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Excuse me while I stick the knife into this meringue

Published 18 March 2012
News Review
973rd article



Michael with the manager, Linda Zega, right, and waitresses at Carluccio's (Dinah May)

Antonio Carluccio was in a jolly mood when I met him at the Hotel Splendido, Portofino. He said he no longer owned the chain of restaurants that bears his name but was an adviser. The superb Anglo-Italian chef Angela Hartnett said his over-the-counter spaghetti was excellent. Until recently, the only experience I'd had of Carluccio's food was when I was in hospital and Geraldine would bring stuff in. It was pretty good.

A premises near my house, just off Kensington High Street, has been home to so many restaurants I can't keep up. It is now Carluccio's, one of 58 in Britain. I went for lunch with my assistant, Dinah May. On the way in I nicked a heart-shaped cookie topped with pink icing. It was perfectly adequate.

It's an attractive room. The menu said: "We're noisy about food. We taste it, try it, argue about it, until it's just right." A dangerous boast.

The orange juice was described as "fresh" on the menu. A waitress said it was squeezed right there, behind the bar. The charming duty manager, Linda Zega, said it was not squeezed at the bar but came pre-packed from a wholesaler.

I responded: "Why try this nonsense? And of all people on me?" A man in a white sweater asked: "Are you ready to order?" I said: "Yes. Don't you have a pad?" He just pointed at his head. I've had more wrong orders from people too arrogant to carry a pad than I care to remember. I noticed Linda had a pad, as did all the other waitresses.

I mentioned this to Linda and she said: "I'm going to give him a slap right now."

"With an axe, darling," I advised.

The menu advertised: "We don't buy focaccia bread; we make it by hand every day. It's the Italian way." As they have 58 restaurants, it's obviously made in a centre and distributed around. They'd do better to buy it. It was awful. So was my bruschetta. I had to pull it apart it was so rubbery. Dinah was happy with her mozzarella. My tomato and pepper salad was okay. No great fun but not bad for a chain restaurant.

I ordered from the set menu "milanese di pollo — chicken breast breadcrumbed and fried with a green salad", plus a side order of "penne alla luganica — tubes of pasta with a rich and spicy Italian sausage". Everything took hours to arrive. I pointed to an old man going out who could hardly walk. I said to Dinah: "He was 17 when he came in."

The penne was very cloying and difficult to eat, so I left it. The chicken was so hard and dry I couldn't eat that either.

For dessert I had an enormous meringue. I tried to break off a bit but it was so hard I couldn't.

Mr White Sweater came over and asked: "How was your food?" I said: "I don't want to talk about it. Could I have a knife, please?" Dinah said of the meringue: "I think it's a bit stale." She could have been right: it had no life and was absurdly tough.

A totally ridiculous meal. Except for the female staff, who were efficient and cheerful. I certainly wasn't cheerful. Perhaps they ate somewhere else.



  • Normally I have dinner at about 6.15pm in the kitchen (early eating keeps weight down): some soup and a baguette with cheese and strawberry jam. This produces a culinary problem: where to get the baguette. Near me is a baker called Paul, whose website romantically declares: "Our French family has been making bread and patisserie with passion since 1889." Now it's a chain operating in 22 countries. I've also tried Le Pain Quotidien, founded in Brussels in 1990 by Alain Coumont and now an international chain.

    As there's no Frenchman giving it a bit of " 'Allo, 'allo, 'ow are you zees morning, M'sewer Weennaire?" I'm stuck with a multinational. Of these two, Paul is better: crispier baguette, better texture and taste than Le Pain Quotidien. So Paul gets my mammoth order of one baguette five days a week. Hope he appreciates that.



  • PS: Geraldine won't eat my baguette. She eats only gluten-free food. It's now in more shops and restaurants than ever before. So it should be.

    One of my favourite restaurants is Richard Caring's Scott's in Mount Street, Mayfair. It has a marvellous doorman, Sean, formerly of the Ivy and the Wolseley. Another doorman there called me "Michael". Until my chauffeur said he thought that inappropriate.

    Last time I went he asked after Jim, my ex-chauffeur.

    "He retired," I said. "Did you fire him?" asked the doorman. Caring should send this man to the Ritz for six months to learn how doormen should behave.



  • From Mike Cantor in London. When Hymie and Abe were 45 they went to Ryan's for a meal because the waitresses all wore short skirts and plunging necklines. When they were 55 they went to Ryan's because the food and wine were good. At 65 they went to Ryan's because it had wheelchair access. And when they were 85 they went to Ryan's because they had never been there before.



    Michael's missives

    The foul-mouthed attack on your character by Arjun Waney is unacceptable and to be deplored. But was it true and justified?
    Don Roberts, Cheshire

    When telling us about the newly reopened members-only Arts Club in Dover Street, you mentioned the names of some of the members. Was this intended to encourage us to join or to make us run a mile?
    Dennis Pallis, Kent

    I was worried I'd overslept and missed spring and summer. There were so many names dropping like leaves in last week's column, I was convinced it must be autumn.
    Nick Peeling, Worcestershire

    Nice jacket you wore at the Arts Club, Michael. Who took you shopping?
    Sandi Firth, Leeds

    You said last week that you don't want fishy eyes staring at you. Does this mean you never look at yourself in the mirror?
    Nick Jones, La Drome, France

    We don't need a Michaelin star, as suggested by your correspondent Ian Doran from Shropshire. We need a Michelin tsar. For a large fee, I'm prepared to award or erase stars from Michelin-rated establishments. Now you're a second-hand motor trader as well as a supposed food critic, we could team up as the Tsar with the Car.
    Ed Atkinson, Dubai

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