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After lunch, the painting bear takes the biscuit

Michael found Lille to be quite a let-down - redeemed only by its collection of paintings by, err, bears. You should try Southend instead

Published 2 October 2011
News Review
950th article

Geraldine in Lille's charming old town (Arnold Crust)

Shortly before my wedding, people asked: "Why did you go to Lille?" Answer: because it's only one hour, 20 minutes by Eurostar. A brochure I got, possibly by theft, not by desire, told me it was "fun-loving and outgoing. Lille boasts the highest percentage of young people in France. Bustling energy marks all events".

I didn't notice that. The brochure went on to yap about Lille's architectural wealth, "a pole of architectural audacity . . . a city of ambition [perhaps its ambition is to be another town altogether?], the European capital of culture in 2004".

That's all very well, but when you get there, what do you do? We wandered round the old town of Lille, the rest of it being so ghastly the only way to see it is with a sack on your head.

The old town is attractive: 19th-century buildings, many earlier, very few modern intrusions; boutiques, cafes. I had an alfresco cafe frappe with whipped cream on top at the Honey and Pie cafeteria. Is that a French name? The refreshment was fine. At the next table were a French couple. The woman smoked non-stop and threw her fag ends into the street. Disgusting.

Lunch was at the Tartare Shop in Place du General de Gaulle, the hub of the old town. Another establishment with an English moniker.

I had le coupe tartare classique coupe couteau, which means it was cut by hand, not just bunged in the mincer. It was accompanied by capers, parsley, sauce anglaise, sauce tomate, chips and salad.

The hand-cut steak tartare was lumpier than usual. Geraldine explained: "A lot of people don't like it because it's more difficult to eat." I'm with them. In future I'll opt for the minced version.

The chips were good. It took a long time for Geraldine's salmon tartare to arrive.

With it was a potato pancake, rather like the latke served in Jewish delis.

We needed something else to do. Lille is famous for its art gallery, the Palais des Beaux Arts. My cultural persona magnified and rampant, we had a gander at that. Nothing special until we got to a room with odd, clunky paintings.

I asked Geraldine who the artist was. I thought she said: "Bear."

"I never knew bears could paint," I said in incredulity. "You mean every painting in this room is by a bear? Are they all by the same bear? Or is there a family or commune of bear painters?" Geraldine, a genuine art gallery lover, viewed my stupidity with the disdain it deserved. By now I was becoming hysterical with laughter at my own foolishness. I was crying. I had to lean against the wall.

"Absolutely extraordinary," I said. "A room full of paintings by a bear. I've never seen that before. If we keep going, will we find paintings by a dog and others by a tarantula?" I thought I was so funny. Even Geraldine started to laugh.

"Have they got a book of bear paintings in the gift shop?" I asked. "If so, I'll get it to study at home." Gosh, I'm a wag.

There's nothing else to tell you about Lille. If you're interested in paintings by bears, it's a must. Otherwise, try Southend.

  • I like the Ivy, but I go to tables, not restaurants. I said to the man who answered the phone: "Is my usual table available for lunch at 1pm?" "Absolutely, Mr Winner," was the response.

    Twenty minutes later Nicolas Jarnot, the general manager, rang to say: "I'm sorry, Mr Winner, there are people already at your usual table. They won't be out on time."

    "Then why did your man assure me the table was available?" I asked. That stumped him.

    Nicolas offered other tables. I declined. Why do restaurants employ people for jobs they are clearly incapable of doing? Another example: at my favourite restaurant, the Wolseley, a head waiter told me the special was grouse.

    "Is it served whole or cut up?" I asked. "Definitely whole," he said.

    "You're sure? Otherwise I don't want it," I persisted.

    The grouse arrived cut into bits, the gravy mixing into it. I rejected it. Had a frankfurter and two fried eggs instead.

    The head waiter came over. "In future I'll give my order to a passing bus driver," I said.

    Later Mitchell Everard, a director of the Wolseley, said: "Never mind ordering from a passing bus driver; I'd like to throw the head waiter under the bus."

    On my next visit Mitchell reported: "There's a No 9 bus going by. I'll chuck the head waiter under that."

    "Not a No 9. Use a 22," begged my favourite manager, Fergal Lee.

  • From the Rev Frank Parkinson: Hymie's out and his wife Becky answers the phone.

    "Hello-ah," she says. A man responds: "You're pent up and frustrated. You want me to come over, throw you on the bed, rip your clothes off, make love to you and give you an experience such as you've never known."

    Becky says: "All this you can tell from Hello-ah?"

    Michael's missives

    It's over a week since your big day. Just wondering if you and the gorgeous Geraldine are still an item?
    John Finegan, Bailieborough, Ireland

    Now that the hoo-ha surrounding the wedding of the century is subsiding, can we expect the delectable Geraldine to introduce you to the world of the kitchen by attempting to teach you the rudiments of washing up?
    Michael Phillips, Solihull

    I never doubted your abilities as producer and director. I now recognise your true genius by casting yourself in the leading role in your latest production of Beauty and the Beast.
    Jerome Carroll, Paralimni, Cyprus

    May I suggest that if the bill hasn't arrived after a reasonable time from asking for it, put your business card on the table, then leave? It's amazing the turn of speed a French waiter can rise to in chasing you down the road with the credit card machine.
    Nick Jones, La Drome, France

    In Barcelona last week I ordered a €19 (£16.50) bottle of the house tempranillo at the Club Natacio Catalunya. It tasted awful, horribly musty. The waiter refused to agree. He poured the wine into an ashtray. After studying it he pronounced it to "look fine". I eventually persuaded him to try it, whereupon he said: "This is how our house wine should taste." Basil Fawlty would have been proud.
    Peter Crook, Norfolk

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