Published 14 June 1998 Style Magazine 257th article
Funchal's finest: Arsenio Goncalves, Michael Winner and a waitress at Arsenio's (Vanessa Perry)
I descended to the lobby of Reid's Hotel, Madeira. "You're the manager, aren't you?" Luis Pinheiro, whom I was addressing, looked worried. "I knew I shouldn't have given you my card," he said. "You will learn, Mr Pinheiro," I advised, "that it is wise to have two cards, one bearing your correct name and title, which you give to most people, and another with a false name and title, which you give to me. I'm going to dinner at Arsenio's, the restaurant you recommended." "It's very simple," stuttered Luis. "It's nothing special. My wife and I enjoyed it . . ." "I'll give you my opinion later," I said.
We drove through the utterly uninteresting streets of Funchal, turned left after a car park, passing some tacky-looking open-air cafes, all fairly empty, and then between them to what is laughingly called the old section of town. This sports indeterminate, small-scale hacienda-type architecture. But there stirred a feeling of optimism as we walked toward Arsenio's. The first sight is of an open-air grill, a large display of fresh fish and a moustached man in a chefs hat with rimless glasses on the end of his nose. This is Arsenio, a restaurateur who cooks and works on the premises. We squeezed past the grill into a large, dim interior space with beams above the windows, arches, real cobwebs on the pillars and red tablecloths. It looked old, a very nice room.
At the back, a man played a Yamaha keyboard. The menu offered an enormous variety of fish. Arsenio brought some over to show us. I chose prawns with garlic, Vanessa melon with ham, but she only wanted the melon. To follow: mixed swordfish, tuna fish and squid fish on the skewer (sic).
The man left the Yamaha and turned down the lights. Two men arrived, one with a guitar and one with a mandolin. Then a lady in black joined them and started singing. She got a good round of applause. The music was local, called fado. My Coca-Cola arrived. It tasted nothing like English Coca-Cola, but Coke can taste very different as you progress around the world if they mix it on the premises. The local water used with the syrup makes a difference, too.
Then a man with a moustache appeared in a bright red jacket and a black polo-neck sweater. He walked round the tables as he sang. It was very pleasant. He shook hands with two people at the next table.
My prawns and garlic sauce arrived. Totally delicious. Memorable. Never mind that there wasn't some souped up chef poncing about in the kitchen with Michelin stars in his eyes, this was a terrific first course.
Then a woman with grey hair and a black shawl sang and two men joined in from the back of the room, one a new chap in a blazer and jeans and a white shirt. He went round the tables as everyone clapped. There was stereophonic live singing from all round the place as the various entertainers joined in. A delightful atmosphere.
My ﬁsh on the skewer was as good as you could ask for, genuinely fresh, not the so-called fresh you get in most British restaurants. A woman brought a plate of beans, potatoes and carrots, and some butter sauce. Outside, Arsenio was engulfed in a mass of smoke. Inside, the singer in the red jacket was selling signed cassettes of his performance to other diners.
My dessert was flambeed bananas with vanilla ice cream. Superb. Local bananas, very good quality, excellent texture. Wonderful syrup with it all. This was a memorably first-class meal. Luis Pinheiro had triumphed.
But he lost a few brownie points in the matter of my hotel bill. As I fled the awfulness of Reid's in my Learjet, I checked the bill. I saw the only charge was for some bed linen Vanessa had bought. Sweet of them, but unacceptable. After all, I'm not a newspaper editor on a freebie who then writes a great review, like some newspaper bosses I have read. I sent them a cheque for £1,500 for two nights. Mr Pinheiro wrote back thanking me and enclosing £398.23 change. But no bill. "Should you require a breakdown, please let me know," he wrote.
Luis, you're a very nice chap, and I thank you for a great Arsenio recommendation, but you must learn when a guest pays for his hotel it is normal he gets a detailed bill. Automatically. He shouldn't have to request it. Later, sending the bill, Mr Pinheiro wrote: "As we feel responsible in some way for your unhappy trip to Madeira, we have not charged you for telephone calls made." I still can't work out if that was intended as a joke.
I thought you might be interested in a menu I brought back from a restaurant in Bangkok. The Thais knock up some interesting dishes, but I have not as yet plucked up the courage to try one called "season raw crap".
Colin Smith, Ashurst Wood, West Sussex
I don't remember you ever complaining about the low standards of cleanliness in restaurants. I have recently complained to restaurant managers about staff who run their hands through their hair while explaining the menu; staff who do not wash after using the lavatory; and the washing of cutlery in a bowl behind a screen. Inspectors may check the kitchens, but they do not seem to check the personal habits of staff.
Jane Hanlon, London NW11
I was amused by John Whittington's letter last month (Style, May 17) describing his initiation into the "elusive bread basket ceremony". However, more serious is the charge of at least £1 a head made for bread at most London restaurants. In France, bread in restaurants is not only superior but plentiful and always on the house. If French diners were treated to the same nonsense as British ones, they would soon start another revolution. Perhaps it's time the British had one of their own.
Sioned Harper, Paris, France
Am I alone in finding the word "serviette" utterly loathsome? I refuse to use anything other than the thoroughly British "napkin".
Tim Newton, London W11