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Give me a pub lunch over 'fine dining' any day

Published 16 July 2006
News Review
678th article



Michael with staff at the simple yet ambitious Bull of Cottered (Paola Lombard)

I do end up in strange places. It maybe pushing it to call the Bull of Cottered strange. But then I'm used to Kensington High Street.

This bull is in Hertfordshire, near Buntingford. I went for lunch one Saturday. Pubs, restaurants and hotels outside London usually don't offer Saturday lunch. That's bizarre.

The Bull is open seven days a week. I mention that in case you get lost and end up at Cottered. If you do you'll get a perfectly good meal.

Their card announces, "Relaxed fine dining". "Fine dining" are two words I detest. They're so pretentious.

The Bull itself is a straightforward English pub with a highly ambitious menu. I can't be bothered to detail it because that would take forever. It's the sort of menu you might find in Mayfair. Being a poor boy from Willesden I kept things simple.

I ordered French onion soup with a cheese crouton. I was wavering between the fresh Dover sole at £17.50 (I've never seen anyone advertise a stale Dover sole) and the fillet of pork stuffed with smoked bacon and cheddar and roasted in herb breadcrumbs, when Princess (Paola Lombard to you) drew my attention to the home-made beefburgers.

Our waitress, Nadine, tried to be helpful. "My husband always has the sole," she advised.

"Where is he?" I asked.

"I'm afraid I don't know where he is," said Nadine. That did it. I chose a burger with mature cheddar and bacon (£6.75), having been assured the local butcher personally minced the beef.

I'd already had an excellent Pimm's with fruit and cucumber in it.

"I knew there was some mint in the garden, I just didn't know where," said Nadine, arriving at the last minute with a generous supply.

The soup was fine, very French. Princess had a bowl with lots of different olives and then a jacket potato with butter and an enormous salad.

My hamburger was a bit too well done. I should have asked for it to be rare. But it was okay and the new potatoes with it were superb.

I went mad and ordered four desserts. A sticky date cake, a "luxury" bread and butter pudding, an apple and raspberry crumble, a vanilla ice cream and a chocolate chip ice cream. You can see I'm on a diet.

"Are the ice creams made here?" I asked Nadine.

"Darren used to make his own ice cream then a law was passed saying you had to have a licence to make ice cream. So he gave the ice cream machine to his mother," explained Nadine. "Now they come from Belgium." I wasn't aware you needed a licence to make ice cream, but they're very nice people. I'll believe anything.

I only ate a bit of each dessert. The date cake was best because it's very difficult to do and theirs was perfect. All the rest were good.

As I left Darren, the boss, said, "In the evenings cloth napkins come out."

"It wouldn't have killed you to bring one out for me," I responded. "I had to put up with a ghastly red paper thing!"

Last weekend I had an extremely depressing telephone talk with Rachel Lewis, restaurant manager of Petersham Nurseries Cafe. I'd been twice for lunch. Once on a weekday, once on Sunday. Both times at the same table. Rachel wasn't there.

"I think we're full," she said at first, later adding, "but you can eat at your usual table. The rest of the service is outside!"

"You mean I'll be in the nursery (that's a garden nursery not a kiddie-one, which I'm more suited to) while everyone else eats outside? That's odd. When I was last there on Sunday people were lunching inside and out."

"I'll check to see if there's space," said Rachel.

I would not describe her manner as welcoming. It was frosty and unpleasant. Strange, everyone else there's a delight.

Rachel called back. "You can sit outside," she announced.

"Not at a tiny table, please," I asked.

"We'll find one bigger than the normal two table," said Rachel, as if this was all unbelievably tiresome. I now await a thousand letters saying, "And who can blame her!"

"Thanks," I replied to Rachel. "If the table's too small, I'll sit at my usual one inside."

"That's not normal," responded Rachel, very tetchily indeed.

"Just a minute," I thought. "Who said I was normal? And it was your idea anyway! You offered me the inside table only four minutes ago!"

Shortly thereafter I cancelled. At my replacement restaurant I told their superb manager about my talk with Rachel.

"I've met her. She's not very charming is she?" he said.

See, I'm not alone in spotting negatives!



Winner's letters

We sat next to Michael Winner at the Hotel Villa Serbelloni. I can't agree with him about the food. What we had was not what I'd expect from a deluxe hotel. I had great expectations but it didn't come up to standard.
Brigitte Smith, Hertfordshire

My wife and I have visited Hotel Villa Serbelloni for 10 years and we've never seen the manager! We weren't sure he really existed. But Michael's experience demonstrates he does. Perhaps it would be better if he didn't! We're going back in September. We'll let you know if the manager is any more visible.
John and Pat Simms, Oxford

Writing about Hotel Villa Serbelloni (Winner's Dinners, July 2) you said you were not a tourist who'd fallen off the turnip truck. What's wrong with tourists? Or turnip trucks for that matter? Don't you think there are those among readers of The Sunday Times? Or is it only read by flashy types who feel emasculated when they're not throwing their weight about?
Charles de Brosses, Devon

Where are the Saab convertible passenger lights supposed to be? (Winner's Dinners, June 25). My husband who is from Radlett thinks you're horrific. I think you're historic and the first thing I turn to on Sunday morning while he's playing golf! It's our secret.
Fiona Rosenberg Buckinghamshire

Your article last week on Madisons Deli was pure, vintage Winner. I certainly wouldn't like to think of you as anti-semitic. A snob: definitely. Over full of your own importance: without doubt. But "tolerant" as you described yourself? In the immortal words of John McEnroe: "You cannot be serious."
Michael Fishman, Finchley

Your visit to Madisons after a funeral was most appropriate. The place is normally dead, reminiscent of a morgue. Food, comfort and ambience at its rival, Harry Morgan, is like comparing chalk and cheese. Perhaps you enjoy eating chalk?
Charles Stone, Temple Fortune

As a vegetarian who loves eating out I take exception to being labelled an "attention seeker" by correspondent Jonathan Simms last week. I can think of nothing more attention seeking than trying to get a letter printed in your wonderful column.
Alex Graham, Easter Ross

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