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All perfectly charming - as long as you discount me

Published 29 August 2004
News Review
581st article

Michael Winner with Alexander Venables and Alison Ward-Baptiste (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)

I was endeared to the Tollgate Inn at Holt, near Melksham in Wiltshire. A sign said, "Please note we do not accept children under the age of 10." I'd have raised it to 12.

The Tollgate is a typically pretty English inn set in a typically pretty English village, the whole thing brought down a peg or two by the arrival of me.

As I got out of the car I noted Geraldine was wearing a light blue zip-up top, matching blue trousers and a blue peaked cap. "You look like Britney Spears in decline," I commented. I'm a charmer, aren't I? In fact she looked very good.

The place is owned by Alison Ward-Baptiste and Alexander Venables. He cooks, she does front of house. I went into the kitchen. Alex had cut all the fat off the beef. "We're going to throw it away," he explained. "Keep it. Crisp it up for me," I suggested.

It's ridiculous they cut all the fat off beef these days. It's an integral part of a beef-eating experience. They fry the fat very well for me at the Ritz and the Dorchester. Unfortunately, after three attempts, Alex's fat remained soggy. I can't work out why. His beef was good.

But I must stop ordering beef when I'm out. It's never a patch on what I eat at home from R Allen of Mount Street or as good as they serve at the Dorchester Grill.

The veggies at the Tollgate, in particular the cabbage, were superb. My starter "ragout of fried lamb's sweetbreads, bacon and mushrooms" was terrific.

The sauce was delicious. Geraldine had "home-cured gravadlax, some smoked salmon with a honey and dill dressing". She liked it.

My Pimm's was warm and in too small a glass. So after accommodating an abundance of fruit there wasn't enough room left for liquid.

We were in a first-floor room with oil paintings, prints, dark beams and garlic hanging from a nearby mirror. Perhaps they thought I was a vampire and would be scared away.

They got a major demerit for Hildon water and paper napkins. "With everything so posh, you should have cloth ones," I told Alison.

"Do you really think so?" she asked.

I said "Yes."

Alison said, "Alex hates napkins."

"Well, he's in the kitchen working. We have to dine out here. We don't care what he thinks," I retorted.

Geraldine's main course of calf's liver, Wiltshire bacon and a red wine juice was fine.

My sticky toffee pudding with butterscotch sauce and vanilla ice cream was okay.

But it was a bit low on sauce, so got rather dry.

As we left Alison said, "Write what you like about the food, but don't say I was horrible." It's like this, Alison. You were repulsive. The food was terrible. No, I'm joking. Alison was historic in charm and efficiency. It was all pretty good, really.

Which is more than I can say for the Pitrizza in Sardinia, subject of last week's sermon. When Geraldine asked if our lunchtime bottle of wine, only half drunk, could be kept and presented for dinner, the Pitrizza restaurant manager said, "You can take it to your room." "I don't want it in the room, I want it here at dinner," I said, attempting a display of patience. After some persuasion - and with grumpy bad grace - they agreed to do as asked.

I have a problem with wine in restaurants. The average mark up is six times current auction price plus Vat and the "optional" 12.5% service charge. Since I drink fairly good claret I end up paying £2,000 for a bottle I've got sitting at home that cost about £300.

Most good wines need a lot of breathing time before the acidity evaporates.

Anything from an hour to at least seven hours for my Chateau Latour 1961.

In a restaurant they open it, pour it - and thus it is immediately served. If I open a bottle late at home I either pour it into six or seven glasses to let it breathe, or empty it from one glass to another ad infinitum.

My friend Sir Michael Caine returned from Las Vegas with a wondrous device. It's a funnel at the bottom of which is a ball with slits in it.

If you pour the wine through that into a decanter or a glass it comes out of the slits like a mini fountain, aerating itself brilliantly. I've never found this marvellous gadget available over here. Have you?

Winner's letters

You've lost it completely recommending the French Horn at Sonning (Winner's Dinners, August 15). We visited to organise a large birthday party. We ordered coffee after a long journey to be told if we weren't lunching they wouldn't serve us drinks. Not even fruit juice to a seven months' pregnant woman. Find a less pompous place, Michael.
Lyn Cooper, Kent

I think you should have a word with "Tone" (Mr Blair to the likes of me) and have him make you minister of food and tourism and chief constable of the food police. Must dash now to catch a plane to Barbados. Not there, are you? Good. I might get a decent meal then.
Marvin Pryce-Jones, Solihull

At Philpotts Mezzaluna on Finchley Road we got our starter within two minutes of ordering. Thus it was throughout the meal. We were out in under an hour. The blatant rush left us feeling mugged.
Maggie Barnes, London

At a remote restaurant in the Shetlands, while in the bar, we asked for a menu and were told the chef didn't allow eating unless you'd pre-booked. We asked if we could use the phone in the entrance to book. An assistant returned from speaking to the chef and said he'd agreed we could eat, but only in the bar. She took our order, coming back after a few minutes to say the chef had changed his mind and we could eat in the restaurant. The restaurant was massive, with only 20 people in it!
John Munro, Essex

It bemuses me why you dislike being ushered to a two-person table when there are only two of you eating (Winner's Dinners, last week). Does your size mean that you require something more accommodating? May I be so bold as to suggest that the walk to and from the villa 500m away may not have been such a bad idea after all.
Piers Richmond, Surrey

I recently enjoyed a short break at Claridge's with my seven-year-old son. I'd like to congratulate Gordon Ramsay on his courteous staff and my historic main course. I managed to eat it just before my son headed off to our room to order "food that wasn't stinky". By which he meant chips and tomato sauce from room service.
Jonathan McCluskey, Belfast.

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