Published 23 November 2003 News Review 541st article
Sopwell sojourn: Winner with Bejerano, Windsor-Jones and Buchanan (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)
I could spend hours every week being interviewed by the press, TV and radio about my hobby as an eccentric food writer. I choose not to. A New York Times writer was incredulous when I declined to see him. I graciously permitted a few moments on the telephone.
The New York Times must be struggling if it thinks anyone wishes to read about food writers. They're even more boring than chefs - and that's saying something.
New Yorkers were offered a charming photo of me by Miss Lynton-Edwards. The paper wrote: "The dawn of the age of the blistering restaurant review in London was most likely 1993 when Michael Winner, a wealthy Londoner who directed the Death Wish films in the 1970s and 80s, was invited to write a piece about his dining experiences for The Sunday Times."
I could easily compose a blistering review of Sopwell House Hotel and Country Club in St Albans. I won't, because it does a very good job for people who want that sort of thing. Plus the owner, Abraham Bejerano, is a great rarity: a charming Israeli.
I will tell you the AA Restaurant Guide is pathetic. Gordon Ramsay went bananas when at first they didn't give his protege Marcus Wareing their maximum five rosettes. Why? An AA rosette is worth less than a used plastic cup.
They give Sopwell House two rosettes, identical to the ghastly Stanneylands hotel, Wilmslow. The same two useless rosettes go to Terence Conran's excellent Almeida restaurant in Islington. This has a masterful chef who knows how to produce marvellous food and uses ﬁne ingredients.
If AA car inspectors knew as much about vehicles as their food inspectors know about restaurants AA membership would be nil and falling.
Sopwell House is a messed-about building, once the home of Lord Mountbatten. The England football team often stay there. I recognised the place when a soccer scandal was rampant and TV commentators stood outside the entrance recounting its development. The corridors offer framed and signed football shins. Outside, the gardens are beautifully kept.
There was disagreement between Geraldine and myself regarding accommodation. Three weddings crammed the hotel, so the best suite was taken. We were offered a "house" in a courtyard or a junior suite - a room with a couple of chairs and a sofa. I preferred the suite in the main building because it looked out onto open countryside. Geraldine liked the "house". We took the suite.
Earlier, I'd had trouble finding the hotel. The manager, Andrew Buchanan, hails from Scotland. He only knew the way if you journeyed from the north. I came from Holland Park. That's south. Luckily, a charming switchboard operator, Sue Windsor-Jones, guided me on the phone. "You've got Cafe Rouge on you're right, good. Go up the high street and tum right at the Peahen pub . . ."
The main hotel restaurant, Magnolia, offers brass rails, globe lights, lanterns, candelabra, a bright white statue of a Grecian woman holding an urn and a saucer, trellis work, plants, the kitchen sink.
They exhibited a "Concept of the kitchen" dinner menu. I had chunky chicken livers, which were okay, then a dried-up, cloying Dover sole. I left most of that. It was nothing like the large, juicy sole I had the other day at Scalini in Knightsbridge. Sopwell's hand-cut chips were clunky.
Around us, waiters lifted silver domes off plates with a flourish. All the staff were superb. But when they asked me: "How did you like the sole?" and I replied: "You'll have to read about it," the waiters lost interest.
It took for ever to get a dessert menu and then to get the dessert. Their sticky toffee pudding wasn't hot and didn't taste of toffee.
Breakfast took far too long to come. But, most intelligently, they'd put the saucer over the espresso cup to keep it hot. When I was an assistant director I got a major bollocking for not putting the saucer over the directors cup of tea when I carried it.
I'd specifically asked for marmalade. I got six jars of confiture. None was marmalade.
I've always wondered what hotels do with the hardly used soap in your room. Abraham explained they used to put it in the guest public toilets. But now they have dispensers.
"Do you let the maids keep it?" I asked. "No," said Abraham. "That would confuse issues about what is right and wrong." So I never found out where the soap went.
Then he said to Geraldine: "If I ran this place like Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons [where we'd been the previous weekend] I'd have three guests." He's right. Not every hotel can be run as I want it. This is unfortunate, to say the least.
I presumed Messrs Corbin and King were going to provide, as Michael Winner claims, "the best restaurant in London". Alas, I must have been at a different Wolseley. The tables were cramped, the service was poor, the menu disappointing and food mediocre. Even the cloakroom was a "schlep" from the main entrance and staff were not taking guest coats to the underworked cloakroom attendant. The Ivy remains London's best restaurant. My Wolseley meal was certainly not worth the cost. I will not be returning in a hurry.
Jeremy Brown, London
I noticed you booked a table at the wonderful restaurant Arzak for 8.30pm (Winner's Dinners, October 26). You must learn that eating out in Spain doesn't start until at least 10 o'clock. Leaving the faded grandeur of Biarritz must have been a shock to you. Next time, stay at your hotel and eat at 7pm with the other elderly residents. Ask them to put your food through the liquidiser so you won't get any strange combinations. Well done, Juan Mari - at least we won't see Michael Winner at Arzak. With regards and early to bed.
Mike Clement, Suffolk
I recently booked a table at my local Indian restaurant for 8pm. I asked for table No 4. No response. How about table 6? Still no response. Table 2? Nothing. I arrived on the dot of 8pm to find they'd put me on table 1. I told the manager I don't go to restaurants, I go to tables," and promptly left. Michael, you would have proud of me.
Steve Hardwick, Ealing
I've been fascinated by the photos that accompany Michael Winner's column. I've read The Sunday Times for 12 years and the closed smile never changes. It can only be that Michael Winner has no teeth. Can anybody help? Shall we start a readers' fund?
Patsy Spicer, Herefordshire
Knowing what restaurant staff are in the habit of doing to the food and drink of those clients they perceive to be difficult, I wonder if Michael ever considers what unwelcome additives he may be ingesting? Is this perhaps why his orange juice often has a unsatisfactory taste and texture, while Geraldine's dishes invariably seem to taste better than his?
John Button, Antibes, France
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