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Hardly fit for a king, and not fit for me either

Published 2 August 2005
News Review
632nd article

Michael with Peter and Louise Robinson outside the Kings Arms (Paola Lombard)

My friend the distinguished interior decorator Richard Hanlon is normally highly reliable when recommending Cotswold restaurants. He assured me the Kings Arms in Stow-on-the-Wold was excellent. It wasn't.

It's an inn with rooms in the main square of a quaint little town. The background music was Dean Martin. If you must have piped music Dean's the best person to pipe. "He's singing You're Nobody 'til Somebody Loves You," Paola said, looking meaningfully at me.

The restaurant is on the first floor. Olde worlde with some ghastly modern paintings and a large cluster of wine racks. Richard explained: "You go and see the wine and choose what you want. It's quite fun." "I can't imagine anything less fun," I thought.

We were greeted by an over-chummy Australian waiter. I ordered a Pimm's. Paola got an orange juice that was not freshly squeezed. I noticed some Chinese people who'd come in after me being served Coca-Cola and other drinks. The Australian asked: "Would you like to look at the menu?" "Excuse me," I said somewhat icily, "I ordered a Pimm's. You've done nothing about it." The Australian rushed off. He'd forgotten it.

He returned and Paola drank a bit of my Pimm's. "Bloody hell!" she exclaimed. It was absolutely awful. A hundred per cent disaster. Richard tasted it and said: "I think it was made with soda water." The Australian assured me it was made with lemonade. "Did you actually see lemonade put in?" I asked. "We have lemonade from a piped thing so it may be weak," explained the Australian. Whatever its constituent ingredients, I gave it back.

My first course was Oddington asparagus, poached egg and parmesan. The asparagus was vastly undercooked. The water was Hildon. The label described it as "delightfully still". "Horribly still" would have been more suitable.

Richard said: "Breast of duck's very good." Wrong again, Richard. It was horrific.

Tough, chewy slices that were beyond belief awful. The manager of the place, Louise Robinson (her husband, Peter, was the chef), asked: "Did you like it?" I said: "Not much." Louise took the plate away. I'd also asked for apple sauce but they didn't have any.

Paola had roast turbot, which was absurdly overcooked. It was dry and flaky. No juiciness at all. She left most of it. "This is a seriously horrible meal," I observed. Richard greatly liked his pork chop. "Would you like some?" he asked.

"No thank you," I replied.

The Australian non-genius serving us let my glass of ice melt without replacing it. We entered the place at 1pm. "It's now 11 minutes to 3 and we haven't even got our desserts," I commented, "we're only trying to have a three-course meal!" "They seem quite slow," admitted Richard. "That's an understatement," I murmured. I kept looking at the door through which the food was coming, in the hope someone would appear with mine.

Eventually we received Carole's rhubarb crumble, Carole being a customer. The rhubarb was apparently from her garden. This bordered on historic.

Paola's white chocolate tart and raspberries was also terrific. Richard had meringue. That was tip-top too. So we ended on a high note.

  • Richard made up for his below-par recommendation with two mini triumphs. One was a tea shop in his home town, Burford, the Copper Kettle, owned by Eleanor Gibbs who cooks fantastic cakes and biscuits and things. At least one daughter serves in the tea room.

    I say "at least one" because I didn't have my tape recorder with me. If I don't have the tape, half an hour later I seldom know where I went, what I ate, whom I met or even what planet I'm on. But I'm certain everything at the Copper Kettle was wonderful.

  • Richard's second success was the Daylesford Farm Shop near Kingham in Gloucestershire. It's owned by my friend Lady Carole Bamford who lives round there. Her husband does something strange with earth-moving vehicles. They have by far the best house in Barbados.

    This is a fantastic shop. It's got everything - garden stuff, flowers, a tea service area, an interior restaurant. It sells almond croissants, organic pain au chocolat, organic apricot Danish, salads, all sorts of meat. Paola bought foccacia and some organic Earl Grey tea fruit cake at £1.60 a slice. I'm told you can get Daylesford Farm produce in Selfridges.

    For dinner I had their foccacia with tomatoes and olive oil (bought there), which Paola knocked up. It was absolutely great. The girl's a marvel in the kitchen.

  • PS: If you plan a meal at the Kings Arms, be aware that shortly after my recent visit Louise and Peter Robinson decided to leave. I have that effect on people. They go! They're now running a restaurant nearby called the Old Butchers.

    Winner's letters

    You said last week Le Raisin was owned by "a chubby Swiss chef, Adolfo Blokbergen". Sounds like the souffle calling the sponge soft to me.
    Tom Howard, London.

    You reported last week you first visited Switzerland in 1946 and directed a film for the Swiss Tourist Office. Yet you still don't know there is no Lake Geneva! The lake is Lac Leman.
    Mike Vandy, Watford.

    It wasn't just loud Americans causing a disturbance round the pool at the hotel Splendido (Winner's Dinners, last week). Michael Winner's snoring at the poolside restaurant after lunch added to the noise!
    Caroline and Damon Heath Kent.

    You seem to use the same word weekly to describe your favourite dining experience - historic. Come on Michael's vocabulary - we know you're better than that. You're prehistoric!
    Nick Davies, Cheshire.

    At the Red Lion Hotel, Salisbury, we were served cold food on cold plates; both should have been hot. There was just one saucer with veg for two people. Someone in charge said: "I had no idea this was happening!"
    CJ and M Standerlane, West Sussex.

    At Carluccio's in Hampstead we ordered red wine, got white. We ordered sparkling water, got still. Ordered pan-fried liver and it was tough as shoe leather. Was this a Candid Camera programme? The couple at the next table had to do without their starters. Mr Carluccio should invest in some pens for his waiters or teach them how to write.
    Rick Bakker, Surrey.

    As a Cambridge law graduate Michael Winner must have a serviceable set of synapsing neurones so surely can't be the obsessive, inconsistent, boorish over-opinionated, bombastic, ill-dressed, overweight, name-dropping, napkin waving attention-seeker that he gleefully paints himself as being. But could I be wrong?
    Robert Randell, London.

    My son Tim with his wife and children were at Puny in Portofino (Winner's Dinners, last week) when Michael Winner arrived. His favourite table was taken. Mr Winner didn't complain. Tim phoned me full of admiration for Mr Winner's restraint and good behaviour throughout the evening.
    Clyde Malby, 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