Published 26 January 1997 Style Magazine 186th article
Quite the contrary: Michael Winner with Mad Mary (Vanessa Perry)
Au Jardin des Gourmets in Greek Street, Soho, is not a garden nor is it for gourmets. It should tour catering establishments as an example of how not to run a restaurant. I enjoyed it, not for the food or the service, but because I was with two of the most entertaining and nice people I know, Marie Vine and her husband, Barry. They are film distributors (it's rare to find nice film distributors!) and after they told me how well Peter Greenaway's latest offering was doing, we filled in with industry chat.
They had chosen the restaurant with some nervousness (rightly) and advised the place I would be with them. This had no effect whatsoever. We went to the first-floor dining room and were shown quite a large table dangerously close to a larger table set for four people. Another table opposite looked better, so I asked if we could sit there. A French lady said, "No, it's reserved." I asked if she was the manageress, she said, "No, the manageress is upstairs." There she stayed for the entire lunch period. When I later said, "What is upstairs?" I was told an office. Obviously office work was highly important that day.
It also says a great deal that during the lunch period on a working day in Soho there were only four other people in the place. Luckily nobody came to the table next to us, only two other tables were occupied. I began to realise why. On our table there were some large pats of butter and some sort of dip. Nobody offered us bread or anything to dip in the dip. Eventually Marie said, "The rolls are late." I beckoned. Terrible rolls appeared, soggy and rubbery. I felt nobody was running the room at all. I had to beckon to get anybody to come at any time.
Barry and I ordered cream of pumpkin soup flavoured with nutmeg. It arrived nicely presented in a sliced pumpkin with large serrated edges. It tasted of nothing in particular, its temperature was between tepid and cold. My main course was on the fixed price menu (two courses and coffee, £19.50 inc Vat), fillet of plaice with candied aubergine and tomato. This also was under par in the heat department, and equally under par in the food department. It tasted of very Little. It was a nothing experience. Barry and Marie had supreme de poule jaune truffe, sauce riche. Even though they had suggested the place, no sound of enthusiasm came from their lips!
I had to beckon again to order the dessert. "They're very attentive toward the other people. I think you're a bit awesome for them," said Marie. I hadn't seen them being very attentive to anybody. Things rose a bit with the pud. I ordered thin pear flan served with vanilla and honey ice cream. The ice cream was dreary, but the thin pear flan was pretty good. Barry ordered creme brulee, described underneath as Cambridge burnt cream. This was a favourite of his, but he remained silent on its condition. Marie had a light sponge filled with a lemon cream flavoured with mint. She, too, kept her opinion to herself.
We left at three o'clock. In Greek Street, the door closed behind me. It was locked, I was cast out for ever. I returned for the photograph one Sunday after lunch at Claridge's, where they first said the roast beef was off, and then there was no melba toast because the machine had broken down! Really, chaps! This is ludicrous. They produced both under pressure, but what is going on! And me a fan!
Back in Greek Street, a strange lady who told us she was known as Mad Mary and proud of it, peered at Vanessa and said, "I thought you were Anthea Turner. I hate her." Then she said to me, "Are you married, do you want a mistress?" Then she wrote on the pavement in purple chalk, "Michael Winner was here with beautiful girl." Then she said could she be in the photo. That's the Soho I remember, full of delightful nutters.
At home I wondered if I'd been tough on Au Jardin des Gourmets, after all, I noted it was in the Ronay guide. That doesn't mean much. One of my all-time favourites, the French Horn at Sonning, they've declined to list for years. It's terrific, far better than the cramped, hardly-gardened Waterside Inn. Sunday lunch of fried scampi, roast duck with excellent trimmings and a much-improved dessert situation is near historic. The French Horn is not in the Good Food Guide either, but it is in the Michelin, and the AA Guide lists it with two stars. I shall rely on them from now on.
Dinner with Winner
What's it like going to a restaurant with Michael Winner? Here Vanessa Perry, his lovely accomplice, reveals all.
People are always asking me what dinner with Winner is really like. Strangely enough, most of the time he is jovial and friendly - as long as the service and the food are good! He tucks in enthusiastically, often ending up with food down the front of his shirt. Then he dips his napkin in the water glass continually, sponging the marks. M often knocks over his water glass as well. Nothing to my blunder, though, at the French Horn, in Sonning. We were drinking a magical Chateau Margaux 1961 when I sent my glass flying, spoiling the beautiful white tablecloth. I must have spilled £250 worth.
Eating with M is always unpredictable. The table may be too small, too close to the next, too close to the kitchen, or without a view. M then demonstrates his lifting skills, repositioning the table. Occasionally, I'm roped in to help, but usually I shuffle demurely in the background, smiling apologetically at the many fellow diners who gaze in disbelief. I find it terribly amusing. M is like a naughty schoolboy. But it's nice to end up with a perfectly positioned table and impeccable service. And we always have fun.
I've been fortunate to dine with many fascinating people. It's like the movies coming to life. My favourite was Marlon Brando, a truly wonderful man. People think we eat out all the time, but Michael only writes about 52 meals a year. That leaves 678 lunches and dinners you never hear about. Often we stay in.
I had not eaten meat for 13 years, apart from the occasional small amount of chicken. So I'm careful with meat presented in disguise. We went one evening to a picturesque restaurant in the old city of Marrakesh, one of my most memorable dinners. The ambience was mesmerising. Candles burned in lanterns, there was a sweet smell of rose petals. Two musicians chanted in a stoned way. As the speed of the chants increased one began to spin - the black tassel on his fez whirled around like a propeller. From his expression I thought any moment he was expecting to take off. We were served tiny puff pastries. I asked M to find out what was inside.
He pointed questioningly. "Dans ca? " he asked. "Prunes," the waiter replied. "Prunes!" I repeated, "I'm not convinced; you try it." "Definitely prunes," M said. I took a small, delicate bite. "Yuk! That is definitely not prunes!" We placed a bet. We asked the maitre d'. Turns out it's a Moroccan delicacy: brains.
M always gets a lot of attention. But I find one thing really annoying: when the maitre d' is all over him and practically ignores me. The worst example of this was recently at a hotel in the Caribbean. It became so obvious it ended up amusing me. The food and beverage manager, however, was a true professional who went out of his way to ensure we were both looked after.
When things go wrong, Michael can be difficult. Not often, but it does happen. One afternoon we went to Richoux in Mayfair for tea. The manageress was bemused by M wandering around to select our table. Nobody came over. Eventually, after some napkin waving, a confused waiter was asked: "Is this area closed? Is everyone on strike?" As he twitched, shuffled and hesitated for words, he glanced at me. I suddenly found my menu very interesting and large enough to hide behind. The waiter went away and a lady came over. "I've been polishing cutlery," she said. M called the manageress - if she'd been watching the room properly, none of this would have happened. I tried hard to avoid the stares of the people around me. All I wanted was tea and a teacake. I suddenly had an attack of the giggles. "What's up?" asked M. "I'm imagining what they're doing to our teacakes," I said. "Only mine," he replied. "You didn't say anything." I wondered how they'd know the difference.
With M you never know what will happen. He's really a teddy bear beneath that brash exterior. He is. I promise you.
I had a similar experience to Michael Winner (January 19) when ordering tea at the Sandy Lane hotel on my holiday in Barbados. It was not until the fifth attempt that four waiters managed to bring tea for three, the same number of glasses of water and some banana bread and scones. In such a relaxed setting, though, it is impossible to get angry. On his next visit, I suggest that Michael try out two of my discoveries. The first is Olives in Holetown - ask to sit outside on the leafy, subtly lit veranda and sample delicious combinations of English and Bajan food such as fillets of dolphin in a lime and ginger sauce served with green beans and okra. The second is the Cliff, which is carved into the side of the cliff, dramatically lit with torches and decorated with wrought iron. A typical menu might include snails in filo pastry with garlic dressing, fillet of barracuda in a sweet red pepper coulis, and lemon brulee with a fresh raspberry sauce. Definitely a special treat and worth every penny.
Linda Clark London W6
I have enjoyed several meals at the ground-floor oyster bar at Bibendum, London SW3. Recently, while waiting for a table, however, I noticed that the chefs and other kitchen staff who work in the open-plan kitchen are constantly going in and out of the main building's public doors -which also serve the Conran shop. They push and pull the door handles and immediately proceed on into the open kitchen to prepare food, apparently oblivious to the need of hand-washing. I hope the management will remedy this situation.
Olivier Beak Parkgate, Cheshire
Recently I spent a day in London with my son. Towards tea-time we found ourselves in Piccadilly Circus and entered the Piccadilly Brasserie with the intention of having a snack. A waiter told us that if we just wanted a snack we would have to go upstairs, which we did. My son chose a bowl of tomato soup and a cup of coffee. I ordered a cup of coffee and a slice of gateau. The bill came to £16.09 - itemised it read like this: cup of coffee each, £2; soup, £3.80; gateau, £4; total £9.80. We queried the difference of £6.29 and were told that there was a cover charge. When we made a bit of a fuss, the waiter pointed out with a stony face that, after all, my son had bread with his soup! True, there had been a basket containing four slices of a French stick - but at £6.29?
H Lomas Welwyn Garden City