Friday, April 6, 2012
A tale of two restaurants: why good food is not enough
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?