It's an awkward moment, innit? When you've waited way too long for a meal that barely passes muster, and the waiter bimbles up and asks, "So how is everyone enjoying their dinner?"
Normally, if I'm working, ie. reviewing, I murmur some noncommittal pleasantries and change the subject. Most people, I've observed, are loathe to speak their true feelings for fear of giving offense.
Sometimes though, when I'm paying for the meal myself, and I'm particularity aggrieved by the experience I will ask the waitron, "Do you really want to know?"
They don't, but I'll tell them anyway. It's a public service.
We had just such a dinner tonight, not too far from home, in a restaurant I'd previously reviewed a couple of times and which I didn't mind, even though I thought it had ideas above its station. There's nothing wrong with reaching just a little too far in the creative arts, and cooking is sure enough one of those arts. But there's overconfidence and there's arrogance, and once or twice I felt this restaurant shaded into the latter.
Still, many of the dishes were interesting, the wine list was exemplary, and the staff could be very friendly and helpful when the moment took them. It has recently changed hands.
We ate there this evening because Anna had had a tough day, Thomas, who's not always restaurant friendly, was at rugby, it was quiet and we thought to get in and out quickly.
Despite there being only two tables occupied for most of the first hour we were there it took, well, an hour, for the meals to arrive. And when they did arrive they were such a train wreck of practical and conceptual failure that I was glad I wasn't reviewing because I couldn't imagine how to write truthfully about the experience without running the risk of a defamation suit. As I may have mentioned before, the food review pages of a newspaper are the most sued section. It's why I can't name the restaurant here. (And no, it's neither Bar Alto nor Enoteca, both of which do awesome ragu).
Yes, my American friends, as much as I curse your IRS, I still envy your First Amendment.
So. What went right? My two glasses of Curlewis pinot noir were beautiful. Smokey and layered with complex notes of chocolate and old leather. But of course all they did was uncork that bad boy and pour it. Jane's wine, a Soave, was nice, but took an age to order and arrive.
My steak was competently cooked. A rib eye, closer to medium than the medium rare as ordered, but still well rested and very well seasoned.
From there it went downhill. The wilted greens were so dense with salt they were inedible, by which I mean the dictionary definition of the word. I could not eat them. They made me gag and made my face go a funny shape. The small, scalding hot bowl of potatoes and cheese, an attempted au gratin, was likewise difficult to get down, but in this case because of the grotesque oiliness. I ate my protein, and nothing else. So it was at least a healthy meal, and appropriate after a morning in the weights gym.
Anna's goat ragu with Pappardelle was a strange, inconsistent mix of weirdly acidic meat sauce and unevenly cooked pasta. It could have been great, but nothing about the disparate elements of the dish came together. It felt like student cooking.
Jane's consomme was a disaster. Consomme is a delicate broth, a rich clear soup clarified with egg whites to remove particulates and fat. Aria does a remarkable duck consomme, as I recall. (It's been a while). This soup was properly clarified but utterly tasteless. And bizarrely it was served with gnocci. Why bizarre? Because there is nothing about potato dumplings which lends themselves to this dish. The soup, being thin, will not adhere to the dumplings, coating them with a thick, tasty sauce. Perhaps if they were cooked in the broth and thus infused with its flavours... but of course this broth had no flavor. So Jane was left with potato balls in brown water. Mmm. Nom nom.
It was bad enough to be amusing. Eating so much for work I have the luxury of being thus amused, where most people would just be pissed off they'd wasted their hard earned money.
I was hoping to finish my steak, sneak way from the accompanying sides, and never return.
But then the waitress asked how we were enjoying the meals. I didn't even ask my usual question, giving her an out. "Do you you really want to know?"
No, for whatever reason, I just launched into a shorthand review, telling her what I've just told you, but in kinder, gentler terms. She looked horrified. Fixing a shit eating grin on her face she asked the others how they 'liked' theirs. Jane was evasive. Anna lied. God bless her. She doesn't like to hurt people's feelings.
We paid and left. I doubt we'll return.
It did make we wonder though, how do people who don't eat for a living handle it when they've been served a plate full of shit. Do you tell the truth? Or do you just mumble something and flee.