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What's wrong with egg and chips, Senor Fancy Pants?

Published 26 October 2003
News Review
537th article

Try keeping it simple: Winner has a suggestion for Juan Mari Arzak and his daughter Elena (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)

My friend the Hon Camilla Jessel, who is terribly posh and lives in Madrid, wrote a gloriously illustrated Spanish cookbook, which is even posher than she is. When she heard I was going to Biarritz, Camilla said; "You must eat at Arzak. It's got three Michelin stars."

I thought that would be near the appalling Hotel du Palais. But it's over the Spanish border in San Sebastian. So we traversed the ugly coast road and an even uglier motorway, eventually arriving in the centre of a large city.

I'd imagined San Sebastian was a sleepy little Spanish harbour with Arzak overlooking bobbing boats. A local policeman saved us. He pulled a map from his pocket, marked the route to Arzak, smiled broadly and waved me on.

We found ourselves on one of those hideous main roads out of town. In the case of the alto de Miracruz, "hideous" is too kind a word. It was utterly grotesque.

We located Arzak, a dull building on the main drag. A metal roller-blind covered the entrance door. The unreliable Hotel du Palais concierge told us Arzak had no parking area. Not trusting him, I had Geraldine phone them. Arzak confirmed there was no car park. Yet when I drove up a small side road, there, at the back of Arzak, was their customer parking lot.

We'd booked for 8.30pm. having been told this was their earliest reservation time. It was 8.02pm, so we sauntered round a hideous housing estate and past a locked church overlooking a building site. Then we sat in the car. At 8.26 the restaurant lights went on. A good sign. At 8.30 I returned to the entrance. which was still locked. I found the back door to the kitchen. A young lady, later identified as Elena, the owner's daughter, was sitting at a table. "I booked for 8.30," I said. "we can't get in."

"We don't open until 8.45," said Elena curtly, "but I'll open just for you." We went round to the front, it now being 8.34, and four other guests got out of a taxi. We were graciously allowed into a small bar lorded over by a surly barman who produced a warm buck's fizz.

I attempted to look at the restaurant but was severely reprimanded and sent back to my barstool. The meal was so ghastly I'd rather not recall it. It was like having endless canapes. Nothing had any substance. A mussel came on a stick. And a fig with bacon, also on a stick. Every minuscule portion was irrelevant to life as I know it.

A ravioli of foie gras, melon and light cheese tasted like mild soap. There was txistorra, a poached egg with a Basque sausage. That was okay. We had sauteed prawn and toast and an egg shaped like a flower with dates. Then monkfish with pistachios over a garlic cube! I ask you, what's all that about? From the main courses, I had hot foie gras - two very small pieces!

All this nonsense was accompanied by the roar of motorcycles and lorries from the main road outside. A man at the next table was eating an enormous fillet steak with vegetables. "How did he get that," I wondered, "when I'm sitting here eating endless twaddle?"

It could have been my fault for not taking the lamb, which Elena recommended, as a main course. I said: "I have lamb in England." So I was lumbered with all these pretentious mini-bits.

For dessert I had a chocolate hamburger, which was lousy chocolate and nothing like a hamburger. Also some apple ice cream which was ridiculous. I wanted a honey and chocolate bar with tomato jam. That would probably have been awful too.

The only nice thing about the place was the chef-owner, Juan Mari Arzak. He looked like a dentist, but was genuinely hospitable and cheerful. I just wish he'd simplify his cooking.

It reminded me of years ago when I did a TV show for Robert Carrier at his restaurant in Suffolk. At dinner he gave ridiculous speeches about his numerous dishes. There was me, my girlfriend Catherine, Joanna Lumley, Petula Clark, Bond girl Maud Adams, Cloris Leachman, who'd just won an Academy Award, and Jean Marsh, who wrote and starred in TV's Upstairs, Downstairs. Carrier walked out of the dinner because, I was told later, he thought we were boring. That meant we weren't genuflecting before his absurd food.

I persuaded Petula Clark to sing at the piano. She was brilliant. Jean Marsh said in exasperation: "What I wouldn't do for a plate of egg and chips!" Egg and chips could have saved my Arzak nightmare. But they never arrived.

Winner's letters

I wish to express my concern over poor Mr Rakoff (Winner's Letters, last week). He and his friends are suffering from some kind of delusion if one of them selects a £62 plate of meat as a starter. I assume Mr Rakoff is trying to appear a food buff, but he came across as a man with money to waste and no idea how real people live. You can find amazing food in Paris for £62 - luckily for the rest of us the location will not be full of brash people with more money than sense.
Peter Summerbee, Hertfordshire

Like your correspondent Rod Baker last week I received shabby treatment from staff at Le Pont de la Tour. I persisted in my complaint to the restaurant and to Conran head office. I had to because my complaint was ignored. I used their website and e-mailed and wrote to Sir Terence. Eventually, three months after my initial letter, they offered a complimentary dinner. By then I'd had enough and couldn't be bothered to take it up.
David Gee, London

I don't agree with Lesley Knight (Winner's Letters, October 5). Celebrity does improve service. At a chaps lunch at the Michelin-starred Bernard Andrieux in Clermont-Ferrand the waiters convinced themselves one of us was George Best. We took advantage of the subsequent stratospheric level of service and complimentary bottles of very good wine. Even the bill was much less than we'd have thought. It was great fun until the maltre d' presented a leather-bound guest book for "George" to sign - just after President Mitterrand.
Steve West, Cardiff

We visited the French Horn at Sonning, which you so often recommend, to discuss rooms and menus tor a 50th birthday party. We ordered some tea and fruit juice as we were waiting and were disgusted to be told they couldn't serve us as we weren't having lunch. We moved our celebration to Calcot Manor at Tetbury where we enjoyed excellent food, good atmosphere and very friendly staff.
Lynn Cooper, Kent

We saw you on TV displaying a degree of sensitivity we much admire in a male. Why not extend it to benign frogs (Winner's Dinners, October 12)? Please adjust your diet.
H and N Nokes, Tyne and Wear

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