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No one's better suited to being a restaurateur

Published 26 July 2009
News Review
836th article



Michael with Richard Caring outside Goodman steak house in Mayfair JIM SHARKEY

There used to be a newspaper ad with the slogan, "They laughed when I sat down to play." It showed a man on a piano stool who'd just taken a crash course in piano-playing. Everyone thought he'd be useless. Then he launched into a perfect rendition of Beethoven's Appassionata. Jaws dropped.

I always think of Richard Caring when I recall this ad. Four years ago Richard, whose previous experience was to pioneer the manufacture of clothes in China, bought some of London's most famous restaurants, including the Ivy, Le Caprice, and J Sheekey. The sneers, putdowns and insults from the so-called "expert" restaurateurs flowed fast and furious. The fact that most of these twits couldn't run a whelk stall was neither here nor there. Venom, motivated by jealousy, poured forth and still continues.

Now, as restaurants collapse all around, as famous chefs liquidate companies, buy them back cheap from the liquidator and reopen leaving their suppliers owed vast amounts, Richard sails on acquiring restaurants and hotels all over the place. He currently has 39, with 10 more soon to open.

His suppliers aren't out of pocket. There's no chance they will be. If there were more Richard Carings, and fewer of the arrogant dullards whose only skill is shooting their mouths off as their companies either collapse or dwindle, we'd all be better off.

Richard suggested we lunch at Goodman in Mayfair. It's a steak house. Our date was for 1pm. I'm never late. When I turned up at 12.56pm Richard was already there.

"Have you bought the place yet?" I asked.

"No, but I'm going to open a steak restaurant in Mayfair. I wanted to check out the opposition," explained Richard. Tell you something else I like about him, you always get a straight answer. No ducking and diving, no "I can't tell you at the moment", just openness and reality. Plus, he's got a great sense of humour.

As for Goodman, it's okay. If Richard sets up offering similar fare, he'll win hands down. The decor is dark wood booths with photos on the wall. Not offensive. The bread was warm and pretty good. They offered tap water, or in-house filtered. Could do better.

The waiter brought an enormous tray of steaks. "It's a US strip steak, a US rib eye, a British bone-in sirloin, an Irish T-boner and an Australian organic fillet," he informed us, adding, "The difference is that the US meat is corn-fed and wet-aged. It's very mild, it's very sweet, it's very juicy."

"He's getting swept away, this fellow," I dictated into my tape.

The waiter continued, "The quality meat is grass-fed, the Irish meat is grass-fed, grain-finished. You can mix and match, you can share steaks."

"But Mr Caring wants medium well done and I want medium rare," I observed.

The waiter said, "It'll be difficult to share, then."

"The word I would use is 'impossible'," I volunteered.

"What if the chef does medium?" suggested the waiter.

"Then neither of us would get what we wanted," I responded. This was getting into fantasy land. I chose a bone-in sirloin, British, medium rare. Richard chose Goodman rib-eye 400g medium well done. We both had béarnaise sauce. I ordered creamed spinach and hand-cut chips.

Service was speedy. We got a hefty steak knife. My steak didn't taste of much. Had it been in the deep freeze too long? The spinach was superb. The hand-cut chips were not as crisp as they should have been. No oomph at all. I don't know why restaurants offer hand-cut chips when they can't do them.

Richard told me he was opening a chain of French brasseries called Côte. "Really fantastic," he said. Well, he would, wouldn't he? But I do hear well of them. There are five already and two more due before the end of the year. No crisis in Caring land.

My dessert was "Goodman best ice cream chocolate sundae". It was utterly meaningless. A lot of dush and slush. No good taste. Little bits of dreary chocolate cake buried in it. Not great ice cream. I left 95%.

Richard found it highly amusing that I looked at the menu through one lens from a broken pair of glasses. "Can't you afford a full pair?" he asked.

"As they're only £6 each wholesale, I can, Richard," I informed him, "but glasses in your top pocket make a funny shape in your clothing and I'm a funny enough shape already."

When we went for our photo I patted Richard's front. "Your suit is so close it's practically painted on," I said. "Why bulge it out with glasses in your top pocket?" "I think you're right," said Richard. "Marvellous," I said. "You've learnt something." Recently a stupid journalist came up with the nonsense that I shout at waiters. I don't. I'm the only food writer in history that mentions waiters by name, praising them for their contribution to the meal. Very occasionally I complain vociferously to inept restaurant managers. Normally I go in quietly, eat quietly, thank everyone and go. This disappoints some people sitting nearby who hoped for a tantrum display they could relate to their friends. You can't please everyone, can you?



Michael's missives

You should move in with Sir Michael and Shakira. In last week's photo you looked so incredibly happy! Your usual expression is that of a miserable old git.
Norma Harrington, Cork

In the photo, three of you are smiling but Sir Michael Caine looks unhappy. Is that because you gave him the bill?
Stanley Silver, Hertfordshire

No wonder Sir Michael Caine was sceptical. For the professional who planned The Italian Job, having you reading a map in a vehicle with tinted glass and not checking the jet had enough fuel to leave Italy must have been galling. Good job it wasn't you who had to think of a way to get the gold out of the coach.
David Chubb, Cheshire

Devouring baby goat and donkey is a step too far. Please, Michael, if you have to eat cuddlies, could you call them something else.
Gaynor Trafford, Cheshire

Reading of Geraldine's fur-trimmed coat reminded me of when, in Paris, I paid a bit more than the menu touristique in order to have rabbit in mustard sauce. A woman came in, asked for a glass of water, was given it - then sprayed the place with CS gas! Has that ever happened to you?
Maureen Robinson, Belfast

Glad to see you wearing a shirt that doesn't seem to have been borrowed from Stevie Wonder.
Ken Andrew, Cork

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