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Scene of a great movie – and a dreadful meal

Published 3 June 2007
News Review
724th article

Teresa Wong, left, and Annette Khong behind Michael Winner at Kai restaurant (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)

I've always liked Mayfair. The houses are largely undisturbed by mass demolition. Not, thankfully, replaced by hideous blocks of flats. I notice some delightful architectural detail every time I drive by.

On Sunday, denuded of office workers and most shoppers, it's magical. The last bastion of gracious living. An area where butlers thrive.

I always wanted a butler. But in order for him to have much to do I'd have to lose one of my gorgeous assistants, so I'll stay butler-less for the moment.

There was a critically mauled movie made in 1948, Spring in Park Lane, starring Michael Wilding playing a butler with Anna Neagle as his employer. She lived in a truly gracious Mayfair mansion with a balcony big enough for an elegant dance number with white chiffon floating in the breeze. They don't make them like that any more.

I recently bought a copy of Spring in Park Lane just to see Mayfair in the 1940s. But there were only a couple of Mayfair street scenes. The rest was studio built.

The film was rated in a 2004 British Film Institute Survey to be the most popular all-British film ever made, based on number of seats sold. It held up totally. Witty dialogue, a clever plot with ingenious twists and marvellous light comedy acting. I tried to buy the sequel, Maytime in Mayfair. But it wasn't available.

While Spring in Park Lane may have been wondrous in 1948, wondressness (a word I just invented) was sadly lacking when I went in spring 2007 to Kai, a Chinese restaurant just off Park Lane.

I stopped going years ago because in a makeover my usual table vanished. There was no other acceptable spot to replace it. As I visit tables, not restaurants, I struck Mr Kai (as it was then called) off my list.

"I haven't been for years," I said to the delightful lady who answered the phone.

"Many, many years," she responded.

The meal was a disaster from start to finish. The table itself (they'd redone the layout and decor yet again) was fine, the service charming and prompt. The food, 100% disaster.

That's a tiny exaggeration. The first thing we got, fried seaweed, was fine. Probably because it survived hanging about in storage, which is more than the other dishes did.

We had spare ribs and spring rolls. Both horrid. I don't believe for a second they were cooked that day. The spare ribs were dried out and tough. The spring rolls tasted stale.

Our main course, crispy duck in a pancake, was beyond belief. The waitress showed us a piece of duck, spooned it into little pieces and put them in the pancake together with strands of cucumber and whatever. The duck was totally dry and turgid. The pancake was like rubber. You couldn't cut it with a knife.

I tried prising a bit off with my fork but it just stretched. I'd rate this the worst dish of all time.

Kai used to be, and still is, owned by nice man called Bernard Yeoh. Bernard, you can't do this to your customers. I know it was a Sunday. So what. Serve fresh food.

The bill for two set lunches, plus two glasses of champagne for Geraldine, was £116.66. The worst-value ever. In my view a rip-off. You wouldn't get away with it in Balham, let alone Mayfair.

Further disaster was to come. The menu offered "pumpkin cream with purple rice and coconut ice cream. A not to be missed speciality of Kai". That was £10 plus service for a plate of white smoke hiding a smallish scoop of ice cream. Pumpkin cream was then poured over it.

The cream tasted like mushy nothing. The ice cream was bland. The only special thing about this dessert was its exorbitant price.

Our visit was capped (or should I say buried?) with another dish of white smoke, this time briefly concealing, as Geraldine observed, chocolates, "which are like they come from a cheap supermarket box". She took a bite out of five and left their remains on the plate.

Pity the white smoke didn't set off the fire alarm. That would have put us on the street before we had time to suffer what was underneath.

Bernard, send your chef to Memories of China in Pimlico where Kam Po But runs a superb Chinese kitchen. Actually, better just close Kai down and use the space to sell toilet rolls.

You're in a good location, opposite Thomas Goode and London's most exclusive dining club, Harry's Bar. You're the letdown of South Audley Street. I say that with sadness, as an ex-fan. And I do mean "ex".

Winner's letters

When I returned a dish at Le Palais du Jardin in Covent Garden the manager said, "You complained about the lobster? You are in the wrong place. You need to leave." He then cleared away my glass of champagne and started to remove the cutlery. Would you, Michael, have fought or fled? I left at once, never to return.
Clive Burton, London

Should I be concerned? I feel that last week I saw your entire life flash before your eyes.
James Williams, Oxfordshire

At the Compleat Angler, Marlow, I asked the restaurant manager for a buck rarebit. He said he'd check with the chef. He returned a few moments later apologising profusely, saying that the chef was out of rarebits.
J Lidbury, Rochdale

Would your recollection of memorable meals last week have included warning us off the Newport Room at the Fairmont Southampton in Bermuda? I'm sure you'd have had something colourful to say about the amuse bouche of three tiny, lightly grilled squares of watermelon that stared up from your plate.
Brian Chatfield, Gloucestershire

I was interested to read last week you produced the best milk in Hertfordshire. Will there be a new children's book, Michael, the Lactating Boy, to go alongside Walter, the Farting Dog?
Marcia Yeates, Hertfordshire

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