Published 23 June 2002 Style Magazine 467th article
'I look glum, which I wasn't': Michael Winner, waitresses and John Mee (Georgina Hristova)
I greatly appreciate it when you offer advice about where I should eat. Perhaps it shows mistrust, perhaps laziness, either way. I'd never tried a reader-recommended establishment. Until I visited The Cottage Inn near Windsor. It was suggested by Stanley Silver of Hadley Wood. He assured me the roast beef was exceptional, and thus he raved on. I've lost his letter, so I can't recount all the details. After I'd been to The Cottage Inn, an e-mail arrived from Ryan Ward of Maidenhead, recommending Le Petit Bubb in Winkfield, "home of the infamous Cottage Inn". Why Mr Ward thinks The Cottage Inn infamous I can't imagine. Furthermore, both he and Mr Silver are wrong: it's not in Winkfield. It's next door, in Maidens Green.
The Cottage Inn stands in a neat suburban street with nice gardens and nice houses. I'm sure they're inhabited by nice people. The car park tells you a lot. There are no Rolls-Royces or Aston Martins, just middle-range cars. My all-black, convertible Saab fitted perfectly. The "carbon dashboard, brushed aluminium heater surround, steering wheel and colour-coded grille" were upgraded for cosmetic purposes by a managing director of Saab City. They're all unbelievably camp.
Even though it was before 1pm on Sunday, I couldn't find a place to park. So I did a desperate six-point turn. As I pulled out, a car coming in blocked me. The driver called: "What's the food like here?"
I said: "If you get out of the way, I might be able to find out."
Georgina insisted I put up the roof, even though we were in this nice suburban street with nice suburban . . . all right, you get the drift. I'd left the roof down at the Bray Marina while visiting Heston Blumenthal's Riverside Brasserie, and someone nicked my cigar lighter. Fortunately, that nice (adjective of the day) Mark Lawler at Saab sent me three replacements.
The Cottage Inn looks like a cottage both inside and out. It should be surrounded by fields, sheep and cows. A sign says: "Gentlemen wearing vests, sleeveless T-shirts or bare torsos will not be served in or outside the premises." Note this only applied to gentlemen. I looked in vain for bare-torsoed ladies, but they were obviously off duty that day.
We started with some excellent bread: it was warm and crisp. There are two owners: John Mee, who was there, and his business partner, Bobby King, who was in New Zealand. John explained: "Bobby's a cockney who gets a bit overexcited. I'm calmer. So it's been a good partnership."
It's all very olde worlde: black beams, white stucco and menus on blackboards. Georgina started with cream of carrot and orange soup. She described it as "good".
I asked: "Would you raise that to very good or excellent?"
She replied: "I've given you my opinion."
My starter was fresh and pleasing: melon and fruit with mango and mint coulis. It was very, er, nice.
Then I had roast pork with apple sauce, because John said it had exceptionally good crackling with it. He was right. A generous amount of crackling sat at the side of the plate. You had to eat it by hand, because it was so crisp. I rated it historic. The crackling alone made the trip worthwhile. Stanley Silver described the roast potatoes as the best ever. They were good, but not a patch on the ones Michael Caine cooks. Sir Michael started to tell me the secret. It's something to do with putting them in cold fat and placing them in the oven. There was more, but he, or I, got carried away. So I never found out what it was.
The food at The Cottage Inn is not great, but supremely reasonable. Except For my dessert of plum crumble with cream. That was horrid. The crumble part was totally cloying. It wasn't crumbly. It was gooey. "It's not baked properly," advised Georgina. "Maybe they didn't have time to do it."
The service, by smiling young girls, was performed with an impeccable, welcoming attitude. The photo of us outside is odd. You must always use the flash on your camera, whether it's bright or not. Don't tell me the camera knows when it needs to flash. It doesn't. Your camera is an idiot. The flash prevents back light causing an incorrect reading, lightens you, and normally takes out facial shadows from the sun. It failed to do so fully this week because Georgina had to stand away from the group. So it was too far for the flash to deal with the shadows. I look glum, which I wasn't. Because I was in a very nice area with nice . . . I know, I told you already.
Why is it that there is so much resentment concerning Mr Winner's choice of venues and his extravagant tastes? Surely he is perfectly entitled to spend his money exactly as he pleases? Furthermore, is it not a good thing that he continues to pump so much of his money back into the economy? He brings the enjoyment (or otherwise) of many expensive restaurants into the homes of millions. Long may he continue.
Paul McGrath, London
I recently endured a celebration dinner at Wapping Food, in east London, that was ruined by substandard service. We ordered two main courses (without starters) and a bottle of wine. Modest and simple enough, one might say. However, despite protests, our food did not arrive for 1 hours. The contemporary setting and good food did nothing to ameliorate such appalling service. This is not the first time I have had this experience here - although it will certainly be the last.
Stanley Owen, London
As an avid reader of Michael Winner's column, I noticed that he does not seem to have dined at English's fish restaurant in Brighton recently. My advice would be: don't. On my last visit, the portions were frugal, bland and overpriced, and the service was appalling. Although the restaurant was not busy at the time, it took more than an hour for our starters to arrive. Our waiter spoke little English; indeed, he did not appear to understand me (or blindly disregarded me) when I twice told him that one of my dining companions was feeling unwell and did not want his wineglass topping up. He then proceeded to spill a glass of wine all over me. As a gesture of goodwill, he offered to subtract a bottle of mineral water from the bill, but nevertheless added a 10% service charge. I thought that the £100 I offered for starters, main courses and wine for three was more than reasonable (the bill was £120).
Geraint Pinches, London
Writing from the Amanjena in Marrakesh, I can only say how right Michael Winner is about the Thai food here being the best in the world. I say that having spent more than 100 weeks in Thailand over the past 25 years, and having dined just before this trip at Nahm, the Michelin-starred Thai restaurant at the Halkin Hotel, in London.
Geoff Foster Taylor, by e-mail