After being barred from Fortnum & Mason in his youth, Michael returns for a spectacularly good dessert of manuka honey crème caramel
Published 18 December 2011 News Review 961st article
Michael at Fortnum & Mason's Fountain restaurant with Beverley Aspinall (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)
Around 1961 I was "barred" from Fortnum & Mason. In those days I foolishly smoked 15 Montecristo No 1 cigars a day. My father, generously, let me buy them at Fortnum's on his account. One day Dad got a bill.
He asked: "Did you take a box of cigars on July 7?"
I said: "Don't know."
Fortnum's took no signature from its account customers, who carried off valuable items. Since it couldn't show I'd had the cigars, Dad declined to pay. Thus his account was closed and I was unable to go to Fortnum's, as my income was nil and I couldn't afford it.
Times and fortunes changed and I acquired an office in Sackville Street over the road and lunched many days at Fortnum's Spanish Bar, a tiny counter run by a couple of lovely old gay men. When that was closed I moved on to Wiltons.
I still went to Fortnum's Fountain restaurant, which had the best, pinkest strawberry milkshakes and an incredible dessert (also on sale in the food halls) called Mont Blanc. This was two halves of a meringue with cream and chestnut in the middle. It's a taste I will never forget.
Ten days ago I was signing books in Fortnum's and decided to revisit the Fountain for lunch. It had been part of the refit by David Collins, a decorator I normally abhor. But I think he did a good job with Fortnum's. I preferred the old murals of peasants in various far-flung countries hard at work while dandified Englishmen watched them as one might a cabaret. I suppose that's politically incorrect today.
The new design for the Fountain is pleasantly sophisticated even without a display of blatant racism. The extremely elegant managing director of Fortnum's, Beverley Aspinall, came to see me signing at my little table opposite the first-floor lift and later to the restaurant for a quick photo.
Fortnum's is a magical world of its own. I started with a strawberry milkshake. It looked pale, almost white. "Oh dear," I thought. It turned out to be superb, one of the best milkshakes ever and with a definite strawberry taste.
After some memorable fig and apricot bread made on the premises, I had wild mushrooms and tarragon on sourdough toast. I don't know whether it was butter but, whatever it was, it had soaked into the toast brilliantly, and the mushrooms were very tasty.
Things then took a slide to disaster. My Fountain fish pie had a potato crust solid I nearly asked for a pneumatic drill to get through it. When I managed, what lay below was okay. What lingered was the taste of the terrible, overcooked crust. It had obviously been in the microwave way past its proper time. Why a restaurant should serve this to anyone, let alone a supposed food critic, I cannot imagine.
Things rose again with a spectacularly good dessert of manuka honey crème caramel accompanied by a hot chocolate drink. All in all a pleasant meal, even though ice-cold air was coming through the window at an alarming rate. Geraldine gave me her coat; otherwise I'd have been a frozen waxwork to put people off their meals.
Geraldine's smoked salmon was top rate. Her scallops were good too. Unfortunately there was no sign of a Mont Blanc.
On my way out I was greeted by the chairwoman of Fortnum's, Kate Hobhouse. The place is run by women. A marvellous store. Far and away the best in London.
I revealed in my book Tales I Never Told! how I cure people who suffer from ME, or chronic fatigue syndrome, a terrible ailment that doctors know very little about. Almost by accident, when one of my ex-girlfriends had it so badly she couldn't get of bed, I discovered a combination of health pills that really got rid of it. My book tells how I identified Barbara Windsor as suffering from ME. I sent her the pill list, which she ignored. A year later, having been out of EastEnders, she rang and asked for it again.
"Take it this time," I said.
Barbara did and was back in EastEnders within three months.
She said: "Can I say to the press you cured me?" Hundreds of people wrote in asking for the cure. A typical response came recently from Scott Whitehead by email: "Since you sent the pill list it has worked wonders. My mum and I have got our lives back. Thank you."
From Mr Maplestead of Bournemouth via Twitter: My local cinema manager died yesterday. His funeral is next Tuesday at 2.30, 4.15 and 6.45.
And from Ross Freeman in Hampstead: Hymie gets sent to a firing squad with a Frenchman and an Englishman. They're granted one last meal. The Frenchman asks for foie gras and snails, and is served the finest of both. The Englishman requests a Sunday roast: he gets the best beef, yorkshire pudding, the lot. Hymie says: "Just give me a bowl of strawberries." "Strawberries?" replies the guard. "They're out of season." "So," says Hymie, "I'll wait."
For goodness' sake, Michael. So your pork wonton at Kai Mayfair was heavy. Just how much would you expect a wonton dish to weigh?
Tim Burton, Berkshire
If I were a fish in the aquarium at Kai Mayfair, I'd probably look bored too. Especially with strange faces like yours peering in at me!
Nick Jones, Provence, France
You regress to a Chinese meal in 2007 and eating sausage rolls in 2009. But can you remember what you had for lunch today?
Roger Dobbing, Surrey
I'm surprised you even gave Kai a second chance. Once was more than enough for me! I received a full refund for my meal - it was that bad - and I'd forgotten what Confucius said: "If no Chinese man in restaurant, run away!"
Rowena Smith, Somerset
A short walk down the road brings you to the Mandarin Kitchen, Queensway. Excellent Chinese food. You live too far down Bayswater Road. Civilisation ends at the Coronet cinema.
Ken King, London
You said last week that you were buying sausage rolls from Greggs. I didn't realise your finances were that bad.
Sam Ormonde, Surrey
Useless restaurant reviews. Thank goodness for Hymie - last week the best.
Georgina Bennett, Gloucestershire
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