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Tricky divorces and some equally tricky pancakes

Published 30 November 2008
News Review
802nd article



Michael with, from left, Sir David Hare, John Cleese and John Myatt

"If you review this place, make sure you mention the pancakes were a bit tricky," advised playwright Sir David Hare. We were in the Golden Dragon, a Chinese restaurant in Soho. David was trying to separate pancakes so he could take one for his duck. They were sticking together and tearing.

"Do you entertain?" David asked me.

"Never," I said.

"You must have house guests," David continued.

"Not bloody likely," I replied.

David said, "I have house guests. They go and get croissants for me in the morning."

I almost said, "I have staff do that", but it would have sounded pompous.

We discussed chicken soup. David's wife, the superb designer Nicole Farhi, is Jewish. "When Nicole's mother comes, we take her to Harry Morgan in St John's Wood for chicken soup," said David.

"The chicken soup's better at Reubens in Baker Street," I advised.

I thought it droll to be discussing Jewish restaurants and chicken soup with David Hare when Mill Hill rabbi Yitzchak Schochet said a character in his National Theatre play Gethsemane was "overtly anti-semitic". His rabbi-ship continued, "It's yet another example of pushing boundaries to new degrees of crude sensationalism just to keep people remotely interested."

Oooh, what an old bitch. How dare he say that about our Dave. The man who, in 1968, when president of the Cambridge University Film Society, invited me up to speak.

I bet you're saying, "Why were you in this Chinese restaurant? How was the food?"

I'll tell you when I feel like it.

I chatted with John Myatt, the man responsible for "the biggest art fraud of the 20th century", according to Scotland Yard, quoted on John's website. He got a year in prison for successfully forging famous artists.

"Some of my paintings are still in major international collections," he told me.

Now John sells his work as "genuine" fakes for around Pounds 10,000 a canvas. He's become a committed Christian who plays the organ in his local church every Sunday.

His life is being made into a film written by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais. I discovered them in 1965.

Another guest was a PR lady married to a CBS news producer called Bluff.

"I couldn't be a PR called Bluff, could I?" she asked. So she uses the name Sharpe-Newton. I forget where that came from. You don't care, do you?

It was my pal John Cleese's lunch party. John's going through divorce hell. His aggressive wife, Alyce, is trying to take him to the cleaners. Considering she was skint and living in a council house when they met, and there are no children of the marriage, that's not nice.

Alyce's lawyer demanded, and John provided, 180,000 documents. Obviously she's a keen reader because she's now asked for every financial e-mail his assistant Gary ever sent - about 40,000. She had evidence taken under oath from four of John's Los Angeles agents who declared it a complete waste of time.

John, who's already keeping Alyce in major luxury, is about to make an extraordinarily generous settlement offer. Next time he marries, I hope Cleese chooses me.

Our marvellous food was served on one of those swivel things. You helped yourself as it went round. All the other tables were full of Chinese people. I ate multiple dumplings, spring rolls, noodles with beef, duck in pancakes which, when released from each other, were fine, and cups of tea. I also had two Coca-Colas. That's what I call a restaurant review. You may not.

As well as offering superb food, the River Cafe employs the greatest staff in the world. They're not just good, they're a million miles ahead of all other waiters anywhere. The girls are pretty, genuinely welcoming, they smile, they have charm. Same goes for the men, reception people and the managers. All this is an immense credit to Charles Pullan, the restaurant boss. He's fantastically good, but has lapses.

The other day, Charles took my order for two Bellinis. We never got them.

Then I ordered grouse. That's not difficult, is it? You order grouse, you expect to see a little bird turn up, bit of bacon on it. Charles arrived with crab salad.

"This does not look like grouse," I explained patiently. Charles departed and came back with roast lamb. Unless the River Cafe was serving elephants or a brontosaurus, it's difficult to imagine any form of life less like grouse than a crab or a lamb.

I have enormous regard for Charles, but let me give you some advice. If he comes to take your order, don't think, "The manager's taking my order, I must be important." If you want dover sole, order linguine with truffles. If you want veal, order scallops. Whatever happens, don't order what you want. Because Charles will bring you something else.

PS: Tomorrow at 7pm, my stand-up comedy talk hits the Kensington & Chelsea Town Hall Library. Followed by Q and A. Tickets at credit-crunch prices - free. You can afford that, can't you?



Michael's missives

Whatever possessed you to go to Chez Gerard last week with your young diners? I pass a Chez Gerard in the City of London around 9am to see olives, nibbles and bread already on the tables for the lunchtime trade! Think of their staleness come lunch, not to mention unwanted beasties like flies. Shame on you, you should have treated your guests to something better. I hope you paid for them?
Bradley Viljoen, London

People who love to see their name in print worry me. Please get rid of readers' letters now and maybe substitute a second photograph of yourself, assuming Boots can cope with the extra work.
Andrew Hodgson, Lancashire

I most strongly object to your continual use of my name. You didn't even invite me to your engagement dinner, when, due to my unfortunate name, I am seldom asked anywhere. All I get is invites to fill spaces others have declined. Consequently I'm always hungry and undernourished. So how about sending me a small donation?
Moishe Pippick, aka Stanley and Gillian, North London

Here's how you can get quick service at the Ivy. The pre-theatre is always served at breakneck speed, as is the middle sitting, so they can get you out before the after-theatre crowd. Restaurants have become too greedy with the three sittings per table idea.
Jenni Woolf, Chesterfield

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