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French farce

Published 26 November 2000
Style Magazine
385th article

Far from the crowds: Michael Winner and Georgina Hristova in the Duke and Duchess of Windsor's house in Paris

We helicoptered to Paris from Battersea heliport, landing close to the Eiffel Tower. An hour-and-a-half flight, very pleasant. In Paris, the traffic jams were horrendous, the art galleries and museums overcrowded to the point of nausea. Worse still were the pathetic, modern, so-called sculptures splashed everywhere, degrading old squares and period architecture. For dinner I booked Le Duc, in the Boulevard Raspail. One evening in Harry's Bar, Venice, Arrigo, my "World's best restaurateur", advised me to go there. A few moments later he returned. "The American ambassador to France is here," he said, indicating a table. "He just told me he thinks Le Duc is excellent."

I found it horrific. Probably the worst meal of all time. Everything about it was nasty. The room is hideous. The brown wood panelling looks tacky. There's overbright, vulgar lighting, a purple spotted "cheap-motel" carpet, garish leather banquettes and small wooden chairs. It resembled the dining cabin of a package-tour ocean liner. We were given a horrid table by the entrance to the kitchen.

Georgina ordered fresh orange juice. It came massively watered down. The waiter dared to argue, saying it was all fresh juice. When he brought another, which was all fresh orange, the colour and taste were completely different. The third orange juice (she likes oranges this girl) was full of ice, which she'd specifically asked not to have. So it was diluted by the ice. They didn't give us butter knives. Georgina used her fish knife to butter the indifferent bread. When they brought her calamari they didn't give her a new knife for it. I had fried whitebait that tasted of nothing and was rather soggy. Then I had moules mariniere in a soup both odd and unpleasant. It was bitter and lemon-like. "Lemon grass" had been much spoken by the waiter, I suppose that was an ingredient. It tasted ghastly, like no moules sauce I've ever been offered. Georgina tried it. "Very acid," she said. The moules looked plump and soft, but they were utterly tasteless. I noted in my tape: "This restaurant is full at 8.55pm. There are obviously a lot of people in Paris who know nothing about food." We waited for ever for the plates to be cleared.

Then I had scampi, which were soft and flabby. This is usually a sign they've been frozen, which breaks down the texture. Or left about too long. Either way, they were awful. In a restaurant so fond of lemon, nobody brought me any for the scampi.

Georgina had some sort of white fish cut into strips. In the centre you could see it was red and bloody. She ate only a bit, declaring: "I'm definitely not a fan of French food. Italian is the best ever." I think she's right.

The waiter, he of the appalling service, said, "The dessert trolley," indicating a faraway item, "but I can't get it through." "Why don't you try?" I suggested. "I'm sure that lady will help."

The customer I referred to inched her chair forward a bit and the trolley passed by easily. Georgina had apple tart that was all right, but certainly no more. I asked for rum baba. Three slices of sponge cake were produced. "I'm going to get the rum," said the waiter. He poured rum over the sponge. It was all highly indifferent. Nobody would give me the bill, so I got up and went to the desk. Start to walk out and you always get the bill. It came to £105. Expensive for what it was. This is a place to avoid.

  • The next morning, Mohamed al-Fayed had kindly arranged for us to visit the Duke of Windsor's villa in the Bois de Boulogne. We were surveyed by video cameras and barked at by an alsatian. The caretaker explained the dog was worried by the wind. The iron gates opened to reveal this cut-off piece of history. Under Fayed's care the house remained almost exactly as it used to be. In 1998 he sold the furniture. Now there are mostly exact copies or similar furnishings. The house has been restored and is beautifully kept. It's leased by Fayed, as it was by the duke and duchess, from the city of Paris.

    Here were oil paintings of the duchess, the separate bedrooms, the winding wrought-iron staircase. An old caretaker accompanied us around this small mansion with so many historic associations, a visit greatly enhanced because I didn't have to fight thousands of people to see it. Don't get me wrong, I fully accept the public have as much right to be in museums as I do. I just wish we didn't have to be there at the same time.


    As "minted" as Mr Winner is, I don't need to ask if he minds paying over the odds. So I would like him to make a visit to Eastwell Manor in Ashford, Kent. At a recent lunch, we were horrified to see that a glass of house champagne was £10, but even worse was a kir royale at £13. (Is cassis more precious than gold? £3 per dash - I must rush down to the supermarket for a bottle and make my fortune.) That was nothing compared with the mineral water - Pounds 4 for a glass of sparkling with lime cordial. When summoning the assistant manager to question the princely sum, I was shown a finger to his lips - an attempt to quieten me as he orchestrated the removal of the serving lids by his staff. Are these prices a record? When told they charged more than Mirabelle or the Four Seasons, New York, the manager merely shrugged and refused to comment. Mr Winner should experience it for himself. I would love to see them squirm out of his comments or tell him to "sssh".
    Hellen Ward, London

    Thank you once again to Mr Winner for the enlightening summary of his best and worst of restaurants of the year (Style, November 12). Might I suggest next time he includes the category "Best restaurant critic in the world", so he can slip in the ultimate personal recommendation?
    RF Draper, Bath

    Your restaurant awards were well chosen and amusing. I was delighted to see some old favourites are given their due. All that is new is not always good.
    Andrew Campbell, via e-mail

    I have always been mortified if a friend, colleague or relation dares to complain about the service or quality of the fare - even when it is justified ... until last week. Staying at the Royal York Hotel, my boyfriend and I had to wait 15 minutes for our table, another 15 minutes for our order to be taken and then 10 for the first course to arrive. My boyfriend - normally the most mild-mannered of men - complained. Whatever he said, from that moment on, the hotel (where the food is exceptionally good) could not do enough for us. I was amazed by the response we got after making our feelings known.
    Val Graves-Comba, Tilehurst, Reading

    Mr Winner should try Orangina instead of Fanta. It contains only fruit and sugar - no nasty E numbers. Also, if you travel on First Great Western out of Paddington, it is free on the First Class drinks trolley.
    David Shamash, via e-mail

    Send letters to Style; or e-mail: michael.winner@sunday-times.co.uk