Lots of oil, very fishy and plenty of chips - no, not me
Published 7 November 2004 News Review 591st article
Michael Winner and staff at Finnigans fish and chip shop in Sutton (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)
I don't lunch regularly at Finnigans, a fish and chip shop in the pedestrian section of High Street, Sutton, Surrey. But I'd dropped in to Waterstone's to sign copies of my autobiography and it was nearby.
This is what I do on Saturdays. I'm driven vast distances, through perilous areas of the realm, from bookshop to bookshop. There I sign and draw a cartoon on the title page of the story of my life.
Then the assistants, and sometimes Geraldine, put a "Signed by the author" sticker on the book. I'm told this makes it more desirable. As if my wit and wisdom were not enough!
We British have made three major contributions to culinary excellence. One is fish and chips. Invariably good, wherever I've eaten them.
Then there's the British breakfast fry up. Fantastic! A total, mesmerising delight. The best ever example of this was at Le Manoir au Quat' Saisons, run by a Frenchman, Raymond Blanc.
Our third gift of the flab is tea. Not just the liquid stuff, but the full monty.
Little sandwiches, scones, biscuits, cakes. I could live on those three meals.
It was windy and pouring with rain in Sutton that Saturday. Geraldine and I, umbrellas rampant, battled our way to Finnigans. It looked like your standard fish and chip place. A long, silver counter, then a few stairs up to a dining area.
"Where's the boss?" I asked. Always best to go straight to the top. A nice man, Nick Neophytou, claimed ownership. "So it's a Greek fish and chip shop with an Irish name?" I suggested.
I was introduced to Nick's wife, Denise, and son, Jack. "This is the first of this type of fish range in Surrey," said Nick proudly. It had the Finnigans name lit up in blue. "We brought it from Holland," continued Nick. "We did a lot of research on the top chip shops. We didn't want to call it the Happy Dolphin or Mr Chippy or anything . . ."
It seemed a pity to interrupt Nick in full flow. But I did. "What shall I eat?" I asked, fancying the plaice.
"Have the cod," said Nick. "Should I have the plaice?" I asked nervously. "No, have the cod," repeated Nick.
"It's the cheapest thing on the menu," I observed, as if that could rule it out.
"It's slightly dearer on the table because you get pickles, bread and butter and waitress service," explained Nick. I added mushy peas and tea.
We proceeded in an orderly fashion to a table. I noticed old photos on the walls.
"They're all photos of Sutton," said Geraldine. "How do you know?" I asked.
"Because I can read," she replied. Apparently they were captioned.
My pot of tea arrived. It was excellent. Very British. The bread and butter were fine, too. Outside it was getting dark. "Listen to the rain," I said. "That's not rain, it's the oil boiling," explained Geraldine patiently.
A large crash emanated from the frying area. "Sounds like you putting plates in the sink," observed Geraldine.
The cod arrived. It was superb. Moist, very good light batter, also pickled cucumbers and onions, excellent mushy peas.
On the menu under desserts, it read: "Apple pie with ice cream or custard £2.25. Ice cream £1.50. Other desserts also available, please ask for details."
Our pretty and efficient waitress, Lizzie Cocks, said: "We have sticky toffee pudding, treacle sponge or pineapple fritters." "Could I please have Nick here at the table?" I requested.
Nick arrived and sat down. "I didn't ask him to sit down. He's getting above himself," I joked inwardly.
"What is the ice cream, Nick?"
I asked. "We do vanilla," he replied. "What make is it?" I asked. "I think it's Wall's," said Nick. "I like Wall's," I responded. Nick looked a bit worried. "The restaurant section is taken care of by my wife, I just do the cooking," he said.
Then Nick fled.
Denise appeared. "You've made us all very jittery," she murmured. She revealed it was Wall's Cornish ice cream. I ordered it with syrup sponge. Denise told me all the desserts were bought in, meaning they came from outside.
Geraldine said, "It looks very good. It could have been made next door." "If it was made next door I wouldn't rehire the chef," I stated. But it grew on me. The sponge was light, there was a pleasing taste of syrup. I dropped some on my shirt. Always a good sign.
Nick refused to give me a bill. Rather than argue forever, I gave Lizzie a £50 note. Her jaw literally dropped open. Then we disappeared into the rain, the wind, the chauffeured car and more bookshops. Who says life is easy?
Just when I thought someone had given you a good scrub and Geraldine had dressed you, you blew it last week by having your shirt outside your trousers while wearing a tie. Or had your napkin fallen down there and given us an illusion?
Nick Duncan, London
Last week's letter from a couple who reserve in the name of Winner reminded me of four friends, the Berenbaums and the Winners. They booked in the name of Winner, thinking the restaurant would have difficulty understanding and writing Berenbaum. Since Winner's Dinners was first published they've decided to spell out Berenbaum!
Norma Kay, Hertfordshire
On Sunday only I treat myself to slices of toast coated with thick-cut marmalade and a big cup of Gold Label tea. Last week your disgraceful dress sense ruined it all. When I saw you wearing what the French call a "cravate" my hold on the breakfast tray disappeared with the shock. The toast landed face down - and it's a long wait until next Sunday. Please commit no further breaches of your impeccable dress code.
Iain Chapman, Marciac, France
It's time for "family parties" where children run amok twixt table and chair. The parenting skills gleaned from reality TV and boy/girl band magazines become evident with the noise, mess and mayhem. With the pantomime season coming we should consider the dietary needs of ogres and giants. Well-fed children have a part to play. Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum?
Anthony Rogers, Cornwall
Last week you again demonstrated your wonderful sense of humour. When you quipped about deducting a day's pay from the salary of your faithful employee of 57 years, John Fraser, when he spent it in hospital, I bet he fell down laughing. Have you heard the one about Jack the Ripper?
David Miller, London
I was surprised to read you praise Le Sloop in St Jean Cap Ferrat (Winner's Dinners, October 24). When we visited the food was acceptable, the waitress was typically French snooty. As for Madame Therlicocq and her "no nonsense" approach: she should be running a correctional establishment. Her smile in your photo was a revelation. We never saw it.
Derek Fromberg, London
* Send letters to Winner's Dinners, The Sunday Times, 1 Pennington Street, London E98 1ST or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org