Michael with Geraldine at the Coworth Park hotel (Knut Wylde)
Prince Jefri, the Sultan of Brunei’s youngest brother, is a bit of a lad. He has three wives, used to keep a harem of 40 women, one of whom wrote a book about her experiences, and once owned 2,000 luxury cars, a Boeing 747, an art collection including works by Manet and Degas and many properties. From 1986 to 1998 he was finance minister of the oil-rich country. The Brunei government charged Jefri with embezzlement of $14.8 billion.
Although he denied the charges, in 2000 Prince Jefri gave his personal holdings to the Brunei government to curtail the most expensive legal battle in the world. These included the Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles, the New York Palace hotel and the Plaza Athénée Paris. It’s not known if he handed over pornographic sculptures of him and his ex-fiancée.
The hotels joined the Dorchester Collection, a fine group of great hotels. The group also got one of Prince Jefri’s private residences near Ascot, which became Coworth Park hotel. It boasts a field full of wild flowers and various other delights in its vast gardens. When I went for Easter the wild flower field was brown, the gardens denuded of colour. It was freezing cold.
The hotel is decorated in a pleasant, slightly gauche manner. My bedroom had a four-poster bed with black iron poles made to look like trees at the top. Otherwise it was an elegant suite.
Geraldine, summing up the meals, said: “I’d prefer not-ponced-about food, but as ponced-about food goes, this was delicious.” My email pen pal Barry McKay, who writes to me about almost everything he eats, hated the first chef, but now thinks: “Everything is perfection.”
Sorry to be a spoilsport: I found the food abysmal. The bread was poor, the croissants were not top class and nothing was as described, all bits and pieces and plate decoration. Even the steak sandwiches were filled with meat vastly inferior to what I get from HG Walter, which supplies, among others, the River Café.
I was telling my friend, the ace photographer Terry O’Neill, how difficult I found it to eat anything. He said: “Why not have a kipper, a cup of tea and some brown bread for dinner?” Good idea, I thought. Not good: catastrophic. I’ve never seen anything like what arrived on the plate.
A kipper is a smoked herring normally served cut open with the two halves more or less left alone. I got a tiny, dried-up thing, headed and tailed, the sides taken off. It was a great fish reduced to oblivion. Apparently it came from a company in Brixham that messes it about and offers it as a “breakfast-sized serving”. I’ve only ever had kippers for breakfast. None like this.
I checked with John Williams, executive chef of the Ritz. He said they served the whole kipper, with only the head, tail and central bone removed. As do Claridge’s and the Berkeley. The Coworth Park chef, Chris Meredith, seems to have no faith in the produce. It’s all fancified, tiny-fied, decorated out of reality.
I will end on a positive note. The staff at Coworth Park are the best. Fantastic. On the ball, lovely attitude, charming, efficient, the most enormous credit to the Dorchester Collection boss Christopher Cowdray. The director of operations, Knut Wylde, will go right to the top.
The assistant restaurant manager, Thomas Mercier, has a marvellous sense of humour. When I asked for plain rhubarb, not the menu’s rhubarb in sabayon and whatever, it came drowned in sickly sweet sabayon. “This is not what I ordered,” I said. Thomas muttered something about the kitchen being a law unto itself.
Then he told me the Queen came to lunch. “She just walked in through the lobby,” he explained.
“Well, I wouldn’t expect her to shin up a drainpipe and force open a first-floor window,” I responded.
Maybe the people of Ascot want what they absurdly imagine is three-Michelin-star cooking prepared by a man who’d have trouble frying an egg. He’d have to disguise it as oeuf à la dingy-doo-doo with a jus of hocky-docky. Give me simple food any day.
Great hotel. Pity about the grub.
Last week saw the funeral of Mara Berni, the greatest restaurateur ever. Mara and her husband, Lorenzo, opened San Lorenzo in Knightsbridge in 1963. It soon became the “in” place of the Sixties and Seventies. Mara ran it with great precision. Sadly she was not able to run it for the last few years because of illness. It never got good reviews.
I think I was the only critic to praise the food. The glow of Mara attracted the greatest stars and the most loyal regulars. To watch her at work as hostess and super-boss was a lesson in how to run a restaurant. She was warm-hearted and terrific. Such people are rare. She was unique. Farewell Mara. We shall not see your like again.
Hymie says to his wife Becky: "Tell me darling, truthfully, how many men have you slept with?" Becky replies: "Only you my precious. With all the others I was awake."
You ask for best food comments: in Barbados on St George’s Day, a group of Brits met for lunch. My West Country friend Mike exclaimed: “I’m not saying this beef is rare, but it just ate my yorkshire pudding!"
Simon Milligan, Barbados
Customer asks: "Is this fish fresh?" Waiter replies: "It's so fresh, sir, the next of kin have still to be informed."
Malcolm McNeil, Bothwell
The White Park beef you ate at PJ’s probably came from John Lean’s farm in Devon. His uncle was a film director and fairly successful. Or it might have come from the Princess Royal in Gloucestershire.
Nic Tucker, by email
Why do some restaurants have waiting staff take orders without pads? At the otherwise excellent Shangri-La hotel in Hong Kong, breakfast was a variation of my order rather than the order itself. I appreciate at your age you can’t remember what you chose, but for some of us it’s a tad annoying.
Ed Atkinson, Hong Kong
"You shouldn’t join if you can’t take a joke" - that's what I like about you, Michael. You have the good humour to publish those letters despite so many being derogatory. It shows what a senile, decrepit but happy dodderer you really are.
Nick Jones, La Drome, France