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Spicing up my meeting with Tony and Cherie

Published 27 July 2003
News Review
524th article

Feeling the heat: Winner, after his meal in the Spicy Grill, with Blair (Jamie Jones)

In one of the letters we sadly had no space to publish Claire Jamoulle from Belgium wrote: "Have you ever thought of going to a cafe that is not exactly Gordon Ramsay but your normal 9 to 5 type and clean! I'll still keep reading, no matter."

I'm not sure if the Spicy Grill in Perry Barr qualifies. It offers: "The best halal food in town!!!" The menu also boasts: "Fresh food cooked every day. Try us once & you will not be disappointed!"

The Spicy Grill is a very small place in a terrace of small places overlooking the wall of a motorway overpass. This is quite a rough part of Birmingham. Locals told me gangs run around shooting each other. Most of the shops have signs in Arabic. Some appear African.

The Spicy Grill boasts four pink metal tables with a blue surround. They're attached to the chairs by a metal pole and they're all screwed to the floor. No chance of nicking them without a bit of equipment. On the right is a counter with food laid out. Behind it a grill and two microwave ovens. At the back, a soft drink dispenser. Posh it isn't.

The "Under new management" management is Salman Khan, a charming man who was recently a classroom assistant. He stood behind the counter, moved his arms in a driving motion and said: "Excuse me. Commercial. Travel. Travel." He'd obviously seen my esure ads.

Lamb and chicken turned on the spit. I ordered some katlama. It's like nan bread, with lamb or chicken added. Also two vegetable samosas, a sort of veggie burger. Salman put them into the microwave in a paper bag. The samosas were exceedingly spicy. Geraldine loved them. We got white plastic knives and forks but proper plates. Everyone else ate from what looked like hamburger containers.

Salman took a loan to buy the place. He said: "Pray for me that I do very well." To encourage trade, which apparently wasn't great with the previous owner - "Business was doing less," was how Salman put it - he's introduced special offers in red on the menu. I took advantage of one: chicken balti. It went into the microwave. It was good. Really tasty. "It's made with many herbs." explained Geraldine.

My chicken balti turned out to be lamb balti. But it was very nice anyway. It was so hot I could have done with some rice to go with it. I read a poster for the "Muslim Association of Great Britain. Imam Anwar Al-Awlaqi . . . Saviours of the Islamic Spirit . . . in the great hall of the University of Aston".

The chef, Mohammed Akram, came over. He suggested I try his onion bhaji, which he deep-fried in front of my eyes. It was excellent. I added some chicken with lemon and drank Volvic water from a plastic bottle.

The whole lot cost £5.20, so I think we must have got a special deal. Although Salman and Mohammed were delightfully hospitable they didn't want their photos taken. That makes a change.

When I left, my local Rolls-Royce driver said: "This is a bad area." They all seemed very nice people to me.

As I don't have a picture of my restaurant hosts I present instead someone with whom I was photographed some 40 minutes later. Those who take a keen interest in current affairs will recognise Tone. He and Cherie had kindly travelled to Birmingham to unveil one of my police memorials, a few yards away, to a young officer named Malcolm Walker who was murdered whilst on duty.

  • It's a considerable distance atmospherically and in earth miles from Birchfield Road, Birmingham, to Stockcross in Berkshire. This is adjacent to Watership Down country, a small part of which is not owned by Lord Andrew Lloyd-Webber. In his dining room at Sydmonton Andrew displays a marvellous painting called The Village Wedding. It was executed in my bedroom, once the studio of the Victorian artist Sir Luke Fildes.

    I stayed, for the second time, at the Vineyard, owned by Sir Peter Michael, whose bizarre collection of nude paintings proliferated in my suite. Bosoms faced me from all directions. In the mirror I had to see my own, which are depressingly large. Either from overeating or because I'm going through an unassisted sex change.

    I was vastly impressed with the service, the set tea, croissants and other bread-type stuff. The Vineyard has a kipper menu at breakfast. Possibly because I hated the single kipper on offer when I came before, I chose "Kelly's from Aberdeen". A triumph. Minor, but a triumph nevertheless. So much so that I won't dwell on the considerable mess-up regarding the delivery of my Sunday newspapers.

    Winner's letters

    In Mr Winner's July 20 column he referred to the dessert trolley at the Savoy Grill looking like "leftovers after a Jewish wedding". He obviously hasn't attended many such events. There are never leftovers after a Jewish wedding.
    Howard Cohen, Hertfordshire

    Mr Winner knows a great deal about food and wine, or to be precise, what he likes to eat and drink, which is just about the same thing. What he knows nothing about is writing. He should cease and desist forthwith. I'm sure Mr Winner believes himself to be the man we love to hate. There is no question of any love.
    Walter Houser, London

    I enjoy so much the overall picture Michael gives of his many interesting restaurants and sometimes historic food. I also enjoy his humour. On July 13 it really was historic. A suit to measure at Huntsman - that's fine. A jacket off the peg at Brioni - he must be joking. lf they had one in stock to fit him the directors would sack the buyer.
    Hugh Morgan, Pembrokeshire

    Winner has struck great blows for freedom, gastronomically speaking. Nobody else would have dared confront the arrogant Cliveden restaurant management. But I couldn't follow his parting accolade of "highly satisfactory" after listing the Savoy Grill's peccadilloes. I still belong to the Support Winner Club, but I hope he's not getting political as he plans his retirement from active service.
    Andrew Butler, Zurich

    If time isn't of the essence I suggest the maestro takes a drive to Auberge du Lac at Brocket Hall where they can't make a Bellini (last week's letters). The food is phenomenal but so is the wait for it. Lunch for my granddaughter's 21st took over three hours, with no view of du lac to compensate. Letters of complaint to Jean-Christophe Novelli elicited no response. We're still waiting for an apology.
    Anne Everett, Hertfordshire

    I lived near St Christopher school in Letchworth (Winner's Dinners, July 6) but never spotted Michael. I thank him for the memory of Knott's Cafe, as it was, with waitresses in little black dresses. Did he choose a cream horn or a vanilla slice from the two-tiered cakeplate?
    E M Middlemist, Oxfordshire

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