The following is the substance of a letter I wrote to the restaurant after my visit. I have since received in response a patronising, standard letter, which addressed not a single one of my observations and instead informed me that my experience – all of it! – was a one-off…
From the moment we entered the reception area of the Seafood Restaurant it felt as though we had walked onto a conveyor belt, with the main aim of the staff being to get us to the end and back out of the door as quickly as possible to free up the table for another sitting.
We arrived about half an hour early so we could have a drink before going to our table. However, on arrival we were asked by staff if we would we like to go to our table immediately, and it was clear that was their preference. We chose instead to sit in the conservatory area to have drinks and look at the menus. A pre-starter of tempura sea bass arrived. This was delicious; what a shame it turned out to be the best course of the evening.
We were shortly shown to our table, or rather two seats on a table for six. Closer examination did reveal three tables for two, but only just. It was not possible, even for my slim companion, to get between the tables. We have all been subject to close table grouping, although usually in capitals where rents are sky-high, but even then not to this severity. The six of us joked about the ridiculousness of it all. It really is unpleasant to be forced to hear other people’s conversations so clearly, and to know that your own conversation, however muted, is entirely audible to your neighbours.
Some nice olives arrived, although our waitress attempted to remove them not many moments later, presumably in anticipation of our first course arriving. We asked for them to be allowed to stay. They were then removed after our first course – I was bored of the tug-of-war by then and let them go.
I was asked three times by different waiting staff if I had chosen some wine, and three times I said I’d like to speak to the sommelier before choosing. Given the delay in ordering wine our first course inevitably arrived before the wine, which just shouldn’t be allowed to happen. Tap water arrived after the third time of asking.
“Special” lobster, foie gras and green bean salad – the few small pieces of fish had more the appearance of crayfish tails, and completely lacked the rich flavour you get with a good mouthful of decent lobster. It came with a tiny tranche of foie gras and enough green beans to go with the Sunday roast. There was nothing “Special” about this dish.
Crab cakes in a butter and tarragon sauce – these tasted entirely of butter, nothing of crab, and the two cakes were tiny – no more than a small mouthful each.
Seafood broth – this delivered a slice of chilli of such potency in its first mouthful that my taste buds were suspended for the next fifteen minutes. The soup contained just one mussel and not much else; I couldn’t find any of the promised crab.
Quenelles of gurnard – this was almost inedible; entirely devoid of taste – the lack of any intensity of flavour, a feature of the entire menu, reached its nadir here. I would defy anyone to find any flavour of fish in this dish. The texture was nothing less than awful – as though something had gone wrong in the preparation process.
At some point, the second bottle of wine failed to arrive. Our waitress said that the piece of paper she wrote it on must have been misplaced – she told us that that happened sometimes. How many times does it have to happen before a different system is used? No more than once I would suggest.
Fillet of turbot – nice fish but not much of it, which is fine on a tasting menu generally, but given how little food was on each of the previous three plates it would have been nice to have had a chance to get the teeth into something. It did come with a dish of eight small new potatoes, which was about right between us. The couple to my left also had the tasting menu – their turbot came with only two potatoes. How can the kitchen be that inconsistent?
Strawberries, meringue and cream – this is the first tasting menu I have had featuring only one dessert (and it wasn’t as though there was any cheese). The main disappointment, however, was the complete lack of imagination applied in designing the one dessert (strawberries in a bowl with a spoonful of cream on top with a meringue plonked on top of that) – so disappointing.
Then coffee, which was fine, and petit fours, which just about elevated themselves above a simple After Eight mint, but only just – one bland milk chocolate and a tiny sliver of pistachio biscotti – very poor indeed.
Courses arrived almost instantly the previous course had been cleared, which is not an enjoyable way to eat and also suggests that the dishes were pre-prepared and just sitting there waiting to go out to whichever table taking the tasting menu happened to be ready for that course next. Even when we asked for a 10 minute break before dessert it arrived instantly.
The overall quality of food was immensely disappointing. A tasting menu should showcase the talents of the best chefs in the kitchen and the best of the locally-sourced ingredients. This did neither. None of the dishes required any technical prowess, which is fine if the best ingredients are used and skill is applied in ensuring they are prepared beautifully and they deliver flavour and texture of top quality, but these dishes just didn’t deliver on any count. I imagined the most junior chef in the kitchen standing in the corner just mindlessly churning out tasting menus.
Service was OK, apart from the observations already made, but generally it was not up to the standard expected of a restaurant charging these prices. The menu had to be left on our table so that the waiting staff didn’t need to learn it and explain each dish upon its arrival.
We had a brandy and discussed the shortcomings of the restaurant with one of the more senior staff. We mainly talked about the ridiculous closeness of tables and he was in complete agreement, saying that he had had many complaints from customers and also that it made it difficult for his waiting staff, which it clearly did. He said that since the restaurant had been refurbished there had been much more focus from the business end of the management team on maximising revenues at the expense of the dining environment and experience.
Finally, and not restaurant-related, but I have to mention this. The next day we visited Rick Stein’s deli and I was going to buy a couple of bottles of wine. The first one I looked at was a bottle of Guigal’s basic Cotes du Rhone (2004 vintage), which I often buy. This wine has been widely available in Majestic for many years, and its price varies between about £6 and £8. In the deli it was £21. Many deli customers will not know much about wine, and will be relying on Rick Stein’s perceived integrity and moral standards when purchasing anything from him. When paying £21 for a bottle in his shop they would rightly expect to pay roughly the same amount for that wine in any other shop (I would accept perhaps a pound or two extra here given the location). They certainly would not expect to be paying restaurant prices in the shop, and in no circumstances should be asked to do so. I can only imagine the mark-up on his own-brand wines.