Published 30 June 1996 Style Magazine 156th article
Matchless: Michael Winner with Arrigo Cipriani, the boss of the incomparable Harry's Bar in Venice
When readers write to this page I not only read what they say: I act on it. John and Barbara Binns of Halifax (Halifax?!) queried my pronouncing (in 1994) Harry's Bar, Venice, the best restaurant in the world. They put forward Harry's Bar, Florence. I left immediately for Venice. There I learnt Harry's Bar, Florence, was named by someone nothing to do with the real Harry's Bar, which was opened by Giuseppe Cipriani in 1931. I couldn't find anyone with anything to say about Harry's Bar, Florence, even though it's big in Halifax. So I dropped in on my first day, about 2.30pm, to the Venice one. There at the bar I knocked back three brilliant bellinis (remember Giuseppe invented the bellini), some croque-monsieurs, shrimp sandwiches and chicken patties. The world felt much better. All were beyond belief superb. Not like they sound, but in another stratosphere. I had to be certain of things. so the next day I went in for lunch. This time, I sat upstairs, which is posher, and from my table had a lovely view of Santa Maria della Salute from one window and the Dogana di Mare from the right-angle corner window. Mr and Mrs Binns said it had no atmosphere. It seemed full of lively international people to me. Many Italians, and the setting was awe-inspiring.
Shrimps and artichokes as a starter, then ravioli with asparagus, the like of which I have never eaten, and the desserts are . . . well! I had a bit of vanilla meringue cake, a bit of lemon meringue pie, a bit of zabaglione cream cake and some of Vanessa's chocolate cake. This is the best mixture individually and collectively of any lovely stuff that has ever entered my slimline frame. My notes on tape at the time said: "The chocolate cake: there is unquestionably no better in the world. It's seriously chocolaty, it's moist, the layer of chocolate on the top is also moist. The vanilla meringue is a taste explosion . . ." I droned on.
Was lunch just a fluke? I owed it to John, Barbara and the people of Halifax to go again. So I went for dinner in the bar area. A different, bustly atmosphere. There's the head of the Zanussi company; over there a woman in a raincoat and a blue bobbly hat - my God, it's Michelle Morgan! - and at her table, riveting people, including a man in a white double-breasted suit, white shirt and white silk scarf. There's a famous Italian lecturer, and there an architect called Biscosi who's going to build the first bridge in Venice all in glass! An oriental lady in black stockings with very short, black creamed hair . . . I may only be a poor boy from Willesden, but I've been about a bit. Never to anywhere more atmospheric than Harry's Bar, downstairs, in the evening. I went three times. Crepes, I can't even tell you they were so good, fish ravioli, scampi - ooh there's a girl in a black see-through dress - a local cabernet, liver Venetian-style, then a vanilla yoghurt ice cream with biscuits and three home-made jams - strawberry, prunes and redcurrant.
Vanessa had thinly sliced parmesan with artichokes. Just a minute, not possible! Another reader, Mr Ron Zanre of Chislehurst (Chiselhurst?!) wrote saying you could not slice parmesan. It was too crumbly. I put this to Arrigo Cipriani, son of the founder and now boss of Harry's. He smiled patiently, as if at a lunatic, then returned with a truffle slicer and some parmesan. In front of my eyes, he sliced thin slivers from a top-rate parmesan. Later he gave me the slicer! It's a flat silver thing with a knob-screw with which you determine the thickness of the slice. It's made by Tartufingros, Alba. I was going to give it to Mr Zanre, but then I thought better of it.
So I bade farewell to Venice, city on the waters, and as the sun sank slowly over the Rialto bridge I dreamt of Arrigo, smart-suited as ever, busy working the room with the luckiest diners in the world. But was it just the atmosphere of Venice? I retired to my Holland Park mansion. There I meditated for two days. Then, lo and behold, white smoke was seen coming from the chimney. A decision had been made. Harry's Bar, Venice, was confirmed the Winner's Dinners best restaurant in the world.
PS: The next day, representatives of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea knocked on the door and told me I should only burn smokeless fuel. I assured them it would only happen once a year.
I was disappointed to read (June 9) that Mr Winner did not know the whereabouts of Monmouth town. Not only is he missing out on one of the loveliest parts of Britain, but he is also missing some wonderful culinary experiences. Surely he has heard of The Walnut Tree at Abergavenny, whose praises have been sung by the likes of Fay Maschler and Jonathan Meades. Fast catching up with The Walnut Tree is The Crown at Whitebrook. Both these restaurants are within 20 miles of Monmouth. In addition, Monmouth has a wonderful patisserie called Bakery Fayre, which sells cakes as good as anything you can get in France. Do visit us, Mr Winner, and if you can't manage dinner, then at least stay for tea!
Claire Edwards, Monmouth, Gwent