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Remember, time waits for nobody - and neither do I

Published 22 December 2003
News Review
545th article

Hot stuff: Tom Aikens with his wife Laura and Michael Winner (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)

I sent out 1,263 personally signed and inscribed Christmas cards this year. "You can't have 1,263 friends!" I hear you exclaim. I didn't say that. I said I sent out 1,263 cards.

Before writer's cramp set in I went on a reconnaissance to Elysian Street, Chelsea, looking for a restaurant called Tom Aikens. This was recommended to Sir Michael Caine by someone who'd never been there.

I have considerable fear of the unknown. Would the tables be spaced well apart? Would it be an amenable atmosphere? These matters require advance enlightenment.

I discovered Tom Aikens and, with some difficulty, the way in. A charming lady greeted me. I revealed my mission was to investigate pending a possible visitation from Sir Michael and myself. The lady, Laura Aikens, told me her husband had cooked a dinner I attended in Barbados given by Sir Carol and Lady Bamford. I'd enjoyed that.

Laura and I toured the tables. I suggested one. She capped it with another. Laura explained the restaurant was full when we wanted to come. but she'd sort it out for us. This is the charisma of Michael Caine. If it were just me I'd be left, most properly, in the street.

A few days later I arrived at 7.45pm for our 8 o'clock date. The world has two time zones. Most people's and Michael Caine's. Michael is courteous and marvellously punctual. I've never known him late for a professional or social engagement in 40 years.

People who turn up late are a total bore. Why should I sit waiting for some idiot who agrees a meeting time and then can't keep to it? I give it 10 minutes. 15 if I'm in a particularly good mood - then I walk. Marco Pierre White was surprised when he turned up one evening and I'd gone.

Miss Lynton-Edwards, in supremely creative mood as ever, was finishing our photo when Michael and Shakira arrived. Five minutes early. We proceeded to a corner table.

Tom Aikens is one of the new hot chefs. He worked in a restaurant somewhere. I should know but I've forgotten. Then he spent three years looking for premises of his own. In the meantime he went into private service with the Bamfords and also other dear friends of mine who know a thing or two about grub, Lord and Lady Lloyd-Webber.

Michael and I ordered roast langoustine with cocoa beans and braised chicken. We followed with braised pig's head with pork belly, stuffed trotter, celeriac and some puree or other!

You can see this a seriously posh menu. Not the sort of thing I want every day. But nice for a treat. The rosemary bread was exceptionally good. The freebie duck mousse was lovely. The langoustines really superb. The pig's trotter was shrouded in something that resembled pasta.

The service was like lightning. Possibly they wanted to get rid of us to use the table again. I failed to make taped comment on the pig's trotter. This may not be a totally positive sign.

Michael said, "Do you want a mango rice with coconut cream, mango sorbet with coconut parfait? That'll rip the weight off us." Shakira ordered roast pear with pain d'epices millefeuille and pear sorbet. Michael joked, "I like fat birds." A nice freebie of apple puree. pear sorbet and jus arrived.

The cheese board passed by. "That looks good," I commented. "There are three things you never have if you run a restaurant," advised Michael. "Buffet, steak and a cheeseboard." Then he recommended Suffolk streaky bacon from Harrods. "It's not cured with salt, it's cured with sugar," he explained. At least there was one food expert in the group.

After our wonderfully lavish dinner Michael and I ordered Fernet-Branca. They didn't have any! "I can't believe it!" I said. They obviously rushed next door to get Fernet-Branca because a waiter arrived and gave it to me. "That's for Sir Michael," I said. "Now, where's mine?"

My eyes diverted to something being served at the next table. It looked like a lavish freebie with green leaves coming out of a tall test tube with some other stuff underneath. "Could be bacon," I dictated. "We didn't get that," I pointed out to a passing waiter. Apparently it was the second course of the "tasting menu".

From another table a man who looked like an all-in wrestler with a black T-shirt and enormous muscles volunteered, "We had the tasting menu. It was very good." The final words on my tape are: "Tables in the middle are numbers 16 and 17." I'm sure that helps enormously.

Please, have a great Christmas and new year. Even if you didn't get a card from me.

Winner's letters

Last week you wrote you'd paid for nine people for lunch when you'd been asked as a guest. I invite you to join me and 45 of my closest friends for dinner. As I live a long way from London you may not feel able to come. This doesn't matter as long as I can send you the bill.
William Hopper, Northumberland

I was surprised to read last week that you, a "poor Jewish boy from Willesden" should employ an assistant who has a fascination for the Nazis and that you openly encourage this by buying him Nazi memorabilia as Christmas gifts. I must seriously question your judgment.
R Lawrence, Cheshire

Jenny Hobson's letter last week is like my experience at Heathcotes, Manchester, a year ago. I complained about amateur, slapstick service, dirty, rickety tables and the smell in the gent's lavatory. I got a letter with the usual excuses saying they'd taken measures to clean up the toilets. Obviously not. Paul Heathcote now operates six restaurants in the northwest. He's not often seen at them.
B Ashcroft, Wigan

The food and service at Heathcotes is excellent. The problem could lie more with Jenny Hobson than the restaurant. Maybe the plate which hit her colleague's hand was actually aimed at Jenny's head!
Henry Keswick, Manchester

My first impression of the fashionable Wolseley was that it looked like an eastern European bus or train terminal without the excitement of a journey to look forward to. The room is big, the tables tiny. No side plates for the bread, there's no room. The wine disappears after the first pouring so your glass is refreshed at their pace, not yours. The water sits on a shelf you can see it but not reach it. It's not in an ice bucket, so when you finally get the waitresses' attention you're served a glass of warm Evian. Not pleasant. The dress code appears to be cardigans, comfy woollies, jeans, chinos and trainers. You wouldn't know who was there to eat and who was there to fix the plumbing. It's more of a cafe than a restaurant - not in the same league as Le Caprice, Daphne's and the Ivy, which are still the ace places to eat.
Norman Coxall, Surrey

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