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Love the belly dancers but I can't stomach the food

Published 11 April 2004
News Review
561st article

Michael Winner, Marcel Chiche and belly dancers at Comptoir Darna (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)

I missed the girl in gold lame doing a belly dance with 10 candles balanced on a tray on her head. In fact, I missed all eight belly dancers.

Marcel Chiche, the owner of Comptoir Darna in Marrakesh, said they'd be performing at 10 o'clock. He told me at 9 and I'd already finished my dinner. "Can't you bring them on at 9.15?" I asked. This, apparently, was not possible.

So we sought out the artistes du belly-wobble even though only three of the eight had come in. For reasons which I decline to go into they were photographed by the inestimable Miss Geraldine Lynton-Edwards in one of the toilets.

You'll notice I'm well hidden in the picture. This is because I'm always reticent in the presence of true talent. Not so Marcel. He's beaming in a shirt open even lower than mine, a blue velvet jacket and jeans. It is, after all, his toilet.

The Comptoir Dama is the only restaurant I found in Marrakesh largely populated with young people. Most of the restaurants are inhabited by extremely tedious-looking tourists. I'm sure they look at me and say the same thing.

Mind you, on Sunday November 8, 1998, in the Diaffa in Marrakesh we were joined by the local police chief, whose name I forgot to record. He sat, conspiratorially, with the owner, Brahim Rmili, while two musicians did a cabaret tap dance. Memories are made of this.

Let us now return to the Comptoir Darna. It definitely has atmosphere. There are candles on the stairs, candles everywhere. It's all deep reds with cut-out metal lanterns housing more candles which cast patterns of light on the ceiling.

Marcel Chiche, the enthusiastic and charming proprietor, was bom in Algeria. He wore a bead necklace with a tassel and some silverwork on it. Gracing his finger was a large white moonstone ring.

Geraldine ordered Moroccan wine which she thought was fine. She asked for salad - "We have some very good salads, you’ll love it." said M Chiche. But they brought us both soup. We had not ordered soup. That's what happens when staff don’t write things down.

I won't request food now unless the person taking the order has a pad. The most dreaded words when you're ordering in a restaurant are: "Don't worry, I'll remember."

Four musicians in fezes sat on the stairs playing music. I received a steak covered in lettuce. "It's coriander," explained Geraldine. To me any green vegetable is either lettuce or cabbage. There's no in-between. I had pureed potatoes on the side. The steak was very soft in texture and had no taste at all.

"How's that?" I asked Geraldine, referring to her fish. She pulled a face. "Not bad," she replied. Her fish was swimming in olive oil.

She left almost all of it. "I think this place is more for atmosphere than food," I said. Geraldine referred to it as having a "great ambience". My lemon tart was not great. It was like a rather poor lemon meringue pie.

I can't think of much more to say about Comptoir Darna. But in a strange way I recommend it.

Don't let political events put you off Marrakesh. I usually go at Easter, but you can be unlucky and get rain then, so this year I'm in Barbados and with Lord Glenconner in St Lucia. I'll visit Marrakesh in October.

Now more about Skibo Castle in Dornoch in the eastern Highlands. I bought a small porcelain figure of a lamb there. After breakfast a man wearing a felt hat was in the hall with a bird on his arm. First a falcon, then a brown owl.

I was going to keep brown owls. I befriended Barn Owl Bill in Preston. Real name William Higham. I even discussed the matter with Jemima Porridge of the Barn Owl Centre near Gloucester.

Bill said owls liked being in captivity as they were very lazy. They only fly when they have to get food. They walk about a lot.

I wasn’t even put off when Bill told me they dined on mice, rats or dead baby chickens. They eat three chicks a day. Bill kept his supply in the deep freeze. I had no deep freeze, but I was prepared to buy one.

I was finally deterred when Bill told me they excreted a great deal and you had to wash down the cage regularly and have a drain to take the excreta away because it was unbelievably smelly and acidic. It would have meant digging a special drain just for my brown owls.

Thus we end today's column with lavatories, just as we began. I always think symmetry is to be applauded.

Winner's letters

Last week you assured us for your new commercial you were your own producer, director, writer, production/location manager, art director and butler. You said in due course these functions would be undertaken by real people. This confirms my long-held suspicion that you are not real. Save for the lovely Geraldine, you're a figment of your publicist’s imagination. In the photographs you're simply a digitised version of your alter ego.
Mark Crivelli, Worcester

I was interested to read last week that the Stepping Stones has a Polish chef. I hope this starts a trend. My wife and I have just returned from Cracow. We had no meal anywhere that was less than historic. But, Michael, judging by your exorbitant spending habits, the extremely reasonable prices may mean this beautiful city is not to your liking.
Andrew Warner, Wiltshire

Could you help stamp out the disgraceful practice of restaurants who leave credit card slips open after having imposed a service charge. At Planet Hollywood a 12½% "discretionary" service charge was added to the bill. Those paying by credit card were asked to sign under lines which allowed for the addition of a "tip". Strangely, this privilege is not available to cash payers. My wife added nothing and told the waiter why. He was apologetic, explaining the management had devised this system about a year ago. A worldwide establishment such as Planet Hollywood should know better.
Tony Shellim, Hertfordshlre

On holiday in Barbados I saw a familiar figure - grey hair, cheesy grin, a tanned, well-fed face, wearing a flowered shin over an expanding stomach. I was horrified to see it was me in the mirror. Help! I am slowly evolving into a Michael Winner. Is there a cure? Or am I to spend the rest of my life seeking "historic" dishes?
Ian Sutherland, Yorkshire

I'm the 14-year-old whose letter complaining about Montpeliano was printed on March 21. As a result I received four complimentary meal vouchers. I'll inform you of the outcome of my family's second visit. As I'm considering a career in journalism I was hoping you'd allow me to join you for work experience. This would be a great opportunity and hopefully direct my future career along a more definite path.
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