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Some alligator, please ... and make it snappy

Published 18 April 2010
News Review
874th article



Sir Michael Caine and Michael relaxing on their boat trip (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)

It was Christmas night in the workhouse/And the paupers was having their dinners/And the preacher called from the top of the hall/"Get down on your knees, you sinners." I'm not sure who wrote that, although a number of rock bands have recorded versions of it. My mind turned to it when thinking of December and January in Miami, Florida. The Arctic would have been sunbathing weather by comparison.

Unable to lie on my lounger (my main holiday occupation) I rented a large boat for a trip to Fort Lauderdale. The crew was a captain and two young girls who could have come straight from Playboy. They were very efficient. The passengers were me, Geraldine, Sir Michael Caine and his daughter Natasha. In our photo Michael and I look like a couple of old tarts freezing to death on a bench in Frinton-on-Sea. Actually I look like an old tart. Michael looks like a distinguished knight of the realm freezing to death in Frinton-on-Sea.

The superb Setai hotel manager, Hans Meier, had booked a restaurant but we decided it was taking too long to get there. "Let's just stop and find somewhere ourselves," suggested Michael.

By now I was going bright blue and my fingers were dropping off. "Good idea," I whispered in a feeble voice.

We landed in a little harbour and headed for the 15th Street Fisheries Dockside Café in Fort Lauderdale. The menu offered Louisiana bayou fried alligator, saying, "It tastes like a cross between chicken and pork, be adventurous - it's great!" We sat on bench seats at a wooden table. I ordered clam chowder and fried alligator. The alligator came within seconds of the soup. The quickest service ever.

I said to Michael, "Try a bit of alligator." "I'll be sick," he said.

I dictated into my tape, "It's very good; there's some dark meat alligator and some light meat. The dark meat is a little more chewy."

Michael said, "I may throw up just listening to this."

I gave Natasha a small piece of alligator. She said, "It's just like chicken." She took only a very tiny piece of a tiny piece. "I'm eating my fish," she explained.

The excellent chips were made on the premises. The alligator batter was light and top class.

To follow I ordered key lime pie. The restaurant had that and a strawberry cheesecake, both done in its kitchen. I liked the key lime pie. I said to Michael, "What do you think?" He replied, "I don't know. I don't even like them. Shakira goes nuts for key lime pie." Good for her, I thought. Shakira stayed in the apartment with her mother. Geraldine had blackened fish.

"They call it black in case they burn it," explained Michael. Outside people were feeding huge tarpon fish. It was a thoroughly pleasant experience. All UK restaurateurs should get out with nets, hammers, shotguns, anti-tank missiles and grab alligators. They're a delicacy. Back in London, a horrid lunch at Scalini. This Knightsbridge Italian is always noisy and overcrowded but the food and management can be good. So why did I receive the worst spaghetti bolognese of all time? It was stringy, thin and hard. The so-called bolognese was like ghastly gravy. The restaurant manager, Valerio, realised this, I think, because he also gave me a plate of meatballs.

A strange group sat at the next table, usually reserved for regulars. When Valerio told them they were at the wrong table and offered one next to it, the host snarled, Valerio crumbled. I like to see a manager manage, to feel there's someone in control. That lunch showed quality control was having a day off.

I'll have a few days off Scalini. If not months. Maybe years.

The next day I went to Timo in Kensington High Street. Its spaghetti bolognese was immaculate, the real thing. The mozzarella and cherry tomatoes were fresh. The parmesan squares on the table at Scalini had a "hanging round forever" taste and texture.

At Timo there was space, no overcrowded tables an inch away. The owner, Piero Amodio, could teach Scalini a thing or two, if he was so minded. Which I'm sure he isn't. When the Wolseley (my favourite venue) first offered chopped liver and treacle tart, they were grotesque. Being clever, the chef got them right. Now the menu includes tzimmes, a Viennese dish. It's not brilliant.

Lucian Grainge CBE, tzimmes expert and head of Universal Music, agreed. Tzimmes involves carrots, sweet potatoes, pitted prunes, honey, orange juice, salt, cinnamon. Carrots should be sliced into "coins" or small squares. They should be soft, but not too soft. Combined with the other ingredients they can produce fantastic flavours. The Wolseley tzimmes lacks taste. The carrots are too solid. I'm sure the chef will perfect it. It's one of my favourites. On Sunday, May 2, following a sell-out tour of the UK, America, southern Silesia and Balham, my hilarious one-man show plays at the distinguished King's Head Theatre in Islington. Phone 08442 090326 to book for the chance of a lifetime.



Michael's missives

Your invitation to dinner at the Belvedere reminds me of the groom's speech I made there at my wedding reception. I told guests it was one of your local watering holes. My brother Henry, a wedding organiser, said it was the worst speech he had ever heard. The marriage ended a year later.
Charles Bonas, London

You ask us where you went after deserting Père Bise on Lake Annecy. I say to L'Abbaye de Talloires next door. Half the price and twice the fun.
Richard Hann, Bristol

What a nice scarf you wore outside Amberley Castle. Any chance Geraldine could pull it a bit tighter?
Angus Meaney, Limerick, Ireland

I am seven years old and go to St Barnabas and St Philip's school in Kensington. Would you like to come to our school for lunch? We have a new kitchen that opens tomorrow.
Skye Harris, London

Four lovely ladies booked lunch at the New Angel in Dartmouth, Devon. We didn't sample the food as we were seated in a large upstairs crèche. We asked to go downstairs with the adults but were told there were no available tables, despite seeing three empty tables down there. The manager was haughty and didn't care when we said we'd go elsewhere. How lucky for John Burton Race to be so overwhelmed with diners he can pick and choose who eats there.
Michelle Vine, Berkshire

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