I’ve been thinking about setting up an Honest Restaurant Review site. Wouldn’t it be useful to have an objective, non-spiteful, reliable, review system? Not like Trip Advisor where ego, anonymity, and subjectivity gets in the way; nor Twitter which polarises the opinions of the criminally insane. Something that says it’s good when it’s good, and bad when it’s bad?
I would perhaps wait before I started my site to include a couple of enjoyable recent experiences courtesy of Fips and Norman Thrush, but the following would be one of the first batch of posts. See what you think, and let me know in the usual way.
The Six Brasserie, Varsity Hotel, Cambridge.
With the dam about to break, and a tidal wave of liquidity soon to flood the drought stricken valley, what will happen to the merchants and traders who ply their trade there? Is our already decimated retail sector to be saved, or washed away? For inflation is coming, we all agree – us, the people that go out and buy things, and increasingly too, the experts; only the Central Bankers are in denial – but as soon as they go out to lunch again, they’ll know.
The last time inflation ravaged household budgets the issues were more about clothing your family and putting food on the table; but shopping’s moved on from the Seventies, and we must consider what it’ll do to us this time round. A plausible notion is to say that most harm will be inflicted on the purveyors of faux sophistication; those who have peddled rubbish at a too high price for a couple of recent economic cycles and got away with it; those whose products and services are soonest dropped when the money no longer reaches as far. If so, the Six Brasserie at Cambridge’s Varsity Hotel needs to watch its step.
If you have been out to lunch lately, you probably went expecting a price hike from restaurants trying to make up lost ground, but you were perhaps not quite ready for the correction which has seen main courses go from £12-£15 to £18-£22; and for a standard £50-70 lunch, to turn into one that now costs something like £100-£120. You’d have certainly expected a change from when we were last allowed out during Eat Out to Help Out, and if you haven’t been out since then, good luck when you do. I have lunched out half a dozen times since early May, and as enjoyable a return to something resembling real life as that has been, it has lacked something – a hum, the sound of dropped cutlery, an inappropriate laugh; nevertheless, it’s been a pleasant, if noticeably expensive return to something a bit like what we once considered normal. But add the price hikes to managed rations, and it starts to feel like our soft middle is being squeezed from both ends.
Our outing was not worse for having chosen the only day of torrential rain in a run of glorious weather, but it did begin there. Not one of the many staff came forward to take our dripping coats and we were forced to sit with them slung across the backs of our seats; perhaps they had been instructed not to let anything spoil their traditional brasserie costumes. Their rooftop restaurant, which only provides a glimpse of the bragged about river views and then to no more than five percent of diners, and only then if they stand on tip toes and crane their necks, describes itself as a Brasserie, but it seems to do just as much trade as a cocktail bar and high-tea salon – a funny combination, especially as their high-tea starts at midday.
From their vast array of expensive sugary cocktails, I noticed that some of them were made by adding the intolerable artificial flavour of the children’s version of a proper aperitif, Aperol. Notwithstanding that, it’s presence on the menu indicated perhaps that a Campari and soda might be available? Our server checked with the manager – they didn’t stock Campari (how then would they make a Negroni? Never mind, we weren’t here for that). One of the three of us would have a glass of white wine – which of the twelve bottles listed were served by the glass? – they all were. She took one. The two men decided to have a beer; it had been a long time. Ah, the list. Not beer connoisseurs either then; very much the cocktail specialists here. Well, we’ll have two pints of the old favourite, Adnams. A short while later, two small, warm, tins of Adnams’ Mosaic were brought to the table. It would be unfair to describe Mosaic as an acquired taste, but it is a drink that you’d perhaps order specifically, already familiar with its strong citrus flavour. And if you were, you’d expect it to come chilled. It definitely is not a beer which can be considered a generic stand-in for any other Adnams beer, or any other sort of ale for that matter.
Things had only just got going again, so we forgave our server the lack of familiarity with the non-cocktail end of the drinks’ menu. But it was more of a worry when her ignorance extended to the main menu too.
My companions took a vegan option, a sort of mushrooms on toast. I chose whitebait, for want of a more attractive non-meat choice, and I was pleased that it came as just a few criss-crossed little fish like those funny Jenga-constructions of too fat chips – restaurants often over face you with this cheap starter which can taint the rest of the meal with the flavour of the oil in which it is cooked. I was slightly suspicious of the too large smear of aioli which dominated the small plate, and I was right to be, but more of that later. I’d asked for a glass of white wine to be brought with the starters, and none had, so I repeated the request to the new server. Eventually he came back to say that only two of the white wines came by the glass (but, err, didn’t your colleague … never mind), and my selection was not one of them. I chose again, and a little while later, with the small starter largely consumed, a glass of warm white wine was delivered.
My friends shared a bottle of red, and they progressed to plant-based burgers, for which there were low expectations, and no complaints. I received a plate of risotto. As it arrived, I asked for another glass of white wine, this time trying, ‘Any wine, as long as it is chilled.’ It came sometime later, and it wasn’t: there was not a single glass of cold white wine available in what I was coming to see was an establishment more about drinking than dining. We’d arrived at 12.15. The risotto came, not in a bowl, but on a small plate, and it barely covered its centre. It cost £17.50 and I’d say that there was about 25 pence worth of food on the plate. It is a long time since a restaurant review in England talked of quantity, but here we must. A dish which a little while ago would have cost £10-12, rocked in at £17.50, and had less than a decent starter’s quantity in it, for which recently the tariff was in the location of £5. Of course, you need not talk about quantity when the quality is outstanding, this dish though was considerably worse than one I’d make for myself at home; it was thin and watery, it had no flavour, it was not labelled as vegan yet no parmesan was offered, and crucially for a risotto, it didn’t have a good spoonful in it. No chef worth their salt would reckon on getting a plate like that past an experienced diner, let alone their boss, and I suspect that the accountant had more than a hand in its making. Or perhaps their copywriter is taking them through a Dickens’ phase.
The bill arrived, and the original server returned with it. We all know the procedure when we’re handed the credit card machine, to be faced with the question of whether we would like to add a gratuity before punching in our pin. On this occasion, the server tried to extract the commitment from me before handing over the apparatus. Had I said yes, I don’t know whether she would then have given it to me, or whether she’d have asked how much I wanted to add first. I always tip, even when the service has been poor. But not today. This play, to commit me to it, was the only part of the entire transaction that was handled fluently; it was the only aspect of their service that had a hint of having been planned, rehearsed, and committed to memory.
The Six Brasserie at the Varsity Hotel is doing more than benefitting from the good-natured tolerance of food price inflation, it’s doing its best to exploit it. It is not the sophisticated brasserie that it would have you believe, it’s a place for undiscerning customers who want to drink playtime cocktails, and tourists who want to eat sandwiches and cakes believing they are taking part in a cultured experience; the traditional kit of the servers and staff does nothing to disguise their ignorance about restaurant etiquette; the chef is either browbeaten by finance people into doing as they say, or is someone who knows no better. And for a place which is no more really than an attempt to create a smart bar, there is absolutely no evidence that anyone in there knows anything at all about anything other than today’s bewildering array of punning cocktails.
To be old fashioned about it, and as we might have said in the Seventies, it’s a rip off, and worse, it’s unashamed about it.