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I'm back - and there's no place I'd rather be

Published 11 March 2007
News Review
712th article



I intended to swoop into St Alban on crutches, dwarfing the achievements of Robert Redford in Downhill Racer.

But Mrs Dalia V Nield FRCS (Ed), constructive plastic and reconstructive surgeon, who's done remarkable things to my left leg, said it should not be risked.

I think she believes Messrs Corbin and King, the owners, live in an area peopled by 2ft louts who rush out with hammers and attack whomsoever they can find.

As a last-minute precaution Mrs Nield entered my room at the London Clinic to add extra padding.

Instead of an athletic appearance for my first restaurant visit in nine weeks I arrived in an ambulance, named Capital Rescue International, under the control of Francesco and Justin.

I'd been to St Alban two or three times before and found it extraordinarily good. Except for the Portuguese mineral water, Carvalhelhos, which had a dead and slightly acid taste. Jeremy took the view that if you didn't like it you could have tap water. Luckily he's changed his mind and now offers still and fizzy Malvern water plus Badoit.

Let me say straight away, St Alban is absolutely superb. It has the charm of the 1950s at its best. The banquettes and chairs are in green, purple or deep red.

They curve gently through a wide space. The tables are well spaced apart, the acoustics perfect. It's one of the few places in London where you can hear even the most soft-spoken guest.

None of this surprises as its creators are Jeremy King and Chris Corbin, unquestionably the best restaurateurs I've ever come across. They took over Le Caprice in 1981, going on to re-create the Ivy and J Sheekey.

A few years ago they sold the lot. Then came back triumphantly with the Wolseley. Now with St Alban in Regent Street they've done it again.

I always thought the bit of Regent Street stretching south from Piccadilly Circus was called Lower Regent Street. Someone, without even asking me, changed it. That's where my ambulance drew up.

Jeremy had offered me a wheelchair entry at the back, which I declined. I'm sure you're saying, "Poor Winner, will he be in a wheelchair for ever?" No, I'm learning to walk again.

Let us return to the food at St Alban. We can't return to it because I haven't yet mentioned it. On this visit every dish was perfect. I started with Iberian jabugo ham with home-made pickles. I've had this three times before. It's sensational. Dinah had deep-fried soft shell crab with tarragon mayonnaise. I tried one and then another.

Totally historic.

Our main course was sea bass "a la plancha" with turnip. A loan of the wheelchair for five minutes if anyone can tell me what "a la plancha" means.

It was above excellent. In the 1950s it used to be grilled sole all the time. Now it's sea bass, with or without plancha.

It's usually overcooked and has the taste of having spent far too long in the deep freeze. This was tender, soft and succulent. Previously I've tasted their slow-roasted black pig with turnip tops. Geraldine particularly liked their charcoal-grilled duck breast.

I've never had an even slightly dodgy course at St Alban. My dessert on this visit was lemon cream with pomegranate sorbet. As a dessert-lover I was ecstatic.

I haven't mentioned the chef because his name's not on the menu and I really don't want to contribute to the birth of another verbose TV "star" - the word star these days being attached to any passing nonentity. I grew up and worked with stars, real ones such as Brando, Mitchum, Burt Lancaster, Sophia Loren. They had immense talent and were known throughout the world. Today most so-called stars are known only in their own toilet.

Talking of which, St Alban has the most glamorous toilets in London. Make it a part of your journey there to visit them. Which brings us to the final item I've not mentioned: service.

I apologise for going on about how great everything is at St Alban. But it is. The service is no exception. All the waiters, wine waiters, commis waiters, doormen, firemen, ambulance men (I brought two of my own), dishwashers and assorted dog catchers are utterly charming, helpful and above all speedy. This doesn't surprise me as they're under the control of general manager Mitchell Everard, who left the Ivy to be with Chris and Jeremy.

If I had to eat at one place for the rest of my life it would either be the Wolseley or St Alban. After serious consideration I'd choose St Alban because the tables are bigger.

I think you'll have gathered by now - I'm a fan.



Winner's letters

Am I the only person not surprised by the rareness of Michael's illness? How typical of Winner to contract such an exclusive disease.
Nigel Higbee, Tunbridge Wells

Due to your absence some of us have forgotten what you look like. So please wave your white handkerchief in your next photo so we can put a face to the name.
John Finegan, County Cavan, Ireland

Some years ago I stayed eight days in hospital and came out addicted to Neighbours. I hope a similar fate does not happen to you.
Pam Painter, Glasgow

How the inherent decency of the British is manifested! You must have noticed the gentle tone of your readers' letters since your indisposition. Hurry up and get better so normal service may be resumed.
Dennis Pallis, Kent

Having observed your photos for years I've no idea what your teeth look like. I trust they're not in a state of disrepair. As a dentist, I offer my services. I'd consider it tantamount to being gynaecologist to the Queen.
Dr John Paul Beaumont, Manchester

Your threat to open Winner's Deli is not your best idea. Don't you know: "Those who can, do. Those that can't, become critics."
Stanley Silver, Hertfordshire