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Where the preferred tip is a Matisse

This week Michael visist La Colombe d'Or in St-Paul de Vence, where he finds the food is exemplary and not pretentious

Published 31 July 2011
News Review
941st article

Geraldine, on the terrace of La Colombe d'Or, admires the menu adorned with Paul Roux's painting (Arnold Crust)

Our photo shows Geraldine holding the best menu in the world. Its cover was painted by Paul Roux, who created the famous hotel La Colombe d'Or in St-Paul de Vence in 1920. The impressionist artists came to his rustic farmhouse on the Cote d'Azur, couldn't pay for their meals, so left artwork now worth millions.

Encouraged by Matisse, Paul started his beautiful flower compositions in 1946. Not only is the cover of the menu a work of art but the text is bold, beautifully inscribed and clear.

The food is exemplary. Not over-fussed French pretentious. Just good. The chef, Herve Roy, has been there for 20 years. His loup de mer is the best ever; the 16 bowls of hors d'oeuvre are world-famous. I even like the cassata ice cream.

The rooms are not chain hotel. They're individual, a bit distressed, marvellous. This is one of the great hotels of the world. A haven of peace. It's been run by the same family for ever, now by Paul's grandson, Fran├žois, and his wife, Danielle.

Someone wheeled by a clattering suitcase. Danielle said: "I'm going to insist on rubber wheels for all suitcases here. I'm going to make that a special thing."

Every major star in the firmament has eaten on the terrace of La Colombe. Many have stayed there. I remember when it looked onto a valley of vineyards. Now there are villas. That one owned by Richard and Judy; over there Bill Wyman's. But the place is still magical.

It's on the edge of a well-preserved medieval village, which sits on top of a hill. Steep, cobbled streets run up and down. When I first went, the houses were all homes. Now at street level they have art galleries, clothes shops, trinket places.

The little restaurants tucked away in the village look good. My only previous experience of one was ghastly. I murdered it. The owner wrote to me not complaining but thanking me. He'd been inundated with British visitors asking for exactly what I'd eaten and hated.

So I was not over-optimistic when we dropped into Le Tilleul. A picturesque, small restaurant with exterior tables that spilt onto the other side of the street. Inside was blandly modern. Piped music. The single waiter didn't rush to take our dinner order. Luckily only six people were there. "If there were more, we'd be waiting till one in the morning," I observed.

Geraldine ordered sashimi. The waiter said: "I'll bring your sashimi; he [that's me] can wait for his risotto."

"No, no," advised Geraldine, "give him his risotto. He can have his dessert while I have my main course." Clever girl.

The risotto, not much good anyway, had lots of glumpy vegetables on top, which had to be cut up. As they were tough, this was difficult. "That's because you hold your knife like a pen," said Geraldine.

She got an enormous entrecote steak. It was pretty good. My millefeuille tasted as if it came from a supermarket, although they assured me it was made on the premises. Either way it was gooey and stringy. Inedible. A brave but senseless foray.

Written on the menu of La Petite Maison, in Nice, is, "Tous celebres ici," meaning: "Everyone's a celebrity here." Regular customers Elton John, Michael Caine et al have more celebrity than most. All celebrities are not equal.

Then it says: "Mind your bag." Thieves are obviously not celebrities.

The place specialises in truffles with everything, in season. It's been superbly and eccentrically run for 20 years by a marvellous character, Nicole Rubi. Forget the second-rate London spin-off. This is the real thing. Don't miss it.

  • The death of Lucian Freud, whom I first met in 1960, saddened me. When I worked in Wardour Street, we'd sit next to each other at the bar of Wheeler's restaurant in Old Compton Street. Me, Lucian and Francis Bacon. In the decades that followed I often saw Lucian, recently at the Wolseley, where he dined almost every night and for lunch too. Only a few weeks ago I asked: "Lucian, do you ever exercise?" He replied impishly: "No, but I bathe. Often three times in one day." A marvellous, witty, outgoing, warm person.

    The Wolseley covered his regular table with a black cloth on the day he died and wouldn't serve there out of respect for a great man.

  • From the distinguished food critic Matthew Norman: Hymie is on his deathbed. He says to his wife: "Becky, when we lived in the village in Russia and there was a pogrom, you were with me."

    "Of course," says Becky. Hymie continues: "Then we moved to Moscow, where I became a tailor and the shop went bust. You, Becky, were with me."

    "Of course I was," says Becky.

    "When we came to England, Becky, and my shoe business failed, you were with me, by my side," says Hymie.

    "I'll always be with you, Hymie. You can rely on me. I love you," says Becky.

    "And now," says Hymie, "I'm dying and here you are, holding my hand, still with me."

    "You can always count on me," says Becky adoringly. "You know what, Becky?" whispers Hymie. "You're an effing jinx."

    Michael's missives

    Is there any chance that your recent stay in hospital was to have you surgically removed from your old leather bomber jacket? If so, I do hope it was successful.
    Howard Bentley, Preston

    I often wonder if the person (last week Balbir Sumal) on whose shoulder Michael invariably rests his hand grasps the nature of their terrible fate. That is to be taken to the front of the premises and shot prior to publication of the verdict.
    Brian Breathnach, Dublin

    Trying to book at Dinner was horrendous. Website inaccessible, phone number engaged throughout two 45-minute sessions of speed dialling, until we finally got an answerphone, which said: "We are busy. Ring back later." We gave a handwritten letter to reception concerning booking problems. We've not even had an acknowledgment.
    Timothy Allen, London

    You rave about Harry's Bar, Venice. My wife and I strolled in. An employee looked disparagingly at my knee-length shorts and said: "I have a problem with the trousers." Despite dignified protests from my wife, who pointed out there were females showing bare legs, we were shown the door.
    David Clarke, Sheffield

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