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Essex appeal

Published 25 February 2001
Style Magazine
398th article

Jo Lennard, Shaun Gilmore and Michael Winner at Asia de Cuba (Georgina Hristova)

I was going to a preview of Merrily We Roll Along at the Donmar Warehouse. "Sorry," said the man at the box office, "tonight's performance is cancelled. Some of the cast have lost their voices." So we drove slowly down St Martin's Lane without any firm destination in mind. "Stop," I commanded the chauffeur. We were outside the London Coliseum. They were advertising the Nutcracker. "That'll be jolly," I thought. I nipped in and asked the manager about the house seats. These are seats that are held back in case the Queen comes. She was otherwise engaged, so I got them.

This left us with 40 minutes until curtain up. We looked for somewhere to have a coffee. Walking down the side of a large building, we could see into a restaurant that looked rather nice. The front entrance, with no name exhibited, led to a high-ceilinged minimalist lobby with a lot of candles burning in glasses. This is either a cathedral or Ian Schrager's St Martins Lane hotel, I thought. Schrager was the man who co-owned New York's Studio 54 nightclub in the 1970s, went to jail for tax evasion and came out to open luxury hotels. We explored further, and the manager of the Saint M brasserie (now called Tuscan Steak) gave us sustenance. Later they showed us round their bar and the Asia de Cuba restaurant, which Georgina particularly liked the look of.

Returning to the Coliseum, I met an old friend, the singer Jenny Linnit. "This won't be much fun for you." she said. "Why not?" I replied. "Nutcracker's jovial, isn't it?" "Were not seeing the Nutcracker. Verdi's Requiem is on tonight," Jenny responded. Oh dear. I'd made a boo-boo. So, I sat through a very odd version of Verdi's Requiem. Then went off to the Caribbean to get over it. On our return, Georgina said: "Lets go to Asia de Cuba." It didn't strike me as one of her better ideas, but you've got to let people contribute.

If you're thinking of booking a room in the St Martins Lane hotel, don't bother. It'll be easier just to bed down in a street doorway for the night. It's definitely the most inept switchboard I've ever come across. To get through to the front desk - which I didn't want to anyway - took hours. I wont go into the problems of making a simple restaurant booking, but I eventually found Big Jo, alias Jo Lennard, the manager of the hotel's restaurants. I'd known her when, together with Little Jo, she ran Titanic.

Asia de Cuba is a well-designed room. Needless to say, my least favourite restaurant designer, David Collins, had nothing to do with it. Circular bookcases, ceiling high, are littered here and there, other round pillars have photos of Cubans on them, or are covered with potted plants or pleated silk. Dim, bare light bulbs hang low over the diners. It looks like a 1950s canteen, with wooden chairs to match. It's actually quite effective. Also extremely noisy, with throbbing music and a lot of Essex-type people. I like them, they've got energy.

Jo recommended the calamari salad and a rock shrimp salad to start. The portions are enormous; quite enough for four people. They're put in the middle of the table, so if there were a lot of us we could have shared. The food was very tasty, even the salad was made interesting. And the fresh orange juice - aficionados please note - was first-rate. To follow, I had a thin piece of meat described as palomillo of lamb brushed with mojito - the verbiage went on forever. It was excellent. Georgina had Latino spiced chicken with coconut rice, banana leaf, tamarind sauce, egg noodles, old Uncle Tom Cobbleigh and all. Salads were again plonked on top of everything. It didn't surprise me that the very pleasant and creative chef, Shaun Gilmore, came from Vong.

Two young people, a man and woman, sat at a small table, he concentrating on her above all the din, pouring wine, getting to know her. Preparing her. They were oblivious to the bustle and the buzz. I wasn't. It was very unrestful. Disturbingly so.

The Cuban coffee brownie was almost historic, the banana and chocolate mousse poor. The Mexican doughnuts I ordered didn't turn up. But overall, it was an interesting and worthwhile meal. If they served it in Kensington High Street without my having to put up with 150 people and the row, I'd be there a lot. "Very cosmopolitan people, the guests," said Georgina. I said: "No they're not, they're all British." "They're not all British," Georgina responded firmly. "Show me someone who isn't?" I asked. "Me," replied Georgina. There's no point in arguing when you get into conversations like that.


I had lunch at the Mirabelle the other day. The haddock omelette starter was wonderful, the steak main course small and very disappointing, the champagne jelly mildly historic. Service good and atmosphere very pleasant. You swine, Winner - I'm beginning to think like you!
Bob Morrell, by e-mail

Each week I enjoy seeing restaurants put down as only Mr Winner can, and was grateful for his article on another favourite of mine to criticise: airlines (February 11). I have just returned from a four-week tour of the East and Australia. Thai Airways was the best. Qantas was very good to Bangkok, but horrific to Australia. British Airways from Hong Kong to London used those sleeper seats, which, if you lowered them, felt like you were sleeping in a coffin. Couldn't the designers do better? I am also compelled to ask why on night flights, which leave at about 11pm, do they serve supper at about midnight? Surely most people would have eaten by then? Breakfast is then served 8 hours later, by which time, if you declined supper as I did, you are starving. What's more, the sandwiches that many airlines serve as a snack look as if they have been created from discarded food.
Tony Coakley, Hertford

Michael Winner describes British Airways passengers in their sleep suits as ridiculous. Mr Winner should look at the photograph of himself in cutoff shorts on the beach in Barbados to have a yardstick for such a statement. But I still can't resist reading his article each week - perhaps I deserve an Oscar for repeated stupidity.
Royston Clarke, by e-mail

In support of the letter written by Steve Goodall (February 11), I, too, am appalled at the filthy condition of many of the hotels and restaurants in this country. London appears to take little, if any, pride in its appearance. As a frequent traveller to the United States, regional cities such as Miami, New York and San Francisco make our capital city look like a Third World backwater. Restaurants should have spotlessly clean eating areas and their lavatories should be clinical. Those that don't reach such a rudimentary standard should be named and shamed.
Mr D M Hirst, Harrogate

I am comforted to know that I share with Michael Winner the privilege of occasionally being called a "moron" - in my case, by my wife.
Alan Lewin, by e-mail