Eating Badly

15 Jun 2009

The life of the restaurant critic may seem like an endless round of merriment and self indulgence, and, to be truthful, much of it is. However, it is equally true that we are forced to suffer for our art more frequently than seems right. I want to eat well. I want other people to eat as well as I do. So I select the restaurants in which I eat with some care. However, we don’t always have the luxury of careful selection…

One morning I was bowling along the road from A to B, and suddenly it was lunch time, and the rumbling of my tum would not be denied, so I did what thousands of people do every day in similar circumstances—I turned in at the first likely looking spot and took pot luck.

It is a large establishment looking like a desirable suburban residence stretching down the bank of a river, beside a fine, double-arch stone bridge. It was a pleasant spot in any weather, and close to sublime in summer. The smell of boiled vegetables and Dettol, so sweetly familiar from my schooldays, fell upon my nostrils as I went in. In a trice I was transported back through the years. What was to be on the menu? Prawn cocktail with sauce Marie Rose? Boiled ham and parsley sauce? Grey roast beef and soft roast potatoes and bitter Brussels sprouts? Pork medallions in a creamy sauce? Spotted dick and custard? Ah me.

The first setback came when I discovered that the Wadworth’s 6X, a fine artisanal beer, was off, and was offered a pint of Tetley’s Smooth Flow from a mega-brewer by way of compensation. I would prefer ritual disembowelment rather than force a pint of that ersatz liquid past my lips, and said I would have a glass of Rioja instead. It’s not often I regret a glass of red wine, but I did that one, which managed to be warm, thin and acidic enough to cause my throat to constrict.

At the same time I ordered a ‘classic prawn cocktail’ and ‘chicken Napoleon’ from the menu on the blackboard, giving the number of my table as I did so. The table number idea was the tip of a very efficient production system. Dishes came to the table with crisp dispatch, delivered with nannyish dash. If only the Fisherman’s Cot paid as much attention to its food as it did to its systems. The prawn cocktail was, indeed, a classic, but possibly not quite the way that the poet behind the menu lyrics meant. There was a large plate with a lot of lettuce leaves besides the promised ‘crisp iceberg’, a substantial pile of shrimp-effect, woolly extrusions expired beneath a sea of sweet pink goo. Ah, Marie Rose, had you been living at this hour, you would have risen up and struck the hand that traduced your good name in this way. And I love prawn cocktail, for heaven’s sake.

The chicken Napoleon came hurrying hard on the heels of the prawn cock-up, a potentially passable combination of chicken breast, cheese and bacon. To be fair, the chicken breast had been beautifully cooked. It was firm, tender, succulent and, unfortunately, devoid of any discernible flavor whatsoever. The cheese formed a slimy deposit on the surface of the breast, and with rashers of bacon having the form and texture of floppy puppies’ tongues, I could feel each mouthful solidifying in my stomach as the cheese congealed, creating a clot of protein that I knew would be with me for several days. I am afraid that I could not face pudding after this. I am a foot soldier in the gastro-wars, God knows, but you have to draw a line somewhere.

What is depressing about this was not really the dispiriting banality of the food or the soulless efficiency of its provision, but the placid, nay cheery, acceptance of it by the considerable number of people of all ages who were tucking into similar dishes that Tuesday lunchtime. You will have a hard time persuading me that we are in the middle of a food revolution while the large percentage of the British public will wolf down this kind of stuff with every sign of enjoyment. Over the years, I have eaten some memorably disgusting stuff. I remember another cheese-and-gobbet combination that resembled the effluent from a chemical factory. At another place there was something called a beef teppan yaki wrap (‘pan-fried thin slices of sirloin beef rolled with garlic and enoki mushrooms garnished with asparagus and served in a teryaki sauce’) which was fibrous, like damp linen, and what wisp, what hint, what vestigial shadow of taste it had, defied analysis, until I suddenly remembered the skin on a of pan of hot milk.

Then there was a dish in a restaurant so awful that I have expunged the name of both from my memory, but for the phrase ‘it appeared to have been scraped from inside the S-bend beneath an insanitary basin’. Of course, it isn’t always the food that makes us suffer. Sometimes it is the ‘service’ we receive at the hands of the front of house that turns the food to ashes in the mouth. There was one stellar restaurant in Paris that so annoyed my lunch companion and myself, that she gave the chef/patron a dressing down in public. This was unfortunate for him as she was married to one of France’s most respected restaurant critics.

And then there was a place in London, where a group of four of us has been treated with display that managed to combine contempt and incompetence to a spectacular degree. As we left, the maître d’hôtel inquired whether or not everything was all right. No, I said it hadn’t been. He looked surprised. What had been wrong, he asked. “If you do not know, you are not fit to manage this place,” I snapped, one of the rare occasions when the right words came to me at the right time. I am pleased to say, that particular restaurant closed down not long afterwards.

This is not often the case. It is a salutary indication of the limits of critical power just how many not only survive a critical lambasting, but seem to thrive afterwards; and just how many delightful places the virtues of which we have extolled, only to see them vanish forever shortly afterwards.

However, suffer though I occasionally do for the sake of my readers, the fact is that it is getting rarer and harder to eat badly in England, not by much perhaps, but it definitely is. The rise of the gastro-pub, the British equivalent of the brasserie, bistrot or trattoria, has pumped new and democratic life into public eating, not only in cities, but out in the country as well. And it is interesting just how many chefs of serious talent and classical training are turning their backs on the high-pressure kitchens of fine dining establishments in favor of smaller, less high-profile neighborhood restaurants.

I am not saying that everything in the garden is lovely just yet. As my nightmare at the riverside proved, there is still a long way to go before this is a green and pleasant gastronomic paradise in which to eat. But perhaps—just perhaps—I will eat fewer noxious meals than good ones before I pack in the notebook and knife and fork. At least, I hope so.

First published in Slow 45

Matthew Fort is a British wine and food journalist and writer

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