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What a funny place. The north, I think they called it

Published 28 September 2008
News Review
793rd article



Some readers think I don't know where north is. When I was in Worcestershire I said I'd offer three more northern reviews this year. Steve West from Cardiff wrote: "If Michael thinks Worcestershire is up north he'd better get another sat nav." From Wigan, David Layland wrote: "Fourth review of a northern place, you say, and it's Kidderminster, in Worcestershire. Suggest you need a geography lesson." Listen, Dave and Steve, I know exactly where north is. It starts at Golders Green and then goes on relentlessly.

Not even my greatest critic could say Newcastle is not in the north. I went for lunch there at Jesmond Dene House, a hotel co-owned by Terry Laybourne.

Terry used to be chef-owner of 21 Queen Street, a local Michelin-starred restaurant. Then he opened three more places under the "21" name, decided he ought to be cooking in his Michelin-star restaurant, but wasn't, so he closed it. Unlike Gordon Ramsay, who seldom cooks in his three-Michelin-starred restaurant. Just keeps opening millions more.

First, Terry said we should meet at Bistro 21. Then he changed his mind and said: "Come to my hotel, Jesmond Dene House."

"Will you be there?" I asked.

"No," said Terry.

"Then I'm not coming," I said.

Terry responded: "I'll come in specially for you."

"Will you be cooking?" I asked.

"Don't push your luck," said Terry.

So Geraldine and I turned up at this rather odd 1827 building. Terry explained it had been a naughty girls' school. I've known a few of those in my time. Delightful people. Added to Terry's 1827 house were bizarre structures of thick Swedish bare wood and glass. Typical ghastly northern taste. Exceptionally nice people, the northerners. No idea about clothes, buildings, hairstyles, anything. The dining room had a red wall and a grey wall. Typical northern idea of decoration. The chairs were orange rattan. They swizzled like an office chair. I like that. Gives you something to do. The main stairway featured a hideous oil painting of a nude. "I like it," said Geraldine, then she explained to Terry: "He's so old-fashioned." She meant me.

She's wrong, of course. I ordered confit of duck foie gras, pickled figs and young leaves, followed by roast loin of Aberdeen Angus beef, young vegetables (everything's described as "young" here) and Yorkshire pudding. "Get that moving - I don't want to wait for hours," I instructed the waiter. The restaurant manager came in. I explained: "We've ordered. Will you see we get it, please?"

He replied: "Fantastic."

I said to Terry: "What's that remark got to do with anything?"

Terry said: "He's from Spain; he's struggling to concentrate today."

The food was okay. Nowhere near the quality that Terry produced when he was in the kitchen. The beef was cut too thin. The roast potatoes looked very odd. They were awful. Terry kindly brought out some pommes soufflees. He'd read they were my favourites. They're little fried potato balloons. Terry rightly said: "They could be a bit crisper." They were limp and distressed.

But the Yorkshire pudding was very good. "That's difficult to do," I said.

"Difficult for a Frenchman, believe me," said Terry.

He left before the end of the meal. I'd asked for the piped music to be silenced. When Terry left, it came on again. I said to the restaurant manager: "I think Terry asked for the music to be turned off."

He responded: "He asked for it to be turned off when he was speaking to you."

I said: "No, he asked for it to be turned off because I said it was revolting."

"I'll turn it off again," said the restaurant manager. It was all very northern.

They say no cloud is without a silver lining. I never expected one in my friend John Cleese's divorce. But, inspired by the awfulness of it, he's writing a script with the marvellous title May Divorce Be With You. Geddit? Star Wars. May the force be with you. We enjoyed a very good lunch at the Belvedere in Holland Park recently. The three-course set menu at Pounds 19.95 is terrific value.

For John, it seems the Relief of Mafeking could be in sight. The court appearance to finalise things is set for February 2009. "After that I'll be a free man," sighed John.

Another laugh in the saga: John's longtime assistant Garry Scott-Irvine was speaking to a mutual friend of his and John's wife Alyce. Apparently Alyce was saying she isn't sure how she's going to survive. "She's currently on Pounds 20,000 a week support, plus a house in London, an apartment in New York and a $10m beach house in Santa Barbara. Even I could live on that," responded Garry. He didn't mention that Alyce will probably also get another $10m in the final settlement. John has an 18ft-square room in Holland Park and a cottage in Santa Barbara. Teach him not to have a prenup, I say.



Michael's missives

What excitement! What glamour! Three smashing blondes in last week's Byron photo. Then I put on my specs. What disappointment! One of them was you with a perm.
Alan Rind, London

I'm not surprised American Express declined to pay your restaurant bill of Pounds 323. It obviously considered it fraudulent, as someone of your ostentatious and wasteful nature would never spend such a paltry amount on food.
Michael Perks, Exeter

Like you, I received a letter from Gary Wares of Amex stopping my card without foundation and with no evidence they'd tried to contact me. In the same post, Amex's boss, Ramon Martin, wrote offering me a new line of extended credit!
Peter James, Berkshire

Thank you for reminding us you're not a food critic. I'd never have guessed. You must spend ages mulling over every mouthful to provide your brilliantly detailed insights such as onion rings being "boring" and chips being "greasy". Keep up the good work.
Matthew Atkinson, London

I'm currently residing at HMP Highdown after a few months at HMP Wandsworth. In culinary matters, HMP Highdown is the clear winner. The vegetables provencale last week were sublime, a real taste of summer. Although reluctant to use the word, I must describe our dessert of Sicilian lemon cheesecake as historic.
Tim Gower aka WB5035-1-B-3-20

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