- Jacqueline Le Sueur
Don't care at your peril ...
A few days ago I was treated to dinner at one of London's oldest and most renowned fine dining establishments: they have been serving food for over 250 years. My dining companion had eaten there before so, with a reservation made a day earlier, our anticipation of an evening of unsurpassed service and mouthwatering food was high.
We dressed as befitted such an evening and as we wandered to the restaurant we wondered whether our expectations would be met. To be honest, there was no reason for them not to be; we were looking forward to an evening in each others company and we did not for one moment imagine our famous eatery would disappoint.
Now, fine dining is not just about the food. It is a much more multi-faceted than that. It is about the decor of the dining space and its ambiance. The seating needs to be comfortable, and the table height and size suited to the way the food is presented. Then there is the temperature of the room and its ambient noise levels. Add to this mix the engagement of the staff and the service they offer, coupled with the table linen, china, glassware and cutlery. Last but not least is the food. And, of course, taste is the last thing we experience when we eat ... the look and smell of the food on our plate should make us not want to wait a moment more than is polite before we take our first mouthful. And then it should captivate us to the very end, encouraging us to share, if we can manage to, a forkful or three.
We were greeted politely at the door and escorted through what looks like the dining room in a Gentleman's Club but with more vibrant colour on the walls. Not unappealing, We raised our eyebrows however when we were seated at a small table in the corner at the back of the restaurant that was set for one. Not just because our reservation was for two but also because the restaurant was empty. However, that said, posh London restaurants often fill up later in the evening so we kept our counsel and let the maitre'd add another place setting of fine china and glass. As for noise levels, well you can’t chose who you dine next to and although our neighbours turned out to be very loud, they were extremely entertaining!
Never have either of us had seen so many service staff in a restaurant of this size. The men in fancy suits designed to match their place in the hierarchy, the women in uniforms more suited to parlour maids. Quite odd. However, never mind what they’re wearing, with this many of them we reasonably thought service would be excellent. How wrong we were. With the exception of our waitress who was a diamond amongst coal, the rest would’ve been more at home in an episode of Fawlty Towers. Ambivalence reigned. And that is being kind.
However, the food was sublime. All of it. Without exception. We had six different dishes over three courses and everything about each of them was quite simply perfect - the portion size, the quality of ingredients, the presentation on the plate, the aroma and a taste far exceeding anything either of us expected. From a lobster bisque with a depth and richness almost too good to be true to a humble prawn cocktail elevated to a level quite unexpected. Grilled plaice that was succulent and sweet, and beef wellington so perfectly pink in its case of crisp, golden pastry. And then there was dessert - a simple crumble and a summer pudding, both English staples taken to a place you didn’t want to leave. The wine set our taste buds alight, too. We asked the totally uninterested sommelier to recommend a red wine by the glass that was full, rich and heavy. As much as he raised an eyebrow as we were mostly eating fish his choice was excellent, so much so that one glass each turned into two.
Shortly before we departed a guest was shouting, loudly, at the maitre’d about his dining experience. The maitre’d did not do as he should, namely remove the guest from the public eye. He left him at the bar in full flow for us all to hear. We decided to take our coffee elsewhere.
That said, we left left replete, waxing lyrical about the food, talking incredulously about the attitude of most of the staff and sharing a smile about our fellow diners. We had enjoyed ourselves enormously. We were hoping for an evening of unsurpassed service and mouthwatering food. It is fair to say we got both. It would be hard for service to get any worse and without a doubt we had the best food either of us have eaten anywhere in the world.
At the end of our weekend, a weekend of a lot of exceptional food it should be said, we were debating which had been our best dining experience. Despite the appalling overall service we decided it had to be the restaurant I have spoken about here. Such food, we wonder, will we ever taste again. And yet, we managed to get a table just the day before and for the duration of our time in the restaurant it was no more than half full. This in a city where you need to book a year in advance for places with food on a par with ours. This restaurant should be one of those places. The food is more than worthy of it. But, it looks like the complete lack of care in the service provided and no evident management is proving too much for London’s hardy diners. After a quarter of a century is the writing on the wall? In such a competitive marketplace will it survive? For the chef's sake, we hope so. Either that or someone needs to poach the chef away to shine in a place where the service levels match the heights attained by the food.