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It's a mystery why this place gets so raved about

Published 20 June 2004
News Review
571st article



Jean-Andre Charial and Michael Winner at Oustau de Baumaniere (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)

Chefs talk about certain restaurants in hushed tones. They've worked there, which means they've laboured with the best. People say, "Have you been?" As if to do so is an honour. Some such places are good. Others not.

I'd never visited one of them, Oustau de Baumaniere, in Les Baux de Provence. I'll be charitable and recall it was a grey day when I went, so possibly it wasn't on peak form.

The exterior was dull. The interior -a modern arched cellar-like construction - quite awful. The place was originally 16th-century but this tacky extension was completed in 2003.

The chairs were comfortable. It was lunchtime. A group of five businessmen occupied a centre table. There were only two other couples. Atmosphere: nil.

I was greeted by Laurent Merges, the manager in charge that day. He used to work with Gordon Ramsay, first at Aubergine then in Royal Hospital Road. Perhaps he found me boring, because at 1.40pm he left.

The Oustau was once top-graded with three Michelin stars. Now it has two. The chef-owner is Jean-Andre Charial. His grandfather had three stars. His father wasn't in the business. "Who lost the star, you or your grandfather?" I asked. "Both," he said.

I found the food extremely boring. The only thing I enjoyed were some flaky pastry hors d'oeuvres, which were deliciously fresh. My truffle and leak ravioli was so-so. My main course of turbot with mushroom, totally blah. It all tasted of nothing.

I'd asked the waiter for butter. Instead of going to get it he said, "Do you want butter? Because there's olive oil on the table." I said, "I'd like butter, that's why I asked for it." It never arrived.

His arrogance sums the place up.

My transcribed notes reveal, "The sort of fried cereal thing was neither here nor there so I left most of that. Geraldine then tasted the cereal, thinking I'd put it down unfairly and said, 'It's not very interesting, you're right'."

My chocolate souffle was among the worst I've ever eaten. It wasn't in a bowl. The texture was too firm as it had to stand up, unsupported, on the plate. I dictated my negative views onto tape. Geraldine said, "You certainly ate enough of it!"

"That means nothing. I eat anything that's put in front of me. I'm a pig," I responded.

We went outside for the photo of me with M Charial. When I returned, my coat was on a chair in the hall. I put it on and said to Geraldine, "Where are my glasses?" Attend carefully now because a mystery is to be revealed. I want your opinion.

I'd bought two pairs of glasses in Provence. One green and one red. The green ones I'd used to read the menu.

Geraldine said, "They're in your coat pocket. I took them off the table and put them there." But they were not. "Who brought my coat out to the hall?" I asked.

"They must have done," said Geraldine. "It was on a chair behind our table."

I returned to the restaurant.

My glasses were not on the table or the floor or hidden in the chair. Agatha Christie could solve this in seconds. What happened to my glasses? They vanished between the table and the restaurant lobby.

If I'm in a generous mood I'll give a prize for the best answer.

I have no more to say about Oustau de Baumaniere, except don't rush to go there.

When I arrived at Gatwick recently to fly to St Lucia on Virgin, the airline rep said, "There's a letter from Sir Richard in the lounge." I received a personal missive from his Dickieship explaining he was on holiday in Necker Island, "But if there's anything I can do, please don't hesitate to phone." He gave me his personal number.

I know and like Richard. We're not intimate. What, I wondered, could I phone him about? "Richard, I've been sitting in the lounge for 10 minutes and my cappuccino hasn't arrived!"

No complaints were necessary. Virgin staff are always warm, welcoming and marvellously young. Geraldine had her nail polish professionally removed in the lounge. The in-flight staff, Caroline Sera, Anna Coutiour and David Singleton, were exemplary. I'll even acknowledge Captain Hugh Smethurst did a splendid job of piloting the plane. Well, he got us to the right island - that's something.

The food was as good as you could hope for on an aeroplane.

I enjoyed mushroom ravioli with green pepper sauce and Madagascan bourbon ice-cream with chocolate shavings.

The crew smiled a lot.



  • PS: Gatwick security removed two pairs of scissors from my main case and one from my briefcase. Will I never learn!



    Winner's letters

    I heartily agree with you last week deploring the fact that Gordon Ramsay had unwisely strayed from his true area of expertise, the kitchen, to seek the questionable status of TV celebrity. Why, it's as if a film director imagined he was qualified to write a column on culinary matters. Quite ridiculous! But then, of course, such a thing could never happen.
    David Miller, London.

    For the first time ever I fully agreed with Winner's Dinners on June 13, regarding puffed-up celebrity chefs, other overrated, overpaid celebrities mainly on TV - and the disgraceful overuse of the f-word. It's often on TV before the 9pm guideline, and on chat shows, on buses, at the theatre and elsewhere. I was taught using swear words was a sign of ignorance.
    Geoffrey Lord, Edinburgh.

    Thank you so much for your subtle condemnation of Gordon Ramsay. He's a disgrace to the catering fraternity. Surely it won't be long before he is ousted from Claridge's. His vile behaviour, particularly to the older women on his show, was awful to watch.
    B Brookes, Dorset.

    After reading your column about Gordon Ramsay, here's my experience at his Petrus restaurant. I found the starter too salty and told the maitre d', who promised to inform the kitchen. When the main course turned out to be as salty - to the point of bitter - I suggested the maitre d' try it. He refused. But asked if I was allergic to salt! I won't go there again. They're too arrogant.
    Teresa Tse, London.

    It's rare I agree with you, but if a chef puts his name to a restaurant, then he should indeed personally be involved in the dining experience. I'm getting married in September and was planning to visit Gordon Ramsay at Claridge's. I'm dismayed to learn we may find the great man not within miles of our Michelin-starred bill. We wanted to go somewhere special where we could brush shoulders with celebrities such as yourself. Can you offer any guidance?
    Neil Reader, York.

    You said last week you'd forgotten who played Dick Barton on the radio. It was Noel Johnson. The character was played in a film by Don Stannard who sank without trace. Thanks for Death Wish.
    James Munro, Lombez, France.

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