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It takes a good manager to juggle with lobster balls

Published 18 May 2003
News Review
514th article

Big Noise: Winner with Estelle Nelly Michel and Russell Norman at Zuma (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)

There was once a showbusiness columnist named Peter Noble. He said: "I'm never first with the news. I'm always first with the apologies." I wrote a syndicated newspaper column when I was 14. In the many decades since, no one has had to print an apology because of something I wrote. But, like Peter, I'm never first with the news.

Restaurants open, become unbelievably fashionable, and I haven't got round to going there. I went to Zuma, arguably the most "in" place London has, because I was fascinated to receive a press release which read: "Zuma restaurant and bar would like to confirm that its proprietors are as follows". It then listed three people in this order: Arjun Waney - "a successful businessman", Rainer Becker - "the chef", and Divia Lalvani "in charge of marketing".

Why was it necessary to announce Zuma's proprietors? I wondered. Was London full of people claiming to own Zuma? If so, nobody told me.

The place is hidden in a back street off Knightsbridge. There were so many bouncers at the door I thought I'd never get in. I'm glad I did because it's a strikingly well designed restaurant. The bar is rough stone with masses of bottles above. The ceiling looks like a cellar, with ducts and black vents. There's another bar in light brown with brown and black seats, a wooden wall of reclaimed slabs, another with crisscross wood. A massive mishmash, but it works superbly.

Russell Norman gave me his card. He's the general manager. "I'm in charge of hearts and minds," he explained. I felt like asking for the person in charge of stomachs.

Russell said he used to serve me at Sticky Fingers, adding "a long time ago", in case I held it against him. Then a charming French lady, Estelle Nelly Michel, appeared to advise me what to eat. As she's French, Estelle was difficult to understand. Not made easier because Zuma is very noisy.

Here's a canter through my food: raw sea bass with a truffle oil dressing and soya sauce; seared beef with an oriental dressing; fried soft-shell crab on a bed of mizuma salad; edamame - a green soya bean; Japanese tiger prawns with a yuzu dressing; chicken spatchcock - which is marinated in barley miso with a ginger cheese, garlic, shallots and another soya sauce; tempura; aubergine with a soya bean paste; vegetable skewers; sushi; and finally fried lobster balls, which were triple historic.

"I'd like some more of those," I said to Russell. First he said it would take 12 minutes, then: "There's one on the go for someone else, you can have that in five minutes." There's a good restaurant manager!

All the food was superb to brilliant. To complete my overall thrill, the first owner on the press release, Arjun Waney, was at the next table. He even deigned to speak to me.

I waited too long for my dark chocolate pudding with a raspberry centre. Russell said: "The pastry chef is a craftsman, you can't rush him." Oh yeah! Put me in the kitchen. I'll rush him.

There was also confusion as to which was the almond ice cream. It was all worth it, because the desserts were truly remarkable. That's rare for a Japanese-type restaurant. The only problem with Zuma was the noise. I was with David and Wendy, the odd couple from St John's Wood. Everyone's peculiar up there. I usually rely on Wendy, a New Yorker, to provide humorous lines. She was sitting opposite me and I couldn't hear a word she said.

The next day I rang to ask if I'd missed any witticisms. "I said lots of funny things," Wendy revealed. "Just ask Geraldine, she was roaring. The place was like a cocktail party. The florist who did my son's barmitzvah was next door." Not one of Wendy's best, but we'll have to live with it.

I've just returned from a glorious weekend at the hotel Splendido, in Portofino. It remains one of the great places.

I was looked after by Fausto Allegri, their exemplary guest relations manager. He looks easy-going and abundant with Italian charm, but underneath he's steel. He not only knows where the bodies are buried, he knows where they're going to be buried. Fausto's oft repeated line is: "The brain is optional."

To while away sunlit hours by the pool, overlooking the lovely harbour of Portofino, Geraldine and I joined the Winner's Letters exercise of making anagrams of my name. She came up with the saucy "I'm a wench liner". Mine was for when I meet the actor DiCaprio, "I charm wine, Len". It doesn't make much sense. But then nor does anything else I write.

Winner's letters

Last week you asked what the phrase "Ps and Qs" means. In the television programme The Sopranos Tony's lady friend said the phrase came in when alcohol was served in pints and quarts, so it means mind your alcohol consumption.
Mrs A Cooper, Newquay

If you'd had the benefit of a convent boarding school education (I'm not at all sure they do Jewish nuns) you'd be aware that Ps and Qs are "Pleases" and "ThanQs". Warmest good wishes.
Maggie Kimberley, Colchester

Ps and Qs comes from the printing industry where those two letters could be confused when type was set in reverse reading. Apprentices who had to check were told in no uncertain terms to mind their ps and qs.
Kevin McMahon, Tewin, Hertfordshire

Like Paul Tolan (Winner's Dinners, last week), we also had the misfortune to stay at Overton Grange, Ludlow. We were treated to warm white wine, food and wine served wordlessly and sometimes not brought at all. The staff ranged from cool to openly hostile and rude. My letter of complaint drew no response. But one of the owners accidentally sent me an e-mail intended for one of her colleagues which contained various insults about me. She then demanded I send it back to her!
Pete Hunt, Wokingham

What is it about Ludlow? We had trouble as did Paul Tolan. Arriving at the Feathers in the town centre at 6pm for a short break, we were told they could neither provide us with a restaurant meal or even a sandwich. We didn't trouble the hotel's catering department for the rest of our stay.
Iain Donnelly, Ely

Basil Fawlty is alive and well and running the Royal Goat hotel in Beddgelert, north Wales. During our stay my husband mentioned to a fellow guest in the reception area that he was waiting for a third hairdryer as the previous two had not worked. He was pounced upon by the owner who announced that it was not permissible to discuss the hotel with other guests. Presumably it's okay to write to you, though.
Vivienne Knight, Kent

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