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An Aladdin's cave of foodie delights

Published 1 April 2007
News Review
715th article



A card arrives, among many thousand that came for me, at the London Clinic. This one doesn't have a "Get well" type cover. The front simply says Villandry, which is a nearby restaurant.

There's a food parcel with it and a handwritten goodwill message ending, "Let me know if I can send you any food from Villandry. Kind regards, Jamie Barber (your former lawyer)".

Jamie did a tiny bit of legal work for me a very long time ago, but I remember him most as a restaurateur who enjoyed great success when he opened Hush in Mayfair and great failure when he opened (and closed) Shumi in St James's. For a while he worked with Roger Moore's son Geoffrey. But sadly they parted.

A few weeks later we collected (and paid for, of course) two items from the Villandry menu. Geraldine had cassoulet of duck confit with Toulouse sausage and white beans. She thought the duck was cooked perfectly but there were not enough beans and the sausage tasted odd.

I had rump of lamb with pearl barley, fondant potato and rosemary sauce. I didn't like it at all. The lamb was tough, the rest ridiculous.

So when Geraldine said, "Why don't we go to Villandry on Saturday for lunch?" I replied "Why?" Anyway, we went and I'm very glad we did.

Villandry is the most wonderful looking place. You enter a food store which is full of highly attractive goodies - bread, pizzas, cakes, everything.

The next two rooms are called the charcuterie bar, which offers a great selection of salami and other sausages. There are some dining tables, but the real restaurant is one room further on. There we both had a terrific meal in very pleasing surroundings.

I started with gratin of macaroni cheese with crispy lardons. It was presented in a copper pan. It may sound silly to go ballistic over macaroni cheese, and I don't know what they did to it, but it was historic.

Geraldine had dressed Dorset crab and avocado salad. She adored it. My main course, chicken paillard, was fine. The accompanying veggies were beyond belief.

I'd asked if the chips were bought in. Jamie assured me they were hand cut in the kitchen and then fried with parmesan and truffle oil. They were as good in their own way as the ones Heston Blumenthal used to serve at the Fat Duck.

The carrots (I mean there's a boring vegetable, I bet carrots even bore each other) were out of this world. Or, to be more accurate, they were in Great Portland Street. They were cut in strips. Cumin and honey had been added. That turned them from boring to great.

Then there were parmesan fried courgettes with chilli relish. Fantastic.

Geraldine had organic salmon. It was a good colour, juicy, not dried up at all. It looked absolutely perfect. She loved it. The London Clinic relentlessly serves salmon which is white, overcooked and tough like cement. Villandry's bread baguettes were of great taste and texture too.

This left dessert. The sticky toffee pudding could not be bettered. It wasn't cloying or heavy as they usually are. And the toffee sauce was sensational.

On the way out I collected two sausage rolls. They were disappointing. Far too big, pastry too flaky, meat filling poor. The whole point of sausage rolls is that they should be stupid. These Villandry ones were trying to be clever.

As a special treat I let Francesco Rossetti be in our photo. He's just taken over the ambulance service I use. For lunch at Villandry he had shelled mussels in white wine and garlic with a crust of bread.

"Under normal circumstances, I'd have thought it was a double portion," he observed as we set off.

"Working for me is not normal circumstances," I pointed out.



  • PS: Since I contracted this extraordinarily rare disease, Vibrio Vulnificus, which no doctors in Barbados or England knew existed until my dermatologist, Professor Chris Bunker, was lecturing in India and almost by accident heard about it, I have been immensely touched by the cascade of cards wishing me well.

    There's one I've kept which typifies this flow of good will. On the front is a farmhouse with chickens. Inside the handwritten message reads: "Dear Mr Winner, we are devastated to hear of your awful illness - you are a true English gent and we love you", signed Mr and Mrs Smith.

    Then they add: "From ordinary people of England. PS God bless you." The address is Portslade-by-Sea.

    Thank you, Mr and Mrs Smith - and everyone else who wrote. It has greatly encouraged me in difficult times.



    Winner's letters

    Following your uncomplimentary article on Getti and Monika, have you considered she has been promoted to manager to ensure you don't make a return visit?
    Wyndham Northam, Norfolk

    We were interested to read about Getti customers who "look like they come from a bus stop in Herefordshire". To know about such people is an anthropological coup. We regularly visit that beautiful county but have never sighted a bus let alone a bus stop. Glad you are still at the cutting edge of knowledge.
    Colin and Chris Beardwood, Worcestershire

    Michael, forgive Monika. People see the wheelchair, the occupant is a nonentity. Hurry up and get better before they start asking Geraldine if you take sugar.
    Charles McCarthy, Lincolnshire

    Michael, oh Michael, you a man of letters (I mean the ones you write) should know the Peter Principle - promoting people to the level of their incompetence (the dreaded Monika).
    Terence Levene, Dorset

    There once was a large man called Winner
    Who's now considerably thinner
    He fell ill while away
    And in hospital lay
    And now all he wants is his dinner!

    Tony Tsoukkas, London

    You've got the neck of a turkey. Please go back to the blow-outs on the dessert trolley we love you for.
    Ian Bradwell, Kent