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An unexpected treat - eventually

Published 15 October 2006
News Review
691st article

Michael with Miguel and chef Mark (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)

I always book. I never drop into restaurants unannounced. Unless I'm on a movie location reconnaissance, then you don't know where you'll be at lunchtime.

Geraldine's plane from Milan was delayed because of "rain at Heathrow". That's a new one! So I waited for her and then we set out for Notting Hill. Lots of jolly places there.

We'd just driven past what used to be Leith's, but is now the Notting Hill Brasserie, when Geraldine spotted a parking space in a pay and display area. She went to check the restaurant had room. I put £4 in the machine for a ticket.

Whereupon Geraldine pointed out it was after 1.30pm and parking was free! Who should I write to at the Kensington and Chelsea council to get my money back?

We entered the large Victorian house where a rude and dismissive restaurant manager, John Lacombe, passed us to a waiter who indicated a very small table.

"That's better," whispered Geraldine, pointing to a table laid for four in a corner.

"I'd like to sit there," I announced. The room was almost empty. There was another empty table for four in the other corner and we'd passed three empty tables for four in the adjacent room. It was after 2pm.

"You can't sit there," said the waiter, "there's a big group coming."

"Let's be sure," I said rather icily, "because that may not be true." He went back to consult Mr Lacombe and returned to offer us the table. No big group came in.

The tables for four remained empty except for the one we occupied. Why, I wonder, are so many restaurant staff trained to be liars?

I checked the menu, three-course lunch £19.50 plus 12½% service. An older waiter, Miguel Vazquez, came over. He proceeded to look after us very efficiently.

I liked him.

"Is the chef here?" I asked. "Shall I tell him to come and see you?" said Miguel.

"If he wants to," I replied.

"I'll tell him if he's in a good mood," responded Miguel. I guess he must have been in a reasonable mood (miracle the main chef was there at Saturday lunch anyway!) because Mark Jankel turned up. Nice young man.

We'd been sitting there quite a while. I was hungry. So I ate a bit of their superb olive bread. I said, pointedly, "Are you saving on butter? Because there isn't any." Mark went and got some. He'd worked two years with Philip Howard at the Square, which is good training. Before that he was an environmental scientist!

John, the restaurant manager, appeared to ask if everything was all right. "Not when I came in it wasn't," I told him. He fled.

The man next to us walked out leaving his girlfriend at the table still putting on her jacket. "He didn't exactly hold her chair for her, did he?" I said to Geraldine. She'd asked me to do that, but I told her I wasn't a furniture mover.

"He just left her," I added.

"Maybe his name's Michael Winner," suggested Geraldine.

Eventually, and I do mean eventually, a freebie starter I hadn't ordered arrived.

Sea bream with a creamy sauce. Excellent. A long delay. Still no sign of my Jerusalem artichoke soup.

I asked Miguel, "Where's the food?"

"Would you like some more bread?" he asked.

"No," I said, "I'd like the food." Miguel went to check. Eventually the soup arrived. It was extremely tasty, delicate, a credit to soup-makers the world over.

Another delay. Then I got a double eggs Benedict. Absolutely marvellous. Mark returned to make a speech about eggs. He gets them from a man who breeds the chicks from day one. He feeds 1,000 chickens organically in two acres. Apparently some so-called organic chicks only go onto an organic diet after a few weeks.

Mark started serving food to the people next door. Obviously the service had seized up. Geraldine loved her sea bass.

I finished with vanilla yoghurt with berry compote. This was the best yoghurt I've ever tasted. Mark assured me he made it himself.

"Good place," I dictated into my tape, "food service ridiculously slow, everything else fine."

Geraldine said, "The service was slow for you but not for me."

I said, "What are you talking about? You had the same service as me!" We were going to pose by the restaurant sign for our photo, but it was raining so we stood in the undercover alley, adjacent to the entrance.

At least Mark and Miguel did. Although you can't see it, I'm standing in pouring rain. Proof that I'm prepared to make any sacrifice on your behalf.

Winner's letters

Anticipating a re-filled glass, at a restaurant in Cobham, Surrey, an enthusiastic waiter with a flourish removed our chablis and commenced pouring it to an adjacent table! I failed miserably to formulate an apt "Winnerism".
P C Barguss West Sussex

Are you experiencing a reduction in height as well as girth? In last week's photo you seemed to be perched, uncomfortably, on tiptoes.
Ian Irvine, Cheshire

Just back from London where I ate at J Sheekey, Bentley's and the Savoy Grill. Why does no restaurant review ever mention the tiny portions? I still felt hungry after paying £150 for two people. One place charged £9 for a single, small scallop on a shell the size of a pie tin!
Paul Bloomberg, Glendale, California

Would you join us in starting an organisation called PLOP? We're fed up with chefs putting peppers in salads and even in cottage pie! PLOP stands for Please Leave Out Peppers. They smother the taste of other ingredients and upset many people!
Dr M and Mrs J Short Hampshire

At Nino's of Rawtenstall, reputedly the best Italian restaurant in Lancashire, a group of loud and drunk teenagers were seated next to us. When I asked to be moved I was told these were important people. Thus by implication we were not! In restaurant ranking who is higher, a footballer or a restaurant critic?
Caroline Ryan Lancashire

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