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You're no longer the weakest link, Mr Chow

Published 20 April 2008
News Review
770th article

Michael with Anne Robinson at the dining table at Michael's house in Holland Park (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)

Michael Chow's sister Tsai Chin was in the oddest film I ever made, The Cool Mikado in 1962. She went on to greater things. Her brother Michael was a major Sixties figure, famous for Mr Chow, a restaurant in Knightsbridge much inhabited by the gliterati of the day, from Princess Margaret to Peter Sellers.

Michael Chow moved to Los Angeles and opened a successful Mr Chow restaurant there. The London one sank deeper and deeper into ghastly.

When I went in September 2002 the headline to this column was "Ciao, Mr Chow - you won't be seeing me again". I wrote of that visit, "This is the worst Chinese food I've eaten in 100 years."

Readers with an IQ over 10 will realise I hadn't been eating Chinese food for 100 years in 2002. So what? I heard recently that Mr Chow had considerably improved. Well, it could only go up.

When Sir Michael Caine asked Geraldine and me to his wedding anniversary dinner there not long ago, his wife Shakira assured me it was now very good. I believed them. They know more about food than me. Mind you, so does a passing tourist from Mesopotamia. Does Mesopotamia still exist?

I duly turned up, the first of 10 guests, to be met with cold looks from all the staff who obviously had long memories and recalled my previous visit.

The restaurant manager asked, "Are you with Mr Michael Caine?" What's the point of being knighted if restaurant managers don't even know it happened?

"It's not Mr Caine, it's Sir Michael," I responded somewhat icily. To reveal other bad points: they served Hildon water and had European piped music. I hate them both.

After that though, a miracle. Everything was fantastically good. I never saw him order, but Michael said he'd ordered for the whole group. "I didn't hear that," I observed.

"I'm very quick and crafty," responded Michael.

The service was fast beyond belief, just as I like it. Suddenly there were braised prawns with walnuts, sea bass, "velvet chicken", seaweed, chopped chicken with lettuce and squab, beans, mixed dumplings, rice-paper-wrapped prawns.

"It's all coming too fast," said Michael. "Hang on a minute or we'll be out before 9pm." Then finger bowls appeared. "The finger bowls are delicious, you'll love them," said Michael.

Then we got vegetarian spring rolls, fish dumplings on top with something green underneath - all of it impeccable, great, tasty, a triumph. They must have fired everyone in the kitchen since my earlier visit.

Then came a sort of cabaret. A Chinese man made noodles by crashing dough onto a wooden tabletop. It was just behind Sir Michael. "I'd have worn earplugs if I'd known," he observed. It all ended up with very thin noodles and applause from the customers.

Then another round of food was delivered: green prawns, bean sprouts, some sort of whole fish, spicy chicken strips, string beans, it was endless. I ate everything.

"I hope you saved enough for the Peking duck, which is now coming," said Michael.

"I've had eight meals already," I observed, just as a lemon sorbet appeared followed by the most marvellous, crisp, juicy Peking duck.

"You've ordered very well," Shakira said to Michael. She was right. I should take him wherever I go. Save me reading the menu.

The Chow staff put a new cloth down and desserts were piled on the table - strawberry tart, various flans, lemon tart, pear tart, chocolate cheesecake, marinated oranges, lychees. I stuck to the chocolate cheesecake, which was phenomenal. That was a good meal. To put it mildly.

As it was a private function I didn't take my camera. A few days later Anne Robinson came to my house to lunch. She's photographed at my dining table. I can't remember what I gave her, as I don't tape record when seated at home. But she claimed to like it, which was probably true, because my Portuguese cook, Alice, can be very good.

We get most of our food from Whole Foods Market in Kensington High Street with meat from HG Walter in Barons Court.

My friend, top photographer Terry O'Neill, explained how to cook pork so it tastes great and has sensational crackling on it. You wipe the pork dry with a paper towel, cover it with salt and rub the salt in, put it in a hot oven already heated to 220C to 240C. Keep it at that heat for half an hour, then turn the oven down to 180C and keep it in for another hour and a half. It works perfectly. Nigella Lawson, eat your heart out.

Winner's letters

So Mr Winner thinks Spain is a stupid place and the food is dreary. Lovers of Spain should console themselves that this comes from a man who, on Desert Island Discs, chose Blame It on the Boogie by The Jacksons as one of his top 10 songs. No need for us to worry about Michael's qualifications on anything.
Simon Kenna, Portugal

I fully agree with your comments about Spanish food. I've lived on the Costa del Sol for over 20 years - I loathe tapas and Spanish food. I've travelled all over Spain and never found one meal that I enjoyed.
Glyn Parsons, Mijas Costa, Spain

You must feel well and truly upstaged by Naomi Campbell after she was banned from flying with British Airways. You merely lost your Privilege card. Shows you were far too polite. Rumour has it that when asked if you felt vindicated in the light of the terminal 5 debacle you replied: "My case rests." Along with everyone else's obviously!
Richard Thompson, Pattaya, Thailand

What an awful experience we had at Luciano in St James's for our wedding anniversary. Empty restaurant, zero ambience, pricey food done with no care. I even got someone else's bill! Cheaper so I'd have paid, but they realised. Marco Pierre White is now off my menu.
Darryll Warnford-Davies, Putney, London