Published 21 September 2008 News Review 792nd article
Michael at Byron burger bar with Ruby Snape, left, and Dinah May
Food critics are the most useless, pathetic group on the planet. They're only a millimetre above public relations people. No insult could be greater.
"But you're a food critic," I hear you say. If you think that, the men in white coats should take you away. I'm apoplectic because two critics, writing for "respectable" publications, said the hamburgers at my local dump, Byron, were the best in London. They're the worst ever.
Byron is beyond belief terrible.
Which is a pity as the premises, overlooking Holland Park, were previously inhabited by Ask, which was rather good.
Like the canaries sent down the mines to test the air, my lovely PA Ruby checked out Byron. That she came back alive is a miracle. She certainly came back smelling of cooking fat. Dinah, my assistant, noticed at once.
Ruby said, "I smelt like a burger going home on the Tube." Better to smell like them than eat them, I say.
I went with Ruby (she was forced under threat of dismissal), my assistant Dinah May and my adorable fiancee Geraldine. She said, "I hope the smell doesn't attach itself to my jumper."
We got them to open a window, but the people at the next table objected. When the window was open the smell of frying burgers was blown inwards. When closed, it blasted us.
Some fried courgettes arrived. A clumsy and heavy batter. Very poor.
The menu declares, "Our buns are baked by a fourth generation family baker in the East End. They are just the right size and taste great, the perfect partner for your hamburger." Both bun and hamburger were awful. The bun tasted as if it had just come, unheated, from the deep freeze.
To add insult to insult we ordered at 1.10pm and it took 40 minutes, in a restaurant far from full, for our burgers to be served.
I pointed out to the manager, Neil Remedios, my bun was cold. He said, "Shall I get another one?"
"I can't wait 40 minutes again," I replied.
The meat was dreary, tasteless, heavy. On the opposite side of the same building, the hamburgers at Sticky Fingers are a million times better - and it has chilli con carne as a side order. The Ivy hamburger is near perfect. Byron is owned by the same group that has Pizza Express and Ask.
"I'm glad I've never been here before," said Geraldine. "This is the worst business decision Ask ever made." Ruby and Dinah agreed.
Everyone's bun was cold. "All that nonsense about them being made in the East End," I said. "They taste like they were made in the fridge."
Ruby described her onion rings as "boring" and the hand-cut chips as "greasy". I tried them. She was right.
A chip we split open was all black, brown and yucky. Neil said he thought it was the skin of the potato. "I wouldn't take it to a laboratory," I responded. "I'm not sure they'd agree."
The "home-made cheesecake" was sickly and clammy. "It really is appalling, this place, absolutely appalling," I dictated onto my tape. Yet two food critics said it was the best. They're bonkers.
So is Ramon Martin, UK boss of American Express. It's unbelievable. It declined to meet my £323 payment to a restaurant. When we rang Amex, some twit said my credit was stopped because "the amount on the bill was rather high".
A bill we hadn't even been sent was £54,603 so far that month. "Who cares?"
I pointed out to Ramon Martin. "My monthly Amex bill was £186,432 in February 2007. No one stopped my credit. It was, as always, promptly paid. That year Amex pocketed £367,915 from me."
Moments before my credit was stopped, I received a ludicrous letter from Gary Wares, "manager, credit services". He wrote, "We have recently tried to contact you by telephone without success."
"Don't you teach your staff how to dial?" I asked Ramon Martin. "My phones are all working." The account was back and running within an hour.
Ramon is writing to the firms that had my credit rejected to apologise. So he should. He had the impertinence to write to me, "I have asked Anna Edwards to contact you to discuss your future spending requirements."
"Are you mad, Ramon?" I asked. "I neither know nor care what my future spending requirements are. They're whatever turns up from day to day, week to week, month to month. All that matters is that I can pay any bill you send and have done for 42 years. You should be delighted to have such a high-rolling cardholder."
I'm writing to his boss Kenneth J Chenault, Amex chairman, in New York, suggesting Ramon be sent back to South America, from whence he came, to herd yaks and llamas. If American Express doesn't have yaks or llamas, it should buy some. Anything to get Ramon out of my life.
You wrote last week the bath tap at the San Pietro was a eunuch with an enormous erection. Excuse me, how could a eunuch ever achieve an erection, enormous or otherwise?
Colin Stuart, London
Never mind eunuchs with erections, I see you and Geraldine gazed admiringly at an island called Gallo Lungo - Italian for "lengthy cock".
Howard Broadwell, Nottingham
I've been touched in recent weeks to see in Winner's photos that, despite your own great love of food, you've allowed your grandfather to take your place. No doubt, like the rest of us you remain home and tuck into a credit crunch supper of beans or toast or gruel. Humility has come almost to define you.
Chris Buckley, Gloucestershire
Heston Blumenthal may be the epitome of cool, but our experience at his Hinds Head hotel suggests he may be carried away with his epithet. The restaurant was chilly, the food lukewarm and the service haphazard. One of our party said he'd eaten better at a Harvester.
Suzanna Becks, Maidenhead
Send letters to Winner's Dinners, The Sunday Times, 1 Pennington Street, London E98 1ST or e-mail michael.winner@sunday times.co.uk