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It feels like spring compared to the old regime

Published 2 December 2007
News Review
750th article



The last time I ate lunch at the Four Seasons hotel in Mayfair was on November 5, 1995. I went some years later for tea to be haughtily informed by the duty manager, Rachel Begbie, when I said, "Why are you serving teabags?" that they only served loose tea, never teabags.

As she said this a second pot of tea arrived with teabag tags hanging out of it.

She never apologised, just walked off in a huff as she'd been made to look ridiculous. That remains one of the most inept examples of hotel management ever. So I never went back. Until recently, when the adorable Geraldine, Ruby, my lovely PA, and I visited its Lanes restaurant for Sunday lunch.

In 1995 their chef was the dreaded Jean-Christophe Novelli. He later opened five restaurants in London, which were so awful they went broke. The bailiffs were called in. I hate to think of how many staff and suppliers were left unpaid.

Mr Novelli continued his downward fall by going to Auberge du Lac in Hertfordshire, where he got a miserable two stars from the AA Guide and was fired according to the management. Mr Novelli, not unnaturally, claims he left of his own accord.

He now has his name on a tacky pub in Harpenden where the sign outside says, "A touch of Novelli". "A kiss of death" would be more appropriate. "What a bitchy old queen you are," I hear you say. Bitchy, yes. A queen, no. But who knows what the future has in store?

Back to the current Four Seasons restaurant. It looks terrific. There's an outer restaurant with bird prints. The main one has large windows overlooking Park Lane, very attractively rimmed in modern stained glass. There's a stained glass buffet lit from underneath, topped in marble.

The hotel manager, Annabel Shaw, greeted me, the restaurant manager, Gregory Viaud, took over and the executive sous-chef, Damien Chorley, added to the superb warmth of welcome and service.

I had smoked salmon and gravadlax from the buffet. Geraldine had an assortment, including a marvellous smoked halibut pate.

Then Geraldine did her wine tasting cabaret. She swills it around her mouth. She thinks it over. The suspense is mesmerising. This time she found it acceptable.

Sometimes she doesn't.

For real starters Ruby loved her scallops, Geraldine had nothing but praise for her whipped potatoes with globe artichoke crisps, Alba truffle and rocket leaves (Pounds 26). My fried egg on a bed of creamed spinach topped with white truffles (Pounds 24) was unbeatable.

The atmosphere was buzzy and busy. One lady came over to say she was losing weight on my Fat Pig Diet book. Another asked Ruby if she was my daughter. Then we were given an utterly marvellous Alba truffle and cep risotto.

It was all going splendidly and continued so for Geraldine and Ruby with their main course. Ruby had lamb, Geraldine, black cod. Their praise was unbounded.

I, a true traditionalist, had roast beef from the trolley. I asked them to make me fresh Yorkshire pudding instead of the stuff that was hanging about on the trolley. This could have been a mistake.

It was the worst Yorkshire pudding I've ever eaten. Soggy, no crispness, no soft interior. Just totally revolting. Whoever made it should be sent to Yorkshire for pudding lessons or demoted to wash plates.

The beef wasn't much good either. No real taste. There's great roast beef at the Goring hotel, Simpson's-in-the-Strand -and it used to be fantastic at the now ruined Dorchester Grill.

Desserts weren't up to much either. My chocolate brownie with macadamia nuts and chocolate truffle was heavy and cloying. Geraldine, a world expert on creme brulee, gave hers a weak mark. Ruby had cheesecake, which was okay but not splendid.

When Annabel came back for the photo I said, "I have a serious complaint. Ruby came early and had coffee in your lounge. She took The Sunday Times to read my article, but there was no News Review section."

Annabel looked crestfallen, as well she might. As we got to the car she ran out to advise, "No Sunday Times delivered to the hotel today had a News Review section." This happened once at the London Clinic. The half-dead patients, including me, nearly rioted.

This requires a major inquest from News International executives. Without News Review and its gloriously interesting articles, the world's greatest newspaper is severely damaged. I expect a report on the management's findings to reach my desk by next Wednesday.

In the meantime the Four Seasons restaurant, in spite of a few faults, is a very jolly place to go. I definitely recommend it.



Michael's missives

What a week! First Michael finds himself matching Great Queen Street's prune-coloured wallpaper, then doesn't ask if everyone got hare containing potentially fatal bits of bone. Then he fails to notice the waitress gave him a false name - not Ana Dias but "an adias", which looks like Spanish for "Goodbye, prune face".
Tim Burton Wokingham

So Michael didn't notice the "specials blackboard". I thought it obligatory that these be unobtrusive. For your waitress to know the specials is remarkable. Normally staff don't even know the soup of the day.
Don Roberts, Cheshire

Last week's photo outside Great Queen Street shows Geraldine becoming more lovely by the week. One would have thought some of her charm and poise would have rubbed off on you. Fat chance!
Dennis Pallis, Kent

As a 14-year-old whose idea of gourmet cuisine is Tesco Finest I don't read your column solely for the food descriptions. Recently I've been wondering why I read it at all. However, last week, your writing talents finally returned. Congratulations.
Amy Brown, Hertfordshire

You may have had 150 lovers, but if you arrive home covered in love bites Geraldine would never get suspicious because she knows they'd be self inflicted.
Stanley Silver, Hertfordshire

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