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Avoid Lewis if you can but make some time for Skye

Published 20 August 2006
News Review
683rd article

Skye Gyngell, Gael Boglione, Michael White and Michael Winner (Laraine Ashton)

There's this very nice, rich woman, Gael Boglione who bought a mansion in Petersham. Then she bought (or possibly hubby Francesco did) the surrounding fields. Then she had an idea! "I'll put a nursery there!" Not a place for kiddy-widdies to scream and shout. A greenhouse, where people buy plants and ornaments.

Then Gael, or possibly Francesco, thought up another wheeze. "We'll open a cafe at one end of the greenhouse!" Maybe both decided at the same time. Possibly one alone. Possibly after conflict. Either way, at the far end of the greenhouse there appeared rickety chairs, simple country style tables and - hey presto! - a place to eat. Not all the time. Just lunch, or morning and afternoon tea.

Then either Gael or Francesco made a terrible, horrific, immense, enormous mistake. They employed the rudest restaurant manager I've ever come across in my life. And I've lived a few decades and met many.

I've already recounted to you the appalling lack of hospitality, welcome, or even common sense, displayed when I rang Rachel Lewis, their restaurant manger, to book Sunday lunch. I wondered afterwards if I was being a bit harsh. Until your letters came in recounting your own unappreciative views of staff at the Petersham Nurseries Cafe and even knocking the food, which I'd enjoyed!

I'll put that out of my mind and give judgment on the PNC, unbiased by the horror of the conversation I endured. Let's mark it on a scale of one to 10, 10 being the best. They say if you buy a house the three most important things are location, location and location. On that the PNC warrants a weak three, unless you live in Richmond or Petersham - in which case it's a strong eight!

It is the most ghastly drive from any civilised place to get to Petersham. My chauffeur said, "Shall we risk Richmond High Street or a level crossing?" I opted for the level crossing and waited while more trains went to and fro than I believed existed in the entire nation. As I always allow for catastrophe I still arrived on time to meet my friend, impresario and nice person supreme, Michael White.

Now we'll mark it on comfort. If you like rickety-dickety, a nine. If you don't, a weak four. Service: seven, until you take Ms Lewis into account. Then it goes down to minus 3,481. Food comes out best. A strong eight.

Gael may have fallen down on the restaurant manager, but she triumphed on the chef (I'll ignore what some readers wrote) and say that Skye Gyngell is a superb cook, with a wonderfully simple style, offering fresh, Winner-type food. There was delicious home-made lemonade on the table. I started with shaved, raw English asparagus with celery and anchovy vinaigrette.

I was not offered any bread, which Gael, when she appeared, immediately noticed. She asked. "Would you like some bread?"

"I've been waiting an hour," I exaggerated. Gael said the bread was "poilane". She didn't know how to spell it so I may have spelt it incorrectly. The waitress said it was rye bread anyway!

Gael looked like a 1970s commune girl. She told me when they bought Petersham House all the big grounds had been sold off in lots, "so we had to slowly buy them back".

"What does your husband do to make all this money, dear?" I asked impertinently. "Murder people?" Much less interestingly, he's in the re-insurance business.

I had roasted wild salmon with garlic shoots and sauce vert. Very good. I finished with strawberries and a ginger pudding, which was historic.

I returned one Sunday (thankfully, Ms Lewis was not present on either of my visits) and had chickpea, sweet potato and spinach curry with bhatura (a sweet fried bread). Cheapest of the main courses, but memorably excellent. Skye was off, so the sous chef should also be congratulated.

The place must be gruesome in bad weather and in winter. I can't believe it makes money. As for Skye Gyngell, she's bound to move on. The minute I hear where, I'll rush to support her.

I recommended her to Jeremy King for his new restaurant in Regent Street and then thought silly! Skye's not cooking for many people at the PNC.

One irate reader, who'd waited a long time for his food, thinks it was Skye who described the kitchen as, "very, very small". She'll need a few intermediate steps before taking on a major place. But this girl will go far.

Not as far as Petersham, I hope. I was exhausted just getting there. And after my phone call with Rachel Lewis I was exhausted before even starting the journey. So, wisely, I cancelled.

Winner's letters

Regarding your explanation, last week, for Marie Helvin's recent behaviour - another way of drawing attention to a large tit is to enter a restaurant and demand, for two people, a table for eight by the window. Guess who l have in mind?
Derek Haslam, Norfolk

Although I didn't guess correctly why Marie Helvin brushed her hands against her bosoms, do I win a booby prize?
Tony Tsoukkas, London

It seems after trying a bewildering bevy of photographers, in the photo outside Lucio (Winner's Dinners, July 30) you have found one that makes you look almost normal size. What lens does she use?
Pablo Robertstart, East Sussex

I agree with you about staff not using pads (Winner's Dinners, August 6). At Tristan bistro in Maiorca no pads or pens were in sight. For our first course we ordered soup and sardines. Herrings arrived! When I pointed this out they were removed and sardines came 15 minutes later. By then my friend had consumed her soup.
Debbie Goodchild, London

You're looking more and more like the late Dame Barbara Cartland. I've thought this for a while, but last week's photo of you on Lake Como really brought it home. It's the smile, the hair, and, although l can't be sure from the black and white print, l bet your jacket was pink. Are there any novels in you, l wonder?
Ken Thompson, Southwark

The pleasure of dinner at the Ivy was dulled by smoke from a fat cigar. A backward glance from us and other diners encouraged the smoker to blow more in our direction. They have an area for people who smoke. My daughter fancied a puff so we went between courses. Returning to our table, a waiter was re-lighting the man's cigar! Cigarettes I might accept. Cigars at 7pm? No thank you!
Neil McKellar, Brighton

At the Moss Nook restaurant, Manchester I gave £140 for a bill of £116 expecting to get change. I didn't! When I asked for it, so I could leave a £14 tip, I was humiliated and told it was my own fault. What happened to "the customer is always right"?
David Lowe, Manchester

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