05 February 2009
Excrutiatingly Bitter Experience
I had an open mind on my first visit (Jan 09) to Caldesi in Campagna, Bray, since I’d read only a few reviews including a positive from Jay Rayner who in all likelihood was instantly recognised, so ate well. Michelin star absence does not necessarily equate to mediocre food, but deficiencies here meant dismay, though prices were Michelin equivalent.
Bread – often a good indicator of standard to follow – was just OK . Pasta seemed a wise choice. Fettucine with duck ragu (my partner’s) was fine but the tortelloni, oh not so! Thick heavy pasta stuffed with the odd hard lump of pumpkin and patches of amaretto biscuit made some pieces too sweet; 70% edible, saved by a good drenching of butter sauce, pine nuts and some very welcome parmesan cheese.
[Seriously finer pasta can be achieved at Books for Cooks class under the direction of Sam Watherstone.]
Mains of seafood and meltingly tender venison – ‘Short straw’ again……char-grilled squid, a curiously tiny piece of sole, small king scallop and a king prawn doused in chilli and garlic. First the sole tasted slightly bitter, and I momentarily wondered whether this came from the garlic or char-grilling. Unlikely because all were golden to brown colour without even a tinge of black; hence void of heavily charred/burnt flavour. The squid was pleasingly tender to cut, but exceedingly bitter to taste, which took a few mouthfuls of wine to dispel. Needless to say I didn’t try the scallop, nor the prawn and returned it (discretely) as being inedible. I was offered an alternative so chose duck fettucine.
Quite unexpectedly, the owner appeared and began talking to a few diners. Then, I don’t know whether the ritualistic back patting was intended to placate or signify something else, but selected diners – including my partner – were subjected to this affected camaraderie. Maybe too many diners had eaten poor meals, or was this some kind of esoteric acknowledgement for the fraternity?
We felt no need to say anything to the owner because a replacement meal was on its way. However, he returned later – in completely unperturbed demeanour – to ask about my meal and launched into an incongruous explanation interrupting my description of the offending food. So, not only was the seafood excruciatingly bitter, but likewise the unnecessary condescending manner of a cook so experienced that he had lost the good sense – if ever he had it – to be graceful and accepting of complaint (since it was completely justified). Was it just his disinterest in the nature of complaint totally responsible for his failure to assure that the matter would at least be investigated? No, his knowledge of what was actually wrong too. He knew that the squid served was suspect – very sour tasting (perhaps poorly cleaned) being on the same griddle had probably tainted the sole. His feebly rehearsed : “a problem with the new grilling equipment”, plus his claim that he’d had a similar problem with a new grill in his London outfit rang invalid. If anything, appearance and texture indicated proficiency.
Had he not so unworriedly served up this portion of patronising tripe then we wouldn’t be quite so disgruntled. 50% of the food was fine. Replacement meal, though good, was unremarkable that any competent cook could replicate at home. So I am not prejudiced, just an honest self-confessed foodie, who will not return primarily owing to the attitude, still uncertain of the most plausible reason for the inedibly bitter squid.
Value? Not being a big eater, a £20+ price tag for a meagre serving of seafood without accompaniment was steep. We eat out regularly and in Michelin starred restaurants…..this reminds me why we usually trust Michelin scores, but not always, as it is politically tainted with bias towards all things French. Places I can recommend which do not hold them : The Goose at Britwell Salome (nr. Henley-on-Thames – new menus plus undergone recent facelift), Riverside Brasserie, Bray Marina (open April to October) Vanilla Pod at Marlow, The Royal Oak, Paley Street and The Dining Room, Reigate (last two only single dining experience each so far). My best recent Michelin experiences are Maze and Drake’s of Ripley in Surrey, which I may have the good fortune to re-visit next week.