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The real deal in a city full of fakes

'At Tobsil you go through a small door and enter the world of Arabian nights, and one of the world's best restaurants'

Published 19 December 2010
News Review
909th article

Michael at Le Tobsil in Marrakesh with the owner, Christine Rio (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)

Marrakesh has changed massively since I first visited in April, 1996 and dined at Le Tobsil. That's, let me work it out: 2 and 2 is 4, 3 and 3 is 7, 6 times 10 is 63 . . . so 1996 is . . . 15 years ago next April.

Regardless of "progress" around it, Tobsil remains the same - one of the world's best restaurants. It's in a 1925 riad. The inner courtyard, surrounded by balconies, now has an electronically operated roof. Candles, rugs, rose petals on white tablecloths, exquisitely decorated plates, two musicians playing somewhat stoned music. A beautiful room.

The souk's old riads are being turned into boutique hotels. Big hotel chains are constructing. The road to the airport, which was through fields, now winds among housing estates.

At Le Tobsil you go through a small door and enter the world of Arabian nights. The continued quality is because the French owner, Christine Rio, maintains firm control. She walks purposefully through her domain, greeting and seating customers.

The food is historic. My notes are full of superlatives. We started with Arab salads, little bowls - sweet tomatoes and cinnamon, courgettes, sweet carrot, cauliflower with broccoli and garlic, aubergine, celery with lemon, green peppers, pigeon pastilla with almonds and cinnamon. Followed by chicken tagine with parsley, coriander and lemon sauce came in a bowl with a cloche on it, like a hood.

"A hoodie chicken," I said pathetically.

Geraldine explained, "The lemon sauce has been cooked for ages; it makes the chicken moist."

Then an enormous shoulder of lamb with apricot plus couscous with vegetables and a sensational tangy sauce.

"Couscous is just the wheat rolled on their thighs like cigars," said Geraldine.

"Whose thighs?" I wondered.

"Why don't they have vegetables like this anywhere else? They're so tasty," observed Geraldine.

Everything complemented everything else. Except me. I was, as usual, the outsider. The dessert of cooked pears with cinnamon was superior to any pears ever. I thought all was over, when in came an enormous mille-feuille cake with milk, almonds and cinnamon. "Absolutely incredible," I dictated.

If Tobsil was in London I'd go endlessly.

Beware: in Marrakesh if someone says something's antique it probably isn't. At the Mamounia hotel there was a dealer (now dead) who swore his Chinese vases were 17th-century. A friend of mine lived next door to him. He saw deliveries from Hong Kong factories of new, distressed vases.

I was offered a shell-and-rare-stone-encrusted mirror. The shop said, "Made in 1920." My guide whispered, "Made last week." He took me to the wholesaler that provided them. Its price was 80% less. I bought one and turned it into a coffee table. Anything offered in the souk can be reduced by at least 60%. Just hold out the cash you want to pay; if it's refused, start to walk out. You'll get it for what you wanted.

In Britain I'd say at least 70% of "antiques" in shops are wrong. They're either total fakes or messed about with new additions, which makes them not real antiques. Same applies to paintings. Ditto the sale rooms. Many times I've caught out our big auctioneers. They dress beautifully but their morals are below those of a used-car dealer in Peckham.

  • Drama at the Wolseley. Sir David Tang, the Chinese owner of the excellent China Tang in the Dorchester, and other great restaurants, told me he was thrown out by the manager, Fergal Lee, who later wrote apologising profusely. All this caused great merriment among Fergal's Wolseley colleagues. A fellow restaurant manager gave him the China Tang Cookbook for Christmas.

    I made a card with three photos of Sir David. On the front, "Happy Christmas Fergal, from Dave". Inside a remark of such gross political incorrectness I dare not repeat it in a nice paper like The ST.

  • Sadie Cohen the seamstress is walking home at night. A flasher opens his coat revealing all. Sadie says: "You call that a lining?"

    Hymie's selling pretzels outside Stratford Tube station. Abe, a rich local, gives him £4, declines the bag of pretzels, saying, "It's for you." Every day for three years Abe gives Hymie £4. Never takes the pretzels. One day he gives £4 and Hymie says, "£7 now." "How come?" asks Abe. "The price of pretzels has gone up," says Hymie.

    The Irish SAS stormed Dublin zoo. Killed five gorillas, saved three ostriches.

  • GOOD: the Ivy's treacle sponge pudding; organic jelly crystals from Luscious Organic on Kensington High Street; Stasha's lavish cookbook How to Feed a Man; the higher-quality seating with improved legroom in Screen One at the Kensington Odeon.

    BAD: the watery Cosmopolitan cocktail at Le Caprice; my Mistral internet/email provider; the incompetence of the QVC shopping channel; people who don't buy my book.

    On that compassionate note I wish you all a merry Christmas - it'll be over before my next column. Make the least of it.

    Michael's missives

    At the Savoy Grill the staff brought sparkling water when we ordered still, we got leaves instead of mixed salad and two overdone steaks, which were inedible and sent back. The credit card machine rejected our card three times until someone found one that worked. No sign of Gordon Ramsay!
    Sharon Landau, Hertfordshire

    The Savoy American bar was so dark we needed torchlights to read the menu. The apple martini arrived with a sprig of mint on top instead of the usual slice of apple. I asked why. The waiter said, "We've run out of apples."
    Cian O'Callaghan, London

    At the Savoy American bar we were told the window table was reserved. Four businessmen with laptops and mobile phones were squashed onto our table. When we left, the window table was still empty. My husband said, "I'd love to know what Michael Winner thinks of the Savoy." So thanks for your article. It saved me writing to the management.
    Patricia Coates, Leicestershire

    We found the Savoy River restaurant staff a joy and the food delicious. The best is, I can return safe in the knowledge you won't be there.
    James Wood, by email

    We're cruising the Western Isles with the Majestic Line next year. So please, Mr Winner, behave, don't frighten away the wildlife and leave some smoked salmon and a few oatcakes for us.
    Vicky Toone, Warwickshire

    Send letters to Winner's Dinners, The Sunday Times, 3 Thomas More Square, London E98 1ST, or email michael.winner@sunday-times.co.uk