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Saturday, 13 July 2013

Six big letdowns

Disappointing meals are bad meals with a twist. You expected better.

VR and I are never disappointed by meals at the A10 autoroute services south of Paris. They're terrible, worse than those in the UK. But on the A10 we now prepare for terrible (ie, we take sandwiches.) Here are meals we didn't prepare for.

Chitchat Diner, near Princeton, NJ. I'd just finished telling my mother how reliable US breakfasts were when we entered the Chitchat. No food at all; the proprietress was closing down on the morrow. No filter coffee, just instant. As we left, my mother said the prop. had a tragic face. Writers find comfort where they can.

Paul et Virginie hotel, Mauritius. For an international clientele an international cuisine. Like the universal tool it failed in all instances. So bland I can remember nothing except a curry ten times more inoffensive than a korma.

Lunches in general in NZ. Look, I like cheese on toast but we were there for five weeks. Oh, and NZ whitebait consists of tiny baby eels: boiled fishy straw. Be warned.

Well recommended restaurant north of Victoria Station, London, name now forgotten. Meal may have been terrific but all memory has been overlaid by what I recall of the claret (I was hosting a Frenchman). So tannic it tasted like gravel. Prop. tried it and said steelily "a perfectly good Bordeaux." I've been off claret since.

Urban logis in Saumur, France. Guide book probably twenty years old. Highspot was final course - foil-wrapped La Vache Qui Rit cheese paste. No coffee available; had to walk across road.

Tourist hotel (name forgotten), Tokyo. Hundred-year-old eggs. Like yesterday's blancmange.


  1. Baby eels are considered a luxury near the estuary of the River Ebro in Spain and I am told on the banks of the Avon in England. Reducing them to the texture of straw seems a shame.

    "...Fate cannot harm me I have lunched to day", wrote The Rev Sydney Smith concluding his poem on how to dress a salad. Fate seems to have issued a number of blows in your diretion. Surely there must have been some lunches worthy of remembering for their excellence.

  2. Joe: "considered a luxury" - the anonymous recommendation we should all be suspicious of. There are no doubt equally anonymous people in Japan who feel the same way about hundred-year-old eggs but I beg to differ.

    I set out to write about disappointing meals since they have the potential for entertainment. It's almost impossible to write about excellent meals without appearing smug and/or boasting. Fate may have issued these blows but the time-span (forty-five years) has eased their effect.

  3. 'A curry ten times more inoffensive than a korma'. Sounds about par for the course in the francophone world - is Mauritius francophone? It certainly seems popular with French tourists.

    I had a very peculiar sausage curry for lunch in NZ. We were in ravishingly beautiful spot miles from anywhere, the eatery was the only one to be found and it was really long gone lunchtime anyway, so beggars couldn't be choosers. Tom and my sister settled for just chips, but I was so curious about the very idea of a sausage curry I had to try it. Actually I kind of liked it, it was like something one might do on a whim with not a lot of choice of leftovers, but like your Mauritian curry, it was very bland, I think if I was going to make a sausage curry it would need to be with a good dollop of Pataks Madras paste at least.

    What you say about disappointment coming from expecting better is true in its inverse, of course, so some of the most memorable best meals are the ones where you had no expectations. We stopped on a whim on the way home at a newish place the other day, fresh and clean but rather hot colours and polyester curtains, and had three decent courses, a quarter of wine and coffee for 12.50 euros, and Tom had a meaty grilled travers de porc with truly crisp crackling on it, a hitherto unknown thing in this land. Sadly I only had the moules frîtes which were perfectly good but not quite in the same league as crackling.

    I like your mother's observation of the proprietor's 'tragic face'.

  4. Lucy: French is the second language on Mauritius. I am trying to remember if I've been offered a curry on the French mainland. Can't say I have. Which is just as well because the cook would intentionally get it wrong as part of a campaign aimed at proving that other countries know nothing about cuisine.

    Short of reading matter this morning I found myself looking at comments sent to dead-and-gone Works Well. I was delighted to see that we shared a liking for sausage casserole so your willingness to try sausage curry comes as no surprise. Would that we had had the choice in some of the more remote watering holes in NZ. Dinners at the farmstays were usually lamb-centred, somewhat robust but OK. Lunch was a lottery and I hope I'd don't sound racist when I add that the worst caffs were run by Maoris.

    As to unexpected pleasures I find myself wondering whether I'd have remembered the details you mention in the €12.50 bargain place. "Rather hot colours and polyester curtains" - probably no. I wonder what percentage of women have that kind of reaction?

    Crackling! Wow! That would have been a French first for me.

  5. How about consommé with pieces of turtle meat swimming in it? Yuk, Yuk, Yuk. Served by my mother from all people.

  6. Ellena: My aim was to look at disappointment not revulsion. I suspect you would never have had high hopes of that dish.

    Here's a general example of what I had in mind: you're in a location you're unfamiliar with and you need lunch. You're forced to pick a restaurant based on its outward appearance. You find a charming looking place with wisteria growing round the door, a garden that's prettily arranged and a menu (assuming it's a country where restaurants are legally required to show their menu out of doors) that seems inventive. You go in and are offered dishes that have been kept warm under infra-red heaters for the last hour in a veritable Death Valley selection of dried-up food. A bad meal, yes, but it's also a disappointment. You went in encouraged to think you'd do better.

  7. Are there any meals where you have been pleasantly suprised? I think for me, the shack in France was definitely one of those.

  8. Cool Kid: Yes I have been pleasantly surprised during my gorging life but this post wasn't about those times. The theme was disappointment. The outdoor caff in France you refer to is called Les Tilleuls (hard to pronounce) and, as you probably know by now, we deliberately returned there in June. I was attracted by barbecued mutton. I joked with the proprietress and asked if the place was recommended in the Michelin Guide, the French handbook to often poncy watering holes. She said it wasn't and I said that was a pity. Needless to say, although next year's villa is quite a bit further away, we will be making a third pilgrimage - chosen on the day since enervating heat is an essential.

    The surrounding village is called St Maurice-de-Navacelles - an oddity typical of France: the smaller the place, the harder it is to get the name on to the signposts.