Paola Lombard standing by the St Michael Church in Lucca, Italy (Arnold Crust)
I said to my friend David, he who won't have his surname revealed: "It's my turn to pay. You choose somewhere new."
That was a mistake. David bet me £3,000 Labour's majority would be less than 60 at the last election. So he's clearly not omnipotent. Even less when he selected Cocoon. One word sums it up: ghastly beyond belief. All right, that's three words. Arithmetic was never my strong point.
David explained a well-known multi-millionaire had recommended Cocoon. Proof that money can't buy taste.
It's on a first floor above Regent Street. It was quite jolly. Full of secretaries, shop assistants and very minor yuppies. Nothing wrong there. Rather like the Ivy on Saturday lunch.
David said: "You and I are the oldest by far." We sat with an uninterrupted view of McDonald's. Wendy, David's wife, announced: "I chose this table." That was not a major achievement.
Our waitress, Vivienne Thilee, gave us hot towels. "Ready for take off," said Wendy, "it's like an aeroplane with these towels."
Paola ordered vegetable dumplings and wok seared salmon served with ginger and soy. I sloshed my mediocre melon drink over the menu. Vivienne said: "I'll bring you a new one." I said: "I don't mind having a dirty menu as long as I dirtied it." David announced: "We're sharing a Mongolian lamb."
We got soft shell crab with garlic and chilli. I thought it was okay. Wendy said: "There's not much crab." Paola passed hers to me, saying: "It's mostly batter." I like batter.
Wendy recounted she'd left her camera on a lounge bed at the Ritz-Carlton in South Beach, Miami. "Good luck to them," she added, "they got pictures of my kids."
We received a horribly crude, lumpy duck roll with minced duck. It didn't even taste of duck. Paola said she'd wanted to go to Ken Lo's in Pimlico; David said he'd have preferred the Hard Rock. "You can still go, it's not too late," offered Wendy.
Paola got her vegetable spring rolls with plum sauce. "It's like Wagamama," she said. Our meat dim sum contained the same ghastly duck mince we'd had earlier.
David cancelled the beef course. "I'm worried about your finances," he said to me. There arrived wasabi prawns, jasmine rice, and a load of other mediocre twaddle. "It's like the noodles came out of a packet uncooked," said Paola "and the rice tastes as if it's been sitting for a while."
After one tiny bite I couldn't eat any more of my atrocious lamb. Paola said: "You know it's a bad meal when I'm really hungry, I didn't have any lunch, and I couldn't eat it." I said: "I don't think this food has been good." Paola responded: "Good! It's awful!" Wendy said: "I never not eat. I'm not eating. It's like a British Airways version of trying to be Asian." The negative vote was unanimous.
When I asked for the bill the restaurant manager, Lino Posadas, said: "I hear you didn't like the main course." "You'll have to read about it," I announced quietly.
As we left David said: "Don't give me another challenge." "I won't, David," I promised, "you've failed this one." "Miserably," added Wendy. "Next time we'll go somewhere we know and love," I suggested. Paola just murmured: "Toast and Marmite."
Later she expounded: "That's the worst meal I've had in ages. I can't actually remember one worse." I agreed.
Although Paola took a photo in Cocoon, I won't reveal it as everything there was so dire. Instead I present the lovely Paola, whom I refer to as "Princess". Not a Jewish princess. A Catholic one. Very different. The picture was taken by the St Michael Church in Lucca. Now I'll get letters saying: "How can a church take a photo?" Who cares? You understand what I mean.
Paola herself wasn't pleased when I told her she was to be exhibited. "It's so corny. It looks like you're saying: 'Here's my girlfriend. Boody-boody-boo boo!'"
I don't mind being corny. At least you get to see her. The bad news is: next week, it's me again.
PS: I'm very glad Richard Caring bought the Ivy, Le Caprice and other of my favourite haunts. He's particularly bright and nice. Richard, please ask your staff to write down food orders on pads. Last week at the ever-superb Caprice the waitress didn't bring Paola's orange juice. "I was concentrating on ordering your hashed browns," she announced, as if that made it an insuperable task.
And a waiter we asked to bring Paola regular coffee with cold milk in a jug forgot the milk. It's a great place, but two misses in one meal! Marginally unsettling.
I thought Michael didn't like food on a bed of spinach. Yet he goes to the Villa San Michele and what vegetable does he order? Spinach! Has he developed a liking for it?
Geoff Smith, Cardiff
Last week in Paola's enchanting picture you sat barefoot in a giant white toga - dare I say it? - actually looking quite cool. A quasi Roman god. Were the staff about to bathe the Florentine dust from between your bare tootsies?
Stephen Houston, Ayrshire
It appeared you arrived at the Villa San Michele "sans culotes" and shoes. I'm surprised they let you in. Perhaps the staff, with their understanding smiles, thought Paola had brought her eccentric, elderly grandfather out for a treat!
Sue Appleton, Manchester
What a terrible photo of you at the Villa San Michele! You appear fed up and a trick of light suggests you're wearing black stretch pants. The preserve of women with hideous backsides. You don't qualify, do you?
Mike Daniels, Kent
I endorse the waiter praising the historic foie gras and Berkshire pork at the Black Boys Inn near Henley. Leila Clarke (Winner's Letters, last week) should read the small print in the brochure: "Helicopters and vegetarians by appointment only." Both equally intrusive to a relaxed dining experience?
James Taylor Buckinghamshire
We went to the opening night of Fishes restaurant, Burnham Market (Winner's Dinners, June 5) when it was fine and unpretentious. Then the ghastly Hoste Arms was an unaffected inn and the delicatessen still a grocer's. This corner of north Norfolk wasn't yet besmirched by post-Thatcher braying triumphalists and their tarted-up second homes, 4x4s and offspring called Jolyon. Burnham Market was beautiful before becoming a car park. And few residents looked like Camilla Parker Bowles gone wrong.
John and Bridgit Swinfield, Cannes, France
Don't avoid Gilli's bar in Florence (Winner's Dinners, last week). It offers excellent free bar snacks, a cheerful upbeat ambience and if you speak kindly to the manager, Roberto, he'll create a cocktail and name it after you.
Father Brian O'Shea, Essex
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