Published 9 February 2003 News Review 500th article
Taste buds untickled: Neil and Winner thought their meal was bland (Vanessa Perry)
Since they took Come Dancing off television there are no programmes, except the news, which I watch regularly. Come Dancing was the greatest TV entertainment of all time. It featured a big band ballroom dancing contest where amateur dancers sewed spangles on their wonderfully ludicrous dresses and then tippie-toed about, pulling faces of ecstasy as they did so.
I was thrilled recently to meet a Come Dancing contestant, Henriette Peters, who with her twin brother represented Norway. Henriette is now a highly efficient duty manager at Sandy Lane, Barbados. Her brother visited and I requested their speciality, the waltz. Sadly this never happened.
A TV programme I always enjoy is Trouble at the Top. It shows the progression of some business enterprise as it starts up. This frequently involves the finances running low, builders being late, everything going wrong and then an opening, which is a fiasco.
The Cinnamon Club in the old Westminster library was a chosen subject. It looked a disaster. Some chefs were brought from India or Pakistan, I remember not which, to a tiny flat in the East End and promptly fell on their prayer mats. A position they adopted before the opening night in March 2001 when the most important ovens conked out and the ragbag guests who turned up failed to impress the worried owner, Iqbal Wahhab, or anyone else. But almost two years later the Cinnamon Club is still there.
It was chosen by the famed former Sunday Times editor Andrew Neil for our lunch date. He was doing his excellent live BBC television programme nearby and assured me he'd be on time.
Andrew used to be continually late. I once asked him, in Barbados, if he went to dinner parties in London. "Of course," he replied. "Do you ever get to meet the host?" I asked.
Andrew was an unimportant four minutes late. I arrived nine minutes early. That gave me time to admire the high-ceilinged room with bookshelves around the upper walkways.
The senior head waiter, Alex des Monstiers, showed me an acceptable table. "Funny," I thought, "he doesn't look Indian." Alex was (and is) French.
He brought Evian water with a bowl of ice and slices of lemon. I'd forgotten my glasses. Alex produced some. They put everything out of focus. "The Ivy have reading glasses," I explained. "They cost a tenner each in opticians and supermarkets. Suggest to management they splash out and buy a few."
We were given a freebie starter, a mini rice pancake with sesame chutney. It didn't taste of much. Using Andrew's glasses, I was able to order smoked lamb kebabs followed by Gressingham duck with sesame tamarind sauce. To get in the mood I added stir-fried okra with dried mango and also a portion of cumin-flavoured yoghurt with cucumber.
I was appalled to hear they had no poppadoms. Zaika, my favourite Indian restaurant, has both a Michelin Star and poppadoms. "How on earth can an Indian restaurant not have poppadoms?" I asked Alex. He couldn't answer.
I'm sorry to say, everything I ate tasted of nothing. This was definitely, and by a long way, the worst Indian meal I've ever had. Usually even a not-great Indian meal is tasty. Here my starter lamb was tasteless.
Andrew Neil had some as a main course and was of the same opinion. My sliced duck - what's Indian about that? - had no flavour of any kind at all. In a blind tasting competition it would have baffled everyone.
Andrew said: "This lamb could be duck or this duck could be lamb." He was right. Normally, you get some sauce or preparation with Indian food that gives it oomph. This had none. It was all totally sanitised. I left most of my main course.
I chose a dessert of mango brulee with spiced nougat. It was, at best, mass catering standard. Very poor.
The room was largely occupied by men in suits. "Why do they come here?" I mused. It was a pity. I saw Mr Wahhab go through so much angst on his way to opening this restaurant. All that, I thought, to produce the most bland food I've ever eaten.
Oh well, it was nice to see Andrew. He's spectacularly bright. Our previous lunch, a year and half ago, was at Tetou in Golfe-Juan, near Cannes. There we had the most significantly brilliant bouillabaisse ever. You can't win 'em all, can you? That'll teach me to leave my dining table in Holland Park at lunchtime.
PS: For the ﬁrst time in Winner's Dinners history the man chosen at random to take our photo, Alex des Munstiers, produced shots hopelessly out of focus. And that on an autofocus Leica working perfectly. I offer you instead the likely lads in Barbados.
I disagree with Stuart Matthews (Winner's Letters, January 26) when he opines that readers are not interested in how much money is spent during one of Mr Winner's outings. I think I speak for the nation when I say I don't care what or where Michael Winner eats. So long as he spends a vast amount of cash and has a horrible time doing it, I'm happy.
Justin Jones, Saurat, France
I was intrigued to read (Winner's Dinners, last week) that Michael Winner paid £14,901.05 for two Concorde tickets to Barbados, a price clearly indivisible by two. I suspect BA has become accustomed to the price inelasticlty of his demands and therefore adds a "Winner supplement" for the beneﬁt of shareholders. Perhaps Mr Winner's largesse is less extravagant than we have been led to believe. He's charged normal prices for everything he eats and for the places he stays, but the ego-massaging Winner supplement is charged by hoteliers, restaurateurs and airlines to make him feel better.
Nick Booth, Islington
Michael Winner frequently mentions he is just a poor boy from Willesden. I and many friends hail from Willesden, and are of a similar age, but have no recollection of meeting him at any of the hangouts the day. Perhaps he can enlighten us where he (mis)spent his youth.
Stanley Glicksman, Harrow
Green mould and cloakroom tickets (Winners Dinners, last week) are so passe. We were served an ice cream in the Gare du Nord, Paris, years ago. There was a woodlouse on top. The waiter, looking at the ceiling, excused it by saying: "Il est tombe d'en aut." This seemed implausible as it was frozen stiff and, unless it had been in the freezer, was more likely to have got on during manufacture.
Michael Forrest, Henley-on-Thames
I'm sure the general public will be suitably outraged that Winner's £63,000 month-long "snip" of a holiday was spoilt by the disgraceful failure to provide him with leaf tea. Leaving aside the fact that Earl Grey tastes like "old bath water" in either leaf or bag form, it is clear the Sandy Lane management should retire to the library with a bottle of Scotch and a service revolver, each to do the decent thing.
Charlie Jordan, Surrey
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