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They want a man for this job - not a mouse

Published 26 November 2006
News Review
697th article

Michael with Val Baanbur and Peter Wood (Dinah May)

This Christmas there'll be extra rejoicing throughout the nation. On December 26, to aid your digestion, I return to television screens in the esure insurance commercials.

No bouquets, please. It was humiliating enough to be fired in favour of a computer-animated mouse with a strange American accent. But true quality (me) will out.

To achieve this renaissance I travelled, through parts of London I had no idea existed, to the Centrale Shopping Mall in Croydon. Don't ask why.

I'm only re-constituted as actor. Not producer. Not director.

Not scriptwriter. There, to the delight of Christmas shoppers, I filmed bits and pieces for future commercials.

Peter Wood CBE, distinguished chairman of esure, was present to see I behaved.

"Let's go to my new restaurant, Post, in Banstead, for lunch," he suggested.

"I've only got an hour," I said, "better we eat here."

"I'm the chairman, you can have longer," said Peter.

"No, no, I'm just a humble employee," I retorted with proper modesty. Thus Peter, my assistant Dinah May and I ended up in the restaurant at the House of Fraser on tables 19, 20 and 21.

I was trying to work out if it was self-service. A lady in uniform, Val Baanbur, with a badge reading "Food advisor" appeared. "Do you serve normally?" I asked.

"Yes," said Val. See, I wasn't even getting special treatment.

A sign said caviar.

"I'll have that," I announced. "It's in the deli, not the restaurant," advised Val. I settled for "chicken, vegetable udon noodle soup" then chicken teriyaki.

Peter chose the same soup and a ham, cheese and mustard toastie. Being posh, he also ordered a glass of chateauneuf-du-pape. Val not only wrote our order down, she re-checked it. I wish all waiters had the brains to do that.

"This is what I'd call a respectable crowd," I observed looking at my fellow diners.

There was a bit of a delay.

"Where's my food?" I asked Val.

"They're cooking it, making sure it's fresh," she replied. So I nicked some of Dinah's noodles. She'd got them from the sushi bar just behind us. They were pretty good.

As I was the only one without food, I wandered round the counters. There were olives, cheeses, meats of all kind, lots of bread and danish with various fillings.

"Never knew Croydon was so sophisticated," I thought. Then I returned to my soup, which was dreadful. "Like dishwater," came to mind.

I grabbed a plate of noodles from the sushi bar. Then my main course came, which was much like the soup but without liquid. The chicken was pleasant, had a nice tang. The noodles were okay.

A perfectly respectable dish if you're out shopping. Which I wasn't. We finished with hot apple pie and fresh cream. It came rather tepid. But wasn't bad at all. I'm not booking for New Year's Eve, even though a sign on the table read "Loyalty deserves recognition".

Now for something completely different. The new venture of ace restaurateurs Jeremy King and Christopher Corbin is St Alban in Regent Street. I've been there three times already. I went, not yesterday, the Saturday before, just to check it out.

The room is one of the best designed in London. Not, mercifully, by David Collins, but by an architect named Mike Stiff. It's very 1950s, my favourite period.

Spacious, slate tiles on the walls; cool coloured banquettes all over; very comfy chairs. I won't give it a full and proper review (do I ever?) because I think it's unfair to judge in these early days of try-out. But I returned last Sunday for an excellent lunch. And again on Thursday, with a major movie star, for dinner.

If this place is not a total, major, magnificent, blazing triumph, I'll eat my hat. I'm safe there because I haven't got one.

The general manager is Mitchell Everard from the Ivy. I've almost, but not quite, forgiven him for some appalling behaviour. I booked my usual table for Chris and Jeremy's last lunch at the Ivy. For the first time ever Jeremy King, still the boss, personally handed me a card confirming the reservation.

I was going to make a heart-rending speech for Chris and Jeremy's departure. There wouldn't have been a dry eye in the house.

Then Mitchell rang and said, "You can't have your usual table, Mr Scott booked it!"

"But I have it in writing from the boss," I said, quite angrily. Anyway, I didn't attend. I'm not going to be messed about by staff.

But I wish Mitchell, and all who sail with him, great success and happiness at St Alban. Which, in the circumstances, is very nice of me.

Winner's letters

Diana Graham was right two week's ago about Carluccio's. In their Chiswick place it was "hunt the vongole" while trying to contend with rubbery pasta. The mushroom soup was thin, weak and flavourless.
Julia Dobson, Barnes

I took my daughter to Fortnum and Mason's Fountain restaurant. Wonderful food, but the place has been refurbished and ruined. We walked to the Ritz who wouldn't let my daughter in because 3in of jeans showed beneath her Armani coat!
Penny Fisher, Bexley Park

Last week you said you'd never seen good class restaurants serve water in plastic bottles. At Sandy Lane they serve Evian in plastic bottles in all three restaurants!
Peter Handley, London

You're a pompous, overweight gargoyle multi-millionaire, so how do you attract such gorgeous female companions? Could you let me have some, either the millions or the companions. Despite your manifest shortcomings, you're a genius. I read you each week. I also use your photo to threaten my small children when they're naughty.
Nigel Parks, Surrey

I had cold bean soup at Carluccio's in Oxford. Why do they employ such poor staff?
Liz Camm, Hampshire

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