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Sometimes, it pays to be as stupid as me

Published 8 July 2007
News Review
729th article

Michael with Elena Tramonti at the Brasserie St Quentin, which he had booked in error (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)

I'd like to illustrate how stupid I am. "You don't have to," I hear you chant, "we know." I insist on telling you.

There's a brasserie in Brompton Road, diagonally opposite Bibendum. I heard it had improved since a new man, who I met in Barbados, bought it. The only Brompton Road brasserie listed in the Good Food Guide was the Brasserie St Quentin. So I phoned up, told them I'd met the new owner, and booked.

As we drove there I suddenly thought: "I'm not sure it's called the Brasserie St Quentin." Indeed it wasn't. It's just the Brasserie. I'd booked the wrong place.

I recalled seeing the Brasserie St Quentin nearby, a couple of doors from one of the best restaurants in London, Racine. Sure enough, there it was. It's in premises I used to visit a lot in the Fifties when it was the Brompton Grill. Did incredible lamb chops, was all red plush and owned by a very nice Polish man.

This time a very smart and hospitable lady, Elena Tramonti, greeted me. It's a nice room. Wooden floor, tables well spaced apart, red leather studded banquettes, very simple. Quite posh. Various old photos on the wall, some of Paris, some of London.

Geraldine ordered a glass of champagne. Elena brought two. "Don't worry," I said, "Geraldine'll have them both. She's got a drink problem." I often say that in restaurants, even though it's completely untrue. Elena wisely pointed out: "The second one will get warm, I'll bring you another if you want it."

The set lunch menu is £18 for three courses plus the dreaded "discretionary" service charge of 12½%. I noticed they sneaked in "sides" costing extra. These seemed to be all vegetables.

There's a la carte stuff printed on the same card. Geraldine ordered a salad of spinach, green beans, poached egg and pancetta. Then Shetland organic salmon, fennel salad and tomato dressing. I chose tomato tart with pesto and rocket, followed by steak, frites and "salade". The baguette was so good I ate two slices.

Elena explained the place is owned by Lord somebody and Anthony somebody. Elena said: "I'm sure you know him." She thinks I know people. I don't. The Good Food Guide says it's owned by Hugh O'Neill. Take your pick.

Geraldine pronounces Quentin, as Kon-tain. We say Kwintin. But she lived in Paris for 30 years. They talk funny there. It's named after Quentin Crewe, who was the original owner. He was a wheelchair-bound food critic who knew what he was talking about. Unlike me, who assuredly doesn't.

My tart was superb, very flaky pastry, delicious interior. Geraldine greatly liked her salad.

Now, would you believe it? They put a baby in a high chair, right opposite me. After a short time the baby slumped to its right. "Do you think it's dead?" I asked Geraldine. "If so, we'll all be held as suspects. Hercule Poirot will turn up and quiz us endlessly."

"It's asleep," explained Geraldine. Thus it stayed throughout the meal. I think all children under nine should be put to sleep the minute they enter restaurants, thus saving sound-sensitive diners, such as myself, the wailing and other strange noises they emit. And also saving us the sight of them slurping everywhere.

Our main courses were close to perfect. Even though the chips were bought in. For dessert I had hot chocolate fondant, burnt orange ice cream. Geraldine chose raspberry brulee. They were both above excellent. "Not like the so-called tough brulee I was served at the Athenaeum," recalled Geraldine. That so-called lunch at their Damask restaurant hangs over me as a ghastly memory.

There's no doubt St Quentin is first-rate, even though I didn't intend to visit it. The customers were pleasant old-school-type people. Two men, at separate tables, were on crutches. I still carry a walking stick. "It's like a cripples' convention," I observed cheerfully. Another bad-taste remark. I await a letter admonishing me from the Physically Impaired Society. Or some other absurd PC group.

I can't believe how we've let these twits rule our lives. They chased two of my favourite comedians, Bernard Manning and Benny Hill, off TV. I didn't think Manning was racist at all. When a friend and I paid for him as the cabaret at Marco Pierre White's 40th birthday, I introduced him to the assembled glitterati.

He took the microphone, paused briefly, and said: "Michael Winner, the most hated Jew in Europe." Very funny.

When I voted in a Directors Guild of Great Britain ballot they announced who the new chair was. I didn't vote for a chair. I voted for a person. It's all beyond belief.

Winner's letters

Your reference last week to the Athenaeum's fishless fishcakes is sadly not exceptional. At the Feathers in Woodstock I experienced something similar, but the champions in this failing are surely the Angel Inn at Hindon. Their fishcakes were promoted as being filled with fresh haddock. When it was apparent there was no fish at all, I mentioned this to the waitress. She smiled and ignored the matter.
Gerard van Dam, Oxford

I hope the money's good. But then you don't need the money, do you? Or is it just masochism? Anyway, you deserve a medal for enduring, on our behalf, such ghastly meals as the one you described at the Athenaeum. Okay, there are some high spots, but do they compensate?
Richard Perry, London

One of the most revolting things in life is to find a nasty, greenish-black blob of cold salad, complete with dressing, smacked onto the same plate as a perfectly decent hot dish with a good sauce that is completely drowned out by the vinegar, oil and whatever of the salad. Even quite good restaurants seem to think this is gourmet dining at its best!
Barbara Locker, East Sussex

You only ever seem to eat at restaurants. How do you manage at Royal Ascot, Henley or Glyndebourne etc?
Steve West, Cardiff