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Too hot, too wet in a squeeze with Joan Collins

Published 29 May 2005
News Review
621st article

Winner with Joan Collins and Gavin Rankin, owner of Bellamy's (Paola Lombard)

Never take any notice of food critics. They are the most hopeless bunch of people ever put on the planet. It's not that they don't know about food. All of them know, technically, more than me. They just don't understand the overall situation.

I once lunched with a famous newspaper editor in the most ghastly restaurant in the City of London. The food was terrible, service non-existent, the noise, the atmosphere, the wait for the bill - all disaster. The editor hated it too. I said: "Why didn't you let me choose? Why are we here?" "My food writer recommended it," he replied. My case rests.

Bellamy's in Mayfair received quite a few rave reviews. Friends of mine said: "So what? It's no good." The score: critics nil, friends 1,964.

I entered Bellamy's with the lovely Paola, the ever-sensational Joan Collins and her extremely nice husband - she's lucky to have found him -Percy. Gavin Rankin, the owner, led us to a table with banquettes on one side. On the other, people faced the wall. It was ridiculously small and absurdly close to the adjacent tables.

"If people come there," I said, indicating the table next to where I was to sit, "they'll listen to everything I say. Why can't we be at that round table?"

"That's for six people," said Gavin dismissively. It may have been allocated for six people. Diners who obviously like sitting bunched far too closely. It was suitable for four people. Which didn't matter much, because we didn't get it!

I asked: "What still water do you have?" The answer was "Blenheim". "That's awful!" I protested. So, pressed, they admitted they also had Evian. Probably not as profitable to sell.

The water was poured. Percy said: "They've slopped massively in order to sell another bottle of Evian." A great deal of it went on the table. The whole area around Joan Collins was deluged.

The head waiter put a wet cloth over the mess and in doing so knocked over the lamp on the table. The lampshade went on the floor. That shows how cluttered the space was. Joan's place was so wet they had to put a menu down and then a napkin over it.

Things got worse. Joan took a sip of her onion soup and gasped. It was boiling hot. "They should warn you if the soup is that hot," said Joan most reasonably.

She was annoyed. "It's rude to come too early or too late," she recounted, "just as it's rude to serve soup that's too cold or too hot."

We all touched the soup bowl. It was ridiculously hot. "It could have been made and then reheated in the microwave," suggested Paola, who, by the way, is an utterly brilliant cook.

Joan said: "The cheese is rubbery and there's more onions than there is soup." She was beautiful and glamorous as ever - but not happy. Joan offered Percy some soup.

He liked the taste of the soup but hated the cheese. "That's the cheese?" he asked in disbelief. Then he said: "Oh, awful." I chipped in cheerily: "Good was it, Percy?" Percy responded with a firm "No", and repeated it just to make sure I got the point.

My whitebait was all right. Joan said: "Whitebait is dull." I think that's a peg down from "all right". Paola said: "My cheese croquettes are okay, but they needed something with it. They're bland."

Things improved somewhat with the main course. But not for me. Joan liked her lamb cutlets, hated the spinach that came with them, Percy enjoyed his beef Provencal.

My fish was horrid. I expected to get a nice juicy sole. Instead it was in little, rubbery fillets curling up at the edges. Overcooked and unlikely to have been a first-class fish originally.

Gavin's mother, Lady Bayliss, makes fantastic chocolate cake. I used to order it from her house. So my dessert, made by mum, was terrific. The blood red sorbet was indifferent. We were given some little chocolate things at the end of dinner.

Paola said: "They're Galaxy Minstrels from a packet." The head waiter confirmed that. "Why not chocolate mints or something else classier?" I wondered.

Summing up, I'd say Bellamy's is quite good. Which reminds me of the story recounted in the play Kean about the famous 19th-century actor Edmund Kean. An actress auditions for him. When she finishes she asks, nervously: "Was I terrible?" "You were worse than terrible, my dear," advises Kean, "you were quite good."

As we walked to the Bentley we passed a PizzaExpress. "We could have gone there," observed Percy. When Joan got out of my car at her house she said: "My mouth is still sore from the soup."

Winner's letters

Regarding the photo of May 15 - is Michael now so grand that hotel staff must stand at a respectful distance behind him? Or so wide that he can no longer fit into a line-up photo?
Sir Michael Salt, Dorset

You wrote last week the Ivy was worth visiting. We went after years of hearing about it. It was perhaps the worst, uninspired meal I've ever had in a revered establishment. Only the foie gras was superb and that wasn't created by the Ivy. People are blinkered and follow like sheep to famous places. Sorry, I normally find you quite stimulating.
Margaret Hickman, Eastbourne

At the Hoste Arms (Winner's Dinners, May 15), a waiter spilt food on the table and while cleaning up knocked my full glass of wine over me. He said: "Oh shit," and ran away. A waitress asked, very condescendingly, if I'd had an accident. I asked for a new bottle of wine as most of mine was spilt. She said she had no authority for that. On checking out we found we'd not been charged for the meal. A few days later we were asked to pay! I wrote to Paul Whittome, the owner, who didn't bother to reply. Eventually we weren't charged. I think Whittome is a jumped-up, star-struck twit who wouldn't recognise customer care if it bit him in his oversize posterior.
Robert Taylor, Suffolk

You asked readers to look closely at the photo Paola took at the Colombe d'Or (Winner's Dinners, last week). You didn't mention she specialised in trick photography. It appeared Danielle Roux was holding up and presenting, to a no doubt astounded audience, a smaller-than-life-size Michael Winner that she'd made earlier. Marvellous stuff!
Barbara Deacon, Norfolk

It seems that, faced with a demand that manners improve in Paris, all the truly arrogantly awful French maitres d'hotel and front of house staff have taken refuge at Gordon Ramsay at Claridge's. Is it a local affectation that a restaurant cannot be good unless they treat you badly?
Colm McKernan, London

I was charged £231 for a few drinks and a pub lunch for four at the Masons Arms, Oxfordshire. At prices like this you know you've been Tango'd!
Nik Fortune, Surrey

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