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Bizarre combinations aside, it's still paradise here

Published 15 January 2006
News Review
652nd article

Michael with, from left, Millar, and managers Pownall and Peters (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)

Oscar Wilde wrote: "To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness."

What might Oscar have said about the Sandy Lane hotel, Barbados? Since last year they've lost their general manager, Colm Hannon, to Ireland; their executive chef, Richard Ekkebus, to Hong Kong; a sous chef, Max Sciuto, to Monte Carlo; their pastry chef, Jean-Luc Vila, went I know not where; and, most significantly for me, the beaming, burly Bajan Blue restaurant manager, Franklyn Browne, quit.

So where I was cossetted by four chefs and one superb restaurant boss I was reduced to two chefs - the admirable Didier Jacob (soon leaving!) and pastry chef Bernard Charles.

Marcel Driessen, the new executive chef, should star in a remake of The Invisible Man. His predecessor, Richard Ekkebus, helped host the room as well as being a culinary heavyweight. Driessen, when present, looked into space as if meeting a guest was like a silver cross to a vampire.

To his credit, the food remained excellent. Even though occasionally bizarre. One lunch had chicken and shrimp curry as the main hot dish. That night the Indian buffet featured beef curry plus the chicken and shrimp.

"Why serve curry for both lunch and dinner?" I asked Mr Driessen.

He thought. Then responded absurdly: "It wasn't curry at lunch!"

"I'm not very bright," I confessed, "but I can recognise curry. It's one of my few food abilities." Thereafter the will to communicate abandoned me.

Another distinguished guest remarked (note I include myself as "distinguished"): "The food's fine but Driessen's no good at mix and match." Who else would serve roast duck without apple sauce? Or have a lobster barbecue with the only sauces on offer: tomato ketchup, mustard, barbecue sauce and hot Bajan sauce! No sign of butter or garlic butter, the normal accompaniments.

A good manager is desperately needed for the beachside Bajan Blue restaurant. My regular choice for breakfast, lunch and dinner. They produced an English lady, Helen McBride, who might, if she tried hard, manage a tea shop in Norfolk. One guest commented, unkindly but accurately: "It looked like her clothes came from Oxfam on a bad day."

The first evening Helen asked: "Is there anything you want, Mr Winner?"

"At breakfast I always have orange and grapefruit slices," I replied. They're normally beautifully displayed in circles on the plate. The next morning I got just grapefruit, which looked as if it had been tipped from a tin.

In contrast Bajan Blue's chef, Didier Jacob, produced Alaskan wild salmon, which was the best I've ever tasted; also luscious Kobe beef from Japan and other greats. Sous chef Reginald Sealy did a marvellous cottage pie.

Pastry chef Bernard Charles a spectacular treacle sponge pudding, a delicious jam tart, sensational mince pies and, daily, a lovely fruit jelly. As you can see, I'm a highly sophisticated eater.

The new chief executive, Michael Pownall, improved as time went on. He's the only hotel manager for decades not to be in the lobby to greet me on arrival. He came late and out of breath. A day later I was sitting at lunch and Pownall saw me from the bar. He never came over. He was dreadful at greeting the guests.

I said: "Mr Pownall, I made the movie Death Wish. You obviously want to live it. Do you not think your job includes walking around as a host for the guests?" For good measure I mentioned a dozen top hotel managers who do just that. Thereafter Pownall showed himself more.

The resident manager, Eric Mapp, has been at Sandy Lane for years in various capacities. He came through very well, making everyone feel welcome. And manager Henriette Peters was stunningly efficient and caring.

Best of all, the Barbadian staff are a delight. Witty, charming, friendly. Some of the white executives should learn from them. Particularly good among the waiters were Cathy-Ann Millar and a very elegant local, Nicholas Stephen. It's a great hotel with a spectacular beach.

The super-presence of the main owner, Dermot Desmond, with his lovely wife Pat and their beautifully behaved family, is the rock that holds it all together.

Dermot deals with minutiae. He doesn't lord it from a great height. He supervises in the best sense of the word. He knocked down the original hotel, involving himself in every detail of the better building that replaced it.

When he started it was like the old ad for learning the piano: "People laughed when I sat down to play . . ." They scoffed when Dermot, who'd never owned or run hotels, took over. How wrong they were! It's worth every penny of the £2,500 a night my suite alone cost! Much, much cheaper in summer. Then you can afford it.


Winner's letters

You tell us Anna has red hair and green eyes. I can tell you another thing about her: she has a poor taste in men. Or should that be a rich taste in men?
Barry Denton-MacLennan Hertfordshire

A potential girlfriend with red hair and green eyes indicates she may have a temper to go with it. I'd have thought you experienced enough fiery temperament in your last encounter. Still, what do I know?
Glenda Brett-Holt, Malta

Regarding your cold plates at Maze, why is it that plates at the humblest Chinese or Indian restaurant always arrive piping hot? Yet other places seem not to care. Perhaps cold plates are just the tip of the gastric iceberg.
Bob Osborne, West Sussex

Last week you revealed that Anna, your lunch guest at Maze, said you should have some of her starter because it was garlicky. You responded you weren't expecting an intimate moment that day so it didn't matter. Leaving aside this was more information than we needed, what if Anna was expecting such a moment? Do your female friends not get a say in such matters?
Mark Crivelli, Worcester

Mr Winner goes to Maze for lunch, experiences depression because of the decor, a cocky waitress and a chef that can't do pommes souffle. His food is cold, the waiting times unacceptable, and the dessert waiter tardy. Yet he refuses to walk out because he thinks the chef "brilliant"! You must be slipping, old boy. Or were you trying to impress Anna?
Andrew White, Somerset

We didn't find the Maze decor "actively hideous" but we did have problems finding a comfortable chair. We changed tables to avoid smokers, waitresses pushing into us and the ferocious air conditioning. The food was excellent. Service, however, was a major problem. An unacceptable 20-minute wait between most of the 12 tapas courses left our stomachs confused.
Louise Solden, Leeds

Not want seven courses, Michael - or even five as served on the chef's menu at Maze? And I was convinced your girth was due to gargantuan meals on a regular basis. What else do you put it down to then?
Mike Mogano, Solihull

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