FAR BE IT FROM ME to imply any criticism to associates, friends and pals in the following report associated with a restaurant that the aforementioned may have persuaded Mrs Melling and Mr Smiff to try out. Fair dos, we wanted to see if the restaurant in the square of this village was now up to providing a quality eating experience, after years of indifference, uncertain ownership and the poor patronage that inevitably attends the rumour of under-performance on the eating out front.
Now, I need to make it clear: what follows is strictly my observations and perspective. It is not anything to do with composing a critique either fairly or unfairly for "Trip Advisor" or similar. In no way would I want to discourage anyone from finding out themselves what is or is not a fine dining experience, for them. Names are omitted as a precaution in that respect, well mostly they are. I take it on trust, dear reader, that you will not post this elsewhere as it is hereby declared my copyright, OK?
The restaurant in question [NB not The Magali but one in the centre of Sablet] has this year been receiving a considerable face lift, taken over by the adjacent Bar de Sports, to be run, we were given to understand, to provide a more refined class of dining experience than that which appertains in the Bar, which simply provides a satisfactory three courser every weekday lunch and pizzas in the evenings. We believed this to be the aspiration of the owner (and we still do). He has worked hard to make the establishment attractive, at no small cost we are sure.
At an apéro Mrs Melling and myself put on for those of our friends currently in town, it was agreed we would all give the revamped restaurant a trial, in the spirit of supporting the initiative of our friendly and chirpy bar owner, hopefully to help in some small way by contributing to the patronage all new ventures must necessarily seek. A booking was made, a fixture was secured.
I have to tell you now, dear reader, that the experience was not a happy one. On the plus side, our table was almost ready upon our arrival (some cutlery was missing, never to arrive without prompting or raiding adjacent tables) and looked very presentable and comfortable. We were even able to watch from the terrace upon which we were seated, the former President of the Republic, François Hollande with his attractive partner (her name escapes me) taking refreshment at the bar with local 'names' after Mr Hollande had done a good few hours book signing at the 31st Sablet Book Fair, now concluding as the evening encroached.
The menu was as displayed in a case on the street level but copies of this were not available to us at table: we were eventually invited to peruse a chalk board menu, which as a piece of communication rather fell short. Only those immediately adjacent could read it, I am told it was mis-spelt (I wouldn't know that of course, as my written french is as bad as my spoken, and as you may have gathered prior to this account, I blame my school), and so amateurly rendered in minuscules of chalk that the waiter had to be enlisted to interpret.
As is common practice in most dining venues, we were initially invited to partake of an aperitif of our choice, and indeed, one of our number (there were eight of us) did almost achieve the rosé she requested: a bottle was duly delivered to our table -- but at the opposite end to her good self and without benefit of the removal of the cork.The bottle remained stubbornly unopened until all our order for starters, main courses, and for some reason, our desserts had been established. I looked forward to my aperitif which for me would be a pastis -- but the waiter had now disappeared. In fact no one got an aperitif except for the full, unopened bottle of Rosé. No water on the table I noted.
Eventually our waiter (or the waiter more accurately, there being but one) came to see what wine we might take with the meal. Still no water, so it was requested. Eventually a single bottle of unchilled tap did appear (one for eight people, all of whom had decided by now that the aperitif idea was best abandoned and that we would go with the wine of the evening). A member of our group pointed out to the waiter the need to open the bottle of Rosé and so he, good naturedly and I think with a degree of entrepreneurial zeal, went away again to try and find a corkscrew or similar to render the contents of the bottle accessible to those who like that sort of thing (I sit Rosé out mostly as it is thin fare, neither one thing or another, a ladies' drink, etc etc).
At last Mrs Melling took it upon herself (on behalf of those of us not Rosé inclined) to order a bottle of Rouge at a mere €17.In due course it arrived and we fell upon it, distributing to all those not sucking up the recently liberated Rosé, so the bottle was cleared in rather quick time. We ordered a second.
Alas, this restaurant keeps but a limited cellar it would seem: there was only one bottle of that particular wine -- and we had just quaffed it. Perhaps we would like to choose another, of similar provenance? Trouble was, the next 'one up' on the wine list was seven euros more expensive. You will be relieved to know that despite our eyes lighting up with joy at the sight of a Côte Rôtie on the list, they clouded over somewhat when we noted the reckoning, a mere €68 a pop. Sensible or what? And 'pop' it is not!
Nevertheless, with the agreement of most of those at our table, we did plump for 'the next one up'. One of our number (he knows who he is!) made it clear to the young manager when he appeared with said superiorly priced wine in hand, that we were rather unprepared to pay the list price as the establishment had so clearly fallen down on not stocking enough of the somewhat euphemistically called 'cheaper' wine. Rather ungraciously the young manager reluctantly agreed and furthermore took away the ridiculous glasses he had brought to our table with which to drink this new vintage when we made it clear that we didn't like them and were quite content with the glassware already provided, including I might add, tumblers for water. The wine was good, even very good, and we drank another bottle of it in fairly quick succession (hang the price!) but not before the young manager was for having a few sharp words with Mrs Melling about the tone of the complainant on our table, as if it was anything to do with her, already! Notwithstanding, we were indeed charged the reduced price, as it should be when the wine you have started out with is suddenly a non runner.
De l'eau, s'il vous plaît? Of course . . . but nothing came . . . yet awhile.
Subsequently we have wondered why there was no pichet wine on offer for groups such as ours: even elevated eateries offer such things here in France. . . neither was there a wine 'by the glass' option, and while we are at it, no cheese alternative to the sweet… but I am getting ahead of myself…
The first course arrived and everybody got what they ordered even though our waiter had not the slightest idea as to whom had ordered what. I didn't take a note of how long it took to arrive: not snappy but I have known much worse. What came to mystify me was the interval between this course and the next. I think a second bottle of water, this time cold, did arrive during this epoch. Thankfully the assembled chums were now fully into the spirit of the occasion if slightly bemused by the bland oddities that had been presented unto us as the first course. I found mine particularly unappertising, and at the subsequent post mortem none of the brethren could award theirs more than a C minus either, although I noted that most had managed to clear the square black plates these delicacies had been delivered upon, well more or less, because there was at least plentiful supplies of bread to mop up with.
Now, at last, the main course arrived. Once more the waiter was unaware as to which plate should go where but with some of the powers of recall left to us we were able to roughly apportion dishes to the expectant customer. A number of the steak orientated option had been requested with varying degrees of cooking, saignant to à point. Sadly, there was no possible identification of which was which and nobody 'on the beef' got what they ordered, quite. The fish, we think possibly bass in another life, Mrs Melling records as 'terrible' in that it had the wrong texture, was overcooked and was stone cold. I had the pork. It too was slightly on the cool-continental side of things, four cubes in a sauce of some sort or other, chaperoned by a hummock of luke warm vegetables, luckily quite low in profile. Flavour-wise the composition was quite acceptable even though the pork was somewhat stringey and less than lean.
I made enquiry of my fellow diners as to their views and I have to report that all found their plates quite unsatisfactory. The steaks had been miscooked, the meat was universally tough and unyielding, while all opined that the plated up dishes must have been sitting around at the pass awaiting the arrival of the steaks, calmly cooling whilst hoping for distribution. A third and final bottle of water finally appeared but sadly not chilled . . . demand for its contents was by now falling off somewhat.
I quite liked the sweet I had ordered but for the life of me I cannot recall what it was. We are pretty sure that all three variants were 'bought in', Brake Brothers or something of the sort: good in their way but not home made as one might expect for the cover price. We declined coffee as the hour was late but there was clearly some traces of dissatisfaction in the air so that the owner, being a man of prescience, offered us all a rather refreshing digestif, offsetting some of the feelings of disappointment and allowing us to disperse with the good natured boisterousness that we occasionally slip into after such an occasion.
The shortcomings of this experience have coloured the following week. More than once we have discussed the episode with our fellow diners and long is the list of transgressions identified as shortcomings that has now been aired. I am not trotting them all out again beyond what I report above; I will leave the episode here . . .
. . . except to report that the following day, as the cool of the evening began to allow free movement once more and the urge for sustenance to reappear, we went to the Bar primarily for a drink but then elected to order pizzas. They came to us within a few minutes; generous, tasty, well presented, properly segmented and hot. We enjoyed them much more than the previous night's production: the pizzas for two plus our drinks attendant cost about the same as one bottle of the previous night's 'next one up' wine. Rocky table notwithstanding and with cooling mists supplied to combat the heat of the dying day.
The thing is, we so want the restaurant venture to succeed, Sabbers needs a quality place. And who knows, some day it might just get it, but for the foreseeable . . . well, they needs find some other sucker! Oh, – and if you are of the vegan or vegetarian persuasion, you might as well stay home and mix it with the tofu, there's nothing for you here!
If you have been, thanks for reading this to the bitter end. Off you go and make yourself a sandwich, you deserve it …