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I survive the train crash of my 180mph tortellini

Delightful service but not great food on the Eurostar, but its point remains to get you places quickly and comfortably, says Michael

Published 23 October 2011
News Review
953rd article



Michael and Geraldine on the Eurostar to Lille (Tiffany Callebaut)

I don't do trains. I do helicopters.

Trains used to be good: individual compartments, very plush. The best was the Brighton Belle, which took posh folk to and from Brighton. It had butlers and waiters, and served the most marvellous tea in a proper dining carriage with tablecloths, elegant crockery and cutlery. Service worthy of the Ritz.

The last time I went on a train, to Bognor Regis (for a newspaper article), there was a trolley with wrapped rubbish. Now there is Eurostar.

Geraldine swears by it. Uses it many times a year to visit her family in Paris. A 2¼-hour journey at up to 186mph. We went on it to Lille.

The lounge at St Pancras is reasonably chic. A lot of fruit and snacks. I tried cocktail peas with pepper. So much pepper it made me weep.

Our carriage was more or less empty. The lunch menu was "created with the help of our Gastronomic Ambassador, Alain Roux, chef patron at the three Michelin star Waterside Inn in Bray".

Great chef, Alain, but when he knocked up the Eurostar menu he was not inspired. Mind you, anyone who expects decent food on a plane or train should be carried away by the men in white coats. Reheating long-ago-packed food is not likely to produce anything good.

"Alain has worked closely with us to craft and perfect delicious dishes fit for Business Premier." Pull the other one.

I got tortellini au fromage, with sauce petits pois, asparagus and beans. When it arrived, it was accompanied by what looked like a dessert on a biscuit with pink stuff.

Geraldine said: "That's not the dessert." For once she was wrong. I ate it, thus starting my meal with a very moderate dessert of lemon cheesecake with a cream of red fruit.

The tortellini was unspeakable. Hard, rubbery, no taste, awful. If Alain Roux served anything like that at his restaurant in Bray, he'd be lynched in the garden.

After a taste I said: "Take this away and give me the curried chicken thigh with curry cream sauce, onion bhaji, potato and spinach cake, chickpeas, broad bean and cumin timbale."

I ask you, what a performance, writing all that on the menu. It wasn't terrible. Not great. I left most of it.

Our waitress was Tiffany Callebaut from Belgium. A total delight. Charming, smiling, better than 95% of the waiters in posh London restaurants. The Eurostar staff are all absolutely incredible. They're pleasant, they look nice, they're genuinely hospitable.

Tiffany took our photo. Every time she took one she said, "Wonderful, excellent", even though she hadn't looked at it. As it happens I think she was right.

On the way back I had breakfast: coffee, chocolate croissant, smoked salmon with cream cheese. Not historic, but again served by delightful people.

The point about Eurostar is not the food. It's that it gets you to places quickly and comfortably. In the summer it goes to Avignon in Provence. The same train you get on at St Pancras lets you off at Avignon 6 hours and 13 minutes later. That's amazing.

In winter it goes to several ski resorts. Maybe I'll try Eurostar to Avignon (taking my own food) and then drive a couple of hours to the Côte d'Azur. Much cheaper than a private jet. No doubt about it: Eurostar is a thoroughly good thing.

Know what I hate? When a waiter delivers your starter and proclaims: "This is foie gras with apple strudel and lupins."

I say: "I only ordered it 15 minutes ago - I know what it is."

Then, as you're eating, the waiter asks: "Are you enjoying your starter?" Throughout the meal every course is described on delivery, and every course is interrupted, halting conversation with your companion.

What are these people doing? Training to get into Rada? Soon they'll be asking: "Are you enjoying going to the lavatory?" Or: "Are you enjoying choking to death?"

At the end they say: "Did you enjoy your meal?" Perhaps they're writing a report for MI5. Then, when you want to pay the bill, there's no dialogue at all because no one comes over. When they do, it takes for ever to arrive. If I don't have an account I go to the desk, hand them my business card and say: "Send the bill here." If I didn't, I'd be a degenerating skeleton still sitting there. With waiters asking: "Are you enjoying falling apart?"



  • From Neil O'Connor: Hymie goes to the doctor. After he leaves the surgery the doctor calls in his wife, Becky.

    "Hymie has phenomenally high blood pressure," he explains. "If he carries on like this, he'll be dead in a month. But you can prevent it. Prepare him a fresh, healthy meal every day, don't let Hymie lift a finger around the house and, most importantly, make love to him five times a week. Do that and he'll make a full recovery."

    On the way home Hymie asks Becky: "What did the doctor say to you?" Becky replies: "He said you're going to die."



    Michael's missives

    Having been photographed at the Vineyard, Stockcross, now return your shirt material to the deckchair from whence it came.
    Geoff Greensmith, Surrey

    I'd bet your souffle at the Jumeira Carlton served so speedily was destined for a more deserving customer. The staff diverted the pud to you in the hope of avoiding a diatribe on the unacceptable wait for a souffle.
    Nick Hardman, Lancashire

    When you said to Geraldine's son, "Fabrice, your mother is mad", his response should have been: "Yes, she married you."
    Stanley Silver, Hertfordshire

    Since you're millions of pounds in debt, I trust Geraldine insisted you sign a prenuptial agreement.
    Ian Hawks Graham, Glasgow

    I entered a scruffy-looking bar in Venice to be warmly greeted by the barman. At the table a waiter asked me to leave. I was in breach of the dress code by wearing three-quarter-length trousers. How do you get into Harry's Bar with your dress sense?
    Peter Southee, East Sussex

    David Cameron seems impervious to the country's financial chaos. He's never experienced unemployment or hardship. As for "Calm down, dear" in your commercial, I found it condescending and surmised it was written by a juvenile copywriter.
    Laura McCormick, Devon

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