|A weasel, yesterday|
by guest reviewer Crispin Weasel, restaurant critic, beauty and sex columnist and editorial consultant on Middle Eastern affairs for the Mid-Wessex Times
I'm not really a fan of French cooking. Too many fancy sauces for my liking Give me good old fashioned British grub any day. But when my good friend A invited me along to try out Le Soixante-Neuf, a brand new hi-toned joint opened by our continental chums, I couldn't resist.
We wended our way down the Wessex lanes in A's open top sports car, the wind blowing through my lustrous mane, and arrived at the converted Victorian mansion set in 20 acres of stunning Mid-Wessex countryside in plenty of time for a sharpener before lunch. As we sipped our pints of single malt with brown and mild chasers, we perused the menu.
Now, I'm no cheerleader for le Française as I've said, yet I could hardly choose between the delicious sounding dishes and we ordered a second round as we umm'd and ah'd over the thrilling document we held in our hands. The 'foie gras pochés en Tesco lager value' sounded to die for and the salmon cremated in lighter fluid intrigued. Hell, I wanted to order the entire carte.
At last, we breathlessly gave our order and followed the waiter to our comfortable chairs at our linen clad table. As we sat down, we noted that the bright and airy room was redolent of a cruise liner, all wood panelling and Art Deco stuff. We sat back, sipping our apperitifs (A, a cheeky crème de menthe cocktail; me, a sambuca and Orangina dirty martini, both whipped up with élan by the talented mixologist) and admired the performance before us as the waiters moved around the room with all the choreographed grace of a corps de ballet.
As we chugged down the crisp Chablis, poured beautifully by our sommelier (who was obviously delighted when I pronounced his title correctly: 'so-meh-yay') we appraised our fellow diners. To our right, a young couple dressed in high street clobber who obviously didn't know their béchamel from their guacamole (maybe they will read this review and learn something) and to our right, a table of businessmen buttoned up in their suits and ties and more interested in discussing warhead sales targets than the quality of the crust on their bread (we of course noted it's excellence).
We had already popped the cork on a fine bottle of claret when the starters arrived, but they were well worth waiting for. If the chef is a conductor, and his cooks players in a culinary orchestra, then my armadillo fillet on a bed of roasted cactus was a symphony of flavours that danced like angels on my tongue. Indeed, it was piping hot and a generous portion too but I finished every last morsel, scraping them from the plate with the side of my knife. A's baby back ribs made for a dirty, filthy, sexy, messy, evil, Godless, serial killing, pagan Morris dance of a plate of food that had us both sucking his fingers clean.
We polished off the mid-meal sorbet without which no fine dining experience is complete. This was a particularly fine example fashioned from kitten saliva and ennui that we washed down with a slurp of the Super Tuscan we had moved onto. Then our main courses arrived and our lovely lunch was ruined. Its no exaggeration to say that they were not only the worst things we have ever been served in a restaurant, but they were in fact the worst things ever to be served in any restaurant anywhere, ever.
How the chef had managed to concoct such hideous creations from such fine locally sourced, hand grown, artisan, virginal, Soil Association certified ingredients I'll never know. My lamb's brain with chocolate jus looked like something you'd step on in an aggressively working class public park, while A's torchon of Boursin a la Lawson looked like it had been scraped off a Glasgow pavement on the Sunday morning after the Saturday night before, and then served with 'chef's special sauce' if you know what I mean.
Thank God then for desserts. You know me, I can't resist a pud and these were quite simply divine, (as was the bottle of Château d'Yquem '36 that we were by now necking back at a frantic rate). A Caramac and Softmint soufflé was heaven sent, forged by the sweat of some angelic chef pâtissier whose nimble fingers are probably equally at home playing Chopin's Ballade No.1 in Gm on a rare day off. It was ethereally light and melted in the mouth.
By contrast, A's tarte au flapjack was all crunch. And texture. And chewiness. It was sweet. It was nutty. It was the best tarte au flapjack full stop. We didn't want them to end so we ate them very very slowly and ordered another bottle of the spiffing Yquem to wash them down with.
Despite the main courses (never to be spoken of again), we gladly paid the bill over a cognac or two and would have willingly paid more had they let us. As we slowly made our way back to the car we looked back longingly to Le Siouxant-Neuf, sad that we were leaving but content in the knowledge that we would soon return.
A three course meal with wine, water and service costs an arm, a leg, your first born child and last shred of dignity.
(Attentive readers may have already realised that Crispin Weasel, and indeed Le Soixante-Neuf are both figments of my imagination, although both are very distantly based on composites of real people and real places. This piece was written as an illustration of the worst excesses and cliches of modern restaurant criticism for the students of Lulu Grimes's Food Writing Course, held at Leith's School of Food and Wine in London where I am a regular guest speaker in the 'art' of restaurant reviewing. Check the website for dates of the next course)