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A pleasant pub lunch deserves fair Marks

Published 14 December 2003
News Review
544th article

Michael Winner, Brigitte and Laurence Marks outside the Angel pub (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)

It's an immense credit to the wit, charm, intelligence and charisma of TV writer Laurence Marks that I still dine with him. There's always drama!

Laurence once asked me, months in advance, to be his guest at Le Manoir Aux Quat' Saisons with his writing partner, Maurice Gran, and Nigel Dempster. Also present were two women I didn't know.

Lunch went on forever. Nigel went back to the office. Finally I asked (very foolishly), "Who's paying the bill?" Laurence considered this and said. "Let's go Dutch."

I might add Laurence is not well known for picking up the tab. I thought. "Why should I pay for half of nine people when I'm an invited guest?" But being unbelievably generous, I paid the lot!

I then found the two women were the dreaded PR for Le Manoir (since departed), Jo Vickers, and her assistant. Why Ms Vickers let me pay for her and her staff I don't know. She was an employee on duty.

On another lunch in Oxfordshire - where Laurence lives - he took me to the most dreadful pub. A ghastly Jack-the-lad landlord never stopped interrupting us with pathetic attempts at wit throughout the mediocre meal.

Ms Vickers and this absurd publican later wrote frequently, sending a load of drivel. The publican even dispatched a photo of his local funeral parlour.

So when Laurence recommended the Angel pub in the picturesque Cotswold town of Burford I wondered what disaster loomed.

The Angel is a pleasant old place. It's opposite what was once a shop owned by an Austrian who sold Nazi memorabilia. My assistant Mr Fraser collects that.

When I visited, the shop was closed, so Laurence once bought some goodies for me as Mr Fraser's Christmas present. Fraser was delighted. Then I got calls from the shop owner offering me delicacies. "I have Admiral Doenitz's passport," he said one day. Somehow I resisted that.

I got to the Angel first. Chef-owner Jonathan Lewis explained, "Laurence is an affectionado." "You mean aficionado." I responded. "You're the writer," said Jonathan. "If you believe that you'll believe anything," I said.

I looked in the kitchen and noticed the fat was kept on the beef. That's good. The dining area of the pub is Ikea style. All modern tables. The notice board menu above the bar was a bit posh for me.

I chose Shetland queen scallops with Nicoise salad, shellfish sauce and then roast fore-rib of Scottish beef with Yorkshire pudding and red-wine gravy. My starter could have been a main course for two. Laurence said, "They eat more in the country." It was pleasant.

Laurence's wife, Brigitte, who once had a German beauty queen title, said she'd come across the most sensational ice-cream in Hay-on-Wye made from sheep's milk, called Shepherds Ice-Cream. She promised to get me some in a freezer pot and deliver it in her car.

They had Blenheim water which I hate even more than Hildon. Geraldine enjoyed pork with good crackling. The roast potatoes were excellent, although not as good as Sir Michael Caine's.

My beef was all right, but palled by comparison with the beef on the Dorchester Grill trolley. Trolleys are currently out of fashion. Top chefs say they dry out the meat. I've certainly not found this.

Then I ordered summer pudding with berry compote. Instead of mascarpone ice-cream I asked for vanilla. Brigitte requested whipped cream. The waitress said Jonathan didn't do it, but would for her. "I'll have some too." I volunteered. "Both of you?" asked the waitress, pulling a terrible face.

Then she returned and said, "Jonathan asks if you'd like a touch of sugar and Chantilly with the whipped cream." I was going to say no, but Brigitte said yes, so yes it was. Summer pudding: good. Ice-cream: exceptionally good. Cream - I forgot to record my opinion!

As I paid the bill (note I paid the bill) I said to the girl behind the bar, "Do you take American Express?" She said. "I'm afraid we don't. They charge us too much money." I don't mind that. What I object to are places - particularly plentiful in France - that display a "We welcome American Express" sign and won't take the card anyway. I had this problem at a teddy bear shop in Windsor and wrote to American Express European chief John de Trafford to have a moan.

I asked Brigitte to climax the meal by telling me what beauty title she had won. She refused to divulge it until we were outside. It was part of a public relations exercise by the Bahamas tourist office. Brigitte was Miss Bahama of Frankfurt. I bet you don't know anyone who achieved that.

Winner's letters

If your dinner in the restaurant of La Mirande (Winners Dinners last week) was so awful, why did you eat there again on two further nights? I know you said the Avignon one-way system was difficult to navigate, but surely Geraldine could have steered you towards a more suitable eating venue. You might appear to be a glutton, but I never took you as a glutton for punishment.
Anne Curtis, Surrey

I never take soup in a restaurant on the grounds that disgruntled bodily fluids may be part of the recipe. You and your lady had more pluck at La Mirande: complaining twice and coming back for a third attempt. Do you carry some special type of litmus paper?
Michael Bright, Oxford

Twenty-tour of us went to Heathcote's in Manchester to celebrate a colleague's retirement. The restaurant was keen to have our orders and pay the service charge in advance. Alarm bells rang when the scruffiest of wine lists arrived, on a piece of dirty card. Then a waitress arrived before our starters to ask if we'd ordered coffee. The interval between the first and last starters to arrive was about 40 minutes and likewise with the main course. Not all our party got what they ordered and at least one main course was returned as inedible. The manager was apologetic and bottles of wine on the house arrived. No sign of the great celebrity cook. We were past caring. The evening culminated with a heavy plate being dropped on a colleagues hand. Apart from the shambolic service the toilets were a disgrace. We will not return.
Jenny Hobson, Manchester

My wife booked lunch at the Plough in Amersham, Bucks. They confirmed the set lunch at £13.50 was available as advertised. On arrival we were told the owner had withdrawn the set lunch a few days earlier, although it was still displayed outside. The take it or leave it alternative was the a la carte menu, which meant a minimum of £26.50 for three courses excluding a discretionary service charge. We exercised our discretion and went elsewhere. We felt just like Michael Winner writes. All power to your pen in getting such restaurateurs to understand they should provide a service to the customer, not vice-versa.
Dr Ed Moore, Bucks

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