Published 18 October 2009 News Review 848th article
Michael at Ynyshir Hall with, from left, Shane Hughes, chef; Joan Reen, general manager; and Gianluca Rizzo, assistant manager (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)
I've never come across a better hotel manager than Joan Reen. But she's nuts. Joan used to own, and sold for millions, a delightful nine-room hotel in Eglwysfach, Wales. She's there at eight in the morning, still going at midnight. A worker beyond belief, exuding charm and hospitality.
I was so impressed with Joan, the cooking of the chef, Shane Hughes, and the beauty of the place - the brochure calls it a spiritual retreat - that I'm seriously thinking of going there to live. Forget the army of house staff I need in my London mansion, the builders ever dealing with something, the six cars, the chauffeur. Just rent a few rooms at Ynyshir Hall and have done with it. It's pronounced "unuss-heer", in case you care.
"Just a minute," I hear you say. "You want to live there, but you said Joan was nuts."
I was being kind. She's totally bonkers. Gone. On a different planet.
"Tell us why," you mutter.
Y-Hall has the greatest view. Lawns, lovely old trees, rolling Welsh hills. The brochure calls it: "A fairy tale landscape . . . awake to the drama of the view." You can't. Joan personally made enormous curtains looping from left to right and right to left. They don't open. All you can see, if you kneel down on the floor and peer through the triangular gap at the bottom, is a fraction of the breathtaking view. Geraldine stood on a chair and hooked the curtains up over the pole that held them, so we could see out of the windows.
The brochure shows ruched curtains in the lounge, not hiding anything. Joan removed them and covered the windows with her blackout curtains. "I suppose we're so used to the view, we don't reckon it," she explained.
"It's so dark in my room, I have to turn the lights on when the sun's shining," I protested. "Have you heard of the book The Bonfire of the Vanities? You should have a bonfire of the curtains." I made no impression. Joan is wedded to voile.
Ynyshir Hall is like a friendly country house. There are striking paintings by Joan's husband, Rob. Never saw him. He was probably out buying curtain material.
The food is superb. For tea, Shane even made the potato crisps that came with fresh sandwiches, fantastic scones and various excellent cakes. Breakfast was equally good. Dinner was terrific. The canapes were three-Michelin-star. My main course of roast veal sweetbreads, braised marrowbone, spinach and girolles deserved a Michelin star too. I also had incredible shellfish bisque and an amazing freebie pea soup. Service was speed-perfect.
Unfortunately the vanilla souffle was degraded by Shane's heavy, strong and tangy passion fruit sauce, which wiped out the delicate taste of vanilla.
Shane said: "It's our most popular dessert."
I responded: "Hitler was the most popular politician in Germany. Doesn't mean he tasted good. Do you think fewer people would choose your vanilla souffle if it didn't have that sauce?"
I questioned a number of top chefs and restaurateurs. None of them thought passion fruit sauce went with vanilla souffle. Shane, cut out the sauce. Joan, take a deep breath, and a cluster of Valium, and give the curtains to Oxfam. Then you'd have the perfect hotel - and a big problem: I might come to live there.
Andrew Davis, chairman of von Essen hotels, asked me to present awards to the best young chef and waiter for the British Hospitality Association at the Jumeirah Carlton Tower hotel. Andrew, the most amusing event sponsor ever, greeted me with: "You must get some new contact lenses for Geraldine. Then she can see what she's had to put up with the past few years." Later he remarked: "Do you think Cartier do a wheelchair?"
My speech started: "It's very nice to be here. With the enemy."
Swept away, I personally gave £1,000 each to the winning young waiter and chef. A guest observed: "That's for all the abuse he's heaped on them. He's trying to buy absolution." I made that last bit up.
I read that fiddling MPs may have to return improperly claimed expenses. No chance of that with me. I don't get any. At my engagement party were the previous editor of this newspaper, who started me writing about restaurant visits, and the present incumbent. I announced: "The past year has been the best for me since I started working for The Sunday Times. It cost me only £280,000 more to visit the places I wrote about for them than they gave me for the articles."
That's a good job, innit? Minus £280,000 a year. Bet you'd like one of those. Queue up on the left in an orderly fashion.
PS: It was a sellout in Abergavenny and Henley but you can still catch my stand-up comedy talk My Life in Movies and Other Places in Canterbury on October 19; Stamford, October 25. See you there.
Great photo of you in the restaurant on Lake Garda. Despite being in the background, in the shade and almost unrecognisable, you still managed to be the focus of attention by having your left hand in an ice bucket and your right hand down the back of a pretty girl's frock.
Dr Colin Key, Algarve, Portugal
Last week's photo had excellent composition. You were right at the back so we couldn't see your ridiculous footwear.
Alan Gray, Hertfordshire
Do you think your notorious self had influence in the departure of the awful chef Grant MacPherson from Sandy Lane? Surely they have a tasting session for those they employ. He provided the worst, most tasteless food I've known in the 12 years I've been going there.
Sharon Ferster, Cheshire
I saw a newspaper photo of you in a limo attending Simon Cowell's birthday party. You had such a miserable look on your face, I wondered if you thought you were going to be given the bill for the lot.
Stanley Silver, Hertfordshire
Small jokette for your amuse-bouche. Met a friend who said he was sleeping with a fabulous blonde - one of twins. Then he said he was also sleeping with the other twin. "How do you tell them apart?" I asked. "Easy," he replied. "Her brother's got a moustache."
Tim Burton, Berkshire
Send letters to Michael Winner, The Sunday Times, 1 Pennington Street, London E98 1ST or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org