Published 26 August 2007 News Review 736th article
Michael with staff at Awana, including his new best friend Jeff Oh, right (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)
There's a large space to the left of the entrance to Chelsea Cloisters, a block of flats on Sloane Avenue. It used to house a Chinese restaurant owned by a nice man called Laurence Leung. It was either called I Ching or Fu Tong, or possibly neither of those names at all.
Whatever it was, I once took Marlon Brando there for dinner and it was unbelievably noisy. Marlon was not exactly known for his booming tones. So I spent most of the meal wishing I could lip-read. I never went again.
Many years passed, and now it's called Awana, which is Malay for "in the clouds". Considering it's on the ground floor I couldn't quite figure that out. But tiring of bland English food I decided to give it a try.
You go up a few steps to enter and are faced by what looks like a cinema kiosk selling movie magazines. There was a signed photo of one of my favourite people, Pierce Brosnan, who had apparently graced the opening with his presence. He's now filming the movie version of Mamma Mia! with Meryl Streep, Julie Walters and other luminaries. I know this because he told me recently when I was having lunch at the River Cafe.
Returning to Awana, a place from which I expected nothing, you continue through a Spartan bar with red leather chairs, then into a canteen-like room with shiny tables, no cloths, and with a kitchen just visible at the end. There was horrific piped music coming through. I asked our waiter, Jeff Oh, if he could turn it off. He turned it down. Then it came back.
I said: "There's nobody here so could you please turn this awful music off." Jeff said: "There are some people at a table over there." I said: "Well, ask them if they'd mind if the music was turned off." He said: "I'll change it!" I said: "No, don't change it. It sounds like a dying duck. Turn it off." He did.
Geraldine said: "Do they put the music on so they can't hear people burp and fart?" She may have been referring to me, but I didn't wish to pursue the matter.
"Your starter will come first and then your main course," Jeff explained. He obviously realised, quite correctly, I had no idea of restaurant procedures at all.
From an enormous menu Jeff recommended for Geraldine prawn satay with a spicy peanut sauce and for me corn-fed chicken satay. Jeff assured me they used the chicken thigh instead of the chicken breast, which is apparently better. He also brought some little squares of garlic bread with dahl sauce. It was an absolutely wonderful first course. Tasty, different, delicious. I was pleasantly surprised.
Jeff also kept my water glass filled and the ice cubes ever present. He was an excellent waiter.
Our main-course plates were hot, which is more than they are in many posher places. What went on them was sensational. I had slow-cooked tender beef rendang, meltingly tender slow-cooked rib in coconut milk curry, accompanied by a bowl of coconut yoghurt, Awana blended herbs and some coconut rice. A total delight. Geraldine had asam kari lautan seafood curry simmered with tomato, okra and Asian herbs. I tasted that. Sensational.
There was a large dessert menu including a gin and tonic sorbet. Jeff, who was now my new best friend, suggested the roti tisu -thin, sweetened crispy bread served with cinnamon ice cream and chocolate sauce. So along came this enormous cone-shaped pancake, totally crisp, supported on a metal frame. The chocolate sauce was poured over it and you broke bits off.
Then a lovely waitress, Jenise, said: "This is durian, a big fruit with a spike sticking out, and here's another speciality, chilli sorbet with lemongrass."
Geraldine, who never eats desserts, other than creme brulee, was breaking off bits of this crisp whatever covered with chocolate sauce as if her life depended on it. "It's disgustingly delicious," she rightly observed.
Even our starter prawn crackers were wonderfully spicy. The downside was they only had Hildon water. Otherwise, without being pretentious, Awana is simply terrific. With service far more efficient and charming than at most grander places.
Now to something equally serious: pork sausages. The best pork sausages in London, and possibly the entire universe, come from a small butcher's shop in Barons Court called HG Walter. I've had a lot of their meat and that was all marvellous, too. It's run by dad Peter Heanen, his two sons Adam and Daniel, and his daughter Clare. I've never met them and I don't have shares. As always I just offer you the benefit of my experience and supreme wisdom.
You complained that Brunello's chicken was "lifeless". Did you expect it to be served alive?
Roger Bowder, Leicestershire
It's untrue to say the most bizarre thing that ever happened to you in a restaurant was being given bread at the wrong time at Brunello. I remember you recounting something more extraordinary years ago - that you enjoyed a restaurant meal.
Robin Fletcher, Plymouth
I can see from last week's column nothing has changed at Brunello. When it first opened they offered diners 50% off. They charged us full price! When I showed the manager their invite popped through our door he claimed not to know of it. The food and service were pseudo. It was like eating in Liberace's coffin.
Nicci Parnell, Kensington
The weekly photo of Michael with the restaurant chef or manager normally portrays the nervous smile and terrified eyes of another victim on his way to the gallows. There's a streak of cruelty here - often justified!
Don Roberts, Cheshire
You mentioned, on August 12, La Poule au Pot was there in 1962. In Cynthia Lennon's book she mentions the Beatles went in 1965 at the behest of Brian Epstein. Bad luck you were placed near the kitchen door. It could have been the lavatories, so stop moaning!
Ian Braime, Chesterfield
Send letters to Winner's Dinners, The Sunday Times, 1 Pennington Street, London E98 1ST or e-mail michael.winner@sunday times.co.uk