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One gastropub door closes . . . and another one opens

Published 7 May 2006
News Review
668th article

Michael with Toby, the owner, left, and staff at the Brocket Arms (Paola Lombard)

I wanted to go to the Brocket Arms in Ayot St Lawrence in Hertfordshire. The Princess (aka Paola Lombard) fancied the White Horse in nearby Harpenden, latest location for Jean-Christophe Novelli, a man I've avoided following my visit nine years ago to his restaurant in Clerkenwell.

This was so awful I was photographed outside with both thumbs turned down. Since then that place, and various other Novelli restaurants, closed for lack of public support. Recently he was fired from Brocket Hall, according to the owners, for not being in the kitchen enough. Novelli disputes this.

Being a gent I bowed to Paola's wishes. I arrived at the White Horse to find a depressed Princess sitting on a ghastly paved area facing a busy road and a car park.

"It looks like a Little Chef," she said plaintively.

"You're being kind," I replied. I wandered into the restaurant. It was Ikea on a bad day.

"This is going to be worse than I imagined," I thought.

But God was on my side. He rescued me! A highly embarrassed restaurant manager said Novelli did not wish to serve me. It was all a set-up.

As I left a photographer had been called to record my departure. Novelli issued a press release saying nine years earlier I'd insulted his staff! I've met him a number of times since, even sat at the same dinner table. He never mentioned this. It was just a desperate attempt to drum up publicity. Novelli should get a life.

A local journalist, who rang me for comment, had been to the White Horse. She and her friends hated it. Sunday Times readers Malcolm Jacobs and Janice Lawson e-mailed, "We'd like to agree with your opinion of Novelli's restaurants. They've all been rubbish."

Now liberated, I drove the short distance to the 14th-century Brocket Arms. Ayot St Lawrence is where Paola walks when she has problems. And she's had a few. Even before meeting me.

A nice girl behind the bar said, "You can only have baguettes. The kitchen’s overstretched."

I strolled into the kitchen. Two men were working and a very pretty girl, who looked 10 years old, was taking plates out.

"Good morning," I said, "I'm Michael Winner." With these magic words Toby Wingfield-Digby, the boss, agreed to let me have proper food.

On a counter were two stews with filo pastry on top.

"I'll have one of those," I said. Toby advised one was venison, one steak and kidney. The "waitress", Bethany, was the daughter of Colin who was helping Toby.

We went into a lovely garden and sat in the sun on a bench near a flowering cherry tree. My pie or stew (whichever) arrived with boiled potatoes and peas.

"Is it venison?" I asked Ben who brought it.

"I just deliver the food," he replied.

Bethany moved like lightning carrying five plates at a time.

"They keep the staff numbers down," observed Princess.

"If I employed her I could fire six people," I mused. The venison was delicious. Tender with a lovely sauce. Very good vegetables. Princess declared her salad excellent.

I returned to the kitchen where Toby recommended home-made apple crumble with ice cream.

"What make?" I asked.

"Wall's," advised Toby. I like Wall's.

A lady with a turban, Sandra, was helping out. It was a delightfully unpretentious family atmosphere. The crumble was terrific.

Afterwards Princess and I walked in the village. There were lovely old houses. A sign read, "Private, no admittance". I walked in. A lady was cutting a bush.

"We've just been to the Brocket Arms," I explained. "It wasn't historic was it?" said the lady, obviously a reader. "Delightful and pleasant," I said.

Then we found a fantastic 18th-century house. The sort I see in Country Life, decide to buy, and then don't.

An elderly couple were washing up. The woman observed, "I suppose because you're Michael Winner you think you can walk in here as you like."

"More or less," I replied cheerfully. Her husband had been a colonel in the Coldstream Guards. They were Jacqueline and Andrew Duncan. "I met you when you were skinny," Jacqueline said.

"I am skinny. I've lost two and a half stone," I responded.

"No, really skinny. You made a film in my house in Chelsea," said Jacqueline. This was true. Oliver Reed, Michael Crawford, Rachel Kempson and Edward Fox sat at her dining table.

The Duncans kindly asked us for coffee on the paved terrace. Jacqueline had spent 30 years perfecting her garden, which was delightfully understated and very English. She runs a school for Garden design in Pimlico.

Thus I was not only saved, but had a lovely time. Proof that virtuous people get what they deserve.

Winner's letters

No wonder Simpson's manager and chef looked worried in the picture (Winner's Dinners, April 23), with Michael Winner the only one smiling! Mr Winner comes across as an arrogant, self-centred and often wrongly opinionated critic. I've eaten at Simpson's for 50 years and have always found the food to be of a very high standard. I further believe that any gentleman who doesn’t wear a tie is quite simply insulting his tailor.
Stuart Rochester, Northamptonshire

I agree with you about Simpson's. I took some American visitors and was ashamed of the food. I'll show them your article.
Tim Spurrier, Norfolk

Your article about Simpson's was refreshing. At first one is tempted to think you're being priggish putting chef Paul Muddiman in his place, but he was a prat to sit down uninvited. He sounds like an overinflated big head.
Brian Bale, St Albans

The image of Michael Winner at Simpson's gluttonously devouring beef, lamb and treacle tart with syrup while his companion picks miserably at salad and an inedible vegetarian dish will long remain with me. Wonderful, priceless stuff!
Michael Aylmer, Glasgow

I was listening to an American public broadcasting interview with Jeff Goldblum in which he spoke movingly about your directorial style. Jeff mentioned that you were dead. Perhaps your weekly column is "ghost" written?
Simon Teager, Houston, Texas

Richard Affleck, landlord of the Boot Inn, Houghton, Hampshire is a grumpy old man you'd like. We waited 15 minutes to place an order while his staff had a dispute with another customer. He asked me to keep our 20-month-old toddler quiet and not to give her toys she could bang on the high chair he had provided. When l expressed surprise at his attitude l was told we could leave as he could fill the table three times over. You two would get on admirably.
Sally Siddle, London

I heard you say on the radio your eternal regret was you didn't tell your father how much you loved him before he died. Don't make the same mistake with the present holder(s) of your affection.
Dennis Pallis, Kent

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