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Forging an entente cordiale after a seven-year hitch

Published 21 March 2004
News Review
558th article

Italian idyll: Geraldine Lynton-Edwards outside the village of Apricale (Arnold Crust)

There's nothing more pathetic than French restaurant staff trying to be important. The Moulin de Mougins used to be marvellous in the 1950s when it was a farmhouse. You sat on a stone terrace looking down at vineyards which stretched below Mougins almost to the Mediterranean sea. Now there’s a housing estate.

The restaurant has lost its charm. For years it was run by Roger Verge, a famous chef who attained three Michelin stars. And lost at least one of them. Now Alain Llorca has taken over. His name is writ large on a hideous hoarding by the main road.

We'd strolled around Mougins, which, even out of season, resembles Disneyland. I decided to drop in to the Moulin. A supremely arrogant man at the reception called out "Table neuf" with contempt. If he had a worse table, he'd have offered that. An equally charmless restaurant manager showed me an atrocious, tiny table, tucked away in no man's land. The only remotely good tables are in a sort of greenhouse extension. They were not for people who dared drop in without booking.

I was eventually shown much better tables inside, but, distressed by the oppressively unwelcoming atmosphere, I left. Alain Llorca has only one Michelin star. I hear little good of him. If he's only one-tenth as bad as his from-of-house staff he'd still be beyond-belief terrible.

I drove down to Cagnes-sur-Mer, a coastal town people pass through driving west from Nice airport. It has a marvellous fish restaurant called Chariot 1er. This was closed. I went next door to Reserve Loulou, which faces the sea.

I gave them a little brochure used at film festivals. It recounts my life story, beautifully condensed, in three languages. The owner of Loulou, Eric Campo, looked at it and me with disgust. This was not my day. Eric said: "You came in seven years ago and wrote nasty things about us."

"You sat at the same table," added his brother and co-owner Joseph. "I didn't recognise myself in what you wrote."

I'd walked out once already. "I'd better stick with this," I thought. Geraldine addressed them in fluent French. She lived in Paris for years. Then she said to me: "You must have written something terrible because my spiel wasn't working. Normally I'm very good with them."

I later checked. I'd written six lines about Loulou in May 1997. I said the Michelin man must have been a bit tipsy when giving out awards in Cagnes. Loulou still has its one star.

As we progressed, Eric and Joseph thawed out a bit. Everyone there was French except us. That's a good sign. The fish isn't even put in the fridge. It comes in fresh from the market and is cooked that day. I had grilled sar fish, which was delicious. When I complimented Eric he looked as if I'd stabbed him in the back.

My starter was a mixed plate of baby octopus, a little shellfish called palourde and some scallops. I finished with an artistic chocolate cake. It was a good meal.

As I left, Eric asked me to autograph the menu for him. So I think reasonable relations had been established. I'll know for sure when I go back.

Lunch the following day was at the Moulin de la Camandoule, a lovely old hotel and restaurant in a mill on the edge of Fayence, a beautiful town in the hills behind Cannes. It's owned by a friend of mine, movie director Wolf Rilla, famous for Village of the Damned. He and his wife Shirley run it marvellously.

We sat in an orchard. I was in such shock at actually being welcome somewhere that I made few notes. Assuming they're right, which is by no means certain, I enjoyed red mullet, king prawns and duck foie gras.

The next day I went over the border to Italy and one of the most beautiful, unspoilt medieval villages ever, Apricale. It's staggering. Lunch was not. We were recommended La Capanna da Baci. The less said about it the better.

Daniele Roux, who runs La Colombe d'Or in St Paul de Vence, has a studio in Apricale, where she paints. She told me there's a lady in the market square who serves fresh pasta but you have to phone her in advance. By then I'd not only eaten, I was back at the hotel.

  • PS: I apologise unreservedly to those who enjoy seeing my picture, so you can while away Sunday afternoon writing rude e-mails about my appearance. I am absent from today's photographic essay. Instead, I offer a portrait of Geraldine with the village of Apricale behind her. Fear not, I'll be back next week. Get the poison pens ready.

    Winner's letters

    I definitely couldn't dine with you every day. But it would be nice if you were a genie in a brass lamp beside me on the seat. Then, when l feel I've been given the thin end of the wedge, and the head waiter comes out with his glittering cliche "How was your meal?", there'd be no need to smile back with gritted teeth. One rub of the lamp and out you'd pop. My shining food critic in black.
    Mrs G Pelham-Lane, London

    I have 3,700 commemorative handkerchiefs. One printed with the calorie contents of various foods, another depicting the menu served on "June 2, 1973 at XXXVI Hallye Aerien des vins, en compagnie des Chevaliers du Sacavin". I'm not sure what it means. Were you there? Have you seen any such unusual items on your travels?
    Brenda Mathews, Sussex

    Why is it that my daughter, aged 12, is able to serve toast that is more edible than in the vast majority of restaurants and hotels? Most seem unaware that toast racks have been invented and serve toast as soggy and floppy as an Odor-Eater. Am I alone in my search for crunchy toast? My most recent altercation was at a well-known Knightsbridge store that charges £18.50 for breakfast. The staff regarded me as an example of British idiosyncrasy.
    Martin Fizpatrick, Warwick

    Would Mr Winner still not wear a tie even if elevated to the House of Lords? I think he should try the Red Brick Cafe just outside Leeds. Shorts are permissible during a hot summer.
    Kevin Maguire, Yorkshire

    I am 14 years old and have a situation which may be of consequence to you. I recently visited Montpeliano, an expensive and reputable restaurant in Knightsbridge, with my mother and two Japanese friends. The meal was good but the service was something else altogether. I've never, not even in Pizza Hut, experienced waiters with less grace, manners or charm. They acted as if it were a chore to explain certain dishes or refill our drinks. As we were guests of the Japanese we felt it inappropriate to complain at the time. I thought you'd like to know of this, as I understand you enjoy visiting and evaluating venues of culinary interest.
    Miss Hannah Davies, 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