Published 5 December 1999 Style Magazine 334th article
Indian summer: Michael Winner with Vincent Bhatia, Shakira Caine and Jan Gold (John Gold)
There are two words that drive me to distraction: "I'll try." They mean absolutely nothing." Here's an example. On a recent Sunday, I telephoned Mirabelle to book for lunch. I spoke to Frederic Serol, the restaurant manager. I do not go to restaurants, I go to tables. "Could I please have table X?" I asked. I won't reveal the number to you because restaurants are besieged when I write about a specific table. "I'll try," said Frederic. "No, no," I said, attempting to remain my normal, calm self, "trying is of no interest to me. I want to know, when I arrive, that is the exact table I will get. If not, I'll go somewhere else." It all worked out and I had an exceptionally good meal of pate, smoked haddock with bubble and squeak and a poached egg with - on the side - the best yorkshire pudding I've ever eaten. All followed by a magnificent fruit jelly. The one minus was that they only have Hildon water, which is ghastly.
On another Sunday, I phoned the Bombay Brasserie. Arun Harnal, the manager, said: "We'll have your usual table ready." This turned out to be a foolish remark. I think restaurateurs have a duty to tell customers when things are not as they usually are. When I arrived at the Bombay Brasserie, a pleasant though by no means exceptional restaurant, my usual table was in exactly the same spot it had been for years. But the room around it was quite different.
Sunday at the Bombay Brasserie is now a cheap serve-yourself-lunch day. The buffet stretched in front of my table and people standing in line stared at me until they got to the end. Then they had a final stare before waiting off, waving their plates practically under my nostrils. "Why didn't you tell me Sunday is totally different from what I am used to?" I asked Mr Harnal. By now, I had walked out, and he was desperately trying to find my Bentley, which had been put somewhere by the adjacent hotel's doorman and had gone missing. I was not a happy bunny. "I don't know why you object," said Mr Harnal. "We've always been very good to you." Yeah, I thought, and I've been good to you. I've paid the bill on the dot. I've given you publicity. Now suddenly you're doing me a favour. I struck them off my list.
There's a saying: when one door closes, another opens. A few days later, my friend Claudio Pulze told me of his new Indian restaurant on the Fulham Road, called Zaika. He was organising a "soft opening". They ask a few people so as not to overcrowd the kitchen, learning as they go. I am not the best person for that sort of thing, so I waited. When I eventually got to Zaika, it was worth it. It is, quite simply, a staggeringly good "Indian". At the Bombay Brasserie, it tasted as if the food was ladled out of great steaming urns. At Zaika, every bowl of everything is marvellously and individually prepared.
The chef, a partner in the concern, is Vineet Bhatia. He'd had rave reviews in Hammersmith and moved upmarket. In fact, Zaika is rather trendy. In spite of that, I've returned again and again. The first time I went, the chefs did what they tend to do with me, insist I try almost everything on the menu. I had four starters, five main courses, one vegetable dish, two "accompaniments" and two desserts. They were all brilliant, but even I could only pick at some of the copper bowls. More recently, I had a Zaika platter of salmon kebab, chicken patties and minced duck roll; a tava machli, which is pan-fried swordfish marinated in crushed fennel, koh-e-roganjosh, a classic Kashmiri dish of cooked lamb shanks in a rich onion and tomato sauce flavoured with fenugreek; chicken tikka . . . I could go on. For desserts, a chocolate samosa and a pista kulfi Indian ice cream.
The room is pleasant, with mirrors adapted from old Indian windows hanging on the walls. The greatest sign of Zaika's superb quality is that the most beautiful Indian in the world, Shakira Caine, asked me to dinner there with her husband, who is an old friend and a famous actor, and Johnny Gold of Tramp, with his wife Jan, who is also Indian. In fact, there are always a lot of Indian customers in the restaurant. They doubtless know what they're eating. As Clark Gable said at the end of Gone With the Wind: "I don't give a damn." It tastes good. I stuff it down. That's the fun of going out.
We have been going to Beaulieu in the south of France (Style, October 31) for more than 20 years. Please don't keep "rabbiting on" about the place. We don't want the uncouth and the unwashed descending on this gem. Les Agaves, La Reserve, and the new Senzo would never be the same again.
Fred Beckett, Cheltenham, Glos
I have the cure for your pet hate - wobbly tables. I live very near Ludlow, the Soho of the west and a paradise for gourmets such as you. In the book The Meaning of Liff - about useless place names used for things that had no other word to describe them - a Ludlow is the thing you use to prop up a wobbly table leg. The best Ludlow is a wine cork (the old type) cut in half, end to end, but diagonally. No problem finding these in a restaurant, is there? Why doesn't every waiter in the world know this trick?
Jackie Sherfield, by e-mail
A perusal of your recently published tome of nationwide restaurant reports fails to mention any establishment in Leicestershire. Surely you are not avoiding the celebrated Hambleton Hall and Stapleford Park (in the fine food and service category) simply because they are so splendid?
Morgan Maelor-Jones, by e-mail
I am thrilled that MW has at last produced a book. I wrote to him suggesting that he should do just that. How very comforting to know that he is open to suggestion.
Dorothy Allen, by e-mail
Loved Mr Winner's new book. Can't wait for the video. But why bother mentioning food at all? He nearly always finds it indifferent. Perhaps next time he could just make a list of restaurants where there is nobody blowing smoke at you, no tables with more than four people, no braying kids (under 25), no waiters who fill your glass after each sip, and no blanks for gratuities already imposed as service.
Judge Barrington Black, London
Having recently been confronted by sweet-and-sour seagull on a menu on the island of Zanzibar, I wondered if you could suggest a wine that might make the dish a little more palatable. The seafront at Whitstable is only 10 minutes away by car, and I may wish one day to repeat the experience. I fear, however, that 1961 Margaux could be beyond my somewhat limited means.
Ken Moffat, Canterbury