Published 11 March 2001 Style Magazine 400th article
Gold stars: Claude Terrail of La Tour d'Argent with Michael Winner (Michael Guest)
I hate going to new restaurants. I have a list of 30 places, of which I visit 12 regularly. It's taken me a long time to sort them out. I like the food there, I like the people, I like the atmosphere. If I add one new restaurant to my list every two years, it's a lot. So when Georgina said she wanted somewhere different, I recalled the impresario Michael White telling me there were beautiful girls at the bar of the Sanderson hotel, off Oxford Street. This fragment, combined with my having had a pleasant time at Ian Schrager's Asia de Cuba shortly before, induced me to visit the Sanderson, another of his hotels, for Sunday lunch.
It's in a horrible street in the middle of the wholesale dress business. The building looks like a block of flats in Kazakhstan. There was nowhere to park and the doormen didn't help. They never left the revolving door. So I parked in a bay reserved for diplomats. The lobby is turgid beyond belief. It's an amalgam of the worst of 1950s furnishings, together with some scrap-iron chairs and a kitsch empire-style chair with gilded swans. I passed through into the long bar, empty except for a few tired-looking residents. My friend Michael White explained later the girls were only there on weekday evenings. The restaurant itself is hideous. A totally soulless place for transient people. White sort-of-leather chairs, canteenish, with dreadful, middle- of-the-road plonky piped music, the type you used to hear in cinemas. The restaurant, called Spoon, is the concept of three- Michelin star chef Alain Ducasse. He opened a restaurant recently in New York, which got the worst reviews and the worst word of mouth I've ever known.
Before I continue I recounting the horrors, I'll praise the staff. They were all extremely pleasant and efficient - from Michelle Barker, the assistant restaurant manager, to the French waiters. The food was absolutely terrible. Except for the fresh orange juice. We both had chicken consomme with pork and shrimp ravioli. Georgina thought it too salty. I found it bland and without taste. I had eggs Benedict, which were deeply boring. And finished with a dessert that almost defies description, but I'll manage. It was called Nutella tart with vanilla home-made ice cream. It tasted as if it had sat on a railway-station buffet for weeks. If the ice cream was home-made, they should rush out and buy some in. Why Alain Ducasse, a supposedly serious chef lent his name to this absurd Spoon concept, I can't imagine. People who spread themselves too thin invariably become an oil slick and vanish.
By now, I was furious with Georgina for causing me to come here. Somewhat unfairly, because I could have refused. So we stormed off without a photo. To climax the disaster, I got a parking ticket. A week later, we went back. I was just getting a fetching angle in the lobby when an irate, rather fey, gentleman rushed over. "No photographs," he said. "All right, you take it," I replied. So Jens Gmiat, guest services manager, took over. He must have opened the back of the camera by mistake because his negative frames and a few either side, had light ruining them. "I make the guests happy here," he explained as I left. I was not happy.
By contrast, I recently returned to a real French restaurant, La Tour d'Argent in Paris. Claude Terrail's place offers a historic view of Notre Dame and the river Seine. It's maintained a great standard, even though I noticed a tiny drop now Claude, aged 83, no longer turns up for more than a token visit. The waiter assured me he'd remember everything without a pad. Checking, he said to me: "You ordered foie gras." I said: "No, I didn't, I ordered lobster bisque." A waiter at another table had a pad. Georgina said: "We're only two people, we're not important enough for a pad."
After an excellent freebie starter of mussels, apple and cherry sauce, which was a bit like a curry, we waited for ever for the plates to be cleared. I did my first Parisian napkin wave, and waiters rushed over. My lobster bisque was perfect. Then, another long delay. "Would you please send a search party for the food," I asked Carlo Bellomo, the restaurant manager. The mustard sauce with my sole was too unusual, so they replaced it with tartare. My dessert was hard caramel with pear mush underneath. It was exceptionally good. La Tour d'Argent has lasted in superb form since the early 1960s. Before that, it was legend in the 19th century. It has no offshoots in third-rate hotels.
I read Mr Winner's piece on the St Martins Lane hotel with interest (February 25), particularly as I was lying in bed in the establishment at the time. When making my reservation, they failed to inform me the Asia de Cuba restaurant would be closed on the Saturday night, as it would be hosting the pre-Baftas party. I understand that Mr Winner attended, and hope he enjoyed himself. We mere mortals took refuge in the Tuscan Steak restaurant, where the meal was perfectly fine. However, Mr Winner's appreciation of the Asia de Cuba (particularly an "almost historic" brownie) suggests we were forced to accept second best.
Claire Mingham-Smith, Berkshire
Am I alone in trying to ascertain exactly what Michael Winner means when he uses the term "almost historic" in reference to the brownie served up at Asia de Cuba? I notice, too, that Bob Morrell uses the term "mildly historic", presumably in "homage", in his e-mail (February 25). From neither of these examples can I determine whether it is intended to be laudatory or pejorative. Clarification, please.
Adam Roche, by e-mail
Supporters of Mr Winner's use of a certain word may enjoy this gem from a tiny book called Your Conversation -or Mine, by Godfrey H Holmes: "'Historically' or 'historically speaking' are both valued additions to any debate. 'Historically' is sufficiently woolly to allow no comeback ... and grand enough to authenticate what is being said.' Surely this will be a fitting epitaph to Winner's "historic" dinners.
Simon Kenna, Loule, Portugal
Michael Winner did a very good survey on orange juice (February 18), but in Valencia, the home of oranges, there's a saying that the orange is gold in the morning, silver in the afternoon and a killer at night. Do you think that it is appropriate to drink bubbly and orange juice in the evening? I would agree with the late Sir Noel Coward and have a pink gin instead.
Stephen Varea, Bideford, Devon
With reference to Nigel Lowe's response to the animal cruelty involved in producing frogs' legs and foie gras -"The more pain, the better the taste" - (February 18), perhaps after an anaesthetic-free double leg amputation and lifelong force-feeding, we would find Mr Lowe more palatable.
Sarah Hunt, Plymouth