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Great food - if only they knew how to serve it

Published 19 November 2006
News Review
696th article

Michael with Roderick Mann at the Orrery (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)

I went to Terence Conran's Orrery restaurant in Marylebone and the manager, Greg Sapin, stared at me and said, "Who are you with?" That's really welcoming attention! About as bad as you can get on entering a restaurant.

Then Greg showed me to a table laid for three when I'd personally booked for four. Geraldine and I moved to the only table laid for four, opposite St Marylebone Parish Church.

A large sign read, "Cabbages and frocks market every Saturday". Damn it! It's Sunday. I missed the chance to buy a cheap frock.

The head waiter, Nicolas Broche, appeared. "Is your orange juice fresh?" I asked.

"I'm going to squeeze it at your table," replied Nicolas.

As there was a gaggle of screaming children nearby we moved to another table.

My guest, Roderick Mann, arrived with his "last living relative", Antoinette.

Roddy was a fantastic showbusiness writer from the 1950s to the 1980s, when he moved to California and wrote for the Los Angeles Times. His articles were witty. Not as witty as mine, of course. He was knowledgeable. He was engaged to Kim Novak.

His best friend was Cary Grant who left him all his clothes. Since Cary kept every outfit he wore in every film, that collection is worth well in excess of a million dollars at auction. Roddy seemed reluctant. "It wouldn't be nice," he said. What can you do with someone like that?

Roddy was the first person to write about me as a food critic. In the mid-1970s I graded private meals. At my agent's house in Beverly Hills his wife cooked one of the worst dinners ever. To be polite I gave it seven out of ten. The wife never spoke to me again and the agent dropped me!

At Orrery our mineral water arrived. The bottle had "Water" on it. In small type underneath it said, "Bottled for Conran at Hildon natural source, Hampshire".

So it was the ghastly Hildon water. Oh well. Nobody said life was going to be perfect.

Service was nil. No bread, no butter. I said, "Who takes the order?" A waiter came without a pad.

I asked him to get one. Geraldine spoke at length in fluent French to the wine waiter. She lived in Paris for 30 years.

The wine waiter waited for her to finish and said, "I'm not French, Madame." Turns out he was Austrian. Didn't understand a word she was saying!

After 25 minutes the butter arrived. Still no bread. I asked the waiter, "Do we get bread to put it on, or do we just look at the butter?" The bread was unspectacular to say the most. I'd guess it wasn't even good when it was baked yesterday.

The freebie starter was smoked salmon jelly with cauliflower foam. That was marvellous, delicate, great taste.

They were very few other diners. Geraldine had really excellent duck, crisp skin, I took a bit. Top marks. My saffron risotto had a lot of squiggle decoration but it was superb. Asparagus had something to do with it. Roddy said his pan-fried halibut was wonderful. I dictated, "No question, it's very good food here."

The ice in my bowl had melted. Nicolas said, "Would you like some more?"

I felt like saying, "Oh no. We're halfway through the meal and I've suddenly decided I didn't want ice anyway. I'll just gaze at this bowl of water."

Service is hopeless. Food is great. Geraldine thought the cheeses were delicious.

One thing let the food down with a heavy crash.

That was my dessert, peanut butter parfait, bitter chocolate ganache. I specifically asked if it was made that morning.

I was told, "Yes."

Pull the other one! It had all the taste and texture of having been in the deepfreeze overnight. It was dried out, heavy and cloying. Absolutely dreadful. Other than that, and the bread, it was a very good meal indeed.

If you go to Orrery and the dumb restaurant manager asks, "Who are you with?"

Answer, "Michael Winner, I'm expecting him any minute." That'll put a rocket up their you know what.

  • Now, a further note on the Lapa Palace, Lisbon, which I told you last week had a restaurant manager who, when asked to put my Evian water in an ice bucket, resolutely refused to do so. Not only was that pathetic but the Evian water was served, in this very elegant and classy room in a historic villa in - wait for it! - a plastic bottle!

    I've never seen any good-class restaurant serve mineral water in plastic bottles.

    What I have to put up with is beyond human belief.

    Winner's letters

    Writing about La Cuisine you stressed that your lady guest should be served before you. Be careful! You might just leave people with an impression of completely civilised behaviour.
    Robert Randell, London

    You said on October 29 you sat on the pavement at Nicole Farhi in Notting Hill drinking your coffee. Why? Hasn't she got chairs?
    Tim Flavell, Stockton-on-Tees

    I was interested in your experiences at the Lapa Palace in Lisbon - welcome to Portugal, the culinary desert of western Europe. However, I can recommend the Restaurant Americo in the Algarve. No menu. Sit where you're told. But for €12 (£8) a head you get a best-value, delicious, healthy meal.
    Dr Colin Key, Algarve, Portugal

    Last week you wrote, "I now look tanned and beautiful. Some may not agree." Regarding the "some" - is our flamboyant hero guilty of understatement for the first time in his life?
    Ian Irvine, Nantwich

    Congratulations on your amazing loss of 42lb-plus of unsightly fat. That you achieved this without having to cut off your head is a truly historic achievement.
    Derek Haslam, Norfolk