At least you still find the odd jewel amid the dross
Published 26 Octobber 2008 News Review 797th article
Michael in front of the Hotel de Paris with Fausto Allegri and his son Luca (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)
The so-called hospitality industry is home to the least hospitable bunch of people you could ever wish not to meet. Legions of snotty receptionists, overbearing hotel staff, unhelpful waiters. Occasionally, some people shine. Peter Crome, ex-Chewton Glen hotel manager now at Skibo Castle, is one of them. Fausto Allegri, 44 years at the Splendido in Portofino, another.
When I first visited, Fausto was the chief concierge. He'd been there long before Orient-Express bought it and long before the managing director Maurizio (worst letter-writer in the world) Saccani came on the scene in 1993. Fausto was Mr Splendido. With his long grey hair and flamboyant gestures, he sometimes appeared a buffoon. But Fausto is as sharp and professional as they come. Generations of Splendido guests appreciated him. None more than me.
Now Fausto's son, Luca, is managing director and general manager of one of the world's great establishments, the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo, a gloriously preserved edifice built in 1864 for gamblers at the adjacent casino. It looks over the main square of Monaco, one of the few unspoilt sights in this bizarre, grossly overbuilt town. Luca led us to the back garden restaurant, Le Cote Jardin. It's an oasis of peace. We sat on a terrace facing the lovely grounds and, on the other side of the bay, the royal palace. It has a buffet as good as you'll get. I like buffets. They save me from being in the hands of indolent waiters. I took ham, seafood salad, pasta and more. For my main course, I had grilled veal escalope with beans. To finish, rum baba from the buffet. The espresso comes with a porcelain cover on the cup to keep it warm. The whole thing was a delight.
A couple of days later, I returned to the Hotel de Paris for lunch with Sir Roger and Lady Moore on the front terrace overlooking the square. This is run by Alain Ducasse. It's the exterior bit of his three-Michelin-star Louis XV restaurant. My only experience of Alain Ducasse was his dump at the Dorchester. Awful beyond belief. The Monaco branch was another thing altogether. Endless choice of excellent breads. We had the Jardin de Provence tasting menu that went on for ever, but was worth it. I can't remember exactly what I was doing but Geraldine said I was extremely uncouth. Roger agreed. That tarnished my meal. Well, almost.
My garbled tape recollections assured me I had, inter alia (as they say in legal documents), raw veggies of the region with a green herbs condiment, tuna fish salad, bread with fresh marinated anchovies, zucchini soup with "fried peel of milk" (honest, that's what they said), ravioli with ricotta cheese and liquid mozzarella, pepper from Sarawak, cep mushrooms in a pot roast with bacon. It was all vegetarian except for the bacon. I finished with a rice souffle with coffee and chocolate sauce. "One of the best desserts I ever had," I dictated. I think my dictation that day was a bit odd. But then when isn't it?
Outside was a parade of over-the-top cars. Ferraris, Bugattis, Rolls-Royces, Aston Martins, Bentleys. Even a few Rolls Corniche convertibles, a discontinued range. But I have one. Love it. The Hotel de Paris lobby is the greatest ever. Towering ceiling, wonderful big chandelier, wrought iron stairs, art deco glass skylight. Like Buckingham Palace, only grander.
There are always a few prostitutes hanging about. There were two when Luca first greeted me. By the time we walked to the back terrace, they'd gone. "Got some business - that's good," I observed. Mostly they're in the American Bar at night. They greatly spice up the place. They look fantastic.
Now, I'll tell you something rather sad about Fausto. After 44 years at the Splendido, first as chief concierge, for the last six as guest relations manager, early in 2007 he resigned to look after his wife, who is ill. You might think, after all that time as a great and devoted representative of the Splendido, they might have given Fausto a little farewell party. They didn't. You might think Maurizio Saccani would have arranged a goodbye bonus or a present for Fausto. He didn't. "Surely," I hear you saying, "at least he got a letter of thanks, wishing him well in retirement." Er, no. Not from Maurizio. Not from James Sherwood, who'd been boss of Orient-Express for most of Fausto's period of employment. Nothing. No credit to Orient-Express or Maurizio Saccani, is it?
I can't help thinking, if one of the predators circling the Orient-Express group gets control of the company (which most people think will happen), wouldn't it be ironic if they unloaded Maurizio Saccani and put Fausto's son Luca in his place? I know it's naughty of me even to mention such a thing. But I can't be sweetness and light all the time, can I?
I couldn't remember anything you wrote about the Quo Vadis food last week. I decided Quo Vadis was an Italian friend of yours. Obviously related to my pal Quanta Costa. Were the owners, Eddie and Sam Hart, rehearsing for a funeral? I find "Michael's letters" personal and horrid. Therefore refreshing and wonderful!
Keith Phillips, Hampshire
Thank you for listing the restaurants where you eat in London. Since my idea of hell would be to eat in any restaurant at the same time as you, I now know which establishments to avoid.
Mitzi Upton, Argentat, France
If the four stages of life are infancy, childhood, adolescence and obsolescence, I'm glad for you that infancy has lasted so well.
You looked 10 years younger with Gordon Brown. He looked happy and relaxed. And they say the camera doesn't lie!
Greg Parnell, Surrey
I saw both your hands in the photo, but only Gordon's left. Check your wallet. I reckon he picked your back pocket with his right hand.
Paul Clarke, Wokingham
Please, don't dumb down, as seems to be the prevalent trend. How scruffy men in open-necked shirts appear, compared with those wearing a tie. We look to you for leadership in these dark times.
Anthony Hall, Essex
Send letters to Winner's Dinners, The Sunday Times, 1 Pennington Street, London E98 1ST or e-mail email@example.com