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Can't say I enjoyed it without the bit on the side

Published 25 September 2005
News Review
637th article

Michael with Patrick Debuire and Estelle Wicky at La Reserve (Roger Heyd)

It's sad when a place of incomparable quality, a hotel I've recommended as the best in the world, produces not just a damp squib, but a monstrous carbuncle.

This happened on my recent visit to La Reserve de Beaulieu on the Cote d'Azur. I still massively recommend La Reserve. One gargantuan blip does not wipe out its overall qualities.

I'd gone to the south of France for a few days without the indelibly lovely Paola.

She was recuperating from her operation. I was joining friends. Before you comment: "How cruel to leave her at such a time," when I telephoned to say: "Darling, I'm back on Saturday to look after you," Paola replied: "Can't you stay another week?"

I sat down for lunch in the pool restaurant looking at the marvellous bay. The normal restaurant manager, Roger Heyd, was off. In charge was Thierry di Tullio, whose grand title is "first maitre d'hotel".

I was with my executive assistant, Mrs Lagoudakos, who came for three days. There was work to do. First they bring bread but no butter. So I get up and ask for butter. Then they offer no black pepper for Mrs L's salad nicoise, something they always do. I get up again for that.

Then I notice there's no mayonnaise with my club sandwich. This is not normal. La Reserve's club sandwich is historic. Its price has risen to £44. Well worth it. As long as they bring the mayonnaise. Again, I had to get up and ask. Ditto the tomato ketchup for my chips.

Then, the coup de grace. Mrs Lagoudakos is eating her salad nicoise (£35, if you must know) when she says: "Don't they serve a vinaigrette dressing with this?"

"Always," I respond.

"There isn't any," says Mrs L.

Once again I interrupt my lunch to get it. Here's the most unbelievable, arrogant piece of the story. The first maitre d'hotel, Thierry di Tullio, doesn't apologise. He attacks. He says: "How do I know you want these things if you don't ask for them?"

"Excuse me," I say, attempting to remain calm, "do you not always serve mayonnaise automatically with your club sandwich?"

"Yes," agrees M di Tullio.

"Do you not always offer guests vinaigrette with their salad nicoise?"

"Yes," says M di Tullio. And thus it went on through all five items. He's a great letdown to the other excellent staff is the first maitre d'hotel.

The two-Michelin-starred Olivier Brulard is brilliant and the most hardworking chef I've come across. His provencal ravioli in garlic broth with snails and frog's legs was fantastic. His spit-roasted pigeon served with cooked fruits, stratospheric.

Roger Heyd went through a brief blank period when I was dating the ex-kick-boxing champion of Hungary. She wanted mashed potatoes. Roger never wrote it down, so they didn't appear. I bought him a gold embossed pad from Smythson's of Bond Street inscribed from me to him. Since then he's been on top form.

The concierge, Patrick Debuire, is one of the best ever. He has a quiet, charming manner. He's super-efficient. The wine waiter, Jean-Louis Valla, knows everything that's going on everywhere. He's a wonderfully large Dickensian character, offering low-key winks and smiles. The hotel manager, Estelle Wicky, is charm itself and very thorough.

But largely missing, on this trip, was the owner, Jean-Claude Delion. He's one of the great hoteliers of the world with immaculate taste and professional beyond belief. But he hasn't been too well. The saying "when the cat is away the mice will play" applies. In the case of M di Tullio not "play" but "run amok".

Nevertheless, go to La Reserve for sure. A famous television celebrity and a distinguished theatrical impresario were there on my recommendation and loved it.

If di Tullio's on duty, take your own tomato ketchup, mayonnaise, vinaigrette dressing, butter and black pepper.

Now from the Mediterranean to the Caribbean. At the Sandy Lane, Barbados, the hotel boss, Colm Hannon, has been followed by Michael Pownall from the superb Orient Express group. Colm, normally very good, ended on a sour note. Last year he let in endless cruise ship bores and general yobbos. Thus a major television star was so hassled he's not going back. Ditto a famous singer-musician.

These two exceptionally pleasant people, with their families, were the mainstay of my social life. I am bereft! The rooms will be re-let. But the ethos and balance of the hotel will not recover.

So, Mr Pownall, please get things organised. Protect your guests, paying a fortune, from intruders who in theory are not let in. Come Christmas and New Year I'll be watching closely and making my views known! Even though it did no good last time!

Winner's letters

It was with some relief I read last week of how you found restaurants here in the north overpriced and full of noisy, poorly dressed patrons. In particular I tip my hat to Crabwall Manor for the "surly and appalling" service you were made to endure. Hopefully the experience will prevent you from straying north of Watford Gap ever again.
Jason Benskin, Nottingham

What an extraordinary demonstration of teamwork and devotion to duty. Paola agrees to a major operation at the London Clinic so that Michael can get to grips with the grub.
Laurence Scales, Liverpool.

Getting a girl a Bupa upgrade (Winner's Dinners, last week), that's pure class. I could overlook your shirts for this. Should I ever have to use my local Nuffield hospital in the future I'd like you to phone ahead.
Heather Tanner, Suffolk

I had to look twice at the London Clinic photo. I thought you and Paola were on the set of Holby City such is the likeness of Celeste to Connie Beauchamp! Perhaps the food would have been better at Holby.
Roger Gullen, Hertfordshire

If Celeste is "particularly posh" as you described her in last week's piece, then you must be "nouveau posh". Only recently posh people marvel as much at older, more genuine, posh.
Ann McCann, East Sussex

After reading some of the letters attacking you, I wanted to say something positive. Your column is one of the highlights of my week. If I had to pick one person I'd like to share a table with for dinner, you'd be top of the list.
Ashley Beaton, Grimsby

I ordered a pork chop at Heston Blumenthal's Hinds Head in Bray. Not a challenging dish even for a budding amateur. It arrived bloody and raw. I sent it back. It returned more cooked, but still rare. The manageress explained: "Chef refuses to cook it more as we serve pork chops medium." I suggest Blumenthal sorts out his expensive new toy. In the meantime Bray residents and the rest of the world best avoid this arrogant pub.
Angus Drever, Bray

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