Published 20 December 2009 News Review 857th article
Michael with John Williams in the dining room of the Ritz (John Rogers)
I never drank cocktails. But recently I've become infatuated with the cosmopolitan. I drink it from a classic cocktail glass, thin-stemmed, opening to a funnel. I look like Noel Coward in drag.
My addiction to this effete drink is the fault of Yvonne Romain, an actress often bitten on her exquisite bosom by vampires, wolfmen and other hoi polloi. Not in real life (although I know not what happens in Evie's private world) but in Hammer horror films where she played the Ruritanian damsel in distress.
For years Evie advertised herself in a wonderful manual, Peter Noble's Film & TV Yearbook. In 1962 Yvonne's biographical entry was accompanied by a sultry photo of her lounging seductively on a very 1960s chair, no shoes, no stockings, a white leotard and a casually revealing leather zip-up jacket. In her left hand she held aloft a cocktail stick with a piece of cheese on it.
In 1964 Yvonne's ad changed to a sensuously posed head shot by the famed glamour photographer Ben Jones. She was like a Mediterranean Brigitte Bardot.
In 1966 she wore a black top and looked most inviting. A caption stated she'd starred in The Swinger for Paramount. The following year Evie co-starred with Elvis in Double Trouble.
I was shattered to find Yvonne absent from the 1970 edition. She'd married a brilliant composer, Leslie Bricusse, who was with me at Cambridge University. So happy were they, she turned down a seven-year contract with Fellini to be with her husband and son.
We were in Scott's having dinner with Sir Michael and Lady Caine when I noticed Evie's orange-coloured drink.
"I'll have what she's having," I said, echoing a famous movie line. I didn't mean Leslie, I meant the drink.
A few days later I took my adorable fiancee for Christmas lunch at the Ritz, along with my assistant Dinah, her son Luke, who manages a shoe shop in Covent Garden, and Leslie and Evie.
The barman, Alan Cook, assured me a cosmopolitan was no problem. Nor was it for me. I drank it.
The Ritz chef, John Williams, is a supreme professional. His food is beyond belief good, served in far and away the most beautiful dining room in London. The Ritz is awesome. In a class of its own.
I was delighted to learn that John, whom I regarded as the epitome of Yorkshire calm, screamed his head off in the kitchen. When I asked a waiter to take him in some photos we'd shot on my TV show Michael Winner's Dining Stars, the waiter went white and said, "I hope Mr Williams isn't shouting when I give him these." I congratulated John on the food and on exercising his vocal cords. No gain without pain, I say.
The bread was historic. My bacon brioche was fantastic. The freebie was salad of crab with avocado, ginger jelly and marie rose (whoever she is). Then I had ballotine of ham hock and langoustines with artichoke puree, quail egg beignet and fennel pollen. Sounds ridiculous, tasted great. Roast beef, veggies, marvellous roast potatoes and yorkshire pud followed. Plus pommes soufflees - little fried potato balloons, which only John can do properly.
The Christmas pudding was perfection. Beyond historic in texture and flavour. The sweet mince pies were incredible. It was one of the best meals ever. No denim allowed, tie essential. Even for me, well worth it.
Service by the restaurant manager, Simon Girling, and his team is exemplary. Outside the dining room the Palm Court serves luxurious tea from 11am. Its manager, Michael Kotb, is well up to standard. It's fairy land. Tastefully Christmassed up. Pianists tinkle. Harpists pluck. If only all London's grand hotels were as unspoilt.
I needed names and numbers of bookshop managers who wanted me to come in to sign Winner's Dinners. The publicity lady emailed, "Our sales rep won't give me the managers' names and numbers as they're his clients."
I told David Segrue, the salesman, who thinks bookshops are part of the secret service, it took us all of 10 minutes to get the bookshop phone numbers and managers' names without his help. Then I went to Waterstone's in Kensington, Hatchards, Harrods and Selfridges to sign anything that didn't move. They say in the trade, "A book signed is a book sold." Someone should tell Mr Segrue.
I recounted how the Mastermind people sent the cheque for my fee to the wrong charity even though I'd given them in writing the name and address where it should go.
Fiona Hamilton, the producer, wrote, "If Mr Winner chooses to comment on this, the BBC will respond if necessary." How terrifying. Put on tin hats. Hide in the trenches. Since then the Master-no-minds, having at last got their cheque to me, wrote again to the charity it wasn't meant for, telling it the payment would soon come to it. Unbelievable.
You can see seasonal goodwill just flows from me. To all my readers, happy Christmas. Hope the 1,000-plus I sent my card to had fun with it.
I agree about Kitchen W8. As it's local we issued a three-line whip for my husband's birthday. No one asked if everything was okay. If they had we'd have told them the portions were minute and the service non-existent. At the end of the meal my son announced he was still hungry, my husband announced he was £154 poorer and my daughter announced we should go back to the Wolseley.
Trish Abelson, London
Perhaps W8 should be renamed Wait. It seems you had to hang around a lot.
Sue Deacon, Hampshire
So you spent £350,000 with Amex last year and £280,000 this year. What exactly do you do to earn it? Susannah Simpson, Cheshire When you appear on Mastermind it will be the first time the famous chair won't be the oldest, most leathery thing on view.
Stuart Clark, Essex
I'm a "closet" follower of yours. My wife can't stand you. Although she doesn't complain about places we've stayed or eaten at following your recommendations.
Nicholas Landor, Jersey
Your column irritates my father immensely. Yet he always seems to know what you're up to and where you've been. Please, send him a card. He lives in Yorkshire, where I understand they've recently started a postal service. Albeit by horse and cart.
Marcus Mellor, Barcelona
Send letters to Winner's Dinners, The Sunday Times, 1 Pennington Street, London E98 1ST or email firstname.lastname@example.org '' No denim allowed, tie essential. Even for me, well worth it