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Revamped - but still worth sinking your teeth into

Published 15 March 2009
News Review
817th article

Michael Winner with Cristina Petrar and Louis Murray at Balzac (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)

In 1993, when I was a fledgling idiot food critic - as opposed to now, when I'm a decrepit idiot food critic - I went to La Stampa in Dublin. I described the clientele as "as bright and good looking a group as you could ever see". I called the food "tasty in a modern, slightly ambiguous way". Work that out if you can.

While in Dublin signing my Fat Pig Diet book - now in paperback at the bargain price of £7.99 - I was recommended Balzac by Barry Egan, a local journalist, who wrote one of the best Winner interviews ever. He left in the flowery language his more sensitive British brethren delete.

When I entered Balzac I soon realised it was La Stampa renamed. Why, I neither know nor care. The owner is a charming Irishman (show me one who isn't) called Louis Murray, joined since I last was there by a lovely Romanian girlfriend, Cristina. "I'm from Transylvania," she explained. Funny, she didn't look like a vampire.

The 18th-century room is exquisite. Large, beautifully mirrored, urns of flowers, marble pillars. The diners were pleasant, but not as sensationally attractive as on my last visit. I'd deteriorated too.

They offered me Tipperary water; I wanted Evian. Bit of drama ensued but they found Evian. The Tipperary was reasonable, Evian was better. There were two Evian glasses and the Tipperary.

Geraldine said, "Wine tasters have to learn to tell one water from another."

I said, "I can. That's Evian water with ice. This is Evian water without ice."

Yet again I was haunted by totally discordant "modern" jazz playing far too loudly. Had Sandy Lane's horror chef, Grant MacPherson, who inflicted similar music on his diners, been there? No. He couldn't have, the Balzac food was good.

I said to the waitress, "The music is very intrusive, could you ask management to turn it down a bit?" I asked Geraldine, "What do you think will happen?"

"They'll turn it up," she said. Mercifully they didn't.

I started with fish soup. I liked it. Geraldine thought the rouille could have been "more garlicky". My scallops with minted french beans, orange and almonds were excellent. Geraldine had crab brulee, which she described as "wonderful".

The service was slow, slow, slow. Possibly even slower. The music, still too audible, was going "boom, boom, boom".

"It's like some voodoo thing," said Geraldine. "We'll all turn into frogs."

For dessert I had a superb savarin of rhubarb and custard. Geraldine, world expert on crème brulee, rated Balzac's highly. She said, "It tasted so slight it's as if you were eating nothing."

"Then why am I paying €8.50 if it's nothing?" I asked.

The petits fours were madeleines, little French orange cakes. "I've never tasted anything like that, ever," said Geraldine, who lived in Paris for years. They were warm and absolutely incredible. We finished off a large bowl. Definitely a meal worth eating.

  • An e-mail arrived from my movie star friend Leslie Caron, one of my all-time favourites. Leslie's autobiography comes out this autumn. She tells me, "Many restaurants are going under in France."

    Leslie owns a fantastically beautiful small hotel in Joigny called La Lucarne aux Chouettes. She's halved her room price to €99 (£90); meals to €20 for lunch, €35 for dinner and weekend lunch. That's a bargain. Go at once. It's a beautiful area. Tell me if Leslie's displaying her MGM pin-up pictures in the bar. I told her to. She hated doing them. I thought they were lovely.

  • Although he's odd (that's good, I hate normal) I always enjoy hearing from my e-mail penpal, Barry McKay. His e-mails are 90% abuse, 10% lovely. A mere 90% of abuse from any reader is welcome relief. Thanks for letting me off lightly, Barry. I'm glad we agree about the Cliff restaurant in Barbados.

    Barry writes, "On a recent visit I saw the arrogant staff smirking and laughing when diners, sitting on ledges carved out of the cliff, were drenched by high waves. No efforts were made to change main courses swimming in sea water." If Barry and I keep bonding like this, we'll have to get married. Grant MacPherson can be best man.

  • I've just made three happy birthday speeches. To Michael Caine and Quincy Jones at a dinner with Stella McCartney, David Frost and Andrew Lloyd Webber. To Michael Caine yesterday, his real birthday, during lunch (historic food) at his house. And yesterday evening at Quo Vadis (excellent meal) to Nina Wood, daughter of Peter, for whom I make the esure ads. For a substantial fee I can enliven your life, too.

  • Joke: man confesses to the priest, "I'm 92 years old, got a wife of 70, children and grandchildren. Yesterday I picked up two college girls hitchhiking, went to a motel and had sex with each of them three times. Priest: "Are you sorry for your sins?" Man: "What sins?" Priest: "What kind of Catholic are you?" Man: "I'm Jewish." Priest: "Then why are you telling me all this?" Man: "I'm 92 years old, I'm telling everybody."

    Michael's missives

    Michael, dear, George Bernard Shaw believed, "It is easy, terribly easy, to shake a man's faith in himself. To take advantage of that, to break a man's spirit, is the devil's work." Repent, give Grant MacPherson a big kiss and a new car. After all, "The test of a man's breeding is how he behaves in a quarrel." Your reward: a conciliatory breakfast with Rupert, our gorgeous labradoodle puppy.
    Barry McKay, Berkshire

    I see from last week's picture Geraldine has remodelled your old quilted bed cover into a warm winter coat. I bet the little motif she put on the arms is your initials, so that you remember who you are. What a warm, considerate lady.
    Trevor Skidmore, Surrey

    What's with the blue quilted jacket? Are you training for the Badminton Horse Trials?
    Deborah Hutson, Devon

    We're in tune with you regarding Sandy Lane, where we met the infamous Grant MacPherson and your favourite waitress, the delightful Rehanna. The tureen of tomato soup in Bajan Blue was tepid, the steak incorrectly cooked.
    Keith Brooks, Manchester

    We followed your advice about Barbados, stayed at the Lone Star (bliss), ate at the Fishpot and Fisher Pond Great House (both utterly delicious) and avoided the Cliff. I'm beginning to think you may know what you're talking about!
    Terry Curran, London

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