I never knew he was called Nico and if I had it would have made no difference. He was just an annoying young neighbour who'd married the beautiful girl upstairs, who lived with her mother. A girl I'd once tried, unsuccessfully, to seduce. At that time Nico was assistant to the advertising director of this very newspaper. When he had the impertinence to have children and took the greater liberty of leaving a pram blocking the elegant communal hall of the block I owned, it was solicitors at dawn. Thank goodness the nuisance didn't last. In 1965, the yuppie-led group left Cornwall Gardens, Kensington, and calm returned.
Twenty-five years later, and before I started writing this column, I was taken, along with my friend Lord Parkinson, to Chez Nico at 90 Park Lane. Suddenly this bearded man started kissing me. Then his wife kissed me. Then two extremely beautiful daughters kissed me. That was very pleasant. It was all: "How lovely to see you again. We knew you'd come in sometime." I thought: "This is embarrassing, I'm being mistaken for somebody else."
It turned out mum was Dinah-Jane Zissu, now Ladenis, and Nico, who'd grown a beard, had become a self-taught, widely acclaimed chef. They were my old neighbours. The solicitors' letters were forgotten - although apparently not by Dinah-Jane's mum, who, I was told, still viewed me with a certain lack of warmth.
I was with Nico the night before he achieved his third, well-deserved Michelin star, eating a stunningly good grilled sea bass with basil puree and red-wine sauce. Nico's cooking is always very clean, precise, totally delicious and memorable. I find it unbelievable and grotesquely vicious that Michel Roux, a lower-rated chef down the road, should say, in an interview, of Nico's food, "taste-wise it lacks". Nico rightly reflects on the togetherness of chefs in Europe as opposed to the pathetic bitchiness that goes on here.
Nico has calmed down from the days when customers were thrown out for daring to question his cuisine. I once heard him agree to provide mustard for a customer's dover sole. "What do you expect?" he said. "They come from Claridge's." I was even privileged to be there one night when someone was thrown out. "Don't mention it," said Nico. I have kept silent for years. It is an event I can no longer contain.
There is no better value in London than Nico's three-course set lunch at £25 including Vat, excluding service. I recently had some pithiviers of pheasant with smoked bacon and mushrooms, preceded by veloute of cannellini beans with truffle oil and followed by a caramelised banana tart. Three-star Michelin cooking for 25 quid can't be bad. This was wonderful.
I felt somewhat guilty repaying Nico by imposing a film crew on him. Particularly as I totally misjudged how long it would take to shoot the restaurant scene in Parting Shots, which is partly based on experiences writing this very column. Having taken up all of one Sunday, I needed another. Even I hadn't the nerve to demand a third, so we built part of the restaurant in a studio to avoid going back.
It's quite amusing directing restaurant staff in their own habitat. Jean-Luc Giguel, the restaurant manager, has all the chic gravitas you would expect of a seriously posh establishment. "Would you walk a little slower, Jean-Luc, and regard the reservations book with more disdain?" I asked. His glance in my direction could have given a nervously disposed diner a heart attack. Paul Rhodes, the superb chef, insisted that every plate of background food was hot and brilliantly prepared and laid out. More than was necessary, more than the camera could see. But try telling that to a perfectionist. They all loved the flamboyant portrayal of an over-the-top chef by Ben Kingsley. He throws out Chris Rea and Felicity Kendal, but gets his just desserts: Chris shoots him.
I did have to instruct Chris in the Winner napkin wave. I use it occasionally when I'm being ignored. "Slower, Chris. Round the head and slowly." "Sorry," said Chris. "I've never done it before." The last time I had occasion to perform "the wave" was during a terrific meal at the Mirabelle. They forgot us somewhat when it came to ordering the dessert. I raised my hand in a measured manner and waved the napkin round my head. Two of my guests, extremely bright young men who write The Guardian's diary, Matthew Norman and his No 2, Simon Bowers, immediately raised their napkins and joined in.
Thus was produced the first-ever triple napkin wave in the history of the world. It's achievements like that which make you proud to be British.
Will there ever be a Sunday Times without your picture in it? Surely your readers know what you look like by now? Is it the same photo of your head superimposed onto other people's pictures?
Jon Lane, Bedford
I agree with Arthur Samouelle's letter (Style, April 18) about the overinflated prices at Harry's Bar in Venice. While staying at the Cipriani for the Easter weekend, my boyfriend and I decided to venture into Harry's. We had one starter, two main courses and two bottles of wine. The service was patronising, the table cramped and the food mediocre. The bill was Pounds 210. Venice, yes. Cipriani, yes. But Harry's Bar, no.
Nicole Walford, Tunbridge Wells, Kent
I recently took my family to a Harvester restaurant to celebrate my son's 13th birthday - don't ask why. How do these places get away with it? The only thing "historic" about our meal (to use a classic Winnerism) was the stale french fries on the floor under our table. The horrifying thing is the place was packed, so the proprietors must be making a fortune. Surely it's about time that you launched a Roger Cook-style investigation into such places. Start that napkin-waving now - even if the napkin is made of paper.
Geoff Barton, Ashford, Middx
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