Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Cheese and Biscuits on tour - Catalonia 2008

I must be finally turning into a grumpy old man before my 30th birthday. While I can still often overlook sloppy service if the food is up to scratch and I have a glass of wine in front of me, I am definitely becoming more discerning (or "fussy" depending on who you talk to) and have found myself avoiding restaurants that serve decent food if I think it's going to take hours to get through it. Shocking, I know.

Perhaps Catalonia just suffered in direct comparison with the levels of service I'd been used to in the US, or maybe I was just unlucky. But there wasn't a single restaurant I visited last week that wasn't marred by dreadfully slow, indifferent or inconsistent service. "Highlights" included lunch in a charming Pyrenean mountain village (St. Lorenç de la Muga) in which every stage of the meal (getting menus, ordering, clearing plates) was punctuated by a half hour wait, and everything had to be asked for multiple times; dinner in L'Escala on two separate evenings where the first (largely positive) experience was matched by a kind of 'evil twin' evening three days later where all the same dishes came out slightly wrong and our charming waitress was replaced by a man in a string vest who smelt of body odour.

But there is one element which has become a real bugbear of mine, and that's the serving of extra table items such as olive oil and bread and tomato, which seems to depend on which day of the week you're eating and whether the waiter decides you're worthy enough to be given it. In the St. Lorenç place we noticed that all the other tables had toasted bread and a little plate of garlic cloves and tomatoes to rub on them, whereas we were halfway through our starter without being given any. Once I'd managed to rugby-tackle the waiter and pointed this out, he reluctantly brought some over, and when I asked for oil and vinegar, he strolled over to the nearest table and stole theirs. Similarly in L'Escala you can be comped bread and aioli one night and nothing the next, in the same restaurant, at the same table, from the same waiter.

It is these massive inconsistencies that make it nearly impossible to recommend anywhere in the Costa Brava because what is good one night can be terrible the next for no obvious reason. Towards the end of the stay our disillusionment with service in the town had reached such a level that we had more or less given up and largely cooked in instead. Which actually was no bad thing, thanks to some wonderful local fish and veg shops. But we did manage to squeeze out a handful of marginally positive dining experiences during the seven days, and I will present the best of them here (in no particular order):

1. Charcoal-grilled vegetables from La Taverna de la Sal (L'Escala), particularly the blackened artichoke which was great fun nibbling away at, served with the fiery house aioli (eventually).

2. A lovely bottle of Rigau Ros 1999 Cabernet Sauvignon (Empordà), from just up the road, went very well with a huge T-bone steak and grilled/baked potatoes.

3. A smashing bowl of what were described as 'Galician Clams', served in a salty (too salty for some but I have a famously high salt tolerance, which is just as well with Spanish food) white wine and garlic sauce. The meaty clams, served in a brand new tapas bar called Cu4tro, in Cadaqués, really were a revelation - meaty, rich and amazingly fresh.

4. Chorizo sausages from the local Carrefour, barbequed on the balcony alongside some pork ribs rubbed with paprika and herbs from the garden. I think it was probably at this point we decided we didn't need to suffer the pain of bad service to eat well.

5. Seared fois gras on toast at Cu4tro. So wrong it's right. A massive slab of fois and balasmic reduction, on toast. Not exactly tapas, in fact not exactly Spanish, but fois gras wins me over every time.

So apologies for the fact that 90% of this post has been a rant about Spanish - or should I say Catalan - service, but if it even fleetingly crosses the mind of a devout foodie such as myself that I can't face eating out because I know it's going to take hours and be a battle, then something needs to change. I'm off to France on thursday (Nantes, since you ask) after a good ten years away, so I'm hoping that my faith in restaurants will be thoroughly restored.


Caroline said...

You ARE grumpy these days. The Spanish like to spend a long long time over eating, they're not going to change that just because some angry little english blogger has marched in. As for the bread with tomato and garlic, I never get offered it either but I assume they think tourists don't want it or the other guests have asked for it, I'm sure it's not some conspiracy against you.
I know that the service isn't up to much in Catalonia but I'm happy to sacrifice that for all the lovely fresh seafood and beautiful scenery. I'm looking forward to that new Tapes bar in Cadaques by the way.

Assaf said...

When on vacation, picking up fresh and exotic produce from local markets and cooking them can be just as fun – if not more – as eating at restaurants that, as you wrote, sometime are strangely un-thrilled to serve.
Where are the pictures from the fish and veg shops?
Often, staying at a hotel, one doesn’t have the facilities to cook himself. You should be thankful for that BBQ…

Chris said...

You're absolutely right - I should have taken more pictures from the fish and veg shops, I just didn't think. Next time I promise! And believe me, I appreciate how blessed I was with that BBQ.

Douglas Blyde said...

I've experienced the worst customer service in Spain, from being barred the bar of Alfonso XIII, to a sulking, skulking waiter seemingly tied to an imaginary short cord to the kitchen in the Parador in Javier, to having unfortunates pull food off my plate in Salamanca. Okay, the last was not the venue's fault automatically, but was still dreadfully upsetting... But the sheer scale of their G&T measures often made up for it...

Caroline said...

Their G an T measures are ridiculous, I ended up being annoyed that there was no room for the tonic. Also I thought I should share my story of the some of the best service I've recieved in Spain. It was in a not particularly good restaurant in Barcelona. The waiters were Indian or Pakistani and they were very gracious. During the meal however they left serving us to go outside and beat up a homeless person. We watched as the guy fell to the floor and then they carried on kicking him! They then came back in and attended to us in the same manner as before. If was quite bizarre.

Douglas Blyde said...

Oh my God.