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A bad week, on the ground and up in the air

Published 30 March 2008
News Review
767th article

Michael at Le Cafe Anglais with manager Graham Williams, left, and chef Rowley Leigh (Matthew Norman)

Rowley Leigh worked for years at Kensington Place, a noisy, moderate restaurant. But very successful. Then he was head chef at West Street, a disastrous dump a few doors from the Ivy.

The posh bit was on the first floor but it got such lousy reviews I tried their pizza place at ground level. Without doubt the worst pizza in the history of the world. Someone, perhaps Rowley as he was top dog, had tried to make it totally different. In that they succeeded. It was different and awful. The whole shebang closed fairly speedily. Last year Rowley ventured solo with Le Cafe Anglais. I wished him luck in this column.

Unfortunately he took premises in Whiteleys shopping mall in Queensway. For those who hate malls, a door in Porchester Gardens leads to a tiny lobby. There a bored-looking girl sat behind a desk. She offered no greeting.

"What floor do I take the lift to?" I asked. "First," came the monosyllabic reply.

At the restaurant reception I said my friend Matthew Norman, food critic of The Guardian, who'd raved about Le Cafe Anglais, had booked. Surly girl number two studied the computer as if I'd asked for Einstein's theory of relativity in ancient Greek. The computer wasn't telling anything. Why don't they have a reservations book? A man joined her in staring, helpless, at the screen.

I walked into the restaurant. If I don't I'll be late for dinner, never mind lunch, I thought. I was eventually shown a nice booth.

My all-time favourite chef, Simon Hopkinson, a small shareholder in Le Cafe Anglais, came over. He was great at Bibendum where he had a nervous breakdown in the kitchen (not because I was a regular), quit cooking and wrote a phenomenally successful recipe book.

Matthew arrived after they'd offered me two horrid waters, Hildon and tap. Seeing the very small glass into which my water was being poured, Matthew said, "It's Alice in Wonderland mini-world." He asked for white wine.

The excellent restaurant manager, Graham Williams, appeared. We ordered kipper pate, parmesan custard with anchovy toast ("outstanding" said the waiter), pimentos de padron, salsify fritters (which turned out to be off because the fryer had collapsed) and rabbit rillettes with pickled endive. The parmesan custard was brilliant. The rest, okay.

"There's 10 minutes on the wine at least," said Matthew. I gave them a few stony words and it arrived speedily thereafter. "There's something very dangerous in this rabbit," Matthew reported. "It's as though there's shot in it, or someone's lost a tooth."

My friend Jeremy Irons met me at the Queen's dentist, whom I also frequent, and said, "You're too old to have teeth, Michael." If I had eaten this rabbit I might not have had any. Or choked. So I stopped.

My beef hash with poached egg was cloying, stuck together far more than it should be. Matthew ate most of mine. The main course was a disaster. Grilled sardines tasted of cotton wool. The red cabbage was beyond belief ghastly.

"It is poor," admitted Matthew. He uses Nigella Lawson's Christmas recipe, adding port and cloves. My housekeeper, Alice, does red cabbage from Whole Foods Market quite brilliantly. She cooks it with sliced apples, which melt, red wine vinegar, sultanas and mixed spices. Rowley's tasted as if he'd bunged it in hot water with nothing added to help.

The dessert chocolate souffle was stupendous; the pistachio ice cream the best ever. Matthew raved about his mango and rhubarb sorbets. There were many empty tables. Surprising, as I keep reading it's always packed.

  • Now to private jets. You think paying thousands of pounds instead of £99 you'd have a good time. Not always. On my recent flight to Palma we were offered the worst sandwiches ever. Over-thick, soggy white bread slices with something in the middle so thin it was invisible. A fruit tray was on the schedule. Perhaps it was in the upholstery.

    My friend Nick Messer of European Business Jets said they'd hired in a plane as they were busy. He declined to give me the company's name.

    On the way back I spent two hours in a tiny room in Palma airport because Nick's jet was late. Why couldn't I have been telephoned, warned and allowed to stay on the lovely balcony of La Residencia hotel in Deia?

    Perhaps Nick didn't realise Don Ameche had invented the phone. He's the actor who starred in The Story of Alexander Graham Bell in 1939. For years people would say, "You're wanted on the Ameche." Bit of film history there to end today's sermon.

    Winner's letters

    What a pleasure it is each week to turn to your column and find a photo of the delightful Geraldine. The pleasure would be vastly enhanced if you could stand in the background when the picture is taken - about half a mile in the background would be good. If we could have a photo of Geraldine without you, Sunday will be a whole lot better.
    Nigel Parks, Surrey

    There were two Sealyham terriers in the Olden hotel dining room when you arrived but it seems only one when you left. From last week's photo it appears that Geraldine was wearing the other one. Hope it kept her warm. Would not advise wearing it in the UK.
    Don Roberts, Cheshire

    MW confides that Wikipedia has reported his death in recent months. It's difficult to ascertain whether this is wishful thinking or the hope of a self fulfilling prophecy on its part.
    Robert Randell, London

    I agree with Winner, the British Airways boss, wee Willie Walsh, is not my favourite either. On a flight from Manchester to Belfast the flight attendant was extremely rude. He smelt and looked like he was sweating out the previous night's booze. I wrote a letter of complaint to BA months ago and am still awaiting a reply. I no longer use BA.
    J McLuskey, Belfast

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