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Me and Jacques Chirac are a couple of brainy boys

Published 16 November 2003
News Review
540th article

Putting others in the shade: Christine and Pascal Arce with Winner (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)

When I was at school we listened, secretly, in our dormitory at night, to Donald Peers. He wore evening dress in a BBC radio studio, singing "In a shady nook, by a babbling brook, that's where I fell in love with you . . ." I remembered Mr P as I sat by a babbling brook at Arce, the only really excellent restaurant I visited on my ghastly weekend in Biarritz.

The brook, where clear mountain water rippled over stones, was in St-Etienne-de-Baigorry, near the Pyrenees. It flows by a small, beautiful hotel, originally built in 1865, owned by Christine and Pascal Arce. She greets, he cooks.

My table faced the stream. an old stone bridge and a lovely 12th century church. Skilfully pollarded plane trees formed an umbrella overhead. The French are very clever at making trees do what they want. We leave them free to wander. That's nice, too.

First Christine gave us a peach juice with dry white wine. I liked that. The menu offered "Crunchy langoustines accompanied with a ginger-flavoured sauce". They certainly weren't crunchy at the buffet of the dreadful Hotel du Palais in Biarritz. They were exceedingly soggy.

Geraldine says Arce translated it inaccurately. "They meant it's a crunchy tart," she said. Who knows? I had langoustine salad, which was superb. Then President Chirac's favourite dish, calf's brains with sauce grabiche. Geraldine explained: "They cook the head, take it out of the skull and slice it. That's why there's a lot of fatty tissue around the dish." I bet vegetarians are loving this.

Geraldine had a chipolata omelette, which I tried. I also enjoyed the house speciality, fresh cod with piperade and potatoes. The cod was very tasty, which it normally isn't. Piperade is a Basque stew of tomatoes and sweet peppers seasoned with onion and garlic, mixed with beaten eggs and cooked in olive oil. It was spectacularly pleasant.

My notes then recall "a yellow circular thing about an inch and a half high with sauce round it" - you're dealing with a major professional here. Geraldine recognised it as Spanish nougat. It's just as well there's someone with me who can identify food, otherwise I'd never know what I was eating.

I massively recommend Arce. Everything is superb and the setting idyllic. A taxi driver told us about it on the way back from St-Jean-de-Luz. Most taxi drivers talk endless drivel. This one triumphed.

My flabber is still ghasted, as Frankie Howerd expostulated, by surprising incompetence at Le Caprice. I don't go to restaurants, I go to tables. If my regular table is booked, so what! I happily divert. "Is table 5 free for Saturday lunch?" I asked of the Caprice. "Yes," their man said. "You're quite sure table 5 is available for me?" I repeated. "Definitely," he said. "I'm the man who usually serves you. "Fine, I'll see you at table 5 on Saturday," I repeated yet again.

Twenty-four hours later Caprice manager Nick Roderick phones, saying: "I hear you've requested table 5 for Saturday?" "I've booked it," I said. "It was clearly confirmed."

"We'd already allocated it to someone else," said Nick dismissively. "Unbelievable!" I gasped. "Are you cancelling the booking?" asked Nick irritably. "I'm not cancelling it. You are," I replied.

There was no apology for their cock-up. I meditated deeply for 36.4 seconds. Then switched to the Ivy. That was superb. All the staff were charming. On my next Caprice visit no one was walking around greeting diners. Jesus Adorno, their chief, is very good at that. But he mostly operates at Daphne's now.

Down the road, Jeremy King and Christopher Corbin are on splendid form. working the room and welcoming customers at the Wolseley. Overnight it's become the best restaurant in London. K&C are exceeding their Ivy-Caprice-Sheekey phenomena.

Last Saturday I went for a cup of tea with a superb meringue, poppyseed cake and an amaretto biscuit. The next day lunch was packed. Diners included Jesus Adomo from Le Caprice checking out the opposition. The service was the best I've ever enjoyed. The food is more defined and refined than at the Ivy or the Caprice without tipping into "fine dining" - a truly ghastly phrase.

Officially, they weren't open on Sunday so nobody was charged. I left a large gratuity for excellent beef soup with dumplings and carrots, herring and potato salad, snails, roast beef, an incredible "chocolate delice", an apple strudel and more. Espresso came on individual silver trays with a gold-foil-wrapped chocolate truffle and a glass of water. The presentation throughout is immaculate. The room and the atmosphere are exquisite. Phone 020 7499 6996. You might even get in.

  • PS: Table 5 at Le Caprice isn't my real number. That's secret!

    Winner's letters

    I read your reference to the Outer Hebrides on November 2. I assume, like most London-centric fossilised nonentities, your side remark was an attempt to take the piss out of us. We're used to urine being extracted by some of those unfortunate, ignorant, self-centred cretins who reside in the porn capital of the world, London. You're obviously not aware we are descended from the Vikings and have been seamen traversing the globe for centuries. When people in Whitechapel didn't even know where Piccadilly was we were sailing the oceans of the world.
    D MacLeod, Stornaway

    Hear, hear! About time someone complained about the food at Shepperton studios (Winner's Dinners, last week). It is utterly, unutterably awful! From an actress who'd rather remain anonymous for fear of someone spitting in her food next time she works there.
    Name provided

    I suggest Michael also explores the self-service area at Shepperton studios followed by the self-service cafe at Pinewood, operated by the same company. The words school and dinner come to mind every time I eat there. Unfortunately, this is a gross insult to school dinners.
    David Scott, Kensington

    I hope your comment on the catering at Shepperton gets a few backsides kicked. We have the same caterers at Pinewood. They're less than fantastic and overpriced. A ham and tomato sandwich in the workers' canteen from a refrigerated self-service display is £3.75!
    Gareth Owen, Buckinghamshire

    My room at the Holiday Inn, Nottingham, had a "pillow menu" offering five different pillows and someone had gone to the trouble of folding the corner of my toilet roll into an upside-down V-shape. However, nobody had bothered to repair my shower, book my alarm call, or explain to the chef the meaning of "rare".
    Steven Ford, London

    After my daughters wedding 21 of us lunched at the Queen's Inn, Hawkhurst, Kent. After just over an hour we'd completed the main course. A very angry owner said: "You've been sitting here too long. Another party wants this table!" We were abruptly ordered out. Some years ago Kent had a "Welcome Host" training scheme for the hospitality industry. It obviously needs to be revived.
    Maureen Jackson, Kent

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