Published 8 November 2009 News Review 851st article
Lorenzo Biccini, left, Attilio Fanciulli and Michael outside La Figa (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)
"Mr Winner, how do you plead?" asked the judge. "Guilty, your honour," I replied. The judge looked over his half-moon glasses and spoke. "Mr Winner," he declared, "you have pleaded guilty to the charge of going to restaurants, failing to warn the staff you are going to slate them mercilessly and then standing next to them for a photograph as if they were your best friends. I sentence you to eat a second meal at La Figa in Narrow Street, E14!" "No, no," I cried as they led me away. "Anything but that."
The moral of this story is: never trust any restaurant book except mine. Harden's London restaurant guide 2009 summed up, via readers' views, La Figa as "an absolutely stunning local Italian". Stunning is not the word I'd use. Revolting, ghastly, pathetic and dreadful come to mind.
I was in the East End - yuppie heaven, not my idea of fun - to visit a street in Newham where PC Gary Toms died in a shootout. As founder and chairman of the Police Memorial Trust I'd gone to photograph the spot preparatory to erecting a memorial to commemorate his bravery. I decided to lunch that side of the divide. A mistake.
La Figa faces a tedious square which would be a big attraction in Stevenage new town. Nowhere else.
David Lean used to live opposite. The last time I was in his house, with a huge garden facing the Thames, was after his memorial service at St Paul's. A deeply moving event. The band of the Welsh Guards played Colonel Bogey outside. In the cathedral a 70-piece orchestra was conducted by Maurice Jarre. Peter O'Toole and Omar Sharif spoke, as did Robert Bolt, who wrote Lawrence of Arabia. Suffering dreadfully from a stroke, he was assisted by Sarah Miles and shouted in a broken voice: "I am here, David."
My friend Steven Berkoff lives in Narrow Street. As does Sir Ian McKellen, whom I interviewed for a movie in 1963. The restaurant manager, Attilio Fanciulli, assured me they both went to La Figa. Berkoff told me it had gone off. I can't believe it was ever "on".
Attilio chewed gum as we entered. A poor first impression. The room was devoid of diners, full of grotesque, high-backed, modern chairs looking like art exhibits gone wrong. There were shiny-topped tables and a bar.
I was introduced to the chef, Angelo, who said he'd just made the bread. I took a bit from a large roll. It was heavy and clammy. Bread is obviously not Angelo's strong suit.
A huge tower of boxes sat on the counter for takeaway pizzas. We were given a pizza. Very average. The bruschetta was at best robust. Too much of everything piled on ungainly bits of toasted bread. All the fish in my main course and Geraldine's starter was dry and overcooked. It didn't taste fresh or succulent.
I began to realise why Attilio kept saying, "Have a steak," when we ordered. If someone keeps on recommending steak, it implies little faith in the rest of the food. In that, Attilio was spot-on.
I wanted cassata for dessert. It was on the menu but our waiter, Lorenzo, said they didn't have any. I settled for chocolate mousse. Geraldine tried some.
"It's not real mousse," she advised. "They've added something like gelatine." It had no particular taste.
All in all, a horrendous meal. Suitable only for the yuppies who live in converted warehouses which denude the East End of its old, colourful character. For Sunday lunch there were very few customers. Those that stayed away were lucky.
I'd like you to know how desperate I am to please. In my pathetic insecurity, riddled with a desire to be loved, not wishing to be an outcast, tarnished by my humble upbringing, I send, at my own expense, by UPS guaranteed next-day delivery, all the signed sticky labels requested by you, to Kelly Barnaby of Sparkle Direct, so that you get, as soon as post permits, these valuable messages to place in your copies of Winner's Dinners - the book.
"Hello, hello," I hear you say. "We ordered from The Sunday Times BooksFirst bookshop to get its special offer. Who's Sparkle whatever?" How should I know? I just write exactly what you want. The complexities of book distribution are beyond me. Keep ordering on 0845 271 2135, that's all I say.
The line-up of presenters for the Winner's Dinners awards, being handed out at a semi-lavish do at the Belvedere restaurant on Wednesday, gets grander by the minute. Sir Michael Caine will present one; so will Joanna Lumley. Others, aspiring to and approaching such luminosity, will follow. Sorry if you aren't invited. You're not important enough.
The superb Ritz hotel doorman Michael O'Dowdall always offers a joke as he opens the Rolls door for me.
"I was reading a book about glue. Couldn't put it down." Another: "How do you get a bear out of a tree with cheese? Camembert." C'mon bear-geddit? C'mon bear sounds like camembert. Don't think it's funny? Park your own car and sneak in the back door then.
Your comment that mirrors should be put on the walls of the Grill terrace at the Hotel de Paris, Monte Carlo, is another selfish act to ensure that you can enjoy gazing with love at your own reflection and keep an eye out for anyone attempting to stab you in the back.
Clive Peebles, Glasgow
You describe grand hotels as being "messed about, redecorated and ludicrously updated, the magnificence and grandeur gone". Talking about yourself?
Jonnie Hok, Hampshire
Please do something about the bags under your eyes. Or is that where Geraldine puts her shopping?
Robert Bartlett, London
In your book you rightly award the Cliff restaurant, Barbados, worst for everything. You forgot to mention the gratuitous soaking the smirking staff know will hit some tables when the sea is angry. I've met people who were drenched head to toe, with their food swimming in sea water. Which might well improve it.
Barry McKay, Berkshire
At Carluccio's in St Pancras I ordered a sambuca, normally delivered with three coffee beans and a lighter. Staff denied me the lighter on the grounds of health and safety. The manager said smoke could set off the fire alarm. I looked at the high steel ceiling. I've never seen smoke rising when heating coffee beans on a tiny sambuca.
Rolf Sonderlind [Soderlind, Ed.], Hampshire
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