Just a short hop from the ridiculous to the sublime
Published 3 September 2006 News Review 685th article
Geraldine and Michael at the hotel Monaco & Grand Canal (Chloe Wilde)
In June 1994 a strange woman called Lady Rose Lauritzen, married to a dour American expert on Venice, recommended the hotel Monaco & Grand Canal. Rose lives in Venice and assured me it was where the Venetians went for quality and value. I trotted along and hated it.
Recently a famous Italian clothes designer, one with his name on shops all over the world, advised a friend of mine, "The best place in Venice, where all the Venetians go, is the hotel Monaco & Grand Canal." Muggins fell for it (again!) and wasted another evening.
The Monaco is on the Grand Canal, just across a tiny alley from my favourite restaurant in the world, Harry's Bar. It has a terrace with a splendid view of the church of Santa Maria della Salute, a 17th-century Venetian landmark. There's a large oil painting of it in my dining room.
If you want to see the real thing, go there. If you want good food and ambience, don't.
As for being the Venetians' favourite place: on one side of us were eight people from Harrogate. Their daughter, Chloe, kindly took our photo. On the other side, four elderly Jews from north London talked about Marks & Spencer.
All the diners at the Monaco looked as if they'd come off a tourist bus. Except me and Geraldine, looking elegant as ever. Venetians were not to be seen. They were somewhere else. I don't blame them.
The service was very good. The exemplary assistant restaurant manager, Stoppa di Patrizio, was in charge. He placed us "on the rail", as the Americans say, facing bobbing gondolas and the church.
We started with a bellini made with fresh peach juice. It was a bit muddy. The bellini was invented next door at Harry's Bar. There it's made with tinned white peach juice, but tastes better. It's got more definition.
My white bread roll was so hard it was unbreakable. Geraldine offered me a cut up baguette with herbs in it. "This one's better," she said. As neither of us had eaten mine I wondered how she knew.
"This would be a romantic time to go on a gondola," observed Geraldine. "We've just sat down and ordered our wine, so it's not," I responded, with churlish lack of grace.
The still water was Lora from Recoaro. "It's a very good year," said the wine waiter, noticing me taste it. Bit of Italian wit there.
My starter was called Scorpion fish. Stoppa recommended it and I agreed because I'm a Scorpio. It was beyond belief terrible. Five small pieces of white fish, each cooked in different herbs, with balls of melon between them.
Not a patch on the little local shrimps I'd eaten at Harry's Bar the previous night. They were historic.
At the Monaco we had yellow linguine with something. It didn't matter what, it was so awful. Geraldine and I left nearly all of it. "It's rare to get bad pasta in Italy," observed Geraldine. I was almost speechless.
A very large fish arrived for our main course, baked in salt, which was then knocked off in great chunks. It was good, no doubt of that. The green salad with it was limp.
The sky was darkening. The church on the other side of the canal was floodlit. A stunning sight. "They've just emptied the sewers," said Geraldine sniffing. You seldom smell anything in Venice. This pong didn't last. I requested the bill as I didn't trust the dessert situation.
"Is the service on?" I asked.
Stoppa replied, "If you mean a tip, it's up to you." The service was on. I consider that a tip.
I fled across the alley to Harry's Bar. There, from my usual corner, I observed the ballet of waiters wending their way brilliantly between the closely packed tables in the downstairs bar. That's the only place to sit.
There were Italians to the left of me, Italians to the right of me. Arrigo Cipriani, the 75-year-old, immaculately dressed owner, greets every guest. To see him work the room is to observe one of the greatest ever masters of the restaurant game.
I ordered crepes. The waiter lit them at my table. Enormous flames roared into the air. They nearly killed six people. Startled diners at tables nearby turned to look, ready to run if things got out of control. I scoffed my perfect crepes with an excellent vanilla ice cream.
You want great food in Venice, go to Harry's Bar. You want tourists from the north of England and north London -eat poorly at the Monaco & Grand Canal.
The world expert on everything has spoken. Let common folk take note.
Last week's call by Dennis Pallis for a restaurant exclusively for children has been anticipated by the Ivy where every mealtime there's enough preening, pouting and shouting to make the average kindergarten canteen look like a Trappist refectory. The Ivy is agony.
Michael Cole, Suffolk
You wrote on July 2 about the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni on Lake Como, saying the manager never greeted anyone. We've been there for three years and this year, for the first time, he actually greeted people at the entrance to the restaurant. He'd obviously read your column! In all our visits the chief concierge only spoke to us twice, once asking me to translate some writing on a laundry bag and once because the general manager was present.
Julie Hudson, Rochdale
The second-hand delights Mr Winner offers us every Sunday could more properly be called "The pleasures of the flash"!
Andrew Kirby, Herefordshire
In the past you've loomed large in the centre foreground of each week's photo. Recently I note your position half a mile back from everybody else, almost disappearing into distant trees, holding your breath in. Of course you look slim!
Chris Brockley, Bristol
We found this picture (below centre) advertising Sainsbury's in Aberdeen. We think it's Michael - can you confirm this?
Lucy and Stuart Danning, Aberdeenshire
This time Michael's on the left
I was away on holiday last week so I couldn't jump to your defence when you were accused of looking like Barbara Cartland, and now Robert Randell thinks you look like Mao Tse-tung! So disrespectful, everyone knows your "separated at birth lookalike" is Sir Les Patterson (below right).
Rupert Wyatt, Surrey
Last week Paola Lombard said that MW was MW's favourite subject. I can prove that he is totally in love with himself. I recently saw him walking down Lover's Lane. He was holding his own hand!
Robert Randell, London
Send letters to Winner's Dinners, The Sunday Times, 1 Pennington Street, London E98 1ST or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org