. But most of his venom was reserved tor Sir Terence Conran whom he called an - well, it is located in the part of the body you sit on."

The "Conran office" responded "Michael Winner hates Terence Conran as a person and as an extension of that any restaurant with which he is involved." I pointed out this was a slur on my integrity. While Terence was not my favourite human, I would view any restaurant of his "with my usual scrupulous fairness.

The next act in this pathetic badinage came when Sir Terence spoke so absurdly in The Daily Telegraph about my visit to Le Pont de la Tour that he wrote to me: "Please accept my apologies tor the inaccuracies" and exaggerations in my interview." Later we printed a Conran letter saying: "Something to add to Michael Winners best and worst list. Best restaurant: where you don't see Michael Winner. Worst customer for restaurateurs and chefs: he's a winner again."

Last year I was basking in Venice by the pool of the Cipriani hotel when I spotted Terence Conran a lounger or two away. I thought it would be nice to wander over and have a chat.

Sir Terence did not look overjoyed as he saw me approaching. But then the sight of me naked apart from my faded cut-off jeans could scare anyone. We got on very well, regardless of our chequered past.

That evening his wife Vicki rang my suite to say: "We're booked into Harry's Bar tonight but Terence can't get a table downstairs, can you help?" I was delighted to call Arrigo and ensure the Conrans were moved to his best table.

When I went to see a production of The Lady from the Sea at the splendid Almeida theatre in Islington I had a first course before the show at Conran's Almeida restaurant opposite. lt was a mixture of salamis, other sausages, pate and ham, all very good indeed, with exemplary service in a well designed room.

For my next visit I suggested Terence and Lady Conran might like to join us. Or perhaps he suggested it. Let us not get into further disputation. Either way, we went.

I was switching to a larger table when Terence and Vicki - let's deformalise this - came in. May I make one thing clear: the food at the Almeida is absolutely sensational. I say this not so Terence and I can remain blood brothers, but because it's true.

It's a great credit to Terence and to Ian Wood, the chef. Everything I ate was stupendous. Simple, no plate decoration, close to divine.

"This is what Elizabeth David taught me," explained Terence, "to love French bourgeois food." That was too classy a statement for a poor boy from Willesden. I don't know what he was talking about.

The restaurant, like the food, is uncluttered and very pleasant to look at. If you live near Islington, go to Conran's Almeida regularly. It's far and away the best place there. If you don't live near Islington, make a detour.

"I'll have the marinated herring from the set menu," I said. Vicki commented: "We haven't got a set menu, where is it?"

"Well, you're very posh, dear, they didn't give it to you. When we came in they gave it to us," I answered.

I also had ris de veau, which is the glands of something or other. I had the salami selection again, a frog's leg from Terences plate and a snail from Geraldine's. I only complained about the mushrooms. By the time they came I'd almost finished my main course.

"Bringing them late was a nice additional surprise," said Terence.

"Surprise! They'd forgotten them," I responded.

I finished with a historic chocolate tart. "I think you should have a thin sliver of prune tart too," said Terence, "just to keep you regular."

You see, once we were enemies. Now he cares about me.

Winner's letters

Having now reached "quadruple historic" (Winner's Dinners, September 14), I fear for the future as you progress towards "mega-historic", etc. Please, return to earth, especially while Geraldine's use of "good" remains a high accolade. It may not be necessary to go as far as my late Swiss father-in-law for whom "edible" was the highest praise on record.
Michael Suthers, Chester

Hire a couple of carthorses and have them pull Michael Winner down a rung or two. Reduce his expense account and have him review the nation's wonderful greasy spoons under the title "Winer's Diners". At Liverpool's Ad Cafe for £8 he'll get a beautifully cooked and tasty big breakfast even he and the carthorses couldn't finish, prepared and served by a team of helpful and hilarious psychotherapists posing as typical Liverpool cafe staff.
David Fishel, Liverpool

I had the pleasure of dining at La Chaumiere on the Grande Corniche. It was every bit as special as you'd advised. The only disappointment was the next table of ridiculous caricatures of Brits on the Riviera, accompanied by a spaniel sporting a pink bow! Full of their own self-importance, they spoke loudly and boorishly and were rude and sarcastic to the staff - who could not have been more charming. Is it any wonder the British abroad continue to be reviled?
Dr S Vohra, Sheffield

Michael, could you not sex up (like a government) your comments? There must be many stories to tell of your after-dinner activities concerning the string of beauties you've had over the years. I'm sure Geraldine won't mind.
Phil Hanks, Kent

Barry McCanna (Winner's Letters, October 5) doesn't seen too familiar with poetical works. It wasn't Tennyson but John Masefield who wrote "I must go down to the seas again". Mr McCanna's punchline should be "I must go down to my book of quotations again".
Victor Huntrods Brown, Louth

Why not employ a chauffeur or get a talking satellite navigator in your car? I used one to find the best steak in Dallas. You won't get lost, as you described last week. Nor will you have to use your tape to record inaccurate directions from concierge staff.
Yehuda Hecht, Hove

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