Saturday, 23 October 2010

Cote Restaurant - How did you annoy me? Let me count the ways...

UPDATE JULY 2012.  We did give Cote another go for a pre-theatre meal and it was much better.
Food and service good in a bistro style way.   My (and many others) irritations with those restaurants that still train their staff to ask annoying questions by rote still remains but I believe the backlash has started!!

The Socks are always pleased when a new recommended restaurant opens in Brighton and so it was when Côte opened in the summer serving 'good value' French Bistro style food.

So lunching there today we had expectations of a reasonable meal but whilst the food wasn't bad, there were so many little things that were wrong that it drained any pleasure out of the experience.  Individually each thing would have been only a slight irritant but cumulatively they contributed to an almighty annoyance.

1.  Attempting to fob you off with the worst tables.

2/10 on the irritation scale. The place was two-thirds empty but they tried to place us on the smallest two person tables and we had to insist on one of the better placed ones.

2. Within seconds of being seated a waitress was asking us what drinks we wanted and what water we wanted.

5/10 on the irritation scale. This is a slightly tricky one.  If we were dining out somewhere posh then we might want to order an aperitif to drink whilst perusing the menu but chances are, that in places like this at lunch time, we will want to see the menu and drink list first and not be hassled before we can even get our coats off.

3. Having been told we didn't want water the waitress for some reason put a water glass on the table which we didn't need and was in any case not washed properly.  My sleeve stuck to some dried pool of sticky stuff on the table.  When called over and asked to clean the table the waitress asked again if we wanted water  - we hadn't changed our minds on this issue during the 3 minutes since she last asked.

7/10 on the irritation scale.

4. Whilst perusing the menu we noticed that "a discretionary gratuity of 12.5%" would be added to our bill.

8/10 on the irritation scale - whilst we are happy to reward decent service that is definitely at our discretion and we find it extremely annoying  that we would have to be proactive in getting it deducted from the bill in the event the service is not up to scatch.

5.  Food was ordered and starters of moules mariniere and smoked salmon arrived quickly.  Actually these were OKish but given we were already a bit annoyed it was easy enough to feel that the smoked salmon was a bit tasteless and the moules came in a small bowl with no bread.  We were rather taken aback at this as we just cannot believe that anywhere in France (and the restaurant does have pretensions to being Bistro French) would serve moules (or indeed a meal) without bread. We had to pay £1.50 extra for it.  The moules were a bit gritty. The wine glass was a bit dirty.

8/10 on the irritation scale

6. So we've got the wine, we've got the food, we've got the bread. We've got our first mouthful of food and the waitress turns up and says "Is the food OK for you guys!"

10/10 IRRITATION! I ABSOLUTELY FREAKIN HATE IT WHEN THEY INTERRUPT ME CHEWING OR TALKING TO MY PARTNER OR READING THE PAPER OR WHATEVER TO ASK A BY ROTE QUESTION FOR THE SAKE OF IT!!! Also I don't particularly like being addressed as 'you guys' but I can get over that one.  Once in a really quite decent and well-known restaurant in Brighton I was chewing on a mouthful of food when the waitress asked this question and stood there and sighed impatiently when I didn't give her an immediate response!  Nevertheless on this occasion we masticate our mouthfuls and nod politely at her.

Two minutes later someone else asks us the same question.  At this point I avoid looking at them and resolutely carry on with the meal I am trying to enjoy.

7.  The main course of coq-au-vin is less than lukewarm.  We don't wait for the waitress to come and ask us if "the food is OK for you guys!" we use our initiative and call her over.  I tell her I don't want it microwaved I want a properly cooked meal that hasn't been hanging around cooling. In the meantime the Bedsock's sirloin steak frites with a bearnaise sauce has arrived.  The steak is good and cooked medium rare as requested.  The frites are in a little paper cone with emphasis on the 'little'.  The bearnaise sauce cost extra.

5/10 on the irritation scale. Actually, the reason why this isn't higher on the scale is because they recoup the situation by immediately bringing a new warm coq-au-vin to the table.  BUT during this time was have been asked twice more "if everything is OK with you guys!".  This pushes the irritation factor over the 10 and the Bedsock sternly tells the last person to ask it that it is really too much.  This happens to be a poor waiter who says he has been told to check if we are alright given the food mishaps.  I feel sorry for him - it is not his fault. It is not our fault.  It is the fault of whoever is running the place to get his staff to work as a team and know what each other is doing so that the customer is not continuously harassed throughout the meal by staff asking the same needless question.  In fact, much as I hate the way Waggamama mark on your placemat the fact that you have been asked and answered this question, at least this ensures it only gets asked the once and if anyone by some mistake asks it again you can just point at the mark on the placemat without having to gulp down your mouthful of unmasticated food in order to give them an answer!!!!!!

8. By this time we had taken deep breaths and prepared ourselves for the ultimate annoyance of being charged 12.5 percent service for this debacle and having to ask for it to be taken off the bill.  Amazingly someone was clued up enough to have taken it off.  Nevertheless our lunch at Côte costs us £57.00 for a two course lunch with 3 of the cheaper glasses of wine so I wouldn't say it was good value.

We won't be going back.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

By popular request.....

According to the divine James Alexander Sinclair "there are not nearly enough blogposts where we find you you lying in luxuriously enbubbled baths"*.  So in order to remedy the shortfall we have 'FISH SPA'!!!

In their ongoing mission to "do things that we will in all likelihood never do again" the Socks saw a Fish Spa in San Sebastian and immediately booked foot therapy sessions.  For the uninitiated the procedure is as follows

1) Clean feet in vibrating foot bath
2) Immerse feet in warmish tank of fish
3) Allow fish to nibble away all the deadskin and gunk off your feet
4) For a small extra fee afterwards you can have the fish fried up and served with an aioli as tapas

It was interesting to note that whilst the fish in the Sock's tank went beserk nibbling at her tootsies, the Bedsock's tank didn't seem so interested. Theories as to why this might have been include:

1) The Socks feet offered more tasty dead skin for the fishies
2) The Bedsock's feet retained a slight (but offputting) aroma of Tea Tree oil
3) The fish were already full after lunching on someone elses feet

It was quite a pleasant sensation - a bit like having a small electric current humming through.  It seems that the fish only do feet which quite frankly is probably just as well.


* see comments on previous post

Monday, 11 October 2010

Prieuré Notre Dame D'Orsan - Soul and Body

Although 'Body and Soul' was the theme of  this year's Festival of Gardens at Chaumont* nowhere could be a more appropriate place to nurture them than the beautiful Prieuré D'Orsan - one of my favourite gardens and our next holiday destination.  After my mid-summer malaise led to the postponement of our planned holiday to South Africa we needed a special treat to cheer us up and a one night stopover five years ago had left us wanting more.  I had  booked not the most expensive of the handful of rooms but, for us, the most desirable, an attic space with three windows each with a different view over the gardens. Our room had a stone floor, sloping walls clad in blonde-wood, a couple of Lloyd loom chairs and the kind of uncluttered, spartan simplicity we like. The views are enough to tempt me out of the cocooned warmth of the enormous, comfortable bed to confront the early autumn morning cool drifting in through the open windows. Cold room - warm bed, just the way it should be.

I stand by the narrow window and am mesmerized by a thousand colours green.

To the west arbours and arches

to the north orchards and raised beds

across the roof to the south..

In 1995 at Orsan in the Berry region of France architects Patrice Taravella, Sonia Lesot and gardener Gilles Guillot created anew a medieval garden at the Prieuré D'Orsan.  They bought back to life "an art of gardening reminiscent of pre-Renaissance times" using the highly -refined art of wood-tressing and plant-training as shown in illuminations to recreate the style of a monastery garden.  Although the garden is open to the public part of the day, guests have the sole use of it for the rest. There are few people around mid-week so we have the place almost to ourselves.

To me the beauty of the garden is its order which provides an incredibly serene and relaxing atmosphere.  Despite the fact that everything but EVERYTHING has been twisted and trained, cut, contorted and caged so precisely, this is not a garden under stress. There is no sense that the plants are fighting or merely enduring their bondage, they are embracing it, cloaking, covering and caressing the frameworks they cling to.  This is a garden both loving and loved as these hearts reflect

Patrice has provided a list of gardens to visit and things to do in the Berry area but we don't want to leave our cloistered confines.  Why visit another garden when this is so beautiful and we have time to sit and stare,

to laze on one of the many woven chairs or benches and read, to walk around the kitchen gardens and wonder what will make its way to our evening repast,

to work out how we reach the chairs at the centre of the vegetable labyrinth

to wander out to where the hedges open and the garden morphs into a wildflower meadow, to watch the abundant wildlife from red squirrels to vibrant butterflies

or just enjoy the endless endeavours of the hedge trimmers

The only thing that saddens me is that the lavenders lining the hornbeam cloisters have gone.  The hornbeams have filled out and the lavenders were old and there was no longer space for them but I miss them, their perfume and the visiting hummingbird moths that I first saw here the last time we stayed.

But all things change and there are new views and vistas like this one through the hedging giving a glimpse of the showbeds of leeks and cabbages like a blue-tinged infinity pool.

Even in the best of gardens a little devil will be chomping away...

Whilst the garden is feeding the soul, Patrice Taravella's exquisite cooking is soul food for the body.  He describes it as "long way from the formal approach ... and closer to the meals shared with a gathering of friends." This is food the way we love it, the freshest of ingredients many of which are picked straight from the Prieuré's gardens and cooked in a way that allows each individual flavour to speak for itself.  Despite the fact that the Filet deVeau aux Morilles is perfect cooked with earthy flavours, the Filet de Canard aux Pèches de Vigne is perfectly balanced with fowl and fruit flavours to die for,  it is the vegetables that give full voice to the dishes.  A course of fresh goats cheese and tomato is unbelievably exquisite the fresh, clean cut of the flavours zinging in our mouths.

I'm told the tomato is green zebra, one I have heard of and can (will) grow from seed but I can't believe I will ever achieve this tart, citric, fruitiness with one I have grown myself.***  Patrice is not a man afraid to use salt - not uniformly in the cooking but a sprinkle of salt crystals across the dish and in tiny clusters on the food which suddenly explode in your mouth cutting into and complimenting the clean flavours.  I ask him if this is some special magic salt but he laughs and says it is just salt and that fleur de sel is for the tourists.

And if the tomato is a revelation the Oignon Confit a Chèvre is a masterpiece.  Such simple ingredients cooked to a perfection of intensified flavour - it is caramelised onion but not as we have ever known it!

There are only three couples eating in the chic dining room, the others of whom are French.  Patrice informs me that he can always tell which the British diners are as they invariably move their wine glasses from the top right of their plates setting to the near side of it.  I am aghast as this is exactly what I have done although the Bedsock who has left his in situ is looking smug.  As an excuse for this ghastly faux pas I explain that I need the glass close and to the side as otherwise my dress will dangle on the plate as I reach across for it. I  demonstrate this my linen sleeve soaking some sauce up on its way to the wine. Neither Patrice nor the Bedsock are impressed and for the rest of the meal I try and keep my wine topside of my plate setting but for those like me, who fall upon their wine like a thirsty beast, it is harder to do than one might think.

At least I am not committing the ultimate sin of texting and tweeting from my i-phone as a Frenchwoman, who has positioned herself on the one table that will receive a strong enough wi-fi signal,  has been doing throughout every meal.  This is so discourteous both to her partner and to our charming host.  It has not gone unnoticed by the latter and the next day when I take my lap-top to the sitting room and with a certain sense of guilt link myself up to the internet Patrice remarks that "everyone is now quite addicted to these things" and adds that he doesn't even have a TV.

I point out that if I lived somewhere as beautiful and time consuming as the Prieuré I probably wouldn't spend my days slobbing on the sofa watching America's Next Top Model either. My excuse for the lap-top is that I am writing a garden blog about Chaumont which we have just visited.  "Chaumont pfffft! These are not gardens, they should not be there for so long each year and they give people the wrong impression of how cheaply and quickly a 'garden' can be made" opines Patrice.  I tell him that there was a similar backlash against 'Groundforce' in the UK but that actually I thought that Chaumont was fun and that they were more art installations than gardens.  I don't think I have convinced him.  In order to appear intelligent I say that "Forest gardening is now becoming popular in the UK."  Luckily before Patrice can ask me what forest gardening actually is, another guest distracts him and I am saved from displaying my complete lack of knowledge on this matter.

The reading room is filled with books and magazines about gardening many of which feature articles on the Prieure including some beautiful photograph albums detailing the journey of the Prieure from ruin to restoration.  I have asked Patrice if he has produced a cookbook but he says he has written enough books this year already.  He proudly shows me a copy of 'Hortus' which features his garden.  I ask what happens to all the fruit crops from the many vines, apples, medlars, pears etc. entwined around the garden.

"No fruit this year" he shrugs.  I'm astonished but he explains that Berry is on France's hail belt ("Hallé Berry" I think but luckily the words don't reach my mouth).  Early in July a huge hail storm gathered.  Normally the Prieuré is notified by the Met Office in advance so that they can set-up a machine that pumps some kind of stuff into the atmosphere which will melt the hail before it hits.  Sorry to be so vague on this but I was a little gobsmacked and wasn't sure whether Patrice was joking.  He wasn't - this time there was no warning and thirty minutes of hard, heavy, hail hit the garden washing a layer of mud off the clay soil and through the lower area of the house.  It also damaged and destroyed all the fruit and only time will tell how much of the garden will die of disease invading the weakened trees. He shrugs philosophically in a way that French people and farmers must so often do.

On our last afternoon we notice a photoshoot taking place in the garden.  Patrice nonchalantly says it is yet another advert being filmed against this backdrop.  They are dressing one of the more intricate woven garden seats with what appears to be accessories including a hat, a suitcase and wait for it.... a pair of fuckme shoes!**

I have an idea that a thousand women wearing fuckme shoes could stamp their stilettoes around the lawns, aerating the soil and helping Patrice with his clay drainage problem.  Luckily these words don't reach my mouth either.

Patrice describes the Prieuré as a place to "ensure your happiness and rest, as well as giving you a chance to recover your health and strength away from the rest of the world."

We came, we saw, we rested.

* see earlier blog here
** for and earlier blog on fuckme shoes see 'What the Romans did for us' here
***we later find green zebra tomatoes on sale at Saintes farmers market and they are just as good!

Monday, 4 October 2010

Misty Morning in the Pyrenees

It has been a long held ambition to awaken early enough in the morning to venture out with camera and capture cobwebs dripping with dawn dew.  As you might imagine the tucked-in warmth of my continental quilt cocoon has too often provided a stumbling block to this enterprise.  So it was with great excitement that I awoke to a misty Pyrennean morning at our mountain inn and found a lacework of cobwebs hanging heavy with crystal droplets from the trees around.

These are my sought for pictures - I just love them and hope you do too.  Clic on them to enlarge for full effect and don't miss the detail in the last one...

Early morning mist in the valley below


Astonishing colours picked up by the watery webs

Delicately different patterns to each web

 Packed lunch!