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Nobody does British better than the foreigners

Published 27 August 2006
News Review
684th article

Chef Phil Thompson with Michael Winner and Terry Burkett (Paola Lombard)

I telephoned the Auberge du Lac near Welwyn in Hertfordshire to reserve for Sunday lunch. A woman said, "I'm not sure we have any room."

"That's odd," I thought, "either you do or you don't." Then Terry Burkett, the assistant manager, said of course they had room. Simona Brancolini, the head receptionist, e-mailed very efficient directions. Even I understood them.

Princess (aka Paola Lombard) suggested the Auberge. I'd last been in the grounds of Brocket Hall, where it's located, with Faye Dunaway, Alan Bates and John Gielgud when I shot The Wicked Lady. Sad to think the two men, both dear friends, are no longer with us.

The Auberge is like a little house with statues and tables outside and a nice view including, not surprisingly, a lake. All slightly spoiled by a clubhouse opposite. "Apparently it's Nick Faldo's golf thing," informed Princess.

"Pull it down," I suggested. The weather wasn't good enough to eat outside, but the interior's quietly elegant.

In spite of initially being told there might not be any room, there were many empty tables. Terry had been at the Ivy for four years, so he knew me. I pretended I knew him. He's very good, very welcoming. He should be promoted.

The chef, Phil Thompson, took over when Jean-Christophe Novelli was fired, or not fired, according to who you believe.

Novelli's story is like The Rake's Progress. He had four well-known, atrociously run, London restaurants. It was no surprise to me when they all closed for lack of business. Then he was an employed chef at the Auberge. Now he's something to do with a tacky pub in a far-flung place whose name I forget, which bills his presence as "A Touch of Novelli". Thus are the insignificant fallen.

The Auberge is very pleasant with a delightfully genteel clientele. It's all quintessentially British, so it was no surprise to learn it's owned by a German company based in Hong Kong. There must be something left in England owned by the English, although sometimes I doubt it.

The set lunch was £28.50 for three courses, including two glasses of wine per person, plus 10% service. Shortly after my visit they raised it £1, surely reckoning that if I'd been there it must be worth more.

After I'd declined Hildon water and been saved by Evian, they gave us really excellent canapes. A smoked salmon croissant, parmesan cheese straws and fromage de blanc mousse. I greatly liked them.

We both chose pan-seared smoked salmon, jersey royal and watercress salad with vanilla mayonnaise. It was grossly substantial for a starter, but they like a lot for their money in the suburbs. Or the stockbroker belt. Or whatever areas housing strange people are called.

There was a choice of five breads: bacon and onion, walnut and raisin, sunflower, mascarpone and chive. Main course was pan-roast fillet of haddock with sauteed greens, brown shrimps and white wine cream. Separately we ordered mashed potatoes, spring carrots and green beans. It was beautifully and speedily presented, not overdressed.

Being piggish as ever I grabbed a carrot on my fork from the bowl and dropped it into the plate of sliced lemons I always have ready.

Princess had fresh fruit, artistically laid out, for dessert. I had Grand Marnier parfait with chocolate tart and oranges in caramel. The tart was totally superb.

Close to historic.

"The tables are well spaced apart," I observed to Princess. "You can certainly hear yourself talk. It's very important when I eat I can hear myself talk, because I always say such interesting things."

"Yes, you like the sound of your own voice," added Princess. "You are your own favourite subject."

I felt like responding, "Name a better one," but modesty forbade.

Then we got eight petit fours. Princess took the biggest, chocolate with raspberry on top. I had a chocolate toffee one. "Delicious," observed Princess. "They're really fresh." It was all good.

The excellent service sadly collapsed at the end. I dropped my napkin on the floor as I was drinking my mint tea. They picked it up, and didn't replace it. So I had to wipe my lips with my fingers. This is very vulgar, but certainly not the last vulgar thing I'll do in life.

As we left I noticed six tables for two people were still empty. Yet some twit told me there may not be room when I rang to reserve.

There's no question, most restaurant employees graduate with an honours degree in stupidity. Or as Fausto Allegri, the marvellously eccentric guest relations manager at the hotel Splendido, Portofino, puts it, "The brain is optional."

Winner's letters

I don't agree with last week's correspondent Ken Thompson. Michael Winner bears no resemblance whatsoever to Barbara Cartland. He is becoming a dead ringer for Mao Tse-tung. And just as tyrannical.
Robert Randell, London

Michael is the one in the middle

Wouldn't it be wonderful if somebody opened restaurants exclusively for children and their minders? The kids could scream their heads off and we would be able to have a quiet conversation and a civilised meal.
Dennis Pallis, Kent

Neil McKellar wrote last week he was offended by a cigar smoker at the Ivy. He should have politely requested the man put the cigar out or had a word with management. I sat next to Mel Smith at the Ivy. When he lit a cigar I explained he was causing discomfort. He immediately extinguished it. I still look forward to next year's No Smoking rules.
Stanley Silver, Hertfordshire

Last week you criticised restaurant manager Rachel Lewis. Having returned from the Isle of Man I wonder if she learnt her attitude there. I've never seen such rude service. We were charged Pounds 18.50 for mushroom pancakes at La Casa. The first serving was charred beyond recognition and sent back. The second time was fine but came after my husband had finished his main course. At another restaurant a mushroom risotto suffered from lack of mushrooms but was smothered in dried parsley. I won't even start on the dirt everywhere.
Juliette Sands, Norfolk

It's very nice of you to photograph the owners, restaurant managers and waiters. But how strange they all seem to employ the same kitchen porter. He appears in every picture.
Mike Clement, Suffolk

Last week David Lowe said he gave £140 for a bill of £116 and expected change. I could understand giving £150 (3x £50 notes) or £120 (2x £50 and 1 x £20) and expecting change. But if he paid £140 with the denomination of notes available, the staff at Moss Nook in Manchester were right in assuming the difference was a tip!
Alexander Kweller, Hadley Wood

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