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Calm down, dear - it's only some mayonnaise

Published 30 May 2004
News Review
568th article

Acting up: Michael Winner and Giselle Wright at Wrotham Park (Stephen Morley)

The first time I ever wrote about food in The Sunday Times I listed 10 restaurant "Winners". One was the Loch Fyne Oyster Bar near Inveraray, on the west coast of Scotland.

I'd been filming there and met the owner, Johnny Noble.

Mr Noble inhabited a mansion, which I nearly used as a location.

I'll never forget his kitchen. It was filthy beyond belief. I can still see the mould, the old food, the unwashed plates and cutlery. He personally made me a cup of tea. The bravest thing I ever did in my life was to drink it. Johnny has been, for many years, in the great restaurant in the sky. I hope he's not in charge of hygiene.

His oyster bar is now owned by the staff. It's the place where our beloved deputy prime minister recently claimed to have eaten kippers and not to have discussed the demise of Tony Blair with Gordon Brown.

There are 23 Loch Fyne restaurants owned by a company no longer related to Mr Noble's original, except they get most of their produce from the Loch Fyne suppliers. Or, as they say on the menu, "from our shores, the local hills or from our smokehouse on Loch Fyne".

I'd just had a cuppa tea, very clean, from a charming man, Robert Byng. He's often listed as Britain's second most eligible bachelor. I'm number 11,367. Robert owns Wrotham Park, a marvellous stately home near Barnet.

I was checking locations for my new commercial for First Alternative, the posh-car sister company of esure.

Aficionados of my commercials (isn't everyone?) can look forward to its television premiere on June 7. It was lunchtime, so Robert's excellent assistant, Felicity Wright, recommended nearby Prezzo or Loch Fyne.

I set off driving "car four" from the collection, a delightful silver-grey Suzuki Grand Vitara. Mine's not automatic, but I manage skilfully.

The restaurants are next door to each other. Geraldine checked out Prezzo, which was empty. Loch Fyne was busy, so we entered.

There are wooden floors, wooden tables and a pretty, highly efficient manageress, Tina Flannery. She explained the Loch Fyne group recently took over Raymond Blanc's Petit Blanc chain in Oxford, Cheltenham, Birmingham and Manchester.

The oysters apparently are delivered three times a week and came in that morning.

Geraldine ordered "hot and cold shellfish platter with whole crab or whole lobster". She chose crab (£25.95) as opposed to lobster (£34.95).

They've obviously got a bob or two, these people who live in Barnet.

I chose "Loch Fyne Ashet Bradan Rost Bradan Orach smoked salmon and gravadlax".

Followed by a pair of Loch Fyne kippers, which I was assured also came in that very morning. Well, if they're good enough for John Prescott, they're good enough for me. I like John. He did a great job running a tombola for me in Scarborough. But I haven't time to go into that. The kippers were excellent.

Geraldine smelt the house wine, Colombard Sauvignon 2002, ran it round her palate and said, "Um, very nice." The Bradan Rost smoked salmon was too chewy for me. The rest was good. I was never shown the board with specials on it. There was French onion soup. I might have had that.

I normally like hard chairs, but the wooden chairs were getting a bit hard even for me. The seat was not shaped in any way.

Geraldine got an enormous portion of fish and shellfish on a multistorey plate holder. She said, "It must be for two." She loved the fish but wasn't happy with the mayonnaise. "It's ready made," she complained, "in France it's all fresh." I felt it indiscreet to point out this was Barnet. Which ain't France by a long way.

Geraldine said, "the mayonnaise is a crime".

She thought the fish both good and very cheap. "It would cost double in Paris," she announced. She then shelled a large prawn for me. I had it with mayonnaise.

I thought the mayonnaise was perfectly all right. But I didn't dare say so.

Instead I ordered home-made lemon cheesecake, which wasn't bad. The biscuit underneath was very good. Coffee arrived and I asked Tina, "Do you have white sugar cubes? It'll be a big let-down if you don't."

Tina went to look. Geraldine said, "A big let-down is bought-in mayonnaise. White sugar cubes are not." Tina produced cubes, saying, "That's the last of them." "You should restock," I advised.

  • I took a photo of Geraldine, Tina and the multi-layered fish dish. But I fear the girls didn't look their best. Instead I offer me (as usual looking my worst) with Giselle Wright, a lovely dancer, in a historic moment from our commercial at Wrotham Park.

    Winner's letters

    Are you changing profession and becoming a wit? Your pose last week with young Amelie Tonello is surely a mocking reference to that Pre-Raphaelite artist Sir John Everett Millais and his painting of James Wyatt and his granddaughter. You even look a bit like James Wyatt although, of course, he was much smarter.
    Reg Tripp, Hampshire

    I am glad to see that sitting in the rain for the day (Winner's Dinners, last week) has done nothing to dampen your acerbic wit. It has, however, given the readers a far more visual understanding of the term "saturated fat".
    Donna H Pidgeon, Surrey

    I've been highly entertained by Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares. Visiting ailing restaurants he frequently explodes in a comical tirade of expletives to describe the fare produced by resident chefs. It makes me laugh even more when I think of the most mushy, amorphous and tasteless lobster thermidor I've ever tasted ... at the Boxwood Cafe. Gordon, it wasn't ******* good enough!
    Dr David Simcock, London

    After 40 years a Tory I see, last week, you made your play for Sir Michael or Lord Winner. Your possibilities would greatly increase if you bought the Blairs a house. They'll need one when he gets the sack shortly.
    Fred Beckett, Cheltenham

    You had it incorrectly last week. What is wrong with Hildon water? What is right about that unlovely pair "Tone and Cher"?
    G Doyle, Andover

    Although I enjoy your columns, there are many of us who will never be able to afford the Cipriani or the Dorchester Grill. So where should we eat, McDonald's? Most pubs in England now serve overpriced, overambitious food -badly. Few restaurants understand what constitutes edible, let alone enjoyable, food. The only place I find decent and affordable food is in northern France.
    Bill Lewis, Surrey.

    Regarding the Cipriani manager (Winner's Dinners, May 16) not apologising to Mr Meller for having confused his name with Mr Mellor and then moving him from his table - this is surely less a lack of managerial knowledge than a lack of normal good manners.
    Graham Dunn, Norfolk

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