Published 16 January 2005 News Review 601st article
Geraldine Lynton-Edwards, left, and Dinah May in the lounge at Michael Winner's London home (Arnold Crust)
Sometimes I really want to give a restaurant a favourable review. Thus it was as I entered Wiltons in London's St James's.
This is a place which, for decades, produced the best food I've ever eaten. Under Jimmy Marks, who died in 1976, everything was quadruple historic.
It stayed good with a marvellous restaurant manager, Robin Gundry. Then he died of cancer. A horrid woman, Margaret Levin, took over and things began to slide.
They brought in a chef from the Connaught, Jerome Ponchelle, who started messing things up. Instead of serving the best and freshest simple English food he went in for ginger and lemon grass. He mucked things about. They were worse than before. But I live in hope.
There's a different restaurant manager now, James Grant, from the Rich Room at the Carlton Tower. Not a glorious recommendation.
I sat in a booth decorated with two ghastly, cheap-looking prints. They'd have suited a corridor in the Marriott Newcastle - if there is a Marriott in Newcastle! Wiltons used to have real watercolours and oils beautifully framed.
I asked Mr Grant for ice and lemon to go with my water. It didn't arrive. I asked him again 10 minutes later. Then it came. I asked the waitress: "Are the chips bought in?" She lowered her eyes in shame and said: "Yes." Then she raised her head, adding: "But I'm sure they'd make some fresh for you, Mr Winner."
Just to explain, "bought in" food comes from outside suppliers, in the case of chips pre-sliced in packets. Wiltons used to have marvellous chunky chips, cut on the premises.
James Grant appeared. "Of course our chips are made here," he said. "Then why did the waitress tell me they were bought in?" I asked. "She was wrong," said Mr Grant, "try some." Of the two versions, I believed the waitress. But who knows?
We had very good Colchester oysters to start, we being Dinah May, my receptionist, and I. Geraldine was in Paris.
My next course was fried plaice, always historic at Wiltons. Now it was extremely dreary. It didn't taste fresh. Dinah tried some, pulled a face and said: "Never have fish on a Monday."
Wiltons plaice used to be juicy and fresh-tasting (which this was not in my opinion) because Jimmy Marks wouldn't even keep fish in the fridge overnight. Madame Prunier, who had a restaurant nearby, would collect all his unsold ﬁsh around 11pm and sell it the next day to her clients.
My plaice was not moist, of poor quality and tired. My red cabbage tasted of nothing. As tor the chips, supposedly hand cut in Wiltons' kitchen, they were thin and utterly uniform in size as if sliced by a machine. They were no good anyway.
Dinah had dressed crab. She said: "It's very poor, much better at the River Cafe." Even the melba toast was too thin and spindly. Wiltons used to have slightly rough, rather tasty melba toast. A considerable achievement.
I've eaten in Wiltons since I was six. It saddens me to see it sink into mediocrity. It's a shadow of its former self. And that's an insult to shadows.
By comparison the food at the Yorkshire Post literary lunch at Pavilions of Harrogate was rather good. I was on another leg of my autobiography book tour.
Fellow authors were Simon Hoggart and Lady Bagnor, who writes under the name of Sarah Bradford. Geraldine refused to curtsey to her, which I thought was a bit off. Especially as Lady Bagnor bought my book. "Aren't you going to buy mine?" Sarah asked. "Yours is too intellectual for me," I responded.
Pavilions of Harrogate was specially built for events. It's not terribly nice, it's not horrific. The room was too long and thin so I faced very few tables. Most diners were at the side getting a poor view of me. They were the lucky ones.
We started with a tasty goat's cheese and tomato tart with onion marmalade. There followed braised beef with olives in a red wine sauce and veggies. I thought both beef and sauce were good. The sticky toffee pudding was okay. For mass catering it was well done.
We had a problem with our photo. I forgot to ask Geraldine to take it. So you'll never see me in Yorkshire with Lady Bagnor and commoner Hoggart. And as I'd just been with the prime minister I didn't take a camera to Wiltons.
So here's a photo of Geraldine and Dinah in my lounge. "What's that got to do with anything?" I hear you say. Well, Dinah was with me at Wiltons and Geraldine in Harrogate. Be thankful you've got a photo of two beautiful women and don't have to look at me. Some people are never satisfied!
PS: Next week, end of our competition. Winner revealed!
Each day we sit on our balcony at Sandy Lane and see Michael Winner under his umbrella in the unseasonal tropical pouring rain. When Mr Winner finally gives up and goes inside, as if by divine intervention the sun shines. Michael is now our personal weather station. If Michael is on the beach, we stay in, if he's not we get the buckets, spades and sun hats ready and race out. We've finally discovered that Michael has a useful purpose in life after all.
Martin Harrison and Frances Hendrix, Lancashire
Last week you confessed to ripping out the paper pages in the middle of the menu card at Floka, thus committing an act of criminal damage. I assume you're now waiting nervously for a knock on the door from the Metropolitan police commissioner. Please go quietly. Her Majesty provides three hot meals each day tree of charge, but sadly you will not be allowed the facility to record your praise or criticism. l shall miss your column.
Rodney Pitham, Solihull
I read you had problems in getting into Roka. Restaurants should have a "recognise your friendly critic" wall chart. Similar to the one issued during the second world war showing the silhouettes of the Messerschmitt and Focke-Wolfe next to outlines of our own Spitfires & Lancasters, to stop the Home Guard from shooting down our own planes. Staff could learn to spot important people among the great unwashed & ensure that the appropriate levels of care, attention, and forelock-tugging are lavished on honoured guests.
Kevin Sloane, Beckenham
What impressed you most your travels? The increasing number of people who refuse to accept the arrogance of many hoteliers, restaurateurs and travel specialists and make their disapproval clearly known. I wonder who their role model could be?
Jim Switzer, Bangor
. . . your very own stomach. As you recounted last week not only can it accommodate a lobster but also chocolate nougat pudding and plum wine ice cream! impressive? Nothing short of historic.
Joan Ridsdale, Kent
. . . how many people entered the "what impressed me most" competition.
Carol Faulkes, Aberdeen
Send letters to Winner‘s D The Sunday Times, 1 Pennington Street, London E98 1ST or email firstname.lastname@example.org