Friday, April 6, 2012

A tale of two restaurants: why good food is not enough

I’ve had two meals recently, one in Bristol, one in Bath that have underlined why ability in the kitchen doesn’t necessarily make for an enjoyable restaurant experience. Of course you need good food but there are so many other factors - design, location, service and above all, good old-fashioned hospitality that determine whether you leave looking forward to going back again.

Telling your customers that their credit card will be docked £68 per person if they cancel within 48 hours (if they can’t resell the table) isn’t a good start. Which is what happens when you book at Casamia in Bristol. The two chefs Peter and Jonray Sanchez-Iglesias shot to fame a year or so ago when they won Gordon Ramsay’s Best Restaurant competition on Channel 4 and the pair are undoubtedly talented but that kind of attitude doesn’t make for a cossetting experience.

Nor does their inflexibility. Given the fact they had a no-choice menu we’d been asked to express dietary preferences (no dairy, in my husband’s case) so with the exception of the last course where they provided a rhubarb sorbet they simply left out the offending ingredients. My broad bean tart was a delicious creamy mouthful. His was a tart shell with a few skinned broad beans. My John Dory with lemon jelly (lovely and the best course on the menu) arrived with a creamy cider sauce, his was totally undressed. It was as if the kitchen were saying ‘oh FFS’.

You got that sensation a bit too with the main course of roast lamb with mint jelly which came with a spookily Bisto-ish gravy (not that I'm suggesting for a moment it was). The boys, I remember from my one previous visit, used to go in for foams and other elements of Heston-esque molecular gastronomy. Obviously that didn’t go down too well with the locals so they seem to be saying ‘you want a roast dinner? We’ll bloody give you one’. The lamb was cooked at a fashionably slow temperature, granted, but to be honest my late mum cooked a better roast dinner than that. And she served potatoes which were notably absent, replaced by an ‘onion and garlic family’ of crunchy, undercooked spring onions and leeks.

Obviously the Sanchez-Iglesias brothers don’t approve of carbs. Or fat. Which is praiseworthy and I’m sure they’re the fitter for it but if your customer asks for some bread as we tentatively did, “no I’m sorry we don’t have any” is not a good response. Nor is a powdery, fat-free (I would guess), granola-style topping with undercooked rhubarb going to satisfy someone who spots rhubarb crumble on the menu.

The minimum you can spend on food in Casamia is £45. On a Friday or Saturday night the menu is £68 or £88 - or 88 sterling pounds as they irritatingly put it - with an extra £40 or £55 respectively for an accompanying wine flight. With service, water and coffee that could easily top £250 for two - a lot to pay for a restaurant without views in a suburban shopping parade.

There are similar problems at Menu Gordon Jones, the bizarrely named new restaurant in what looks like a converted estate agent's on the corner of the busy A367 on the outskirts of Bath. Like the Sanchez-Iglesias brothers the eponymous chef has an impressive pedigree (Martin Wishart, Martin Blunos and The Royal Crescent) but only offers a ‘surprise’ no choice 5 course menu. At least it included some delicious and imaginative red cabbage and caraway bread though that appeared to be one of the courses. And the asparagus soup was as good as any I've had. But serving ox cheek and then reverting to fish is a disorienting experience and plays havoc with with your wine choice. And with just one other table (the place only has 14 covers) it lacked any real warmth or atmosphere. Although they only charge £25 for lunch, which is a bargain for the quality of food they offer, I wouldn't go back.

Obviously the economic situation is tough for new start-ups but in their desire to express themselves it’s as if these chefs have lost sight of what a restaurant experience should be. OK, they spring a surprise menu on you at Noma but Noma is Noma with one of the most talented chefs and brigades in the world and the food is not only cutting-edge but delicious.

The main problem is that none of these chefs has grasped the importance of a stylish (though not necessarily expensively fitted-out) interior and a warm and welcoming reception which is what separates successful restaurants from merely good ones. Compare this with the recently opened Dabbous whose eponymous restaurant works like clockwork. Or Ollie Couillaud’s Lawn Bistro in Wimbledon which is casual, friendly but with no lack of culinary fireworks. It's a shame.

What do you think of no choice or surprise menus? And is it fair for restaurants to charge for no-shows - a growing problem for the industry?


  1. Nothing wrong with the concept of surprise menus in my book - as long as the restaurant is willing to compromise if needed. I'm surprised that Casamia let you down so much with regards your husband's meal: but it's a dangerous game, on their part, to wait until ten minutes before a customer orders to find out whether they need to tweak their menu.

    I've not been to Noma, but from what I've heard, they've got it spot on. My boss was taken there for her birthday last year by her partner - when he phoned to book the table, he mentioned that my boss was vegetarian (and quite fussy). They asked for his email address, and then corresponded before the meal to find out what she didn't eat and what her favourite ingredients were in order that she'd be served something by which she'd be blown away.

    Re: no-shows, it's understandable, I think. If you're taking a table away from other potential paying customers and fail to turn up, I don't see why you shouldn't be charged for it...

  2. Well he told them that morning when he confirmed the booking so they had time to get their heads round the request.

    And yes, I don't see why restaurants shouldn't charge something but £68 a head? What do you reckon would be a fair amount?

    1. Ah. That makes things much worse! When I've been before, they've only asked on arrival at the restaurant, not at the time of booking.

      It's a tricky one. At high end places, you'd assume that they'd be able to fill the table, and therefore the no-show charge would be unlikely to be charged anyway. £68 per head does seem like a lot, but you can understand their logic, as their food's quite fiddly and takes a hell of a lot of prep.

      My guess, though, is that this charge is rarely paid: customers (or potential customers...) are probably too intimidated to cancel - or even to book a table in the first place - when they're told that.

      I'm disappointed, to be honest. It was quite a down-to-earth place before, seems like things have changed a lot.

  3. Hi Fiona
    Fascinating article.

    I opened & closed my own restaurant over the last year.

    We put a huge amount of thought into how to balance the retail mantra 'the customer is always right' & the very different approach of a restaurateur &/or chef setting their very personal creations infront of & around diners.

    In general the wider the choice, the lesser the food, unless the set-up involves a huge brigade as you describe at Noma.

    I would prefer to have only a little choice & eat something brilliant. Offering no choice at all is a very different thing altogether. It used to be quite common in small French, Italian & Spanish places, but they are not the sort where bookings are even taken, let alone that mete out punishment for 'no-shows'.

    I would not wish to eat anywhere the chef could not be bothered to bake bread.

    As to charging no-shows. Every now & then we suffered very badly. We turned people away only to have a table simply not turn up. The best remedy is to be certain to have telephone numbers & telephone the recalcitrant diner every night at the close of service for at least a week.

  4. You call this "why good food is not enough" but it doesn't even sound like particularly good food! I think charging for no-shows is OK, although I think charging full price is egregious. Surely a 20% penalty would be off-putting enough?

  5. I appreciate it's not easy, Jan but the fact is that some people pull it off better than others. I by no means want a huge menu and am even pretty happy with a no choice one so long as it's well-constructed. As you point out there are places in France, Spain and Italy that do that routinely but that was before the days when restaurants were quite so ambitious. Cooking the kind of food your mamma used to make is a different ball-game.

    The no show issue is a lot more problematic with more and more people apparently conscience-free about not turning up. On the other hand there are occasions when something unavoidable crops up at the last minute - an accident (as happened to a friend's daughter recently) or a sudden attack of sickness for example. It's wrong for a restaurant to exact this kind of penalty in my view.

    @Foodycat - these guys can cook, no doubt about that - Casamia has a Michelin star - it's just that some dishes just don't come off.

  6. When I visited, I found Casamia's food ambitious, slickly presented with flashes of brilliance, but ultimately it was fairly dissapointing. Too much emphasis on presentation, theatre and experimental technique, it just felt a tad souless. If they reigned the Heston'ish tendancies back, just a bit, I reckon it would make for a much more satisfying experience. Although, saying that, it could be argued that I 'just don't get it'.
    I'm really surprised about the bread, as the rolls I had with my meal were one of the highlights.
    I'm also surprised at the lack of inventiveness when it came to adapting the menu for dairy free 'T'. Considering Casamia's bleeding edge reputation, you'd think they could have made a better fist of adapting the dishes.

    Menu Gordon Jones - Agreed. The chef can certainly cook really well, sadly the food is let down a bit by the general ambience.

    As for 'no shows' I think it's acceptable to charge a fee to at least cover the cost of the ingredients if the table is cancelled last minute, so at least the restaurant breaks even. The full whack is pushing it a bit far.