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Storming the chieftain's gigantic haggis turret

Published 16 May 2004
News Review
566th article

Thinking big: the Robertsons with Winner at Portmahomack (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)

There were always storms in Easter Ross. It's a coastal area in the eastern Highlands of Scotland. When I was young (around 1892) BBC radio always gave a shipping forecast after the news. A man in a sombre voice would pronounce on Easter Ross. I never expected to go there.

It was Peter Crome, the masterful boss of Skibo Castle, who booked lunch for me at the Oystercatcher in the main street of Portmahomack, Easter Ross. The toilets are labelled "Honest Men" and "Bonnie Lassies". It's run by Gordon and Susan Robertson.

For a modest place in a little port it has the most enormous menu. Everything from braised thistles in an onion and cream sauce on a split cheese scone to a Monte Cristo cigar for £35 to a massive selection of single malt whiskies.

I went native with "chieftain's castle - a haggis turret raised on an isle of clapshot fortified with a golden lochan of Glenmorangie malt whisky". Clapshot is potatoes and neeps mashed together, in case you didn't know. The haggis came from Dingwall, 30 miles away. It was the most enormous portion for a starter and sitting in a bowl of whisky.

Geraldine had bouillabaisse. I tasted it. It was outstandingly good. "Here we are in the middle of nowhere, with cheap, red holiday homes and the food is stunning," I observed.

Thistles were not yet available. They come from Shetland or Orkney. My lobster should have been caught by Jimmy. "That's his wee boat here," explained Susan.

Jimmy heard I was coming but couldn't get out in time because of a storm. See, I told you there were always storms in Easter Ross.

So Jimmy's friend got my lobster from Dingwall, where my haggis came from.

Business was brisk in Dingwall, thanks to me. We looked out at the Dornoch Firth, which is the North Sea.

I decided to finish with a small slice of carrot cake and a small slice of chocolate cake. Both home-made. "These are not small in anybody's language but yours," I said jovially to Susan.

The carrot cake was very good indeed. The icing was crowdie, from a local cheesemaker. Susan added icing sugar, vanilla essence, butter and orange. The chocolate cake was a disaster. Harry's Bar in Venice, which does far and away the best, has nothing to worry about.

"It's the first time Susan has made the chocolate cake," explained her husband Gordon. "You mean I'm a guinea pig?" I asked. "Yes," said Gordon.

The petits fours were very good. I had a marzipan one and others.

We went for a walk along the coast. Amazingly, the locals knew who I was. A man cleaning his car said: "Hold on, I must get my wife out to meet you." It was a sunny day. Sheep were grazing. They ignored me.

I'm still concerned about the front-of-house situation at the superb Cipriani restaurant in Mayfair. The Daily Telegraph's food writer loved the restaurant, but she, too, strongly criticised a manager there.

My friend David Meller recently booked for lunch. He was led to their best table.

Later David Mellor, the ex-MP and Classic FM radio's only good presenter, turned up and said: "You're sitting at my table!"

My friend Meller rightly responded: "We were placed here. Why should we go?"

Radio Mellor replied: "I've had a bad day. Don't give me a hard time. I've been to this table twice this week already."

Cipriani staff appeared and my Meller and his guest were moved elsewhere. Radio Mellor, charmingly, sent them a bottle of champagne, later asking if they'd join him for coffee.

My friend David rightly objected that no one from the restaurant apologised for the mix-up. He later telephoned the restaurant manager, Jason Phillips, about this. Jason said he wasn't in the restaurant. When I checked, Jason said he was present, but in the kitchen.

"For 10 minutes?" asked my friend Meller. "Perhaps he was taking a cookery course or knocking up an omelette," I suggested.

Jason told me when he returned from the kitchen he was informed about the incident. Why did he not then go and apologise to Mr Meller? I think because, aged 32, and previously in a lesser establishment, Jason is simply too young and inexperienced to headline a top venue. An important place like Cipriani requires considerable depth of senior management.

Those of you with short memories - only last week I told you Jason was chosen because I introduced him to Arrigo Cipriani - might say: "But, Winner, you put him there!" This shows no restaurateur should take any notice when I make recommendations regarding staff employment. On all other matters I remain supreme.

Winner's letters

I had lunch at Cipriani with a group of colleagues. The food was mediocre and the service appalling. The food was given to the wrong guests and was not what was ordered. Rice was served instead of vegetables. I was actively discouraged from ordering a risotto as this would take 25 minutes (fine by me) but all the other starters would arrive within 10 minutes. Wine glasses were removed before we'd finished - the list is endless. As our chairman was treating us, nobody made a fuss. I agree with Mr Winner's view last week that the welcome is shabby, to say the least. Cipriani lost a lot of potential business. No one in our party will return.
Brenda McLeod, London

I refer to Dorothy Gray's letter last Sunday and the "very boring individual" she encountered on her Turkish sailing holiday. It would seem to me not knowing who Michael Winner is was the strongest possible recommendation for getting to know the gentleman really well.
Voirrey Stewart, Staffordshire

Even though you live on a different planet to mere mortals and border on the likeably pompous, I always read you - after the Business section! Your attention to the most pernickety detail is contagious. I thought of you as I wrote a complaint to the Bora Bora Pearl Beach resort in the south Pacific. No room key was provided on arrival. The restaurant service by the pool was appalling. Our advertised gift bottle of champagne was a half bottle. Dinners were charged to our bill when they were included in our deal. Our wake-up call never came. I normally let human service errors pass. But sub-human with a high price doesn't pass muster.
Michael Maye, Co Dublin

A few issues ago Mr Winner mentioned that he was unaware of his purpose in life. I rather think the purpose of Michael Winner is to make the rest of us look good.
Richard Santy, London

It's right that you remind restaurants they have a duty to maintain the highest standards of cuisine and service. Not only for regular diners-out but also for those who are less well off and look forward to their once a month dinner occasion. For them disappointment is even more tangible.
Galina Breckhovnova, Paris

Send letters to Winner's Dinners, The Sunday Times, 1 Pennington Street, London E98 1ST or e-mail michael.winner@sunday-times.co.uk