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A Casablanca host, but no beautiful friendship

Published 1 January 2012
News Review
962nd article

Michael and Geraldine at La Genova with the owner, Rinaldo Pierini, far left, and the chef, Giovanni Turnes (Anibal da Silva)

It's always disappointing to be disappointed. I went to La Genova in Mayfair seeking fun and food, full of hope. It started thus: I was meeting Jeffrey Archer to take his photo for this column. He was lunching at La Genova with Norman Lamont.

Jeffrey had never been there. He assured me it was John Major's favourite restaurant. Nice man, John. If he recommends a restaurant, run.

I went in with Jeffrey and we ordered a fruit cocktail. The most horrific, probably tinned, muck was presented to us. But the place looked lovely: very old-fashioned, nice tables, nice chairs, nice trolleys of starters and desserts. Everything was nice.

The staff were particularly nice. They'd all been there for years. The owner, Rinaldo Pierini, aged 82, wandered about in an apron like an Italian version of SZ "Cuddles" Sakall, the actor who played the head waiter in Casablanca.

Geraldine and I returned later for Saturday lunch. On the way in we passed framed photos of John Major. I didn't recognise any of the other people, although one was captioned Isla Blair, so I guess it was her.

A regular customer said: "That's Tony Bennett's table." He's Italian, I thought. Real name Anthony Benedetto.

I looked at the two trolleys. One had big shrimps, seafood salad, mushrooms; the other had the most gorgeous-looking strawberries. I took one. Best strawberry I'd ever eaten and it was well out of strawberry season. It came from Belgium.

We sat in comfortable chairs at a nice table. Everything's nice here. Except the food. I started with the shrimps. Tasted like processed paper. The bread was tired, and they had wrapped Anchor butter. I was not put on Earth to unwrap butter.

"What was I put on Earth for?" I asked Geraldine.

"One wonders," she replied, later changing her answer to: "You were put on Earth for me."

My main course of liver veneziana was cloggy, poor texture, tough, no great taste. I ate a bit and gave up.

Geraldine had grilled salmon (£30.37 including the "optional" service charge), which was so dry and overcooked she couldn't eat it. She took my liver, observing it had too much vinegar in the sauce. Luckily I'd also ordered spaghetti (Agnesi, from Liguria) with tomato sauce. That was fine.

The room was so cold even Geraldine, who likes the cold, asked them to turn up the heating.

For dessert I played safe with the Belgian strawberries, which encircled some very flat raspberries. The chef, Giovanni Turnes, has been there 19 years. He should get out a bit and see what other Italian restaurants are offering.

In case you're thinking, "This is a low-priced local restaurant, why be so tough on it?", the bill for two was £150.75. The only alcohol consumed was a bellini and one glass of white wine.

As we left Geraldine said: "The reason nobody knows this place is because it's not very good."

Some people know it. Apparently a large group had booked downstairs for the night we were there. To each his own.

PS: SZ "Cuddles" Sakall was a Hungarian actor, best known for his role in Casablanca. SZ specialised in excitable theatrical impresarios, lovable European uncles and befuddled shopkeepers. He supported stars such as Errol Flynn, Gary Cooper, James Cagney and Doris Day.

They don't make 'em like that nowadays.

Determined as ever to pursue something good, we rang La Genova to ask where they got their strawberries. It took them more than 24 hours to answer. By that time I'd called Robert Holland, the superb manager of the Wolseley. He soon found out the strawberries came from Barry's Fruit and Veg, a restaurant wholesaler in Barlby Road, Notting Hill.

Barry Thakrar, an Indian from Uganda, runs it with family help. He came to my house with strawberries from Egypt. Very good, but not as good as the Belgian ones, which he agreed were the best.

In the short summer season, June and July, he uses English strawberries. Then he gets them from Belgium, Holland, Egypt, Israel and Australia. He sometimes gets American ones, "but they taste a bit like lemons to me", said Barry. Every day he goes at 3am to a wholesale market to stock up freshly. I asked him about papaya. High-quality ones are difficult to find. He said the ones from Brazil were good and available all year round. Mangoes were something else. He gets those from India from late April to July. Raspberries, outside the short English season, he largely gets from South Africa.

I find it fascinating to learn from experts. "Then why didn't you learn something about food?" I hear you ask. Per-lease. There are limits. But I do wish you all a marvellous new year.

  • From Colin Drury in Powys: Hymie was bemoaning to his wife, Becky, that as the years passed a sense of emasculation was depressing him. "I can't even remember the last time you said you had enjoyed sex," he said. Taking his hand gently, Becky responded: "Hymie, why would you remember? You weren't even there."

    Michael's missives

    Had the large chilli you ate at Kai Mayfair really burnt off your head, the consequences would have been an improvement. Had you put it up your bottom, it would at least have stopped you talking for a while.
    Bryan Craker, Drome, France

    There's been a seismic shift for the better in your dress mode since the wedding. Part of the prenuptial agreement?
    Dennis Pallis, Kent

    I notice all the letters are derogatory. This is grossly unfair. I found you to be a charming person on our recent meeting at Oundle. But why did you marry that awful Michael Winner?
    Alan Mitchell, Northamptonshire

    I was sorry to read about the ice-cold air coming through a window at the Fountain restaurant. I often grumble about cold air-conditioning in restaurants. The staff don't seem to realise customers are freezing. I now prefer to eat at home.
    Risdon Nicholls, Essex

    Do patrons really believe the following menu descriptions: "hand-stretched pizza"; "farm-assured"; "line-caught"; "hand-battered"? Also the veiled command "Enjoy!" makes me squirm.
    Roger Burman, Solihull

    At Cambridge Michael dined nightly at a Greek place close to our college, Downing. I never thought in his dotage he'd become a food critic. But then he didn't, did he?
    Bill Hopper, Northumberland

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