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Not at all bad for a place with three Michelin stars

Published 3 August 2008
News Review
785th article

Michael with Jean-Michel Lorain, chef-owner of La Cote Saint Jacques (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)

I don't like restaurants with three Michelin stars. The food is usually overproduced, the staff snooty, the atmosphere gloomy. People go there to worship false gods. There are exceptions. When Gordon Ramsay cooked in the kitchen (can he even fry an egg now?), the food at his Chelsea place was miraculous. I remember Gordon when he was so broke, skint would have been an upgrade. I'm delighted he's now joined us millionaires.

I first went to Heston Blumenthal, unquestionably the nicest chef on the planet, when his Fat Duck in Bray had no stars. I've not been back to try the three-star offerings. When he had two stars, a waiter came and said to me: "Open your mouth." He then shoved a teaspoon of a delicious concoction into it. I said to Heston, when we had our usual meeting in the little garden at the back, "I know I'm old and senile but I'm capable of lifting a teaspoon. I don't need to be force-fed. I'm not a goose." The meal had been marvellous.

When I went to visit my illustrious friend Leslie Caron, I couldn't get into her four-room hotel, La Lucarne aux Chouettes, because it was full. It's now even fuller. Leslie tells me Sunday Times readers have followed my advice and telephoned endlessly for accommodation and dining. So I stayed in nearby Joigny at a three-Michelin-star restaurant-hotel, La Cote Saint Jacques.

We sat on a terrace overlooking the river. Don't ask me what river. It was wide and had water in it. That for me is a river. We enjoyed a great local cocktail with Cremant de Bourgogne fizzy wine, oranges, lemons and Campari. Dinner was startlingly good, the decor of the suite amazingly grotesque. Horrid purple cloth on the walls, with big gold squiggles. The 1970s look gone wrong. Some of the suites had been redone. Geraldine said: "I don't think ours has, because two light switches are hanging off the wall and one of the metal curtain holdbacks is broken." Out-of-character wooden extended bay windows looked onto the wooden deck roof of an extension. There was no hair conditioner in the bathroom. The public rooms were somewhat better.

Our first dinner was in a pleasant restaurant overlooking the river, presumably the same one seen earlier from the terrace. I mean, how many rivers can there be in Joigny? The food was a total delight. The superchef Jean Michel Lorain was ever-present. If you're around that part of Burgundy, go. Have a bite or two.

There was sensational bread; green asparagus with truffle sauce; ginger accented hearts of veal sweetbreads with pearl onions, rhubarb and young radishes; crispy frog's leg, gazpacho aspic and sun-dried tomatoes with chlorophyll sauce; home-made blood sausage with potato puree. All sounds over fancy, but it was exquisite. Desserts included strawberry mousse with a basil and olive oil sorbet; a lime souffle with passion fruit ice cream; sweet and sour cherries, with morello cherry mousse and rhubarb sorbet. Plus an enormous number of irresistible freebie things thrown at you every minute. This place is definitely superior. They weren't very good at crumbing down - that's wiping crumbs off the table.

For my second dinner I was put in a horrid dining room, not nearly as grand as the first one, with lousy service and the view obstructed by a terrace. Perhaps they got fed up with me. Who wouldn't?

I recently returned to the best hotel in Venice, the Cipriani. Enormous gardens, gargantuan swimming pool. A drink with Dr Natale Rusconi, who retired last year, aged 81, after 30 years as the hotel's general manager. Natale was the best ever. Even the usually packed downstairs bar-restaurant at Harry's Bar wasn't full. Everywhere in Venice takings are down at least 30 per cent on last year. Americans aren't travelling.

The Cipriani is now headed by Maurizio Saccani. He who wrote me a dumb letter when I criticised the hotel Caruso in Ravello. Every so-called fact he presented was wrong. "I dictated it while in the car," Maurizio explained later. Why should the vice-president, Italy, of Orient-Express Hotels knock off a petulant, unresearched letter from a car? Dr Rusconi would never have done anything so lacking in sobriety. Maurizio has, however, beautifully redecorated the corridor leading to my Cipriani accommodation, known as the Jim Sherwood suite. Sherwood's the founder of Orient-Express and my hotel hero.

Maurizio should now organise a suite makeover. The carpets are filthy. What looks like a bloodstain, which they tried to get off with carpet cleaner, glares at you. Around it the carpet colour has gone. The curtains are frayed. This suite costs €5,610 a night. At €1.20 to the pound, which is as good as you're likely to get in the real world, that's £4,675 a night. Clean carpets and new curtains urgently required. Stop writing stupid letters, Mr Saccani, and get on with it.

Michael's letters

Last week Michael uttered the classic (if not historic) sentence "Go by private jet as I did", I couldn't decide if he was being breathtakingly patronising, or attempting humour. When my wife read this letter she said, "Don't worry, dear - it's only a column."
Jim McDonald, Perthshire

I can't make up my mind whether the new colour pictures are taken in Madame Tussauds (not a very convincing Michael Winner, if so) or lifted from a "spot the ball" competition. If so, the ball is under the front of Michael's shirt.
Tim Burton, Wokingham

Our wedding anniversary was at Sharrow Bay. We wondered if it was because you were also a guest that the chef was on top form. If this was the case, when are you going to return? We'll be there!
Libby Gardner, Bedfordshire

At last I agree with you about something. At the two-Michelin-starred Capital hotel in Knightsbridge I enjoyed the food tremendously, but the Hildon water - what a letdown.
Benedict Clarkson, London

Lunch for two at the Rainbow Inn near Lewes was an amazing £79.88, including 65p plus 12 per cent "voluntary" service charge for a glass of tap water termed "Splash". We shall not be returning!
Jack Kefford, East Sussex

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