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Twenty years on and it's still a classic hit

Published 22 July 2007
News Review
731st article



Restaurants often open in a blaze of glory and maximum volume from the chattering classes. Then, even though they keep going, depart totally from chatter radar.

Thus it is with Bibendum.

Twenty years ago a dull-looking invite announced my friend Paul Hamlyn, Terence Conran and Simon Hopkinson were opening a restaurant called Bibendum in an old tyre salesroom on Brompton Road.

When I eventually went I found it remarkably good. It was much talked about. For years it hasn't been.

When I revisited recently memories flooded back. Marlon Brando declining to sit facing the room because he didn't want to be recognised. Another friend, Burt Lancaster, being followed to our table by some nutty fan. Burt gave him short shrift. But not as short as I gave the restaurant manager.

"A star comes into your restaurant, he's accosted by a member of the public, and you do nothing," I said. "Don't you think it was your job to tell the intruder that he was not a diner and not welcome?"

But the greatest star-moment for me came when I was asked to dinner by top Hollywood director Oliver Stone. I took the ever-lovely, ever-cool Joanna Lumley. There we were with Oliver, his Hollywood agent and assorted biggies from across the pond.

Oliver is a bit of a male chauvinist. That's putting it mildly. He was spouting off about this and that. Joanna sat being gracious as ever. I can't remember exactly what Oliver said, or even if it was directed at Joanna. Either way, with great dignity, and far greater fury, she let Oliver Stone have it. Everyone was stunned. She reduced him to an oil slick.

Bravo, I thought, nobody would dare do that to him in Los Angeles where success breeds mute acolytes.

On my current trip to Bibendum, David Mellor was at the next table.

I greatly like his classical music programme on Classic FM. After we'd greeted each other I turned my attention to the menu.

I was pleased to learn Matthew Harris, the chef, was actually in the kitchen for Saturday lunch. His predecessor, Simon Hopkinson, cooked with splendid simplicity that was memorable.

The set menu was £28.50 for three courses. Geraldine ordered endive salad with roquefort dressing and toasted walnuts, then she chose confit of duck with puy lentils and fried artichokes.

Mine was chilled cucumber and yoghurt soup and then deep-fried haddock and chips with tartare sauce. Geraldine asked for a glass of champagne, followed by a glass of French rose. But the wine waiter brought a bottle of rose, and that before she'd finished her champagne.

"I think the wine service here is a bit peculiar," I dictated into my faithful tape.

My dessert was gooseberry fool with warm butter cake. I ordered a lime sorbet for Geraldine so I could eat it because she didn't want a dessert.

Everything, and I mean everything, was beyond belief excellent. My soup, simple cucumber, yoghurt, a bit of tomato and mint was utterly delicious. The fried fish was juicy and full of taste with a perfect batter. The chips were probably bought in, but very good anyway.

Geraldine thought her duck confit superb. She insisted I taste her endive salad just to see how an expert dressing really makes things so excellent.

Simon Hopkinson, after seven years, had a kind of mental collapse in Bibendum's kitchen and walked out never to return. He wrote an immensely successful cook book. He's quite unlike most chefs in that he's both sane and pleasant.

Matthew Harris was Simon's sous chef before taking over. Matthew's brother Henry is chef at nearby Racine. I hereby declare these two "best cooks in London". Their food is simple. It is not pretentiously described on the menu.

There's nothing overegged or aggrandised on the plate when it's delivered. It's just marvellously full of taste.

We had a stunningly good meal. A great credit to my departed friend Lord Hamlyn, who started me off in movies and as a columnist. In 1950 he came down to my school on old scholar's day while working for a film book publisher. I cheekily asked for all his books free. He sent them, became a friend, so while only 14 I went round all the film studios claiming, untruthfully, to be writing a book for Paul's company.

He rang one day and said, "Give it a rest will you, Michael." I'd just been with John Howard Davies, the Oliver Twist in David Lean's great movie. I took an article about him to my local paper who gave me a showbusiness column. The rest, as they say, is history. Or catastrophe, according to how you look at it.



Michael's letters

I doubt even a palate as subtle as Michael Winner's can differentiate between different brands of mineral water (Winner's Dinners, last week). Bottled water is an unnecessary extravagance. The price is all in the bottle and the brand. I challenge Michael to blind test four well-known brands of mineral water. If he gets them all right, his next meal is on me!
Paul Harrod, Bristol

I read with interest your view that Evian and Malvern are the best waters available. My 21-year-old son claims this epithet for Voss. Do I trust his young tastebuds or your more cultured ones before changing from my preferred Aberdeen tap?
Paul Hearn, Aberdeen

Like most people who read Michael's column we occasionally make rude comments about him. However, after a "discussion" with hotel staff over coffee and biscuits, my husband sat down, sighed and said, "No wonder Michael's such an arsehole. Dealing with catering staff all the time must make him like that." We promise to be more sympathetic in future.
Janet Adey, Worcestershire

What a delightful contrast your column presents to the moronic reviews in our local newspaper. This week's gem revealed that the sorbet "was fruity and cleansed the pallet (sic)". I presume the dessert polished the car.
Geoff Morley, Hartlepool

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