Published 12 November 2006 News Review 695th article
De Oliveira prepares Michael's oranges (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)
Hotels are great, good or bad. There's an abyss of difference between great and good. The Lapa Palace, Lisbon, scrapes into "good". I'll deal with its better points first.
It's a lovely old 1870 villa which became a hotel in 1992. The decor and furnishings are antique, stylish and classy. The service is okay; the pool and gardens, lovely. The food, variable. I'm struggling to think of anything else. So I'll dish out the not-so-good.
I asked the night before my arrival for a convertible rented car. I got there at 2pm. No car. This is a capital city! How long do they need to rent a car?
I rang down to ask Bertrand Bonnimond, the food and beverage manager, who'd met us at the airport, to get me a street map and guide book of Lisbon, and a road map of the area. The Lisbon street guide and book appeared in the suite. I phoned him.
"I asked for a road map of the area!" I exclaimed.
"We'll have to go out for one," responded Mr Bonnimond, as if this was a considerable nuisance.
"Since it's unlikely to walk in the door itself, you will have to get one," I said icily. This is an Orient Express hotel. If I'd asked Fausto Allegri at the group's Splendido in Portofino, I'd have been deluged with maps in half an hour. If I'd asked Patrick Debuire, reception manager of La Reserve de Beaulieu, maps would have been with me like lightning.
In Lisbon our suite was excellent in many ways. Lovely paintings, large rooms, an enormous terrace. The bathroom was ridiculous. Orient Express hotels normally have terrific chrome fitted bulbs around the mirrors so you can see yourself well. I've copied them at home. It helps the ladies make up. Helps me admire my three and a half-stone lighter visage. We had two silly little lights set in a high ceiling.
The toilet was open and in the bathroom. There was no bidet. Geraldine said in all the upstairs public toilets there was a bidet. They could have taken the over-large shower and used that area for toilet, bidet and a door. And used the toilet area for the shower.
At our first dinner I asked Sandro Fabris, the general manager, what was typically Portuguese.
"Roast suckling pig," he suggested. It came with small cooked onions and some stone-cold mashed potatoes. Not a flicker of heat in them. Who, in their right mind, serves cold mashed potatoes?
Never mind the speeches about how the dining room chandeliers came from Venice, Mr Fabris. Show the chef how to turn the oven on.
My Evian water was warm and left on a wooden table. I asked the restaurant manager, Chainho de Oliveira, to put it in an ice bucket. It remained warm and on the wooden table. When, after four nights I pointed out he was still ignoring my request I got no apology. But as I was leaving the room, the ice bucket appeared!
On our last evening Mr Fabris told an interminable story about his having two passports. Geraldine had enjoyed the verde wine previously, but Mr Fabris interrupted his story to recommend the Orient Express house wine. Geraldine agreed to have some. But it never arrived. Until half an hour later when I asked for it. Mr Fabris hadn't even ordered it! Geraldine hated it anyway!
Fabris also recommended their "unique" dessert: creme brulee with truffles. The creme brulee arrived with no sign of truffles. I had to request them.
At lunch on the terrace I chose a "terrine of veal liver Venetian style and foie gras". This was so heavy and horrid I ate only a tiny mouthful.
Mr Fabris came over and said, "I hope you enjoyed your lunch."
"Not the terrine," I responded. "It was heavy beyond belief."
"I had that," said Mr Fabris, "It was heavy. I'm taking it off the menu." Why was it there in the first place?
Breakfast orders were frequently delivered wrong. Although Mr De Oliveira appeared on our terrace each morning with oranges and a squeezer, and made fresh orange juice in front of me. That was exceptional service.
In the main restaurant I dictated, "This is a very flaky place."
Geraldine chipped in, "They don't know what they're doing. The best person here is the chauffeur. He's really sensible." Full marks, at least, to Jose Mendes. He represented the usual Orient Express excellence.
PS: I was in Lisbon just two weeks ago for my birthday. It was 85 degrees Fahrenheit and sunny all day. I now look tanned and beautiful. Some may not agree.
At Carluccio's restaurant in St John's Wood my spaghetti vongole was stewed pasta with plenty of empty shells and a green salad which had more brown curly edges than green ones. My mother had a lukewarm bowl, supposedly of bean soup, which tasted like Victorian gruel, followed by very sickly chocolate bread and butter pudding.
Diana Graham, Highgate
Despite the general consensus that you're rude and obnoxious I, strangely, find myself religiously reading your reviews as I can't fault your taste. I'm marrying next year. Where do you recommend we honeymoon?
Stefan Wolvaardt, London
Our membership now being of epic proportions the Michael Winner fan club will hold a gala dinner prior to Christmas. A table for five has been reserved.
David Lowe, Tyne & Wear
We asked our waiter at the Puffing Billy near Exeter what the soup of the day was. He replied, "I'm not sure. It's probably the same as yesterday."
Stephen Patterson, Devon
Maybe Michael Winner only comes up north under sufferance, but the road sign on the entry to Skipton says "Historic market town".
Spencer Leigh, Liverpool