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A desperate escape in search of a decent dessert

Published 18 July 2004
News Review
575th article

Director's cut: Winner leaves his 'ghastly' Holland Park Cafe chips (Nick Mead)

My house is adjacent to Holland Park. When I first arrived it was the private grounds of a bombed mansion. I used to roam about. Unfortunately, the public are now allowed in. I preferred it just for me.

Holland Park offers two restaurants, a posh one, Belvedere, and the Holland Park Cafe, which I visited seven years ago with my friend the film director and writer Nick Mead. Then it was run by a lovely couple, Mike Quaia and his Burmese wife Yvonne.

When I went they had a major row and Yvonne stormed off. Amazingly, nothing to do with me. They made up, and continued to serve excellent food for years. Then they left.

For what seemed an eternity, the council rebuilt the premises for a new tenant, rumoured to be one of the motorway service operators. I wonder if it's Moto, with whom I've enjoyed excellent snacks with Mr T Blair of Downing Street when he unveiled our memorials to police officers slain on nearby motorways?

Whoever it is has gone down the tubes in Holland Park. It's now an extremely ugly building of which Kensington and Chelsea council should be ashamed. The food is beyond-belief terrible.

I went for only my second visit, again with Nick Mead. There was a queue at the counter. I said: "Hello," to someone who looked like a manager. He said: "Hello," and fled to the large, visible kitchen.

"When did you last queue?" asked Nick. "During world war two," I replied.

A woman in front was holding a baby. "If I order hot, how do I know when it's ready?" I asked. She said: "They'll let you know."

I said: "How?" She said: "You'll have to ask them." She added helpfully: "They usually give you a number." Then she stopped in the queue and looked behind her for something.

I said: "Don't mess around or I'll go ahead of you." She said: "Please do, you're a very impatient sort of man." Full marks for observation there.

Nick ordered chicken escalope Parmagiana (sic) with house fries - £7.50.

"It's the most expensive thing on the menu," I observed. "I don't go out very often," explained Nick.

I said to the lady behind us: "I really appreciate your letting me go ahead. What's your name?" She said: "It's none of your business."

I dutifully repeated all this into my tape recorder. She asked: "Who are you talking to?" I replied: "I'm talking to myself. I have a problem." Nick said: "I'm his mental nurse."

I ordered breaded chicken fillet strips with house fries and BBQ sauce. The counter lady said: "You have to pay now." I was told when I heard someone calling "21" I had to raise my hand.

We chose a wooden table outside in the sun. I took two Kit Kats and some Buxton water. Nick had a Diet Coke, Eventually, the man with our food located us without my having to respond to a call of number 21.

"Will you give me a culinary opinion of what you're eating?" I asked Nick. He said: "Yes, it's exactly the same as what you're eating. It's like motorway service food. It's probably out of a packet. It's not been battered down." Nick made battering motions, adding: "But you do have this beautiful landscape."

The food was unspeakable. I've never eaten anything remotely like it. Tasteless, horrid batter, awful chicken, ghastly chips. A new world - and highly unwelcome. I said: "Come on Nick, let's go to Belvedere for our dessert."

There, an extremely snotty receptionist viewed us as highly undesirable. "What's your reservation name?" she asked brusquely, without a hint of welcome. I walked by. "What name is your reservation in?" she called out angrily.

Belvedere suffers endless problems with receptionists. Other than Marco Pierre White's wife Mati, who was marvellous, their receptionists are always hostile.

In the extremely attractive restaurant a man showed me to a table I didn't want. I sat somewhere else. They've lost Matthew Brown, a chef I greatly admired. Billy Reid, who had a Michelin star at the Vineyard in Stockcross, has taken over. His fiancee, Julie Blay, is the new manager. I told her exactly what I thought of our greeting. After that, things improved.

My red fruit jelly with red fruit was tiptop. Nick's lemon tart was greatly admired. The coffee was fine.

Belvedere is always nearly empty during winter months. I keep telling the owners they should floodlight the trees between the car park and the restaurant so you don't feel you're in deep gloom. And get a pianist tinkling away in the bar. Thus they could save the winter situation. I just love to be helpful.

Winner's letters

Recently a barmaid at my local remarked she'd never heard me swear ("Who doesn't swear?" Linda Lee's letter last week). Over just one generation we've gone from the spewer of a public obscenity being admonished to a non-swearer being worthy of comment. In the good old days obscene language was a yellow alert to a pub landlord to intervene. Today it's straight from argument to violence. Oh for the return of some proper no-no words as a buffer zone.
Huw Benyon, Llandeilo, Wales

Is Fausto Allegri your twin brother? I cannot be alone in noting the amazing resemblance between you and the "mad violinist" in last week's photo. Albeit he has longer hair, a slimmer figure and is better dressed.
Shirley Rose, Surrey

Lunching at Sandy Lane last week, we asked if we might see the suite where you spend obscene amounts of money each Christmas. The desk clerk said: "Who is Michael Winner?" Do you make so little impact when you visit? Incidentally, your bete noire, Jan Tibaldi, was simply charming. And he confessed to knowing you!
Jim Platt-Higgins, Surrey

At Reid's Palace hotel, Madeira, we ordered a bottle of wine, a glass of champagne and a plate of sliced tomatoes at the poolside bar. The waitress told us we couldn't have a plate of tomatoes because "they're not a sandwich". I persuaded the bar manager that, in what purports to be one of the world's finest hotels, sliced tomatoes shouldn't be an insuperable challenge. A single sliced tomato duly arrived. At £8, a contender for the Guinness Book of Records!
David George, Buckinghamshire

The photo of you with Fausto Allegri at the Splendido, Portofino, suggests your parents visited the hotel and spent more time on "guest relations" than on testing any new and adventurous dessert, unless it contained two peas in a pod!
Trevor Broadley, Stockport

My wife's birthday card from Ana Bela in Cardiff invited her to dine and get a free bottle of champagne. We received a tiny bottle - barely enough for two half glasses. To salt the wound her chips looked like white slugs and tasted most unpleasant. The steak was fatty and rack of lamb was four small chops. We left early for the tapas bar next door.
Steve West, Cardiff

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