Sunday afternoon, traveling through a very English landscape between Bristol and Bath: rowing eights on the river as the train speeds past; golden, brown and tawny trees on the rolling hills behind, the skies dark and brooding.
It was, frankly, something of a relief to be leaving Bristol – or rather, it was a relief to be going home. Conferences and hotel living never really give you the opportunity to relax completely.
But at least I have one excellent food memory. And one that was – well, less than excellent.
To recap a little: the last time I was in Bristol for work was in January 2009. On that occasion, our staff dinner was at Piccolino, the Bristol outlet of a chain that has 22 restaurants from London to Liverpool. As I explained a few days ago, it was a bit of a disaster: kitchen staff seemed to have gone missing and we waited over two hours for our food.
I don’t mind waiting for food – indeed, I’d be suspicious if my order landed within seconds on my making it. But two hours was stretching things a tad.
This time around, the person who was booking our staff meal hadn’t been with us on that occasion and didn’t know the story, so had booked Piccolino. As I also mentioned previously, we’d been asked to order in advance.
Early on Saturday afternoon, our organiser had received an email explaining that one of our number had ordered the roast red and yellow pepper soup. Hey, that was me. But unfortunately, they’d apparently not had a delivery and couldn’t do the soup.
Which begs the question: had not had a delivery of what, precisely? Peppers? You do know, don’t you, Piccolino, that you’re actually situated in a shopping centre, with plenty of places in very close proximity that will sell peppers? Surely it couldn’t have been a delivery of the soup itself?
In the event, they were offering an alternative of mushroom and tarragon soup – fortunately, the necessary ingredients had been found loitering in the kitchen looking shifty and with no alternative future plans. So, rather than struggle to get hold of the full menu and make an alternative choice, I opted for that.
Fast forward a few hours. Around half of us arrived early. Our reservation was for 7.45pm: we got there around 7.20pm, but some colleagues were still working. The manageress announced that the starters were going to be put on the table at 7.30pm, regardless of whether we were all there.
Great. So if none of us had arrived until just before the time that we’d actually booked, you’d have had the waiting staff plonking our food down at an empty table, yes?
Hardly an auspicious start.
The two blokes present quickly ordered beers, while the two women other than myself debated about ordering wine and chickened out of it. I got hold of a wine list. The top of the wines on the white list was just under £18. Fairly close, as memory serves, was a Chardonnay. I asked whether it was un-oaked. The manageress didn’t know but offered me a taste. “Thank you,” I said. She went away, only to return a few minutes later with the news that there was none left – but asked if I wanted a dry wine?
I looked back at the list, spotted an Italian Riesling, asked the only other person present at that juncture who wanted white wine whether they would be okay with that, and ordered it.
Now, this is my faux pas and I hold my hands up: I didn’t clock the price. Perhaps more to the point, I didn’t even really think to clock it. Later, everyone who wanted white wine thought it very good, but when the bill arrived, it turned out to have been £32 a bottle.
Gasps all around and feelings of guilt on part that lasted until the following morning (despite being assured that everyone was on expenses so there really shouldn’t be an issue for anyone).
Actually, one colleague made a point: that you just don’t expect a bottle of wine in such a place to cost that much. And last night, I looked back at the Brasserie Blanc wine list and saw again that the majority of the wines were well under £30 – indeed, closer to the £20 mark.
But we’ll return to this later.
My soup arrived: with a thin skin on it. How long had that been waiting to be served early to someone whose reservation wasn’t until 15 minutes later? It was on the salty side too, which also suggests a wait.
When the almost-empty bowl was removed, I realised that one of my forks was dirty. Okay, it was replaced easily, but things were beginning to add up. To invoke Lady Bracknell: one cock-up is unfortunate; two is carelessness.
My main course – skewers of large prawns, scallops and salmon – was okay, but far from exceptional. Although it’s probably fair to say that it suffered by comparison with a dish of skewered seafood in Port Vendres in September.
But setting aside that the seafood itself couldn’t hope to be as fresh, little effort was made with presentation: it was just three wooden skewers and a lemon quarter that was reluctant to squirt forth any juice.
My side of broccoli and chili was acceptable – but they could take lessons in cooking vegetables from Brasserie Blanc: al dente does not mean almost raw.
One colleague had ordered the lamp steak. What arrived was lamb shank, which she apparently doesn’t like. More to the point, it was not what she’d ordered. The manageress explained that the menus were seasonal and that the seasonal menu had changed.
So what? You didn’t know, when you insisted we order in advance and sent us a link to a menu, that you were changing it by the time we visited?
Eventually, after some debate, they took it away and brought a pasta dish instead.
Still, while she waited, there were lots of bowls of chips that kept arriving at the table. And spinach.
I had caramel ice cream for dessert. Nothing to write home about.
And then the bill arrived. A very large bill.
It was fairly instantly assumed that the size of the aforementioned bill was down to my wine selection.
The following morning, a colleague who had been present told me that there had been some grumbling from two other women, and that she had pointed out that it was “collective responsibility”. That we’d all drunk the wine and enjoyed it. And then she had enquired how many bottles we’d been billed for. They hauled the bill out. Three.
A moment later, she pointed out that this didn’t add up – that that was not all that had made the bill so large.
So they checked it again, item by item. We’d paid for several portions of side dishes that nobody had ordered (more bowls of chips, for instance) and the colleague who had ordered lamb steak had been charged for the lamb shank and the pasta.
And with a service charge on top, we were also paying a further percentage on what we hadn’t ordered.
One of the staff checked when the restaurant opened and went back in the late morning to confront the manageress.
On the wine front, she argued that I’d seen the menu (true) and was therefore responsible. Now as you’ll have gathered, I’ve held my hands up to this one.
But it was apparently also pointed out to her that she could perhaps have indicated to me the price difference between what I’d originally enquired about and what I’d then opted for when my original choice was not available. And that it was very gloomy (there’s a reason that there are no photos with this article). She gave us £10 back on each of the bottles of Riesling though.
But there’s a lesson here – check wine prices properly, even when you simply don’t expect prices in such an establishment to be over a certain amount.
We also received further monies back – but stressed that the young man who had been our waiter (it was apparently his first day – and he hadn’t taken our orders anyway) was very good and no fault attached to him. She asked if that meant that we didn’t want to challenge the service charge, to which she was informed that we were certainly not paying a service charge on things we hadn’t ordered.
I suspect much of the success of our colleague in getting a refund wasn’t so much that the restaurant knew that we were right, but that such places are not used to anyone complaining and want to get the problem sorted out as soon as possible.
In general, the English don’t complain. And let’s face it, the morning after dining in a large group, when the booze was flowing freely, how many people would really go through their bill and have a clear enough memory of what they ate to challenge it – let alone the inclination to do so? But then again, because we’d pre-ordered and there were email records of that, we could prove it.
So there’s a lesson there too.
But what really finished off the experience came 24 hours later, back at home and browsing the old interwebby. I looked up the corporate website for the entire chain.
Now, you may recall my comments yesterday about the ‘mission statement’ at Brasserie Blanc.
Here are some extracts from the Piccolino mission statement:
“Welcome to Piccolino: a selection of vibrant Italian neighbourhood restaurants offering chic yet informal dining. Inspired by the traditional charm and contemporary buzz of classic brasseries, Piccolino brings a true taste of Italy to its customers.”
“Inspired by”? I’ve visited a couple of Italian brasseries. In Italy. And on the basis of Piccolino Bristol, I fail to see any connection whatsoever. Super, but unpretentious food in unpretentious surroundings – that was my experience of brasserie eating in Italy. Not in Piccolino, Cabot Circus, Bristol.
But wait, it gets better.
“Piccolino restaurants bring the rustic charm of Italy to the cityscapes and suburban environments of the UK.”
“Rustic”? Are you serious? “Rustic”?
Okay, I’m not going to comment on the group’s other restaurants because I haven’t visited any of them, but Bristol is like an ’80s cocktail bar. Glass and chrome and leather is not, by the greatest stretch of the imagination possible, “rustic”.
And neither is very ‘subdued’ lighting and pumping rock music that makes it difficult to have a conversation with the person next to you – let alone anyone two seats away. Perhaps they distract from the food? And the bill?
But hold on a minute – you’ve already claimed that Piccolino restaurants are “chic”, and now they’re “rustic” too? Hey everybody, Piccolino has invented rustic chic – drat: wasn’t that Marie Antoinette?
This is like a written version of verbal diarrhoea.
“There is no such thing as ordinary Italian fare at Piccolino …”
Well on that score, you’re right. Unfortunately.
“Our restaurants bring only the finest quality seasonal ingredients to the high street …”
Out of interest, just when did asparagus become a “seasonal” ingredient in the UK in November? And the pdf menu that is available online for the chain is still (as of 22 November) showing asparagus in two courses. The file name clarifies that it’s a menu from September 2010, several months after the end of the asparagus season. I have downloaded a copy as a souvenir.
“ … with everything freshly prepared and made on the premises by our chefs.”
Could you really not send someone out to buy some peppers? You know – there’s even a Sainsbury’s Local around the corner that probably sells those bags with a red, yellow and green pepper in? And come to that, where are they grown in this country in November?
My mind drifts back to Brasserie Blanc. Word got around that I had been. Several people asked me about it, expecting that it would have been hugely expensive. After all, a French celebrity chef has his French name attached to it, so you must need a bank loan to dine there.
My meal at Piccolino, even after our refund, cost more than my meal at Brasserie Blanc. And there is not even any comparison when it comes to the standard of the food.
The soup currently listed on the Piccolino “party menu” is £5. The same as that heavenly smoked haddock risotto. Which is expensive?
My main course at Piccolino cost £16.95. At Brasserie Blanc, it was £15.50.
At Brasserie Blanc, it was £5.50 for four scoops of ice cream and sorbet, with biscuits etc. At Piccolino, it was £5.25 for two scoops of caramel ice cream in a sundae glass. With a sprig of mint.
Yet Piccolino is the sort of restaurant that people assume is affordable, as opposed to what they imagine is posher and unaffordable. And yet they apparently accept (because it’s been open at least two years and always seems busy) inferior food and chaotic (at best) service.
As I said recently, there’s a con afoot. Either that, or the British really care less about good food than about dining in glitzy settings with loud music that stop them being able to hold a coherent and pleasant conversation.
I’ll say one thing: if I get sent to Bristol again for work, I’m putting a claiming notice down that we absolutely do not go near Piccolino again. It's going to take a while to get rid of the sour aftertaste.