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Barely a step wrong - and no naked ladies

Published 11 January 2009
News Review
808th article

Michael with John Campbell, left, and Andrew McKenzie at the Vineyard (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)

Let it never be said I've not achieved anything in life. I have and I'm proud of it. As a result of my comments a number of strange nude paintings were removed from the walls of the suite I occupy at the Vineyard at Stockcross, near Newbury.

I wrote in 2002: "You can't get wall decoration naffer than that." In 2003 I said, "The hotel is owned by Sir Peter Michael, whose bizarre collection of nude paintings proliferated in my suite. Bosoms faced me from all directions." Nine nudes were on display.

When I revisited last year (that was less than two weeks ago, remember?) the immensely charming managing director, Andrew McKenzie, revealed, when I mentioned some of my naked ladies seemed to have died from overexposure, "We listened to you, Mr Winner, and took them down." Glad someone listens to me. Makes a change.

Although the Vineyard is naff, naff, naff, it's a case, as Dick Emery used to say, of, "Oooh you are awful, but I like you." The building is odd, the decorations are odd, the chairs are odd, everything is odd. The best decorative feature is framed reviews of the hotel and restaurant hanging on the walls of the stairway.

Some of the comments are quite terrible. "We've got some real stinkers up there," admitted Andrew. That's clever. Only a finicky person like me reads them.

The Vineyard is highly regarded. At least by a dodgy magazine, Caterer and Hotelkeeper, admired by some in the misnamed "hospitality industry". It gave the Vineyard's cook, John Campbell, the chef of the year award and Andrew the 2008 hotelier of the year award. That's somewhere below the Jewish Blind School white bar third class. I give the Vineyard the Winner "very good" award. Not historic. Not super-historic. But "very good" isn't bad, is it?

All its staff are marvellous. Genuinely friendly, efficient and hospitable. The restaurant has two Michelin stars. I've never eaten there. Little details like that don't stop me giving an incisive review of the food.

The reason I've never scoffed anything except breakfast and tea is that I stay when visiting my friends Lord and Lady Lloyd-Webber. I eat main meals with the aristocracy.

On my last visit I advised John Campbell, "I'm going to order two breakfasts from the lunch or dinner menus." Geraldine wanted kippers. I said, "I'll have those too." Even I wouldn't judge a kitchen on kippers, so I added, "And a vanilla souffle."

John said, "We don't serve them in the main dining room - it's too far from the kitchen."

"I'm not in the main dining room," I pointed out. "I'm in a suite, thankfully denuded of naked women."

Let's cut to the chase, as we say in movie world. I had, among other things which I've forgotten, the souffle, scrambled duck eggs with black pudding, truffles with something (they were fantastic), fresh crayfish, various biscuits, cookies and shortbreads (incredible), the aforementioned kippers and some chips. Everything was excellent. Go there with confidence and good cheer. If you want a few more clumsy nude pictures put up, they've probably got my rejects in store.

Only disappointment was the chips. John told me he cooks them in oil at 140C for eight minutes, then takes them out and puts them in the deep freeze.

He explained, "That creates a starch war. When they're ordered they go into a fryer at 190C for three minutes, so they're beautifully crisp." Sorry, John, the result is good, but nowhere near the brilliance of Dominic Chapman's chips at Michael Parkinson's Royal Oak pub in Paley Street.

John and I turned from chips to caviar. Are you aware no caviar comes out of Russia any more? Rivers there are so polluted, the little they provide is not allowed to be exported. A bit comes from weird countries around the Caspian Sea. But beluga, sevruga and oscietra are mainly farmed in places like France and South America. It doesn't taste the same.

Iranian caviar, real and from a sturgeon, John said, fetches, to the trade, £4,000 for 500g. Treble that for the restaurant price. I used to have 150g of beluga on toast for dinner. Cost me around £200. Now it'd be £1,200 for caviar on toast. Bit steep when you're £6m in debt. Summation: the Vineyard's a terrific place. I shall return. Sorry, fellows, but there's no gain without pain.

  • Now a joke from my lovely film unit regular, the Jewish princess script supervisor, Cheryl Leigh. Hymie Pockle is in Soho, where he's approached by a lady of the night. "Would you like to sleep with me for £100?" she asks. "Well," says Hymie, "I'm not really tired but I could do with the money."

  • PS Most people can retire at 65. Not my friend John Cleese. He's paying his wife Alyce in excess of $10m plus $1m a year until John's 77. Alyce, who lived in a council flat when John met her, told me on a previous break-up she'd take him for every penny. She's kept her word. John remains cheerful.

    Michael's missives

    Please don't reveal the stupidity of your average reader by explaining your jokes, as you did last week. Thank you very much, but I'd already asked my wife.
    Don Roberts, Cheshire

    At Fisher Pond Great House you said you were stuffed speechless. Amazing it was self-inflicted. I'd heard there was a long queue of restaurateurs wanting to do precisely that.
    Alan Lewis, West Sussex

    I don't think readers know how to use the Winner's Dinners articles. They're like sugar work, or ice sculpture, just ornamentation. Only people with compulsive reading disorder read them. The true aficionado reads only the letters and looks at the picture, commenting on your strange dress sense and the lovely Geraldine.
    Ian Bradwell, Kent

    You're in dire need of shirt renewal. Your present wardrobe appears to be pre-illness when your neck size was 2in more than it is now. It's also bizarre you persist with those swimming bath attendant shoes.
    Leo Armitage, Sunderland

    You should warn your readers that if they break a leg on a skiing trip, BA won't fly them home. Its reasoning is that in an emergency a person with a leg in plaster could not bend at the knee and assume the crouch position. Fortunately for my grandson easyJet realised his emergency was to get home without further anxiety.
    Janet Hampson, Exeter

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