I don't usually complain, but...
Last week we went out to eat at a local restaurant whilst holidaying in the family mobile home. It’s always a gamble, especially in a holiday resort, where tourists line up to be disappointed by mediocre food and disaffected kitchen staff, and owners lose sleep over rents and retirement funds, vying with other eateries for customers. Of course, bad experiences are rare in France – we were just unlucky I suppose.
It was to be primarily a social occasion. The meal would be of secondary importance. There was Al, my husband, Alfie, my son, Sally and Paul, two friends, Ollie, Sam and Tom, their teenage sons.
Someone had recommended a place. Sally checked out the menu in advance and judging it to be refreshingly different from the ubiquitous pizza or hamburger restaurants, booked a table for eight thirty.
I’ll admit, I’m always a bit nervous about eating out at the best of times – home cooking is generally so much better. And, although French cuisine is more exciting than the local Beefeater Pub fare in England, one tourist resort is very much like another no matter where you are. You never know what you’re going to get, who will be preparing it, or whether it will provoke a violent reaction later. But, as I say, it was all about the company.
The menu was ominously prolific. Gordon Ramsay would have given it a severe edit. We made our selections, some of us ordering a starter and all of us carefully selecting a main course from the modern wipe-down menu. If only I had ventured into the back of the restaurant before the waitress came to take our orders.
Tom and I ordered cod in a sauce (unspecified, but which turned out to be largely flour and water), served with summer vegetables (cold sweet peppers tainted with curry powder). Four of our party went for the notorious French entrecote and chips, Sally had moules mariniere, Al had sole. The starters arrived and were eaten: A few prawns served with a dollop of mayonnaise, a meagre fruits de mer platter that looked as though it had been in a can moments earlier, an underwhelming ‘chiffonade’ of ham for Tom, fish soup for Alfie (straight from a jar, complete with sludge), and enormous salads for Paul, Ollie and Sam (mostly lettuce, decorated with cheese, fish and ham respectively). We were struck by the variations in portion size and nervously fascinated by the oddity of the dishes.
My piece of cod came skin-up. It measured less than the size of a small bar of soap and had rather less to recommend it in terms of flavour (I imagine). The chef had lavished four potato wedges on me and the afore-mentioned summer vegetables sat in a one-person earthenware dish, shivering. I exchanged more than glances with the waitress, who offered to bring me another piece of fish, and vanished before I could stop her.
I apologised to the party, feeling churlish for being so negative. This was no beachside café, however, and the prices had hinted at some element of quality, not to mention a warm plate and a few therms running through the food upon it.
We drank more wine, tried to find something positive to say, but Alfie reluctantly admitted that his steak was mostly fat, as was Sam’s, Ollie's and Paul’s. They ate the parts that were edible and looked miserable. Al, affable and uncomplaining, had eaten half his sole before asking me whether it should be pink and frozen in the middle.
In the meantime, our waitress returned with another miniscule piece of cod in a microwave-safe dish, only to meet my eye and hear that I would not eat it, neither would I pay for my meal, adding that Al’s fish was raw.
His second sole was hot and delicious.
By this time, the simple act of eating had become surreal.
The waitress placed her hands on her hips and adopted a conspiratorial air. Over the course of the next few minutes, various discoveries were made to explain her pained yet strangely gleeful expression: The owner, she said, was not himself. He was standing in for the washer-upper and, as a result, the ‘chef’ had been left unsupervised in the kitchen with his lack of passion running wild. This meant, our waitress told us, that he was serving ‘n’importe quoi’ to the diners. I asked my son what this meant (he’s fluent in conversational derogatory French, whereas I am more at home reading Moliere) and he told me that it meant the food was basically ‘bollocks’. I could only agree. As could the waitress.
Grumblings began to turn to calls for action and as the rest of the party had little French (my son was not confident enough to rise to the challenge), I asked the waitress to take me to the ‘patron’. A light flickered in her eye and she led me to the open kitchen where I was met by two young men (one no more than a teenager) both evidently brimming with pent up emotion and unused to being caught out. I told them that they should be ashamed to serve such food to their customers. This seemed to hit home – they had been expecting a rather more aggressive attack, I think. I felt no remorse for their embarrassment. The food had been exceptionally inedible.
The waitress, who was now unabashedly delighting in the spectacle of their maroon faces, led me further into the restaurant to speak to the patron, who was hosing down plates and looking shifty. On the counter, were the remnants of four entrecotes. His first defence was to point out the edible bits, sorting through the leftovers with a fork, oblivious to my incredulity. I said that the meal had been awful and that our evening had been ruined. What was he going to do about it? I would have been satisfied with an apology, a reduction in the bill and a quick getaway.
To my surprise, he responded that his evening had also been ruined, adding with a petulant flourish, as though I should be pleased, that he had sacked the chef with immediate effect. In a gesture of magnanimity he had removed the price of the meal I hadn’t eaten from the bill and offered to do the same for one of the steak and chips.
Paul was all for walking out.
I negotiated further, amazed that the man in charge could miss the point so completely.
In the end, the bill was adjusted a little more in our favour, but the evening still cost us far too much. Al and I went on the big wheel, just to add some frivolity to an otherwise sober evening, and because he had drunk too much wine. After that, we went home and Al had cheese and biscuits while I made myself a lovely tomato sandwich.