Published 24 December 2006 News Review 701st article
Michael with Antonio and Suratim Sarcinella (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)
When you have a dreadful experience with a hotel or restaurant it puts you off for ever. Thus for years I was divorced from the Four Seasons group because of a grotesque event.
I was having tea in their Mayfair hotel, which was awarded the Best Tea Place In London by the UK Tea Council. Things were going poorly. Old, curling bread, ghastly service. Then the final insult - tea bags!
I summoned the duty manager, Rachel Begbie. I said: "I was disgusted to be given tea bags." Rachel replied haughtily: "We do not serve tea bags here, Mr Winner. All our tea is made from fresh leaves."
"I've just had tea bags," I persisted. "You can't have done," said Ms Begbie.
As she spoke, a second pot of tea arrived. I'd sent the first back because it came so long before the food. "What is hanging from this pot? Is it not tea bag tags?" I asked.
"I don't understand," muttered Ms Begbie. No apology. Then she was off. In more ways than one.
So for me Four Seasons hotels became a no-no. But when I went to Milan for a night I was told the Four Seasons was best. So I gritted my teeth and made a booking.
Everyone was extremely pleasant and friendly as I entered. My junior suite (a bedroom with sofas and armchairs) had a lovely 18th century mural on the ceiling.
The hotel had filled the elegant space with fruit, flowers, gift champagne. The general manager, Vincenzo Finizzola, telephoned from New York to see if I was happy. I was.
I only ate breakfast there. That was spectacular. They did something I've never seen before. The croissants and the bread were in a hot plate container under the trolley table. They'd put a saucer on the top of Geraldine's espresso to keep it warm.
Years ago when I was a third assistant director I had an important job: to bring the director his tea. I got a major bollocking because I hadn't put the saucer on top! That was when movie caterers had proper porcelain, not plastic.
"I think this hotel is quite fabulous," observed Geraldine, correctly. I forgave the Four Seasons for its tea fiasco and rude management in London.
Before arriving in Milan we'd lunched in the main square of Bergamo, one of those beautifully preserved medieval towns. Or at least the old part is well preserved. The rest is horrid.
At the Trattoria Sant'Ambroeus I had very pleasant Bergamo ravioli with bacon and sage followed by roast rabbit with polenta, except I changed the polenta for potatoes.
We overlooked the enormous tower of the Santa Maria Maggiore basilica, which the waiter said was 13th century.
I finished with a lemon sorbet. All good if not historic. The setting was definitely historic.
For dinner I went to a little place in Milan which Geraldine had discovered when she lived there for a year. It's the Velo Bar owned by Antonio Sarcinella and his wife Suratim. She cooks, he serves. There are shiny tables, framed Martini posters, mirrors, it's practical, unpretentious.
We started with bruschetta, bread with tomato, olive oil and oregano. Also an Italian salad with anchovies. Then finely cut up octopus in a salad. I saw nothing over €8 (about £5.35) on the menu blackboard. This is not a price range I'm familiar with.
Some faro grains arrived with a warm sauce and beans. Very, very good. Then penne with smoked cheese and meat. Then sea bass with thinly sliced courgettes.
The dessert was a toasted cake-like bread with currants, topped with mascarpone cheese whipped with cream, eggs, sugar and a couple of strawberries. Not bought in. All done by hand in the kitchen! This is home cooking, Italian style.
If you go to Milan and aren't asphyxiated by the worst traffic fume pollution I can ever recall (except for Mexico City) find this place. It's 27 Via Giovanni da Procida.
I'm now over 4 stone less than I used to be. Will I keep it off faced with the Sandy Lane buffet? As my Fat Pig Diet book is published in April, I have to stay slim. Can't have a fat author promoting his diet, can you?
I've had 40 jackets taken in (some five times) as I shrank monthly. I've brought 23 jackets from the attic where they were preserved in plastic. Some date back to 1979. The ones in Milan shop windows looked identical! I've had 237 shirts taken in. There's something you can look forward to.
Have a great Christmas Day. Think of me in Barbados recumbent on the Sandy Lane beach. Better you don't, really. It could spoil everything.
A correspondent suggested if it said Gordon Ramsay or Alastair Little on the outside of their establishment then Gordon Ramsay or Alastair Little should be on the inside. What criteria would he expect the crew to conform to on Virgin Atlantic?
Barry Kane, Nottingham
Our little group in Hassop meets at the Eyre Arms on Sunday. Over a nice glass of wine (or three) and something exciting from Mark in the kitchen, we have a good look at your column. We're not so keen on your letters. You could be even richer if you sued a few of them for the things they say about your size, appearance, dress sense and so on.
Derek Long, Derbyshire
Failing to attract attention at Grumbley's Bistro in the Peak District I followed Michael's advice and waved my napkin in the air. Within seconds the waitress came over. Do I get a signed diploma from the maestro?
Eliot King, Southport
Send letters to Winner's Dinners, The Sunday Times, 1 Pennington Street, London E98 1ST or e-mail michael.winner@ sunday times.co.uk