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A wretched revamp - but a culinary masterclass

Published 19 April 2009
News Review
822nd article

Geraldine on the dining terrace of La Colombe d'Or in St Paul de Vence (Arnold Crust)

My friend Adam Kenwright, whose ad agency expertly services theatre productions, went to Helene Darroze at the Connaught. He grabbed my tape recorder and described it thus: "We decided to have the tasting menu. The waiter said that would be the way to experience Helene's special style of cooking. Helene would recommend it personally. She was cooking that day.

"The first course was seafood something. The waiter stood by after lifting the domes off the plates. I asked, 'Is there a problem?' He said, 'I like to wait because Helene is very proud of this dish, Helene feels this is a special dish from Helene and Helene would like me to see how you react to her dish'. I laughed and said, 'You're not serious are you?'

"He said, 'Oh yes, this is very special and Helene is very special and this is her special dish, and captures Helene's very special talent. She wants us to report to her how much pleasure you get from it'."

Adam said the waiter stood there through other courses, talking a load of twaddle, until he was asked to leave. Adam found the food very disappointing. There were four empty tables when they'd said no table was available at 7.30pm.

I read and heard of similar nightmares from other people who'd been there. So my visit to Helene Darroze started in a very biased mood, made unhappier by the appalling redecoration of the Connaught, particularly the restaurant. This has various clashing shades of patterned yellow, tacky wall lights, horrific seventies-type carpet and enormous central, high-backed banquette divisions, which obscure much of the room from my favourite corner table. It's all a total, ghastly, unrelieved, hideous mess.

Before what the general manager, Anthony Lee, described to me as "a £70m upgrade" it was understated, distinguished and lovely. If that's an upgrade I'm an astronaut. But - and this is important - I suffered no verbose diarrhoea from the waiters and Helene's food was all good to historic.

My guest was Jaume Tapies, president and international chairman of Relais & Chateaux, a group of hotel guiders that issues a book of places it permits to bear its name. I've found them, with one exception, to be consistently good.

Jaume agreed the restaurant was hideous. He said, "You could be in New York or any country in this room." The marvellously traditional English look had gone, to be replaced by tatty, non-chic flash. We got endless freebies - ham from the Pyrenees, salmon and dill cake, breadsticks with tomato something on them, which I promptly spilt on my shirt.

I had the three-course set lunch, which with freebies came to around 127 courses. There was cauliflower veloute, tuna with truffle, foie gras, the best pigeon I've ever eaten and chocolate carupas de Venezuela, which I was told was pure chocolate with "crispy and creamy salted caramel ice cream, fresh candied cumquats". I've only described a fraction of what passed from plate to tum. I'd need three pages to list it all.

They offered four coffees, "Selected by HR Higgins". I asked, "Who's Mr Higgins?"

The waitress replied, "Higgins from England." It's a bit pretentious but, boy, can this gal cook.

The maestra herself appeared. A blonde, tiny woman, charming and self-effacing. Expecting (wrongly) not to like Helene's cooking, I petulantly left my camera at home. Instead of the elegant Mr Tapies and lovely Helene I present a photo of my adorable fiancee, Geraldine, taken last week during lunch at La Colombe d'Or in the south of France. I know you'd rather see me. But life's imperfect.

Oops, nearly forgot. Many congratulations and massive applause for Helene. On her website it says: "Children over 10 years of age are welcome." That should be followed throughout the land. Or, "Children under 10 visiting restaurants should be drugged and put to sleep."

  • I'm pleased my friend Gord (we have a date next month) saved the nation from financial crisis. Unbelievable, isn't it? We want an overdraft and the banks are a total pain. They force their overdrafts on us and we have to bail them out for billions of pounds. What a load of you-know-whats.

    Me and Queenie bank at Coutts. You should see the mistakes it makes on paperwork it sends me. There's no point in changing. All banks are flaky. Besides, I greatly like the chairman and chief executive of Coutts, a lovely lady called Sarah Deaves. And my "private banker" Jonathan Engwell is extremely jolly. Why, I don't know. He'll probably be fired next week to keep costs down. Coutts is owned by the Royal Bank of Scotland - moron bankers of the world.

    Jonathan recently wrote asking me what overdraft limits I wanted. Since during 40 years with them I've had no limits, I don't know why he bothered. I said, "I'll have £50,000 on all my accounts. Coutts should hold a prayer meeting asking God to make sure I reach these limits. Then I'll pay the interest and some idiot employee can stay with your bank for another month." Laugh a minute having me as a customer, isn't it?

    Michael's missives

    You complained the painting in your Villa Feltrinelli suite was of "a horrid, fat child with rouge, lipstick and stunted legs". Are you sure you weren't looking in a mirror?
    Martin Langley, Surrey

    Last week's photo, great! Best ever, long distance. Was it really you? Wonderful backdrop. Was it something you said to Geraldine?
    Don Roberts, Cheshire

    I thought that one's private jet awaited one. As you had to leave a function early to catch yours, I dread to think what kind of private jet it was. Perhaps it was delivering the day's duck eggs for the Ivy.
    David Johnson, Halifax

    Unfortunately we couldn't help thinking of you when flying British Airways business class to Malta. The only food choice was chicken curry or beef curry. I know curry's supposedly our national dish, but I can't believe it's all BA chefs can produce.
    Denice Fennell, London

    I sent back two substandard meals at the Slug and Lettuce near Borough Market. The area manager apologised and sent me meal vouchers. On returning I was astounded to be refused service by the manager, who said, "Nothing is good enough for you."
    L Bouvard, London

    I enjoy reading your column if only to see how many people you can insult each week!
    Sue Appleton, Manchester

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