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Burying the ghost of my schoolboy cream cake disaster

Published 6 August 2006
News Review
681st article

Winner with Liz and Rook Gouldie, the owners of the Wellington (Paola Lombard)

The first film studio I visited was in 1949 at Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire, when I was 14. As a student I'd befriended a famous publisher, Paul Hamlyn (later Lord Hamlyn), when he came to my school's old scholars' day. So I phoned film studios saying: "I'm writing a book for World Film Publications (Hamlyn's company) on film making from the children's angle."

I wasn't. But there were lots of studios. They wanted journalist visitors. I provided one.

It was magic. The lights, the cables, the smell of the sets. A tea trolley arrived. I grabbed an enormous cream cake. Then the first actress I ever met, Joan Dowling, appeared. She was quite famous.

"You've got cream on your mouth," she said. It was humiliating! No morsel of food entered my body in Welwyn for 57 years! Until I returned with the Princess, aka Paola Lombard.

The sign on an old building read: "Inn Wellington village pub dining AD 1352."

It's in Welwyn village, which is very pretty. Not like the rubbish they've put up in the new town.

Princess said: "I like this big table." I responded: "It's got seven seats round it. You can't have two people sitting there. Even I wouldn't do that!"

Instead the restaurant co-owner, Liz Gouldie, offered us a large table facing a church. A supremely efficient waitress, Janet Chance, appeared. "What's your still water?" I asked. "Hildon," she replied. I said: "Oh my God, how awful!" "Everyone says that," commented Janet.

Here's a coincidence. As I write this I'm opening a letter from the managing director of Hildon, the water I most hate in the world. He says: "I'm writing to selected individuals who may wish to become Hildon households." He offers Hildon delivered to my home. No thanks.

I also note this genius managing director signs his name in totally unreadable writing. Nor is his name in type anywhere else. He's obviously trying to stay anonymous. If I produced Hildon water, so would I.

The Wellington menu included beef and Guinness pie, cod and chips, fish pie, lamb shank in red wine and rosemary and many other excellent sounding dishes. I chose a starter of crispy dipping mushrooms, deep-fried, served with a chilli sauce, home-made yoghurt and dill dip. Princess ordered baked asparagus parcel with tomato and basil topped with glazed goat's cheese served with crisp herb salad.

The waitress advised: "My nickname is Princess too." She told me the chips were made on the premises from potatoes they cut up themselves. Even posh restaurants don't usually do that. I ordered grilled Scotch fillet steak with chunky chips, spring vegetables and bearnaise sauce.

Janet, most intelligently, had her pad poised. She not only wrote everything down, but came back to check it. I was recently at La Noisette, a terrific new restaurant in Sloane Street. The waiter said he never used a pad. "Then I won't order," I responded.

The restaurant manager explained they only used a pad for seven people or more.

How dumb can you get? Six people are ordering, changing their selections maybe, and La Noisette policy is not to have it recorded. Gordon Ramsay, the owner, should read them the riot act fiercely and in triplicate.

As Janet wrote everything down we got exactly what we ordered. Unlike many times in posh restaurants, before I insisted on a pad being produced, when we certainly did not.

The Wellington portions were enormous. Big enough for three people at least. But very good. The vegetables were perfect. The bubble and squeak exemplary. Paul Muddiman, ludicrously titled "master cook" at Simpson's-in-the-Strand, should come here and learn. His veggies and bubble and squeak are a total disgrace.

Princess described her Mediterranean flattened bread with roast peppers and rocket dressed with balsamic reduction and roast garlic and chilli oil as: "Lovely.

They've dressed the salad really well. The flavours go together superbly."

With my steak I got 10 enormous chunky chips. Three would have been enough. But they beat the chips at most West End restaurants by a long way. Those are usually bought in, pre-sliced. For dessert I had treacle tart (good, but not enough treacle taste) and a double chocolate brownie with mint choc ice cream. This was not a brownie. It was a first class chocolate pudding with a soft interior.

Princess had some delicious strawberries.

By 2.30pm people were queueing into the street waiting to be seated. As we took our photo the co-owner and chef, Rook Gouldie, told me he used to do six chips but everyone complained. Princess observed: "It's like you've been round to a friend for Sunday lunch." That's a considerable, and well-deserved, compliment.

Winner's letters

Regarding last week's competition about why Marie Helvin was rubbing her bosom: I'm sure she was just trying to tune into the BBC World Service.
John Finegan, Co Cavan, Ireland

Marie Helvin wiped her hands because they'd come over all sweaty from the thrill of meeting you, of course.
Gerry Watson, Fife

Only a sad person would bother, as Mr Winner recounted last week, to time to the second how long it took for his fondant to be served at Lucio. Has he ever thought of working for the Italian railways?
Dr Berge Azadian, London

Drat the man! If only I'd known he'd changed his mind I needn't have rushed to get the orange juice ready for the tray each morning. Some time ago Michael said he'd been served "old" freshly squeezed orange juice, which he said meant more than 10 minutes old. Since then, hanging on to his every word, we've rushed to drink it within the required time. Last week he reported up to 30 minutes is okay. Has he no consideration for us mere mortals?
Zelda Robinson, London

I read, open-mouthed, Syd Stiller's letter last week about the Petersham Nurseries Cafe. What kind of idiot would wait two hours for service at a nursery cafe? I wouldn't wait that long at the Ritz!
Derek Breden, Surrey

As previous correspondents have observed, the senior waiter at the Black Boys Inn, Henley-on-Thames, is on a one-man crusade to upset vegetarians. I am a coeliac vegetarian, so I took my gluten-free, home-made rye bread to be toasted. Reluctantly the senior waiter plodded to the kitchen and, I guess, deliberately burnt it in protest? What has happened to that thing called service? In Germany we have it by the bottle load.
Margo Katzenberger, Buckinghamshire

When is Michael going to tackle the greatest culinary abomination of our time - coriander leaf? Coriander fascists are taking over the world. It's become the fashion to smother every dish with the Herb from Hell, swamping good food with its stench of ear-wax, metal polish and washing up liquid. Some may like coriander. The rest of us must be saved!
Paul Davies, Saffron Walden