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A worthy meal for one of the cinema greats

Published 10 May 2009
News Review
825th article

Ernest Borgnine and Michael lean on Michael's Rolls-Royce outside St Alban (Antonio Goncalves)

Jeremy King and Chris Corbin are too clever to have a failure, but St Alban in Regent Street hasn't been as financially successful as some other ventures - the Ivy, Le Caprice, J Sheekey, their current hit the Wolseley or new triumph the Monkey Bar in New York.

St Alban opened in December 2006. Food then, and now, is superb. Simple, impeccable. Decor was widely disliked. Ambience dodgy. I sent many people there, famous ones, ladies who lunch. Few returned. Pre- and post-theatre business was poor, main dining times okay.

"What you need," I told Chris and Jeremy, to the point of total tedium, "is a bar and a piano." They smiled and ignored me. When I go there now they put a tiny grand piano on my table.

There are improvements. A Damien Hirst strip of yellow butterflies breaks up one wall, multicoloured butterflies another. The dreary glass etchings are off the windows so light comes in and you see the street. They've painted "St Alban" in huge decorative letters on one wall and "London" on another. The ludicrous automatic door to the toilets is gone, the area opened up. Pillars are now mirrored. Still no bar or piano.

"They've had a bar everywhere else, why not here?" I asked Mitchell Everard, the manager. "They didn't have one in the Ivy," he replied. "Oh yeah? What's that I see when I walk in?" I asked.

"You're right," said Mitchell, "I only spent 15 years there." He continued, "We now serve tapas in the front lounge."

"You make more money on drink than food," I said. "Have a bar with snacks."

Mitchell said pre-theatre had perked up. I went once at that time. Got snow blindness from the tablecloths. "Perked up" may not mean much. He admitted post-theatre was still a problem. Chris Corbin came over.

"You should stick mirrors on those grey walls," I suggested. "Oh shut up," said Chris. "Then I could see your back in that wall and your front over there," I continued regardless.

"We've done what we feel is enough," said Chris. That's a put-down if ever I heard one. And I've heard a few. Go to St Alban anyway. It's good.

I was lunching with the great movie star Ernest Borgnine. Ernie got an Academy Award for best actor for the 1955 film Marty. He killed Frank Sinatra in From Here to Eternity. Other films he starred in include Vera Cruz, Bad Day at Black Rock, The Dirty Dozen and The Wild Bunch.

Ernie, still acting at 92, has just written a terrific autobiography. He chose a salad, "all'italiana for the dressing", he said. His family was Italian, you see. Then he had calf's liver veneziana. I had fritto misto followed by pizza with parma ham and scamorza cheese. Both as near perfect as you could get.

When my friend Ava Gardner said she'd write her autobiography I advised, "Tell the truth, Ava. It'll be one of the great stories of all time." Ava married Mickey Rooney, Artie Shaw and Frank Sinatra, went through endless bullfighters, was beaten up regularly by George C Scott, had a long affair with Howard Hughes. "I won't write the truth," Ava said. "I'll put down what I want people to think of me."

Ernie's book has great stories. He said, "If you can't be kind, don't say anything." Only person he knocks is ex-wife Ethel Merman. She hated him being more famous than she was. On honeymoon in the Pacific she told him off at a party..

"Lady I'm outta here," said Ernie, and walked out on his honeymoon. He's now been happily married for 35 years to a Danish lady, Tova, who runs a successful beauty business. Ernie's so kind that when he mentions the Airwolf TV series he did with Jan-Michael Vincent he only writes Jan-Michael was "difficult".

"He wouldn't come out of the caravan for 10 hours - drugs, alcohol," said Ernie at lunch. "We sat at the airport location waiting for him." Jan-Michael was fine when I directed him in The Mechanic. Later he went into rehab many times, crashed his car and damaged his vocal cords. Now he breeds horses.

A story not in the book: Ernie was living near Marlon Brando on Mulholland Drive. His then wife, actress Katy Jurado, said she had to nip over to Marlon's to audition for One-Eyed Jacks, a film he directed. "It was a helluva audition," revealed Ernie. "Went on for three hours."

"We can guess what happened," I said. Marlon was my dear friend. Loved dusky ladies. "She got the part," said Ernie. Katy Jurado co-starred in one of Ernie's four failed marriages.

I asked a Brando question: "On a scale of one to 10 how happy have you been in the last year?" "Five," said Ernie. "What prevented happiness in the other five?" I asked.

"There are lots of things I can't do. I'd like to be more active physically," he replied. "To be walking about at 92 is an achievement," I said. "Don't knock it."

Ernie's a fantastic person. Laughs a lot. Very open. Very warm. Any regrets? "I never had one of those powerful agents," he said. "I had to hustle for myself." I understand that. He's such a fine actor I'm sure Ernie thought he deserved more and better leading roles. But he didn't do badly, did he?

Michael's missives

I'm sorry your chair was too low at the Bombay Brasserie. Obviously somebody didn't want to see you and had the legs shortened. You were lucky they transferred you to a banquette and not a high chair as you say you're a messy eater!
Tracey Jenks, Minorca

Your remarks concerning Selina Scott were articulate, perceptive and elegantly phrased. Until now I had no idea your column was ghost-written.
Stuart Ross, Hesdin, France

You gave up your seat at Le Florian in Bouyon to the "head of the village". But surely you're far more important? Wonders never cease!
Mike Morgano, Solihull

Your obsession with bottled water has gone over the top. In Bouyon you had tap water as good as bottled water! Most tap water outside London (where it has already been drunk by a few people) is better than any bottled water. Up here we host sampling and aspirational trips from the Evian bottling plant, but they keep it quiet.
Paul Whittaker, West Yorkshire

Come on, Michael, share your secret. Only £6m in debt. That qualifies you to run a major bank or pension fund. If you were an MP you could probably claim it all back on expenses. You should give up writing about food and move to the Money section. You're obviously a very wise investor indeed.
Alan Horten, Berkshire

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