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The groper I resisted, but not the rum baba and cream

Published 4 June 2006
News Review
672nd article

Winner and Paola in West Hill, Hitchin, where he once lived (Thomas Kelly)

In 1941 my family moved to Hitchin in Hertfordshire. We originally evacuated from London to Cheltenham where my parents wanted me to study at Cheltenham College.

The bursar said: "I'm afraid the Jewish quota is full." My mother responded: "I thought that's what we were fighting the war about."

This made zero impression on the bursar. So I was sent to a bizarre, vegetarian, Quaker co-educational place in Letchworth which served grass from the cricket pitch. We lived, for a while, in Hitchin, the next town.

Telling you my "quota" story reminds me of my friend Michael Broke, pronounced Brook. Very clipped British accent, very posh. He was senior executive for the property developer Elliott Bernerd.

A few years ago Elliott bought Wentworth golf club. Michael Broke went to check it out. He asked about their members. "We have a few Jews," said a club official, "but we don't want any more." "You've got another one now," said Michael, "he just bought the place."

Wentworth was recently sold to Richard Caring, who acquired the Ivy, Le Caprice, J Sheekey and Daphne's.

I went back to Hitchin a few weeks ago because Paola the Princess resides there.

Our photo shows us in West Hill where I once lived. It was taken by Thomas Kelly, who appeared with a skateboard. "You'll get a credit in The Sunday Times," I told him. "Wicked," he replied.

I shouted: "How old are you?" as he went off down a side street. But he didn't hear. "About 16," suggested Princess.

Hitchin is where I was first importuned by a man. It was in the Regal cinema while watching Gary Cooper and Paulette Goddard in Cecil B DeMille's Unconquered. The man put his hand on my thigh and made a disgraceful suggestion. Like the film I remained unconquered.

Hitchin was a pleasant town then, as it is today. They're very honest. I left the keys in my Saab convertible as I had lunch and no one nicked it! There are some nice old houses. Down a cobbled street off the attractive main square is Just 32. Unsurprisingly at No 32. Princess recommended it.

We passed Pizza Express. "Very good," said Princess, "very fresh because they keep it nice and clean."

Just 32 is oak-beamed and olde worlde. The manager, Lockman Uddim, is exemplary.

He told me the place was built in 1600. It's a pleasing room, hoop chairs, wooden floor, yellow cloths. Every table adorned by a sunflower.

Princess ordered roasted sea bass. She liked it. "I'll have the slowly pan fried duck breast with dauphinoise potatoes and a red compote port dressing," I announced. "Any preference how you'd like that cooked, sir?" asked Lockman. "I don't want it pink. Pink duck doesn't amuse me," I advised.

I started with corn and lemongrass soup served with sesame seed puff and finished with coriander oil.

"This soup would be a credit to any restaurant anywhere," I dictated into my tape.

It could have been a bit hotter. The duck was overcooked. Probably because I'd asked for it that way by mistake. The sauce was good. The carrots and cauliflower tasted like the real, chemical-free veg I ate during the war.

They had rum baba with roast peaches in syrup and chantilly cream, made on the premises. That's an old-fashioned dessert. It was fine.

Talking about Richard Caring, when I was at the Ivy recently they were a bit apprehensive. Jeremy King and Christopher Corbin, who made Le Caprice, the Ivy and J Sheekey what they are, and then sold out and opened the Wolseley, are planning an October opening for their new restaurant, Rex, in Regent Street.

Chris and Jeremy are about the only restaurateurs I know who wouldn't be more at home behind a barrow. The general manager of the Ivy, Mitchell Everard, jumped ship to join them. Ditto one of the senior managers.

The Ivy is still wonderful, but I wasn't amused with the way they handled my booking.

I always fax requesting my usual table. They fax back: "Yes." This time someone called Ben phoned my PA and said: "I'll do my best." Those words fill me with terror. They mean absolutely nothing. So I phoned to check if I had the table or not. A charming lady said: "Of course you do."

"Then why wasn't I told?" I asked. "I'll have a few words with Ben whoever when I come in."

When I entered a few hours later the senior staff were giggling. "Ben nearly had a breakdown," they said. "Where is he?" I asked. "He's been transferred to Daphne's," they replied. "Good," I said, "I never go there."

Winner's letters

In refusing the OBE Winner is to be congratulated in raising the art of pomposity to new heights. Should he have a memorial?
Alan Fairweather, Edinburgh

I didn't realise Goering's tailor was still in business until last week's photo of you arresting two servants of the Ritz hotel.
Bryan Oates, London

At home you glug four bottles of Chateau Latour 61 without letting them breathe, you turn your nose up at a good sirloin and bemoan the absence of treacle sponge at the Ritz, having shown up dressed as a limousine driver without a cap. In your spare time you sell car insurance. Dropping its Sunday lunch price by £10 seems to be attracting an undesirable class to one of London's grand hotels.
John Frame, London

I never thought I'd agree with Mr Winner but he was correct when he said "rubbish are getting awards for non-service to the nation". I can think of several knighthoods in that category. He said the OBE was for toilet cleaners - they're more deserving than Michael. Restaurateurs must cringe when he strolls in. I never miss his column, though.
Janet Adey, Worcestershire

Let us celebrate the "toilet cleaners". By the way, the "rubbish who are getting these awards" referred to by Winner, tend to get something grander than an OBE.
Alastair Montgomery OBE, Occasional toilet cleaner, Isle of Man

So you declined the Old Big 'Ead. Huge and deep respect to you. My late uncle turned down a knighthood on the basis that knights rode horses and he considered them smelly and dangerous creatures.
Michael Latham, Marbella

I'm a little Irish granny and my heart goes out to Mr Winner. There he is traipsing round the country looking for a decent Sunday lunch. Here I am in my garden, blue sky, birds singing, enjoying a traditional roast beef. The apple pie in the oven is almost ready. I'd sit Michael down to a hearty meal, real food, perfectly cooked. No beetroot biscotti nonsense, no Bentley parking, no Uriah Heep doing a jig round the front door. Will someone take him and feed him, for God's sake! I can't bear the misery of his Sundays.
Lorna Vinall, Dublin

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