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It's parking hell, but it's also food heaven

Michael polishes off a perfect pike and leek pie this week at the St John hotel - and embraces the £60 parking fine

Published 7 August 2011
News Review
942nd article

Michael at the St John hotel with, from left, Therese Gustafsson, Matthew Rivett and Tom Harris (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)

Leicester Street runs north from Leicester Square, near to the Empire cinema. It's an impossible place to park legally. This doesn't worry me because Westminster doesn't tow cars away. I just leave mine and embrace a £60 ticket.

Outside the St John hotel - owned by Fergus Henderson and his partner Trevor Gulliver - the general manager, Matthew Rivett, was waiting for me. He's the former banqueting manager at the Ritz.

The St John hotel opened recently.

Matthew explained, "I've been here a year building the hotel."

"Very good with bricks and mortar are you, Matthew?" I suggested.

Matthew said, "I've lost a lot of weight." Could have fooled me.

This is a small boutique hotel. I asked, "Who on earth comes here?" "Americans," said Matthew. "Fergus has a very big following there."

In England, Fergus has two restaurants somewhere in or beyond the City. Areas I do not choose to be familiar with. At one of them the food was excellent but it had the rudest restaurant manager I've ever come across.

The chef at the hotel is Tom Harris who came from St John in Smithfield. The menu is intelligent. Not too large. There are eight starters, six main courses, a few side orders, nine desserts. The cooking goes on at one end of a minimalist room.

Luckily, there weren't many people for lunch. If there had been, the noise could have been deafening. A child screamed a few tables away. I said to the assistant restaurant manager, Amanda Thompson, "If there's any nonsense with that screaming child, throw it out. Preferably take it to the third floor and throw it from there." The baby kept screaming.

Geraldine said, "He's talking."

I said, "No he's not, he's screaming."

I was the only person in the room wearing a jacket, which is rare. Everyone else was in shirt sleeves. Thankfully, the baby was taken out.

Matthew said, "Have a bowl of peas in the pod at the table and pick on those." They were tender and tasty. The brown and white sourdough bread was clammy. Geraldine assured me that was its normal texture. Still tasted ridiculous.

My first course - cured sea trout, cucumber and dill - tasted like gravadlax but was excellent. Geraldine had crab, fennel and chervil; she was happy.

For the main course I ordered pike and leek pie, offered only for two people. It was historic. I left nothing. The pastry was perfect, the filling very delicate. It was as good a course as you could wish for. Geraldine went nutty, ordering a main course for two people - an enormous bowl of bacon and beans. She ate it all.

I was somewhat full. So what? I was on a run. The waiter recommended custard tart. The pastry chef, Therese Gustafsson, agreed. So I had that and a poached peach with toasted brioche. The tart was warm, light and as memorable as a custard tart could ever be. The warm brioche, outstanding; the poached pear, with lovely syrup, excellent. You won't get better food than this anywhere in London.

Later I took Michael and Shakira Caine and John Gold, the former owner of the nightclub Tramp. I can't remember what they ate but they loved it.

When we'd all ordered, I said, "You've got to try the pike and leek pie." That went down like a lump of lead.

Nevertheless the pike and leek pie was put on the table and by the time we'd finished there wasn't a morsel left.

Fergus Henderson is supreme beyond belief. He's not one of those stupid chefs who yatter away on television or sell beef cubes or ponce around the posh magazines. There is no better restaurant in London than his one at the St John hotel. Arrive by parachute because you certainly won't be able to park.

Parking is no problem at the Sofitel hotel near the corner of Pall Mall. But, shock-horror. It serves tea bags. Its Earl Grey was tasteless. Then, where to put that soggy thing on the end of a string? I made my views know to Denis Dupart, grandly titled "area general manager, Sofitel, UK, Ireland and the Netherlands".

Scones and sandwiches were good. At least they spared me wrapped butter. Nothing more depressing when tea bags and butter-wrap litter the table.

Le Caprice closes tomorrow for redecoration and general tarting up. Re-opens (in theory) on September 1. It already has an awning outside and tables for smokers.

It's one of my favourite places. I remember when it was all red plush benches and chairs. After first nights we all wore evening dress. Noel Coward one side, Ivor Novello on the other; the Oliviers in pole position. Jewish people were stuck in an adjunct at the back on the right. I got better seating because I went with a famous theatrical agent.

In its current life it's a Jeremy King-Chris Corbin creation; Richard Caring has kept up the standard totally.

  • Rachel's dog jumps in a lake, gets into trouble and is drowning. Hymie, passing by, dives in and saves it. He gives the dog to Rachel. "He'll be fine," says Hymie.

    "Are you a vet?" she asks.

    "Vet?" says Hymie. "I'm bloody soaking."

    Michael's missives

    Looking at the photo of you in Glasgow leaning on Balbir Sumal's shoulder, you remind me of one of those poor demented people you see wandering around homes for the mentally ill, constantly asking for the lavatory.
    John Brett Carter, Lancashire

    What a charming lady who does meals on wheels for you. Do you have to feed Arnold Crust as well? That could get expensive.
    David Bradley, West Yorkshire

    No wonder Michael thinks the Colombe d'Or's rooms are marvellous. In his distressed state of attire he must blend in seamlessly with the distressed state of the rooms. That could make him invisible. Too much to ask for perhaps?
    Nick Jones, La Drome, France

    When will Hymie die? He seems to have been on his deathbed for the last month or so.
    Adam Osborn, Malaga, Spain

    At Gilbert Scott, St Pancras, we were told we could only have the table for two hours. It took 1½ hours to get our main course! The maitre d' said the printer had broken down!
    Sue Bodinetz, London

    At Cliveden to celebrate a birthday, a lovely party was marred by the frosty head waiter. When I asked for vegetarian food he pulled a face and returned 20 minutes later to grandly present a small side dish of very average coleslaw.
    Christian Ulf-Hansen, Hertfordshire

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