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Another fine vintage, Marcus, you've hit a purple patch

Published 4 January 2004
News Review
547th article

Marcus Wareing, left, with Michael Winner and staff at Petrus (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)

I recall Marcus Wareing, Gordon Ramsay's numero uno protege, was voted Chef of the Year by one of those strange organisations that while away the time doing meaningless things like that. I can't profess to be intimate with the cooking of Mr W.

My first visit to him was in September 2000 when Marcus had Petrus in naff premises in St James's. I thought the food excellent and went back shortly thereafter with my friend Mr J Cleese of Weston-super-Mare. That was a bit of a disaster. Everything seemed vastly over-salted. As if some nutter with a salt cellar had been sabotaging the kitchen.

The maitre d' caused Cleese to remark. "It's rather difficult to engage his attention for very long." This because, as John was ordering, le Maitre wandered off.

I next encountered Marcus at the Savoy Grill last summer when he opened the place for Gordon. The meal had had pluses and minuses.

Now Marcus has taken Petrus to the Berkeley Hotel, Knightsbridge, in a room decorated by David Collins. Need one say more. Except that it's in the full Collins style of totally horrible. Like a gloomy purple box relieved only by one wall of wine racks fronted by coloured balls on wires. The chairs are purple leather. Geraldine interrupted the reverie of my tape recording to advise, sternly, "The chairs are Bordeaux, not purple." Choose whose view you wish.

Among the many wonderful things Gordon has done, my favourite is that he's demolished dress codes at places which used to enforce them. M Jean Philippe Susilovicz is the pink-shirted restaurant manager. "The dress code is smart casual," he informed me.

A man sat opposite in a crumpled sweater and an open-necked shirt. Another man, also with no jacket, had an open-necked shirt with a T-shirt underneath. If that's smart casual I was in white tie and tails. I was, actually, "smart casual". I won't give details because you might be jealous.

We got cream cheese and marinated anchovy. "A biscuity thing," I dictated. "It's a crouton, sir," explained Jean Philippe. Another one was smoked salmon tartar. fresh dill and confit of tomato. The canapes were fantastic.

Geraldine always insists you look in her eyes when you say "cheers". She didn't. I said, "All you want to do is inspect the canapes." "They’re better looking," said David. That's the David of "David and Wendy", frequent visitors to this column who decline to permit me to mention their surnames.

We decided on the £55 menu. I said to Jean Philippe, "Do you have a pad to write down the order?" He said, "No." I said, "I'm not giving the order until you get a pad." I've had too many missed or incorrect dishes from restaurant people who optimistically think they have a memory. Geraldine chose the Omelette Arnold Bennett, one of Marcus's signature dishes. I've had that, it was brilliant.

Wendy said, "I'll have la meme chose." Suddenly she's French! New York twang. But French. I chose Ardennes frog's legs with cumin and lemon confit sewed with white onion and garlic soup, grilled focaccia. It didn't taste of much.

Before it arrived we got more freebies - a tiny gazpacho with a touch of vanilla and a mini brioche with foie gras. Both historic. I'd expected a full grouse, little legs and all that. But I got just breasts. Nice. but I’d have preferred the lot. David declared his lamb, "beautiful". And he’s normally critical.

I'd asked for ice. They brought it in an open bowl and it soon melted. It was not replaced. I didn't ask for it just for the first 10 minutes of the meal. I expected it for the whole meal.

We got a small portion of tarte tartin with clotted cream. As good as you could wish for. Freebie desserts were flowing.

Our main dessert had already taken well over the 20 minutes the menu advised we'd have to wait. "I've forgotten what I ordered," said David. My peanut parfait with rice crisp crunch. Valrhona chocolate mousse, candied peanuts and chocolate sauce was memorable.

It was impossible to get the wrapper off the home-made toffee. It was soft and stuck. "We've got all night," said Wendy. "There's no question, overall, this was a very good meal indeed," I dictated. "It's a special occasion," said Geraldine. What special occasion?" I asked. "Seeing us," said Wendy. "Having your haircut," said David.

In the kitchen I asked Marcus "Do you do chips?" He said, "No. And we don't do pommes soufflees either." People usually do them for me specially. Gordon did great pommes soufflees in the Boxwood Cafe. But Marcus was clearly raising his flag of independence. Good for him.

Winner's letters

At sundown on the terrace at Sandy Lane, Barbados I asked if their rum punch was made with fresh limes. I was horrified to hear they use powdered lime! Our drinks were served without coasters, napkins or even peanuts. For the premier hotel in the Caribbean this was a disgrace.
Susan Manning, Barbados.

At Christmas Day lunch at Angela Hartnett at the Connaught, nobody came to take us to our allocated seating. The one brussels sprout cut in half was tasty, but the turkey slices tepid. The half of a small Christmas pudding was Scrooge-like. The magician performing table magic made himself disappear and was never seen again. A number of rows broke out about the bills with one client saying loudly, "I hope other tables haven't been treated like this!" We had paid in advance but were given a bill for everything. After considerable time it was properly reduced to just the wine. It was fairly enjoyable a la Fawlty Towers, but I've learnt not to partake of Christmas fare at a London hotel unless recommended by you. Better still, win the lottery and join you at Sandy Lane.
Stephen Vishnick, London.

You ask us to guess why you were taking seven pairs of nail scissors to Barbados. For cutting remarks?
Alton Douglas, Birmingham.

To give to your manicurist at Sandy Lane.
Alan Gilbey, Middlesex.

To remove security tags airlines seal your suitcases with. In future, post a pair to yourself at the hotel so overzealous security staff cannot thwart your plans.
Alex, London.

To cut open those irritating foil packets containing unidentifiable substances that form part of airline meals.
Geoff Bland, Gloucestershire.

To let the air out of steak and kidney pie by puncturing the crust.
John Finegan, Ireland.

To cut the knot if any of your charming lady friends wish to tie it.
Harry Barget, London.

You had seven pairs of nail scissors in your carry-on cases because you're a sad old man who needs to draw attention to himself.
Jan Benfield, Cheltenham.

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