Published 14 October 2001 Style Magazine 431st article
New school Thai: from left, Robert Earl, David Thompson, Patricia Earl and Michael Winner (Georgina Hristova)
The Halkin hotel in Belgravia has wonderfully warm and charming staff, their welcome somewhat countered by the public rooms, which are minimalist and cold. There's a narrow, highly unattractive area, which, for many years, housed a superb Italian restaurant. But the ambience was such that I only visited once. This has now transmogrified into a Thai restaurant called Nahm, which got mainly rave reviews when it opened four months ago. I say it's a "Thai" restaurant, and the Australian chef, David Thompson, who spent years in Thailand, says he serves "pure Thai food". But it ain't like what I ate in Thailand when I was there. That is a deliberate use of cockney vernacular, not a linguistic slip-up from someone as highly educated as what I am. The premises still lack eye appeal. And that's putting it mildly. They've added cloth, hung like ship's sails, covering part of the windows. Otherwise it's standard-issue hotel decor.
I went there with my friend Robert Earl. He's doing a marvellous job reinvigorating his Planet Hollywood chain with partners Prince Al Waleed and Singapore entrepreneur BS Ong. Mr Ong owns the Halkin and the Metropolitan hotel in Park Lane. This houses the much-favoured restaurant Nobu. I had a terrible time with my one meal at Nobu. But so many people say it's excellent, I now accept this was unfortunate rather than definitive.
Back at Nahm, the friendly, bespectacled Australian restaurant manager, Peter Bowyer, referred to his staff. "They all come from Australia," he advised. I pointed to a waitress. "Is she from Australia?" I asked, keen to catch him out. "Yes," said Peter, "and six of the chefs have come from Australia."
Peter then recommended clear soup of squid with chicken, samphire and shi'take mushrooms. "It's the Thai version of every Jewish mother's chicken soup," he added by way of salesmanship. It was - together with my dessert of white sticky rice with mango, coconut cream, lychees and palm-sugar custard - the only disappointment in an otherwise excellent meal.
We were given many bowls. One contained geng gari bpet, a mild curry of aromatic duck with potatoes and cucumber relish. Another had minced chicken and prawns cooked with palm sugar and peanuts served on mandarin and pineapple. Yet another, deep-fried, dried, ground salmon with watermelon. That was historic, I ate every speck of it.
The very spicy jungle curry with monkfish and deep-fried shallots was a bit strong for one of my sensitive disposition. But the prawn and yellow-bean relish, which you eat together with sweet pork, crispy fish and an assortment of sour vegetables, was fine. Robert had spicy venison with ginger. I enjoyed nicking some. There were more bowls, but my capabilities of recollection are limited. Most of it was staggeringly good. They even served very freshly squeezed mandarin juice. Following Georgina's recommendation, I now have this at home. It's less bitter than orange juice.
Robert Earl's a highly entertaining person to dine with. His wife, Patricia, met him just after he had left catering college. She wiped tables and served food at their first venture under the arches at Blackfriars. Now she chucks in jolly conversational zingers that cap Robert every time. When the chef came to greet us, I noted he didn't have his name in script on his white coveralls. Being Australian, I think it would be fun if he had it embroidered upside down. But David's probably more sensible than me.
Restaurants rely not only on their food and decor, but staff attitude. Here Nahm wins top marks. By contrast, Belvedere, my Marco Pierre White local, which looks beautiful and offers excellent meals, is let down by the manager and often by the service. At lunch I waited endlessly for anyone to pay attention. Eventually I did my napkin wave, which is on view about once a year. That brought someone over. "Are you serving food today?" I asked. Thus we were able to order. Even after that, nobody came to see if we wanted anything to drink. In a well-run restaurant you're asked if you want a drink ﬁrst.
One night, the place was almost empty. A pity, as the chef's very good. The general manager, Mikael Allan (any Englishman who spells Michael with a k is bound to be flaky), didn't greet my party of three until we'd been there for 52 minutes. Doesn't this man understand his job is to welcome people? Luckily, his head waiter, Jean Cottard, is very professional and the girls on the front desk are delightful. That's after Marco got rid of the most surly receptionist ever. If only he'd add a piano, floodlight the trees outside and move the manager, Belvedere could be a big hit.
I was fascinated to read Michael Winner's story about Gerard de Thame's problems with his Ferrari in the south of France (September 30), and relieved to know that I'm not the only one to have encountered such troubles. I have just returned from honeymoon on the Cote d'Azur with my beautiful wife, Yvonne. We had driven there from Cardiff in my Ferrari, and on our last day had a fantastic lunch at La Petite Maison in Nice, on the recommendation of one AA Gill (September 2). Returning to the car after the meal, however, we found it would not start. We are back in Cardiff, but the car is still en route, courtesy of another AA.
Gordon Sharp, by e-mail
As a Hendon resident for more than 25 years, I must take issue with Michael Winner's recent comparison of the awful band at the Grand Hotel du Cap-Ferrat with a band at a Hendon barmitzvah (September 30). Whatever his previous experience, the current standard of our bands is very high.
Judge Anthony Ansell, London
I read with interest Michael Winner's article (September 23) regarding celebrities at the Ivy. Two years ago, a friend and I went there for lunch. As we entered, we saw, in animated conversation, Winner and his current girlfriend, Michael and Shakira Caine, and another lady. We were shown to a table opposite them. They were in my line of vision, but my friend had her back to them. As we were about to finish our lunch, she headed for the loo, so that, on the way back, she could have a good look at them. Guess what? By the time she returned to our table, the celebrated group had left. I suppose if we had smiled at Michael, he might have been moved to shake our hands. We shall never know.
Mrs Grace Ciappara, Northampton
Michael Winner mentioned that he may want to explore the gastronomic delights of the Perigord region of France. He could do worse than make for Le Moulin de l'Abbaye in Brantome, where we recently enjoyed a superb Sunday lunch in fantastic waterside surroundings. After that, he should head just out of town to Le Moulin du Roc and take their "giveaway" set lunch, which, at less than £20 a head, is embarrassingly inexpensive for the excellent fare on offer.
Eliot Keynes, Crawley
Why is it that our experiences are always at odds with Mr Winner's?
Doris & Werner Pluss, Paris
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