Winner at Wilton’s

An American diner is asked by a restaurant receptionist, “Do you have a reservation?”

The American replies, “Do I look like an Indian?”

Today is scientifically judged the gloomiest day of the year, or, if we want to really depress ourselves, The Gloomiest Day of The Year, what with early darkness, lack of dosh, surfeit of flesh, absolute years til payday.  So we thought we’d cheer ourselves up.  That quip came from restaurateur Jeremy King by way of Michael Winner.  We hadn’t cast an eye over La Winner in The Sunday Times for years — though we know some of you are devotees — when what do we find?  We hope you’re sitting down for this.  Michael Winner had an absolutely lovely meal at Wilton’s in Mayfair.  He did!  The old curmudgeon came over all breathless and delighted and that is news.  Oh, he managed a grumble about the size of the plaice, but otherwise he had a really good meal and a good time.

As for the cheering-up project, NJ Darby from Sint Maartin, one of Winner’s correspondents, sent this:

When I asked for a “cheeseburger, medium, please” at a restaurant in Antigua, the waitress replied, “I think we only have them in one size.”

Happy 40th Birthday, Vasco and Piero’s Pavilion!

Now this is a happy celebration and an achievement worth shouting about.  Vasco and Piero’s Pavilion restaurant is an absolute favourite Italian restaurant in Soho — it’s been at this location a measly 22 years, before that it was above a cinema in Oxford Street — that features hand-made pasta and authentic dishes of Umbria where Vasco was born.  Many of the ingredients are still imported directly from small suppliers of that region.  You toptable diners love the food and the service, as do a clutch of A-listers who frequent the place.  VandP’s is actually slightly eccentric, which is one of the things we love about it.  For instance, the first celebration they’re having for their 40th birthday is a visiting Japanese chef, Keiko Urakawa-Waters, to demonstrate the links between Italian cooking and Japanese cuisine.  From this Wednesday 19 January through either Thursday 27 January or Friday 28 January — they’re not sure which — special sample dishes will be added to the normal menu to make clear this connection between the two kitchens.  There are forty-minute-long free sushi demonstrations, too, on 19 and 20 January then 25, 26, 27 January as well.  We say, don’t miss.  Book supper for 8 pm or so and go for the sushi thing first, then toast a long-running establishment that has seen all of human life pass through its doors and served them all with timeless hospitality.  Vasco and Piero, and also Tony and the team, we salute you and wish you 40 more successful years.

Heads Up for Chinese New Year

It’s not until 3 February that we leave the Year of the Tiger and enter the Year of the Rabbit, but the reservations books at Chinese restaurants are going to be getting full, so we thought we’d give you a heads up.  That way clever old you can enjoy the best of Chinese New Year and skip the queues.  And some of our really super Chinese restaurants have special offers right through the celebrations, like top-rated Shanghai 30′s in Oxford and Lisons restaurant in Birmingham.  Top diner rated Opium in Nottingham is planning one heck of a party for the 3rd and 4th Feb: £30 includes a cocktail reception, banquet menu, Lion Dance, firecrackers and the world famous Chinese Elvis.  We know that the official London festivities are mostly postponed until the weekend of 6 Feb so all us working schlubs can get there, but we like a rolling holiday.  More chance to celebrate it properly.

New York Restaurant Week

Heading for the Big Apple?  Then you’ll be glad to hear that Love NYC Restaurant Week is coming soon: 24 January to 6 February.  That’s more than seven days, actually, but maybe weeks are bigger in the States.  See?  Another rolling holiday with more chances to enjoy the foodie celebrations.  The deal is much like London’s Restaurant Week.  The restaurants create special Restaurant Week set menus for across-the-board special prices to encourage the timid or the merely busy to make time to try some fabulous new restaurants.  All the lunches are $24.07 —cute, eh?  the city that never sleeps?  24/7? — and the dinners are all $35.  There are some blinding restaurants taking part: 21 Club, Ruth’s Chris Steak House, A Voce Columbus, A Voce Madison (lunch only), Alloro, Aquavit, Asia de Cuba, Bar Boulud (lunch), Cafe Boulud (lunch), Bond 45 (lunch), Calle Ocho (dinner), China Grill, Megu.  All the meals are lunch and dinner Monday through Friday unless we’ve put something else in brackets and they are astounding deals all round.

New toptable restaurant signings this week range from Oxford to Aberdeen:

The Whistling Duck

The Whistling Duck in Hertford is a sprawling and spacious restaurant with bags of modern style with a delightful setting by the River Lea in the grounds of the renovated Riverside Garden Centre.  The menu is creative British and the chef is on record as supporting local producers so you can expect freshness, seasonality and superb sourcing.  In the summer months, you might like to book a party for the decked al fresco area overlooking the river and delight in some really top-notch cuisine.  The Whistling Duck is already a local favourite and we recommend it wholeheartedly.

The Mason Arms

The Good Food Guide likes it, the Good Pub Guide likes it, the Michelin folk gave it a Bib Gourmand and we’re pretty convinced that you toptable diners will enjoy it too. The Mason Arms restaurant just outside Chipping Norton in Oxfordshire is a picturesque stone inn where food is of the highest quality.  It was once a Masonic Lodge, hence the name, but is now a gastropub with a modern European menu and all the warmth and welcome you’d expect from a country inn.  And the sourcing for the fine food is impeccable: all meat is rare breed and traceable, all poultry free range, fish is delivered daily and the breads, terrines, pastries and desserts area all home made.   The international wine list is well-priced and wide-ranging.

Bread & Wine

North London hosts an outpost of Portugal that’s a warm and family-friendly cafe by day and an altogether loungier establishment by night.  Wine & Bread serves an authentically Portuguese menu featuring national favourites like bacalhau in olive oil and garlic served with crushed potato and cataplana of clams cooked in a traditional copper pot.  See?  Already you’re remembering your holidays to the Algarve and starry evenings in Lisboa.  Wine & Bread is run by husband-and-wife team Marcia and Kadir who have decades of experience between them in five-star establishments and that makes this spot run like a well-oiled machine.

Lamberts Restaurant

Now here’s something of a surprise in Balham, though with the ongoing gentrification of south London we should have expected restaurants that look like this to start popping up.  Lamberts Restaurant is a very smart, upscale restaurant with tactile upholstery, neutral colours, splashes of downlighter illumination along the walls.  It’s all very refined and not what we usually go to Balham for, so it is clearly time to chuck out our assumptions and see the real, good things that are right in front of us.  The menu is British, which perfectly matches Lamberts’ commitment to using seasonal, British ingredients in its excellent dishes.  There are very few exceptions to this rule.  As a result, you can expect the best of every season in dishes like saddle of lamb with confit belly of lamb, parsnip, curly kale, honey and roasted garlic.  The wine list is well chosen and the set menus are absolutely brilliant value.

Amicus Apple Aberdeen

Amicus Apple had already won hearts, minds and palates in Edinburgh, but it has now set up shop in Aberdeen just off Union Place in one of the most happening corners of that city.  First of all, it’s a brilliant place to drink with a cocktail menu that embraces the classics and boldly goes into new worlds of invention.  Then it’s a really good place to dine, with a menu that also embraces both British pub classics as well as the international dishes that we all love and take as given these days, especially the ones inspired by the Mediterranean.  The decor is superslick, the attitude casual and relaxed and the ambience friendly and lively.  A terrific addition to Aberdeen’s thriving cocktail bar scene and dining scene too.