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I expect staff to sweat blood - but not this much

Published 5 June 2005
News Review
622nd article

From left: the Owsley-Browns, Michael Winner and Neil Foster (Paola Lombard)

Emma Tagg, manager of the Hoste Arms where I was staying, couldn't get me a dinner reservation at Fishes, the next-door restaurant in Burnham Market, Norfolk. It was full.

"Keep trying," I suggested. "If I move onto it, believe me I'll get in." Emma stuck at it until the owners came and - hey presto - there was a table!

When I arrived I didn't see ejected customers rioting in the streets. A sign on the door read: "Fishes restaurant is looking for an enthusiastic, amiable, confident person with a passion for good food and wine to join our front-of house team." I thought of applying but decided I didn't measure up.

It's a pleasant room - two rooms, actually - the one we were in had a log fire and bookshelves. It looked out onto the quaint village street. Matthew and Caroline Owsley-Brown own it. He cooks, she does front of house.

On the menu was tandoori porbeagle shark, pilau rice, kachumba raita, mango chutney and poppadom, mash and one vegetable. I ordered that. I was assured everything was freshly made on the premises. We had a fruit cocktail that was all tinned or bottled juices. Not freshly squeezed on the premises at all.

Paola started with sardine becca ficcu, slow roast tomato and salad. I had Norfolk smoked eel, foie gras and piquillo, pepper terrine, chilli salt and toasted brioche. The brioche came in a napkin. There were red bloodstains on it going through all the folds.

Paola, who'd taken part of my brioche, said: "I wish I hadn't eaten that now," adding, "that's weird isn't it?"

The restaurant manager, Neil Foster, came over. "It's Caroline's blood," he explained helpfully. "She cut her finger." "At least she's the owner," I said, "you're not serving blood from a stranger. It's as you promise: 'made fresh on the premises'."

Caroline was very apologetic. "Never mind," I said consolingly, "if you're O rhesus negative I could have a transfusion." My starter, with or without blood, was superb.

I tried Paola's sardine thing and it was very tasty indeed. My tandoori shark was terrific. Paola loved her mashed potato, it accompanied splendid roast halibut, caramelised fennel and veggies.

The place was filling up. "Service has slackened," I said. Paola responded: "Give them a break, they're just letting us rest for a moment. We've eaten a big main course." All the women in the restaurant looked like Camilla Parker Bowles gone wrong.

I tasted Paola's lemon curd tart. Absolutely outstanding, lovely taste, good pastry. My rhubarb tart tartin was more like an ordinary tart and burned on the bottom. The caramelised stuff on top was very tough and hard.

Paola remarked how friendly everyone was from the beginning and what a difference it made. "Particularly commendable as Caroline was suffering from blood loss," I observed. They wouldn't accept my American Express card (very tedious) but gave us some nice homemade Turkish delight while we waited for them to sort it out.

Caroline wanted the pin number for my Mastercard. "Not a chance, I don't deal in that," I responded. After I'd been there, reader Leigh Hill of Chislehurst, Kent, e-mailed: "Fishes is the best restaurant in Norfolk." I liked it, Leigh. Bring your own blood and it could be even better.

Catered events I have been to - an occasional series. Nothing could beat Philip Green's lavish bar mitzvah weekend for his son Brandon in the south of France, brilliantly organised by Philip's wife, Tina, and Julian Posner of Banana Split.

Philip constructed a substantial synagogue in the grounds of the Grand Hotel du Cap-Ferrat. He also covered the swimming pool and built an enormous ballroom.

For Friday dinner and Saturday lunch, on the Jewish Shabbat, or holy day, the catering was kosher by Tony Page from London. Marvellous chopped liver, chicken soup (the Jewish cure for all ailments!), hot salt beef, latkes, bagels, the lot.

It was New York on the Med.

Page served ice-cream with his meat meals. Not normally kosher, where you can't mix meat and milk. Tony's vanilla ice consisted of soya milk, rice milk, eggs, sugar and fresh vanilla pods. So good I thought it was the real thing!

Saturday dinner and Sunday lunch were by the superb London caterer Mustard. They provided black cod, fillet of beef and toffee pudding, and for Sunday brunch - everything!

  • A different atmosphere at Lord Glenconner's wedding for his daughter Amy at Holkham Hall, Norfolk. There it was venison and a massive, beautiful stately home.

    Royal guests were abundant.

    I call Paola "princess". When I wanted to go I rose and said loudly, "Come on princess!" Lord Lichfield admonished: "You can't call out 'princess' here, Michael. Six women just stood up!"

    Winner's letters

    We've greatly enjoyed the Hoste Arms. Paul Whittome, the owner, has always been very pleasant. The personal attack on him in Winner's Letters last week seems totally unnecessary. What's the size of his posterior got to do with the price of fish?
    Shena Humphreys, Northampton

    Like many people, I'm a coeliac. I have to avoid gluten, which is in wheat, rye, barley, and oats. I once asked a waitress to check if the vegetable soup contained any wheat flour. She spoke with the chef, returned and said "no". When the soup arrived it contained vermicelli, made from wheat. Would that chef like a surgeon operating on him who had so little knowledge of what he was doing?
    Peter Rushforth, Bradford

    Your criticism of food critics last week presumably includes yourself after summing up Bellamy's as "quite good". This followed being cramped at your table, drenched by the waiter, Joan Collins burnt by her overheated soup, eating awful rubbery cheese and hating her spinach, Paola's bland cheese croquettes and your dull whitebait and overcooked, curled-up sole. With Galaxy Minstrels from a packet to finish! How would a restaurant rate "very good" in your books?
    Mike Morgano, Solihull

    I thought Gavin Rankin, owner of Bellamy's, looked less than happy in last week's picture. If you were on form and had demanding guests it seemed he knew his restaurant was in for a pasting.
    Glenda Brett-Holt, Malta

    You have a rare talent. Not only are you "well fixed" in the money department, but you know how to enjoy it. Many wealthy people are tightfisted and suspect they're being taken advantage of. When I win the lottery would you consent to being my guru and teaching me how to enjoy the finer things in life without guilt?
    Doug George, Cheshire

    At Sandy Lane, Barbados, I went to the front desk to complain our bed was sagging. My wife thought it resembled a hammock. The receptionist seemed surprised, so I suggested it was because you'd slept in our bed. At that the young lady became a hopelessly uncomposed heap of mirth. And a new bed arrived within the hour!
    Ryder Ascott, Blackheath

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