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Ripples of discontent in a star-studded paradise

Published 12 September 2004
News Review
583rd article

Michael Winner with Jean Claude Delion and his wife, Nicole (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)

You could say £1,715 a night for a 19-day hotel stay is expensive. You might think £45 for a club sandwich is pushing it.

Certainly any hotel charging those amounts should do better than have a surly, inept swimming pool attendant. One who sat behind his desk watching as Geraldine and I struggled to unfold the heavy umbrellas. That laziness was disgraceful.

The prices don't worry me. Because La Reserve de Beaulieu remains, in my not humble opinion, the best hotel in the world. It has the three key elements.

Location, location and location. La Reserve sits on the Mediterranean in a vast bay. On your left are high cliffs rising steeply out of the sea. Round the bend is Eze and then the ugliest council estate in the world, Monte Carlo. To your right are 1930s villas set in pine tree clad hills, the port of St Jean Cap Ferrat and the headland beyond.

Nothing ugly stains the view.

It's the same south of France I first visited in 1948. The pool faces a sea glittering in the sun.

At night, dining on the balcony, the moon hangs in front of you like a Noel Coward stage set, its reflection rippling in the water. There are only 37 rooms and seven suites. In my suite the shutters rise and the sea shimmers.

Until recently they had a two-Michelin-starred chef. He fled to Monte Carlo, doubtless doing meals on wheels for the elderly in their hideous tower blocks. His replacement, Olivier Brulard, has one Michelin star. But his food is much better.

I've have never eaten so many superb meals in a row.

From a starter of fresh herbs ravioli with sweet garlic, snails and frogs' legs, to his perfect souffles, Olivier is a triumph. He was there for lunch every day, served to me right by the sea. He was there every evening when a pianist played dulcet tones.

On Saturday an elderly violinist joins in. "Saturday night fever," said the restaurant manager, Roger Heyd, smiling as we entered. Roger started poorly some years back. He refused to write orders down and kept forgetting things.

I bought him a beautiful gold-engraved leather pad from Bond Street. That cheered him up and he did well. His wine waiter, Jean-Louis Valla, looks like Mr Pickwick and serves with a series of marvellously endearing, witty expressions.

Joan Collins was my guest for a night. She glided, star-like, to the pool with a large floppy hat, clad in white. Robert De Niro dropped in for lunch. So did Bono.

There's no dress code at La Reserve. Shirtsleeves and trainers mingle with men in suits and bejewelled ladies. The tables are large and well spaced apart. No attempt here to cram more people in to make an extra bob or two.

They are forever changing your napkin and giving you new plates. Just as well. At breakfast an enormous blob of marmalade fell off the end of my crusty bread and rolled down my chest and stomach, leaving a further trail on the inside of my shirt. "You should only be allowed to eat naked in the bath," Geraldine observed wearily. She's right.

The south of France used to be for upper-class British. After the second world war Jewish people became predominant. Then it was Arabs. Now it's Russians. People from Kazakhstan have just bought the hotel Metropole, next door to la Reserve. The next batch of big-spenders will be the Chinese. They'll enjoy La Reserve. I love the many beautifully framed and mounted photos of major stars (and me) who've been there.

It's run by one of the world's great hoteliers, Jean Claude Delion, and his wife, Nicole. I observed M Delion one lunchtime examining dishes ready to be served. Then he scrutinised the dessert and cheese trolleys before taking a few steps to the pool area, bending without stopping, to hand test the temperature of the water. He is immaculately dressed and immensely attentive to his hotel baby.

His staff, with the exception of the pool non-attendant Gerard Lucas, are a credit to M Delion's leadership. If it wasn't for Gerard's ghastly, bad-tempered service I'd give La Reserve 10 out of 10. Instead it'll have to settle for a nine. Still the best mark I'm ever likely to hand out. Unless they get the pool situation sorted.

Far be it for me to criticise anyone intelligent enough to read this column. But Philip Galvin, writing last week from Southampton, was talking drivel when he said I was listening to "old wives' tales" if I thought claret should be decanted and allowed to breathe before drinking.

I called Michael Broadbent, master of wine, ex-head of wine at Christie's and author of acclaimed wine reference books. I explained, "A reader says you shouldn't let claret breathe before drinking it." "Absolute nonsense!" responded Michael. He recommended an hour for most clarets, poured into a decanter because they can't breathe enough in the bottle.

Serena Sutcliffe, master of wine, and head of the wine department at Sotheby's gave an identical opinion. So heed not false prophets like Mr Galvin. Follow me.

I'm always right.

Winner's letters

In reply to the letter from Mr Lyddon last week, I write in support of banning children from civilised dining rooms. The late Bill Hicks was right when he said, "Your children are not special." They are to their own parents. But to many others, especially in restaurants, they are a curse. So keep up your protests, Mr Winner.
Kelly Webb, London.

The reason I've waited some time to comment on your visit to our island Ibiza (Winner's Dinners, August 1) is that there could by now have been a happy announcement from Geraldine. Your liqueur discovery hierbus (pronounced yellow bus) is to us a well-known aphrodisiac. Alas, no. Still, keep it up Michael.
Arthur Lee, Ibiza.

Come on, Mr Winner, get real and drag yourself into 2004. No film in your Leica (Winner's Dinners, last week) and none in the spare either! Get Geraldine to buy you a digital camera. No running out of film with these. In no time at all you'll be hooked and spending so much time in front of your computer there won't be any hours left to go gallivanting off to expensive restaurants dishing out itsy-bitsy portions.
Gillian Harding, Kent

M'thinks Mr "Bunkum" Galvin (Winner's Letters, last week) has not, in all his 37 years of drinking wine, clued up to reality. Oxidation of wine very often aids the release of the full delight of its taste. Without letting it breathe you don't experience that until halfway through the bottle, which is an inordinate waste of time. I also want one of those aerators, Michael.
Adam Hodge, Oxfordshire

I was disappointed not to be the first to level a broadside at the Tollgate Inn (Winner's Letters, September 5) and the tableside manner of one of its owners. We were regular visitors, once delayed by 20 minutes. Despite ringing to apologise for being late we had to absorb glares from Ms Ward-Baptiste and were made to feel as if she'd just scraped us off her shoe. Life's too short, we won't return.
Steve and Elaine Ladd, Bristol

Winner's Letters is the first thing I read on a Sunday morning. But I must confess I've never read one word of Winner's Dinners. Am I unique?
Ian Fraser, Fife.

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