Our Anniversary Dinner
It was our anniversary, so I would book a nice night out at a great restaurant as a special treat, and of course I would review it too. Silly to miss out on the opportunity, So where did we go and how was it? Despite my intention to review and what this review reveals follows, what I will not tell you however is where we went? Why not? Because it saddened me so much I can not bring myself to name it. You may be able to guess but that is up to you.
I was saddened on so many points, not just the food or the service but everything about the night. What on earth has happened to the fantastic restaurant experience one looks forward to so much? This is not the first review I have written where I’ve been disappointed, and no doubt it will not be the last, but this time the whole journey needs to be brought under the spotlight and examined.
Let’s start with why do we go out for dinner? Not really because we’re hungry, at least I hope not, more to be entertained. It ought to be an equivalent to going to the theatre in so many ways. A good restaurant experience, especially in a high-class expensive place should be just that, a real experience to cherish and remember for a long time to come. As a young chef I always thought that the food was the be all and end all of a dinner, but it’s not, there are so many other elements to it that should make it a night to relish and remember.
When my wife and I opened our first restaurant in Canterbury back in 1983 restaurants were not that common. That may sound a bit odd but really there were far fewer places, certainly of any great quality. Yes, there were lots of Italian, Chinese, Indian restaurants out there as well as a lot of steak houses, remember Aberdeen Steak House for instance? Pubs dished up seriously naff British pub grub everywhere, nothing like the gastropubs of today. There were also very few restaurants owned/run by Chefs too. Almost as rare as hens’ teeth. There were probably no more than about 40 Michelin Stars in the UK. When I got my first one in 1981 there were only 32.
When we arrived at the venue, it’s an hotel by the way, there was what seemed to be a staff conflab going on, there were probably 5 young women huddled together the other side of the reception. At least two of them turned around and saw us, gave us a look as if to say, who are you? What are you doing here? But then returned to their meeting, it took us to walk almost up to them to get any sort of reaction at all. Hospitality is built around just that, hospitality. That means what should have happened is that we should have been greeted immediately, not ignored as we were, the staff gathering should not have been in session either. According to the weather forecast it had the potential of being an inclement night, the car parking is some distance from the entrance, meaning we could have been arriving bedraggled and wet, thankfully we weren’t. The fact however is that I had booked on line two days prior so they knew we were coming and should have been ready for us, surely.
Can we help you? Well yes please, we have a table booked for dinner. Okay come on through and I will take you to your table. Thank you but no thank you can we get a drink in the bar first do you think? Oh! Right, of course come this way.
In the confirmation email it clearly said “please arrive at least 30 minutes before your reservation time to enjoy the full experience”. So, would that really mean we would get taken to the table immediately?
Sitting in the bar we were asked if we would like a drink, well yes that’s kind of the idea as it happens! Two glasses of champagne please, oh, okay! Really, was that such an unusual request? Or do I just look as though I can’t afford them?
Now at this point I expected to be given the menu and a wine list. This being the norm. Nothing was forthcoming. After no more than about 12 minutes we were asked to go through to the restaurant. So still with at least half a glass of champagne each left in our glasses through we went. We were shown to a good table and offered water.
I like table linen, I know and understand totally why many restaurants have stopped using tablecloths, and that’s fine, but to sit in a smart expensively decorated restaurant at wooden topped tables is just not the same as sitting at one with a beautifully ironed, crisp white linen cloth. It’s fine in a pub or at home but when I go out, I like table linen. I think in the last 7 places we have been only 1 has used cloths. This one was not it. They also had a strange way with the cutlery, instead of either being lined up either side of the plate or added at each course, it was all presented together on its own stand. Leaving non regular diners probably somewhat confused as to what to use with which course.
Within a few minutes we were shown the menu, a set menu, no problem with that at all, and of course a wine list. Now the bit I am not understanding is that surely this should all have been happening in the bar, not when we got to the table.
Eventually, after around 27 minutes, no I wasn’t counting but I did happen to look at my watch, we were presented with 6 canapes and separately homemade bread and butter. This really should have happened within minutes of us sitting and would have done if the menu had been presented and the wine order taken when it should have been.
The canapes were okay but not exceptional, the bread heavy.
Our first course was Hand Dived Isle of Skye Scallop Kohl Rabi – ‘Ajo Blanco’ (exactly as written on the menu). ‘Ajo Blanco’ is a chilled white gazpacho/almond & garlic soup essentially, made with a base of almonds, white bread and garlic. The whole thing tasted of virtually nothing I’m sad to say. The scallops were basically a tartare, cut into a dice, topped with small thin slices of raw kohl rabi, each with a little dot of possibly sour cream possible a whipped cheese, not sure, and each one finished with a tiny sprig of dill and the Ajo Blanco frothed spooned around. The scallops should have had a little seasoning, preferably with a hint of acidity added such as lime or lemon juice along with a drop of orange too possibly, that would have been nice, a sprinkle of salt too of course but sadly even this was not present. The kohl rabi could and should have been lightly pickled but it too was just raw. There was evidence of a little olive oil having been added to the dish at some point but very little.
The next course, “Caesar” Grilled Fermented Gem Ortiz Anchovies – Lincolnshire Poacher, now this one is harder to describe. Half a gem lettuce, topped with the cheese, on soft (presumably the fermented gem), sorry but I found it not very nice, albeit quite bland, unseasoned and unappealing to look at too.
Our next course Lightly Steamed Gigha Halibut, Spari Brae Mussels – “Bouillabaisse” Sauce. Now this dish did pack flavour, lots of it but in a way that was a bad thing. The Bouillabaisse element was too strong for the halibut which had been poached, it is a delicate fish anyway and even more so when poached, but it was totally overpowered by the sauce. Had it been pan fried (I know it should be poached fish not fried fish in a Bouillabaisse), it would have stood up better to the strength of the stock, or they could have tried using a different fish! The sauce was heavy in tomato with the flavours of crab and lobster jumping out of it as should be but so strong as to be almost bitter, any saffron was lost in the over reduced intensity.
The main course, Salt Aged Hereford Beef Grilled over Embers Ox Cheek – Stuffed Morel – Wild Garlic. Undoubtedly the very best part of this dish was the (good sized) whole stuffed morel, it was lovely. The slice of beef that accompanied it was okay but, had it not been described as salt aged and grilled over embers, I would never have known, it was not in any way obvious, the ox cheek was also very nice too, the sauce was good but the wild garlic I think must have been picked from the patch the dogs wee on! (it was also unseasoned and did not even have a hint of wild garlic to it). The whole dish would have been nicer with a vegetable accompanying it.
The dessert, Robert Tomlinson’s Rhubarb Meringue Tart St Ewe Egg Whipped Custard was undoubtedly the stand out course of the night but not without fault. The rhubarb (for me) was overcooked, the tart case too hard as was the meringue topping (slightly). The custard was lovely.
Another thing I miss about table linen, just going back to what I said earlier, no one crumbs down any more, a necessity with a table cloth, it seems less so with undressed tops. Another skill of the waiting staff lost to the mists of time?
So much for the report on the food. Service was another thing all together. It was slightly shambolic, unprofessional and disorganised. The staff not well trained. These are such important areas of any dinner; this is the theatre part of the evening. The restaurant manager brought and served a bottle of red to the table on our left then a bottle of white to the table opposite and both times I just cringed. There is a real art to opening and serving a bottle of wine, a good sommelier is a really important member of the team and as such can and should make a big difference to the average spend on the night. Serving wine as though in a pub is not the way to do it.
The bottle of red arrived with the Restaurant Manager, clutched to his midriff, being held in place with one hand holding glasses the other a cork screw. The bottle placed on the table then the glasses, (I think I would have asked him to replace them with clean ones given how he carried them). The bottle opened against his leg and wine poured. The white, again had its cork removed with the use of his right leg, in the air, bent at the knee to give him a platform on which to open the bottle! My dad used to do that, but then again, he was never a wine waiter, or wine drinker for that matter.
We had ordered glasses of wine to go with each course, they came without any panache or aplomb, or description or even what they were, each course when delivered was put down then the young lady very, very quietly told us what each one was but so quietly I could barley hear her and my wife, not at all.
The crockery, all of which I am sure was bang on trend, was so difficult to eat out of, for the most part the courses were served in a very deep high sided bowl, which made resting the cutlery between mouthfuls almost an impossibility, they were just too deep and too steep. I do not understand why restaurants these days do not give a dessert spoon and fork with dessert, everywhere we go now it is almost always just a spoon. This of course leaves you levering the food onto the spoon using ones finger!
Clearing between courses was rather haphazard too, sometimes they took what should be taken, sometimes not, the empty canape plate stayed until after the first course, the bread plate lingered far too long as well, as did the unused and unrequired glasses.
All in all, while this was not a bad experience, it was not the experience either of us was expecting or wanting. We had hoped that they would be more professional and exciting than how it turned out.
A further observation, when I booked it was on line, having first having had a good look at the web site before doing so. Look as I might I could not find out how much dinner was, it is said that if you have to ask the price then you can’t afford it, that is not the point, I thought it was a legal requirement. When the menu was presented, there was no price on it, there was a supplement price of £10 for a cheese course and a further price of £10 for a cider accompaniment to the cheese, and a price of £10 for a glass of dessert wine to accompany the dessert. There were prices on the wine list, and on the drinks list and bar menu. So why not on the main menu? Having checked the web site again I can now see that there is a thin band across the very top of the site and in that, in small script its says “indulge in the dinning room from £65.00”. don’t get me wrong here, I am not complaining about the price, if anything I expected the price to be nearer twice that per person, so was amazed it was so cheap. Or was it so cheap because they have not got the staff to support a higher price? The bill was just shy of £250.00, charge more and take the time to train your staff and even at and extra £100, done right it would be worth it.
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