Being taken for a ride?

by Simone Sekers

foodmenuTakenforaride2A WEEK or so ago the excellent Guardian mid-week food page ran a piece about how to pick a good restaurant, written by an anonymous inspector.

He, or she detailed the ways you could spot a ‘real’ restaurant from one that buys in food from food manufacturers. Be suspicious of over-designed menus full of descriptions like “on a bed of”, “drizzled with” or, dread word, “crispy”. Steer clear of garlic mushrooms, breaded brie and scallops with black pudding – these might be fine, but it is unlikely that they will have been made in house.

The more often you see an item repeated on menus, especially if they have an ‘on-trend’ ingredient (it’ll be cranberries on the run up to Christmas), the more you should turn your back and go to the little place down the road with a blackboard on which is scrawled a small list of dishes that matches what you are seeing on the market stalls around you.

One of our favourite places, in Wells,  always seems to mirror on the lunch menu whatever we have just seen at the fish stall as we toured the market – turbot on the more expensive menu, hake for the lunchtime special, for instance. Both will be really good, and as you can see the kitchen from most of the tables, you will know this isn’t an open the packet and serve situation.

All this is obvious, really, but there is a new fashion about, particularly prevalent in this area. Smart London places are opening up branches down here and charging London prices for food which our own local chefs do pretty well, thank you. We tried one out the other day. Six of us, all foodies, all over-finicky, I admit, wanted to sample a restaurant which had just opened, but didn’t do lunch on Tuesday.

As this was the only day all of us had free I suggested a place down on the coast which had had a rave review from a famous restaurant reviewer in one of the Sunday papers. It has recently opened as a down-from-London branch of a club there. It has a tongue-in-cheek name, and a fantastic view over the beach. I booked a table and we turned up first. It isn’t welcoming to walk through the rain to the door marked Entrance only to find it locked. It isn’t impressive to go round through the rain to the other door, to announce ourselves to the receptionist and point out that the door from the car park was locked, and to have her say “Oh, it’s always doing that” – without a “sorry” in front or “I’ll just run round and check on it” at the end. Very Fawlty Towers. The tongue-in-cheek name of the place was becoming less satirical and more accurate as we went on.

We sat in the bar and were given a drinks menu, rather than a lunch menu. Wanting something jolly but not too expensive we hoped for a prosecco – but found only a list of champagnes. Perhaps they had one or two of the local beers, but no. Cocktails in abundance, but at lunchtime those aren’t what I look for. I think we went for a rosé in the end.

The others in our party arrived and cheered the place up considerably – it had been very quiet before but perhaps because no-one could get in through that locked door.  We were given menus and we scanned them in silence. Nothing exceptional excited us, but given the reputation of the place we opted for the simple dishes, such as roasted peppers with anchovies (a personal favourite), the fish soup, duck breast salad.

foodmenuTakenforarideThe dining room was largely empty, the napkins paper, the rain beat down on the terrace outside. But perhaps the food would cancel out these negatives. It didn’t, it got worse. My roasted peppers were filled with halves of tomato – both seemed to have been microwaved and then given a quick singe with a blow-torch, and on each half pepper a meagre anchovy fillet had been grudgingly draped. A mean dribble of olive oil decorated the plate. The olive oil was good, at least. Then came my skate. It was a reasonably generous portion but again the same miserly hand had distributed too few capers and too little butter. As the skate was overcooked it required lots of both.

We weren’t offered any vegetables, the plate was totally ungarnished in any way. Even my pet-hate, pea shoots, would have been a welcome touch of sprightly green. Runner beans figured on the menu, I remembered, at £3 a portion – probably because by now (the beginning of November) they were out of season – but none of us saw anything of them.

Instead a plate of huge Pink Fir Apple potatoes was presented. Because of their colour, and the way they were dumped on the plate, they looked unappetising and slightly obscene – at best they looked like raw chipolatas. No parsley, no nothing. And they were underdone. Someone had committed the cardinal sin of steaming them, which Pink Fir Apples don’t need. One of their many excellent qualities is that they don’t break up when cooked. This was taking simplicity too far.

One of us went for the grilled aubergine – this was a grey watery apology for that vegetable, which so obligingly becomes full of flavour when cooked with herbs and spices and olive oil and garlic and treated properly. The fish soup was bland and not as described by the reviewer, who had praised it’s ‘gutsiness’.

Those of us who were brave enough to go on to dessert had the quince tarte tatin. This was only quite nice. It did come with a dollop of quite superb vanilla ice cream. In fact that last item, and the view of the sea, were the only two things to recommend this place. We felt we had been taken for a ride, or rather, a long and depressing journey. And it was expensive too. None of us risked coffee.

If this is what a gang down from London think we deserve in deepest Dorset, then they should try going to any one of the fish restaurants already up and running along the coast. No mention was made on this menu of anything local. I think a wackily expensive piece of local cheese was offered as an alternative to the tarte tatin, but you couldn’t have trusted this kitchen to get that right either.

This is what happens when an executive chef is brought in to oversee the menu, but he or she doesn’t come down often enough to see how it’s being interpreted.

In this case I would have been pleased to have had garlic mushrooms, and crispy fried brie with cranberries, served with a smile and washed down with local beer.

Pictured: Simone would have welcomed garlic mushrooms and fried brie with cranberries!