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The right kind of restaurant in the wrong part of town

Published 18 April 2004
News Review
562nd article

Star performance: from left, David Moore, Jeremy Thomas and Michael Winner at Pied a Terre (Joseph Etoundi)

I hate Charlotte Street. It runs north of, and at right angles to, Oxford Street. That is the east end of Oxford Street, which is the wrong end. Not that Oxford Street has a right end. I hate Oxford Street too.

I only have one happy memory of Charlotte Street, which was in the mid-1950s. Then I had a show column in 17 London local newspapers, which I had been writing since I was 14.

I went to a movie location in Charlotte Street one night to meet, supposedly, the most difficult and unpleasant actor ever - Rex Harrison. Like many people with fearsome reputations he was absolutely charming and asked me to dinner with his co-star and future wife, Kay Kendall.

For some 50 years since, I’ve steered clear of Charlotte Street, despite it, from time to time, housing well-respected restaurants.

It was my friend Jeremy Thomas who lured me back to Charlotte Street. Jeremy is one of Britain's brightest movie producers. I feel partially responsible for his success. Because in 1970, when he was 21, I fired him from my western movie Lawman. Jeremy was the assistant editor.

I didn't mean to fire him. I fired the editor and Jeremy went too. I'm certain this inspired Jeremy to go forward to become a producer and enjoy the highly distinguished career he has since achieved. He's done many films with Bernardo Bertolucci, including The Last Emperor, and recently produced Young Adam, starring Ewan McGregor.

Jeremy attended the Directors Guild of Great Britain awards ceremony, which I compered. Afterwards he rang to suggest lunch at Pied a Terre, a place near his office in the aforementioned and horrid Charlotte Street.

In my increasingly befuddled mind I thought I was looking for Menage a Trois, so I went past Pied a Terre and got involved in a horrific one-way system in this ghastly part of town, arriving a minute before being late.

Jeremy was already ensconced in a large and comfortable booth off a short corridor between the front and back dining areas with service shelving in front of it. "In the other rooms you're in the middle of the action and you can't hear what you say," explained Jeremy before introducing me to the owner, David Moore. "This is a top spot," Jeremy assured me. "I've got my own little patch of restaurants."

The set lunch menu was £26.50 for three courses, plus the so-called "optional" service charge of 12.5%. I ordered black truffle and white bean soup from the set menu and then steamed and roasted saddle of rabbit, tortellini of confit leg, braised lentils and red wine sauce. It was all very good, as was my dessert of mandarin parfait with lemon curd, meringues and blood orange sauce. Even the pre-dessert freebie of mango coulis and coconut foam was excellent.

We tried to exit through a steel door fitted out as if a major robbery was expected. It was the wrong door. There was a glass door we should have gone through. Just before that I'd looked around the restaurant at the assembled staff and said, "Which of you guys will take the photo?" I've never seen waiters run before. Three of them literally fled speedily to the back room to avoid responsibility.

They left Joseph Etoundi, who did a commendable job of pushing the button and getting me, Jeremy Thomas and David Moore in without cutting our heads off.

It was only when I got home to the civilisation of Holland Park and looked up Pied at Terre in the Michelin Guide that I realised it was one of only four restaurants in London and nine in the United Kingdom with two Michelin stars. If I'd known, I'd have appeared more in awe of the proceedings.

I also realised it was the restaurant famous, or notorious, according to how you view these things, where Tom Aikens, current super-hot Chelsea restaurateur and chef, once did something naughty in the kitchen. How naughty depends on which account you believe.

The newspapers accused him of branding a member of his staff with a red-hot kitchen implement. His wife, Laura, in the wonderful television programme Trouble at the Top that featured Tom, said, in a cautionary voice, "Don't talk about it, Tom, you only tapped him."

It's a miracle there's not mass murder in every restaurant kitchen every night. The pressure these people are under to turn out immaculate, plate-decorated food from lunchtime to late at night, plus coming in early to prepare - all in horrific heat and noise - is enough to make them totally demented.

I like to think I do my bit in that direction. It's nice to make a contribution, isn't it?

Winner's letters

Don't bother to travel to Marrakesh for belly dancing, Michael (Winner's Dinners, last week). Visit sultry Wimborne instead. My colleagues and I have been belly dancing here for many years, wearing costumes obtained from holiday visits to the souks. We'd be most happy to dance at a restaurant of your choice, and we don't have to be photographed with you in the lavatory afterwards! Take up belly dancing yourself! It's great for the stomach and hips. And I'm reasonably confident that a quick shimmy from you would hardly even register on the Richter scale!
Brenda Love, Dorset

On a recent British Airways flight from London to Harare I asked the stewardess at breakfast service for hot milk for my five-year-old son. Firstly she said there wasn't any! When pressed she replied, "We need 24 hours' notice for any unusual request!" I never got the milk. Incroyable!
Fabrice Moussy, Paris

Tony Shellim (Winner's Letters, last week) refers to "the disgraceful practice of restaurants who leave credit cards open having imposed a service charge". He should be aware that many establishments retain the service charge. Little or none is passed on to the staff other than as part of their wages. If you wish to reward good service it's best to pay the tip in cash direct to the waiter.
Philip Medcalf, Wiltshire

We recently arrived for lunch at the wonderful Balthazar in New York City. It was closed because a Will Smith movie was being filmed there. We booked for dinner instead. After an excellent meal I was astonished that 50% had been deducted from the bill because of our lunchtime inconvenience. Is that service or is that service?
Stephen lsaacs, London

Derek Ellis mentions "endangered sweetbreads" belonging to Mr Winner (Letters April 4). Does Mr Winner have more than one pancreas? I am confused. Or is it Mr Ellis who is confused?
Barbara Dixon, Somerset

Rather than sloping off so much to Sandy Lane - go to Portugal. I was recently in the Winners Bar at the Village hotel in Cascais, near Lisbon. I asked the staff if it had been named in your honour. Sadly, they'd never heard of you. Head for Cascais to stake a claim!
Keith Morton, Dorset

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