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With friends like me, who needs difficult guests?, AKA How to lose friends and flabbergast people

Published 31 May 2009
News Review
828th article

Michael at the Devonshire Arms with, from left, Iain Shelton, the managing director, the helicopter pilot Peter Vellacott and the Rolls-Royce dealer Steve Gallimore (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)

I've had some terrible meals in my life, but none so ridiculous and overpriced as at the Devonshire Arms in Bolton Abbey, North Yorkshire. Pity, really, because in general I liked the hotel. The owners, Stoker and Amanda, Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, are splendid people whom I consider friends. Although now that may not be reciprocated.

The "refined" restaurant (their brochure's description) is called the Burlington. The set three-course dinner is £58. Coffee is £5 extra. Add the "optional" 12.5% service charge and it becomes £70.88. In the Yorkshire Dales, where rent is two sheep and a goat. Compare that with the pre- and post-theatre three-course menu at Le Caprice in St James's, London (its food is a million times better) at £27.84. Around one-third of the Yorkshire meal. Le Caprice in peak evening hours costs massively less than the Burlington, which has a Michelin star. I guess for plate decoration.

I started with clammy, heavy and tired roast veal sweetbread, onion puree, pig's trotter croquette. It was very chewy; been somewhere too long. At Murano in Mayfair my veal sweetbreads with sweet potato puree, caramelised walnuts and lardons were historic. They came from a superb Michelin-star chef, Angela Hartnett.

Before the Burlington sweetbread we had white mush, bitter confit of tomatoes, olives and "tomato air". Put that in your pipe and smoke it. Angela's freebie starters were deep-fried risotto balls with parmesan and truffle, Parma ham and coppa with a selection of focaccia. All fantastic. The Burlington black pudding bread was cold and weary. Worn out from a long hike on the moors.

My main course in Yorkshire, courtesy of the non-chef, Steve Smith, was dry turbot. Dreadful. The service was slow to ludicrous until I complained. Then it was slow to slow. For dessert I had apple mousse in pastry with frothy stuff around it. Tasted of nothing. Angela's Braeburn apple pie was sensational.

Dinner companions at the Burlington were my PremiAir helicopter pilot, Peter Vellacott, whose boss, Andrew Davis, affectionately calls him Ginger Tom; my favourite Rolls-Royce dealer, Steve Gallimore, from Manchester; and my beloved fiancée. No one was enthusiastic. Peter thought the food had been "heavily worked on". The portions were mini. Nouvelle cuisine at its worst. As for it being "chic" (as per the brochure), I was about the only man wearing a jacket. Best moment of a horrendous meal came after we'd ordered puddings. A tall man loomed over the table. "What are you there for?" I asked. He answered, "In case you want to order dessert wine." When I said, "What are you there for?", a young man at the next table looked round and his mouth fell open. He was transfixed with incredulity. His face motionless. He just stared as if he'd never seen anything like it. Not a muscle moved for some 20 seconds.

The Devonshire Arms has a brasserie with a sensible menu. Smoked haddock, roast duck, Devonshire burger, vanilla cheesecake. Should have dined there. The hotel, set in stunning countryside, was a coaching inn 350 years ago. The hotel staff are superb, a credit to the managing director, Iain Shelton, and general manager, Brian van Oosten. My suite was delightful. Breakfast bacon, egg and sausage arrived without salt or pepper but were extremely good. Afternoon tea was excellent, including a little cake called a financier, which had taste and texture so perfect I'll remember it for ever. The guest book was signed by Peter O'Toole, Russell Brand, Emma Thompson, Judi Dench and Raquel Welch. Nice group. It seems cook Smith arrived after they'd left. Lucky them.

  • From the ridiculous to the sublime. Last week I ate the best five courses ever, cooked by Antonio Carta, 42 years at Puny, in the unspoilt harbour of Portofino. Puny, real name Luigi Miroli, has a good friend, one of his best customers, Signor Berlusconi. Yes, that one. We started with moscardini, soft-bellied little octopuses, then shrimps in a sauce made with garlic, olive oil, basil, anchovies, white of eggs and capers. Potatoes, beans and courgettes with it. Then thin lasagne with sauce of tomato and meat, the recipe from the early 19th century. Things continued perfectly, ending with a vanilla parfait with strawberry sauce and strawberries.

    Only one other restaurant in Portofino is worth a try, at the Splendido, the hotel I've sent more people to than anywhere else. Shakespeare said, "When the blast of war blows in your ears [that's me appearing in hotel or restaurant] . . . stiffen the sinews." I detected a certain lack of stiffening. The excellent food manager, Carlo Lazzeri, brought me normal strawberries when I'd ordered frais de bois. My fried zucchini were limp, horrid and oversalted. At lunch by the pool I was given ageing schiacciatini; then more, massively undercooked. My starter pizzas never arrived. Apparently they were burnt. All around me people ate pizza. Why was only mine burnt? I'll be generous. The Splendido retains its triple-A rating. It's idyllic. Go there.

    Michael's missives

    I'm getting concerned. Last week we read of the waitress Marguerite in high heels, lavatorial bra ads, pyjamas, Paris Hilton, frog's legs, Coco Jeffries, Selina Scott, Sue me - never heard of her! Is this a food column or Michael's mid(?)-life crisis?
    Tim, worried of Wokingham

    You're right, it is indeed a monster who talks during theatre performances. We should ban such people. Also tall people, those with big hair who block our view and anybody over 5ft 8in, along with anyone who is not a mute. Loud people in restaurants should also be banned.
    Andrew Vickers, Dorset

    Why did you wait until the interval of War Horse to tell the silly moo behind you to shut up? I'd have given her two minutes and then told her to keep quiet or go home and watch TV.
    Tony Kimpton, London

    Did you ever think the lady behind you in the theatre, whom you referred to as a smart-arse when she explained her children were writing a review, might have raised her voice just for your benefit?
    Tom Ditchfield, Hampshire

    In a five-star hotel I sat in a urine-soaked chair just vacated by a child. And you think you have trouble with kids in restaurants!
    Dennis Pallis, Kent

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