Wednesday, 15 December 2010

A tale of two restaurants

If Christmas can be the best of times, it can also be the worst of times – and not least for the culinary arts.

This has been The Week of Festive Lunches: both Tuesday and Wednesday saw us quitting our desks early for mellow afternoons of food and drink.

In a quirk of timing, Tuesday also saw me get my new teeth, so I was looking for easy-to-eat food by Wednesday when I decided to make my first proper efforts at eating with said gnashers.

On Tuesday, our small (but perfectly formed) editorial team headed to Da Mario in Covent Garden, to be wined and dined by our major external supplier.

A family-run Italian trattoria, it offers decently-priced, enjoyable, simple Italian food.

I had a starter of deep-fried goat’s cheese and roasted red pepper sauce, served with a shredded salad or raw white and red cabbage. The cheese was very mild and I half suspect – perhaps completely unfairly – that it had been bought in, ready-crumbed. But it was comforting, nicely presented and not unpleasing.

Next up for me was a dish of pappardelle, with Italian sausage, broccoli, garlic and chili. Comforting and enjoyable – although I couldn’t get any taste of garlic or chili. It was well cooked, with both the pasta and broccoli nicely done, while the thin but meaty sausage remained moist.

Dessert was a large ball of lemon ice cream, with frozen Limoncello liqueur inside, and covered in crushed meringue: it looked unspectacular compared to everyone else’s dessert (that’s The Other Half’s semifrodo in the background), but was a really zingy delight.

So, a definite success.

And so to yesterday afternoon and lunch with the full unit at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese on Fleet Street.

If it had only been called ‘The Cheshire Cheese’, someone would have had to change ‘The’ to a ‘Ye’ and add an ‘Old’. With an ‘e’.

Now it’s fair to say that nobody (that I know, at any rate) goes to Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese for the grub. You go for the atmosphere; for the knowledge that, after a previous incarnation was destroyed by the Fire of London, this place was rebuilt in 1667. That’s right – re-built. And almost 350 years ago.

Our party was in the Chop Room, where a portrait of Dr Johnson hangs over one bench, with a brass plaque stating that this was his favourite place to sit. Next to the fire – a sensible man. It’s the sort of thing to give a literary fan like me a certain frisson.

In a frame in the same room there’s a copy of a first edition of Charles Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities, which includes a scene in a pub that is clearly Ye Cheese. Dickens certainly visited more than once. And of course, while it’s a rather limited view of Yuletide tradition in the UK, the Dickensian Christmas looms large in the collective psyche.

So this, in other words, is a very big cheese amongst London pubs – and not least during this jolly season.

Which is all quite enough for me to conclude that the atmosphere alone is worth the visit.

But at what point do you then say that the standard of the food is irrelevant?

To get a private room, we’d had to guarantee 25 people. That was at £30 a head. In other words, the owners made a guaranteed (paid up front) £750 – which didn’t include any drinks at all or even coffee at the end of the meal.

There was a limited choice of four wines – two red, two white, none named specifically and none under £18.

With the need for softish food fairly high in my mind, I started with a terrine of salmon and smoked trout. It was okay, but a tad salty.

Then I went for the steak and kidney pud – a really traditional dish. The first thing I speared was a tiny piece of kidney. I nearly whooped in delight, imagining that if that was the first thing I’d found, it wouldn’t be the last piece of velvety deliciousness to pass my lips (it always irritates me that steak and kidney pies and puddings seems almost devoid of one of those essential ingredients).

But my nearly whoop had been too soon. It was the last piece of kidney I found, amid some reasonable steak, a middling gravy and a ton of slightly soggy suet. The roast potatoes were hardly the stuff of legend, while the sprouts and carrot batons were undercooked. Nothing was piping hot – and although the room had an open fire, it would have had to be roaring rather more than it was to really spread any warmth further around the room than Dr Johnson’s chosen space.

For dessert, I went for a poached pear, served with an orange marmalade ice cream. It would have helped to have a dessert fork as well as spoon for what was arguably the most successful of the courses. In Italy, they might be able to fillet a sole with a spoon, but I cannot easily eat a pear with a spoon alone.

Now our party was not full of what you’d term foodies, but even some of those for whom food would not be a major issue have since voiced their disappointment.

On the other hand, the view has also been put that: ‘Well, it’s Christmas and what else can you expect?’ as if it’s actually unfair or unreasonable to expect better.

But the more I think about it, while I certainly wouldn’t expect haute cuisine in such an establishment – it’s not what you’d want there anyway – is it really unfair to expect a better standard than what we got, particularly when we were hardly paying peanuts in the first place?

It is, I suspect, another aspect of that very English attitude of not complaining, of ‘putting up’. And perhaps it’s also that big con again – the belief that quality in food is beyond the reach of most people’s pockets, so that we have to put up with a lesser quality because it’s what we can afford.

As Da Mario showed, food doesn’t have to be over-ambitious to be good. You don’t have to over-stretch yourself just because it’s Christmas.

And steak and kidney pud isn’t called ‘steak and one bit of kidney pud’ – so put more kidney in it!

All of which brings me back to Harrison’s, the Bloomsbury gastro pub in which we had our festive lunch last year. Another team went there this time around and reports have filtered back to me.

Quite apart from whether a pineapple soup is really the best way forward for a venue that was struggling to cope with simpler fodder last year, serving a chocolate tart with Greek yogurt must be a form of blasphemy in most people’s book.

I’ve no desire to be unfair to cooks who are working damned hard to give people a good culinary experience – and cooking’s no soft-option job. But perhaps we all need to sharpen our critical muscles – and stop simply accepting and excusing food that isn’t up to what it should be and which, frankly, constitutes something of a rip off. Regardless of whether Dr Johnson held court there or Dickens felt a touch of inspiration while quaffing a tankard of porter.