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Think of a number ... preferably not this one

Published 12 July 2009
News Review
834th article

Sabine Altschaeffl and Alvida Numgaudiene stand behind Michael (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)

When people ask, "What new restaurants have you been to?", I look in amazement. I've got about 10 restaurants I go to, four regularly. I don't need more. When I go somewhere new it's invariably a disaster. I'm a great believer in the phrase: the pioneers got shot by the Indians.

I don't know what madness overtook me one recent Saturday when I read in a newspaper about a hotel called Number Sixteen. The writer was wittering on about a lovely garden, design of great taste, load of twaddle, but I fell for it. The moral of this tale is: never take notice of any food critic. Other than me, who is not a food critic (I've got 840 columns to prove it), they know nothing about anything. A more useless group has never existed in the history of the planet.

So I didn't phone that nice Mr Pullen at the River Cafe, the most reliable place in the world. Instead, I drove a mile to 16 Sumner Place, South Kensington. There, four white painted, pillared Victorian houses have been made into what's known as a "boutique" hotel.

First thing I saw was the design. Not my idea of great taste. Bizarre. Artefacts, clash of colours, odd things on the walls. Apparently the non-brainchild of Kit Kemp, co-owner of Firmdale hotels, which owns the Soho hotel among others. I liked the Soho hotel. It's large. Littering disparate, odd objects and colours around great space looks better than cramming them into tiny rooms.

We walked through endless minute spaces to a cramped conservatory leading to a small garden. Towered over by the adjacent buildings but quite nicely done. Roses blooming. Little pond, goldfish, very tatty, cheap modern repro fountain of cherubs doing whatever cherubs do. Actually all they do is hold up fountains. Dull life, really.

We took a table for two near the back; then, as it was so small, switched to a table for five nearer the water. Charming assistant general manager Sabine Altschaeffl showed us round. Pleasant Moroccan waiter Abdslem Lamrami produced Hildon water.

"Do you have anything else?" I asked. They did: Voss. Voss comes in an elegant tubular bottle. It looks and is good. Hildon is in a hideous bottle and tastes dreadful.

They do a lot of breakfasts (we were too late for that) and a selection of teas (too early for those) so Geraldine chose hummus, guacamole, onion relish and instead of grilled pitta, gluten-free bread from Antoinette Savill. Followed by a chicken caesar salad. I ordered hoi sin duck spring rolls.

I asked Abdslem, "Do you think these beefburgers are good or am I going to be upset?"

"They're good, we get the best quality of beefburgers," said Ab.

"We'll see," I thought, adding a fried egg. The menu offered hand-cut chips.

"Does that mean you've got a potato in the kitchen which someone cuts up and fries?" I asked.

Ab said, "Yes", so I ordered it.

The duck rolls were excellent. Probably bought in, but had a crisp, fresh taste. Geraldine liked her hummus. And later her caesar salad.

For me things collapsed totally, horribly and desperately after the first course. The hamburger, which I'd ordered medium, was not medium. It was far beyond well done. It was destroyed by overcooking into a useless, inedible mass of stone. Why have a cook in the kitchen who can't even grill a hamburger? I'm pretty useless (correction, totally useless) but I can grill meat, chopped up or not, to perfection.

The hand-cut chips may have been hand-cut, but they'd been cut by someone who had no idea what to do with them thereafter. Inside and out they were soggy. Michael Caine does brilliant hand-cut chips. Michael Parkinson's chef, Dominic Chapman, at the Royal Oak in Paley Street, Berkshire, does historic beyond belief hand-cut chips. Whoever's loose in the kitchen of Number Sixteen knows nothing about hand-cut chips or hamburgers.

Bravely soldiering on in adversity I ordered carrot cake from the tea menu. I'd seen some given to another diner and it looked okay. Mind you, cakes often look okay. When you eat them they're something else. This carrot cake, in spite of another enthusiastic endorsement from Ab, was terrible. Clammy, no taste of carrot or anything else and with a false, strange and highly unwelcome icing. If you want great carrot cake (or other cakes) go to a little place near me called the Muffin Man in Wrights Lane off Kensington High Street. Its stuff is marvellous.

The review I read of Sixteen referred to it as like "the private residence of a friend with great taste". Nonsense. It's like a mish-mash of no taste backed up by a kitchen with no cook. The next day I booked the River Cafe, sat outside and had incredible food, professionally served in spacious surroundings. That's what I call good taste all round.

  • PS: By the time we took the photo Abdslem had fled. Perhaps fearing, after carrying largely uneaten main and dessert courses back to the kitchen, I might question his lack of judgment. A very nice Lithuanian waitress, Alvida Numgaudiene, stood in for him.

    Michael's missives

    You're right about Al Mangia in Siena. We had one of the worst meals ever there. As we Europeans are multicultural, why did you not administer Shakira law on the chef, ie 10 strokes of the Caine.
    John Collings, Shropshire

    If you were stupid enough to order something as revolting as fried shrimps, grapefruit and parsley in Siena, then you got what you deserved.
    George Russell, London

    Like you, and the locals, we find the market square in Greve very crowded. But take hope. The village is building a multistorey car park nearby and the medieval square will hopefully return to normal.
    Bill Mason, Cambridge and Greve

    I've been keenly following your dress sense in recent photos, but prefer not to pass comment. I will, however, continue as your pupil in good taste and character assassination.
    Paul Rose, Leicestershire

    From Sandy Lane to acting in Hotel Babylon! Things must be looking bad. Love to hear your review.
    Brian Mullen, North Yorkshire

    What's the matter with the French? Good chefs, maybe. But they're certainly not cut out to serve. I recently dined at the RAC club and Mon Plaisir, Monmouth Street. On both occasions a French waitress turned out to be one of the most surly, unhelpful staff imaginable. Do you have the same trouble?
    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