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On the receiving end of service with a smirk in St Moritz

Published 30 March 2003
News Review
507th article

Rocky moments: Victor and Helen Jacob with Michael Winner (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)

In the play about the famous 19th century actor Edmund Kean an aspiring actress auditions for him. "Was I awful?" she asks nervously. "You were worse than awful," replies Kean, "you were quite good." I felt the same about Suvretta House, a grand, old-style hotel, poorly managed, pretentious and situated just outside the Swiss town of St Moritz.

I now present one of the worst examples of hotel management I've come across. First, let me introduce the cast. There's Victor and Helen Jacob, the husband and wife team who've run Suvretta House for 14 years. They're supported by the restaurant manager, an ageing jack-the-lad named Claudio Molinari. The young ingenues (all right, not so young) are myself and Miss Lynton-Edwards. The charade is completed by a guest appearance from Herr Heinz Winkler.

Mickey and Gerry arrive at Suvretta House glowing with expectation. We like our large room with views of snow-clad mountains and a frozen lake. The bathroom looks as if the Jacobs got it at MFI on a bad day. The plastic-coated shelving is bizarre.

We go, eagerly, to dinner in what is ludicrously called the Grand-Etage. This is a large, panelled room, somewhat spoilt by the fact that guests are asked not only to wear a tie for dinner, but also a dark suit. You feel you're at an undertakers' convention. This might have been bearable were it not that I've never consumed four consecutive dinners of such bland, miserable food.

The day after we arrived there appeared in the lounge outside the dining room a large poster and other paraphernalia, all heralding the imminent arrival of the "St Moritz Gourmet Festival". It further announced: "Coming to Suvretta House is the Residenz Heinz Winkler, Aschau im Chiemgau, Germany." Lest we were in any doubt as to the importance of this event, the guest brochure told us Herr Winkler would "celebrate his Michelin-starred cuisine".

Herr Winkler has three Michelin stars. I've even eaten at his Residenz. I found it bearable, but not my idea of three-star cuisine. As a motorway service station would have been highly preferable to the food served in the Grand-Etage, I looked forward to Herr Winkler's offerings.

His first performance at Suvretta House was on my last night. So imagine my surprise, shock and horror when I told Claudio Molinari, the night before, that I waited expectantly for Heinz Winkler's cooking, to be informed: "He's not in the Grand-Etage!" His cuisine was only available in the much smaller Capriccio private room, seating just 35 people. "And that's fully booked," explained Mr Molinari smugly.

"It doesn't advise guests anywhere about booking," I said. "It does," said Mr Molinari, adopting that supercilious tone restaurant managers use when facing a particularly idiotic customer.

"Where?" I asked. "Outside, there's a sign which says you have to book specially," said Molinari. I went outside to check. There were, in fact, two signs. Neither said you had to book, or indicated Winkler was performing anywhere other than in the main restaurant.

I went back and invited Molinati to show me where the displays indicated you had to book. He grudgingly admitted they didn't. I telephoned Mrs Jacob. "At the St Moritz Gourmet Festival people know you have to book with Claudio," she said dismissively.

"Who tells them?" I asked. "You certainly don't." Thus was I denied the opportunity to revisit Herr Winkler's cooking.

On another day I went outside with my car keys so the doorman could get my rented car from wherever they parked it. There were no doormen. I returned to the lobby and made speech 25C. "Are the door people on strike?" I asked quite loudly. "Because there's no one there and I can't get my car."

A concierge - from the only efficient group in the hotel - came out muttering: "We have two drivers and they're both at the airport picking up guests." He went, found the ghastly diesel Volkswagen Passat they'd booked for me (I suppose they thought I was going to tow a caravan) and politely opened the car door for Geraldine.

"How do we get out?" I asked ingenuously. An empty car blocked the way from the arched hotel entrance. The concierge ran to the obstructive car. It was locked and he had no idea where the keys were.

At this point the two doormen-drivers, who were supposedly at the airport, appeared. I guess they'd been having a coffee break. "This is unbelievable," I said, as the concierge asked me to back up and take another route. "Unbelievable indeed," he replied.

The hotel literature informed me: "In January 1919 Vaslav Nijinsky gave his last major performance in the ballroom of Suvretta House." In March 2003, so did I.

Winner's letters

Your enjoyable ramblings about Nobu (Winner's, Dinners, last week) turned a sunny day into a brighter one. You finally revealed your complete lack of understanding of any cuisine domiciled outside of London, Barbados or possibly France. One trip to the best Japanese restaurant in the world and you look up definitions in Larousse! Where have you been during the Asiatic culinary revolution? And in 2003 you discover sushi. Get with the programme.
Leeyson M James, Eastleigh

I was surprised Michael Winner (Winner's Dinners, March 16) wandered around my south Dorset world and entered pubs frequented by the less than wealthy. He was fortunate in spotting the odour in the yard of the George in Fordingbridge. My wife and I were not so sharp-nosed and had a most unsatisfactory lunch. He was unlucky in his choice of chicken curry at the Sheaf of Arrows in Cranborne. Michael should have opted for the modestly priced steak, chips and trimmings, they're excellent. I agree with Geraldine that the eggs at the Sheaf are overcooked.
Peter Warhurst, Bournemouth

I shared a fable with you in Whitby at the Magpie restaurant by the harbour. You were smiling all the time but didn't eat much. That's probably because you were looking down from the wall. I presume, as it was a signed photo, you've eaten there. The best fish and chips I've ever had.
Beryl Soulsby, Preston

You were very lucky La Fosse in Cranborne was closed (Winner's Dinners, March 16). It's well worth a miss as we found the food not good and the coffee even worse. The service also left a lot to be desired. A letter of complaint produced a voucher to return. We refused to give it another chance.
Mrs A Evans, Dorset

I recently made the same journey as Lorenzo Mustard (Winner's Letters, March 16) on Virgin's hugely expensive first class service from Liverpool to London. In the early morning I was looking forward to a croissant or a bacon roll. I was offered chicken tikka masala with optional gherkins. On my return evening journey I was offered a baguette. I inquired what was in it. "Chicken tikka masala," came the reply.
Carol Wilson, Cheshire

Send letters to Winner's Dinners, The Sunday Times, 1 Pennington Street, London E98 1ST or e-mail michael.winner@sunday-times.co.uk