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The 'in' place and, luckily, not out of focus

Published 16 November 2007
News Review
752nd article



Matthew Norman spent years slagging me off when he wrote the Guardian Diary. He announced how pleased he was I had a low sperm count and couldn't have children because another Winner in the world would be ghastly beyond belief.

I don't know how it happened, but some time ago we became very good friends and I got the most lowly paid job in the world as cartoonist for the Guardian Diary.

Occasionally Matthew and I meet for lunch. His career has gone downhill since his diary days. He now writes the Guardian's food reviews.

Everyone knows food critics are at the absolute bottom of a deep pit. Thus two ocean-floor monsters went to lunch at Hereford Road, Notting Hill's newish, supposedly "in" restaurant.

The place was empty when I arrived, except for Jeremy Paxman waiting for someone terribly important at the BBC.

I surveyed the pleasant room with a round glass "window" in the ceiling.

Matthew and Llanllyr Source organic water from Wales arrived at the same time. Our waitress, Caroline, didn't have a pad. She said, "I remember."

I've had more wrong courses from people who say they remember than I care to mention. But as there were only two of us I reckoned we stood a chance.

I started with potted shrimps, which were fine. Matthew had braised cuttlefish and fennel, which he was most enthusiastic about. I took some, spilt a bit of it on the wooden table, wiped it with my napkin and asked for a new one.

As Caroline gave it to me I said, "You got the first course right, so you're halfway there." She was very good at constantly replacing my ice. Not many staff remember that.

For my main course I ordered braised beef cheek and pickled walnut. It had "1pm" by it on the menu. As it was 11 minutes past 1, I was okay. It came with mash and I ordered creamed spinach meaning to order spinach puree.

I do that all the time. It was fine but not earth-shattering.

Matthew had wood pigeon, sprout tops and lentils. I've got wood pigeons galore in my extensive garden. Maybe I should shoot them and flog 'em to Hereford Road's chef-patron Tom Pemberton.

Matthew then had rhubarb sorbet, which he liked. I had so-called treacle tart, which I definitely didn't.

Yet again (remember Bumpkin last week?) it had no taste of treacle. Someone interviewing me on radio said treacle tart from Marks & Spencer was good. Good, maybe. Available, no. My housekeeper went nine days running and it didn't have any.

There were only eight people in the restaurant. Matthew said, "The room's a bit bleak, maybe you could lend them some of your paintings."

My mint tea was bizarre. It was a cup with a lot of mint floating in it. I've been drinking mint tea for 233 years. Never seen anything like it.

Normally the mint is in a teapot or a cafetiere. I had to take the mint leaves out and put them on the saucer before I could drink anything.

I tried using my American Express card to pay the bill and forgot the Pin number three times. Pity. I get nice presents from Amex on my points.

Miraculously I remembered my Mastercard Pin. Then I asked Tom, "Can your waitress take the photo?"

Matthew said, "She should be in the picture, she's the only one of us who looks decent."

A nice lady in a booth offered to take the photo. "No thanks," I responded. So Caroline held my 35mm camera away from her as if it was a digital camera.

"Not like that!" I snapped. Then she tried pressing the button to take the picture and after two goes, nothing happened. "You're fired," I said, and turned to the woman volunteer. "Come on, dear, you're on."

So this lovely lady tried, and the flash didn't flash. "Now you're fired," I said.

"Bring the waitress back." She tried again. Still no flash.

At this point I inspected my Leica camera. The battery had run out. The tension in this job is at times almost unbearable. Still, as you can see, one of Caroline's shots worked.

As we left I noticed Tom had great burns and slashes all over his arm. "He's a self-mutilator," explained Matthew. Tom assured us it was quite normal when you work in a kitchen. Never happens to me when I scramble eggs.

In Harper's Bazaar Going Out Guide the index said the Wolseley (great place, marvellous roast beef), the Ivy and Le Caprice were on page five. They weren't. No wonder I avoid glossies. Full of mindless, overdressed twits. They're also useless at making lists.



Michael's missives

You wrote of kobe beef last week. I was told in Tokyo kobe cows were fed on beer and massaged every day. It's almost worth being one.
Robin Ashby, Newcastle upon Tyne

I see from last week's photo you have a walking stick. Use it to chastise errant waiters, trip them up as they leave with your dishes after a below-par meal, or wave it about to get attention instead of the white napkin.
J M Smith, Oxfordshire

I agree with you about Great Queen Street (Winner's Dinners, November 25). When our wine arrived we were given tumblers. We complained and the waitress told us house wine was served in tumblers. If we'd ordered more expensive wine we'd have got wine glasses. What pretentious claptrap!
Colette Bone, Dorset

You boast about the countless lovers/victims you've had, so how come you're not an expert on skirt? Last week you said you didn't know what it was when on a menu. It's the most splendid cut of meat that makes a marvellous winter dish of steak.
Anthony Shelmerdine, Manchester

Michael modestly told us on Radio 4 he sent out 3,000 personally signed Christmas cards. Half of them, he added, were to people he'd never heard of. Any lingering doubts about his sanity are over.
Jonnie Hok, Hampshire

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