Wednesday, 9 September 2009
It was the best of meals, it was the worst of meals. In fact in the end, it wasn't quite either, it was just maddeningly, bewilderingly inconsistent, and giving an overall score to a sequence of small dishes, 50% of which were excellent and 50% horrible, served half in daylight and half in increasing pitch blackness, accompanied by service that veered between winningly professional and laughably incompetent, will prove quite a challenge. Let's see how we do.
First of all, the traditional Ramsay velouté starter. Perfectly pleasant, with a miniscule amount of lobster meat but with an interesting if not wholly successful cold parmesan ice cream thingy (OK, a "parfait"). As with so many of Ramsay's sub-3* dishes, it's admirable if not entirely loveable. A bit like the man himself, in fact.
The first proper course was a neat little row of marinated beetroot and cheese constructions. These were pretty good for a vegetarian dish - the sharpness of the marinated veg was balanced nicely with the rich cheese and pine nuts added some pleasant texture. Nothing too extraordinary though.
Up next, the famous Maze signature dish of an ironic 'BLT' - that is, tomato gelée, bacon onion cream and lettuce velouté. An ambitious dish (just look at the recipe) and one with a weight of expectation behind it, I'm afraid I was slightly underwhelmed. It was fine, just absolutely nothing more than you might think cold tomato jelly, bacon bits and lettuce soup would taste like. The best bit, in fact, was the accompanying croque monsieur, which was a perfectly balanced and strongly flavoured cheese and ham toastie. And who doesn't like a cheese and ham toastie?
So, from the ridiculous to the sublime. The next course of pork belly, pig's head, crackling and jasmine tea was a pleasingly powerful mix of flavours and textures. The jasmine "tea", in particular, was as good a sauce I have had for a very long time, rich and satisfying with an incredibly deep, complex flavour. The pork belly was slightly on the chewy side but tasted good enough, and the crackling was delicate and fun to eat. I can only apologise for the photo, my poor iPhone by this time battling with the bizarre compulsion of the staff to turn the house lights down every ten minutes. I should also mention that a vegetarian dining companion had by this time been served a full four out of five dishes garnished with pea shoots. If you are a vegetarian and want to eat at Maze, you'd better like pea.
So from the sublime, back to the ridiculous. Roasted Anjou pigeon was a disappointingly stringy cut of breast meat (I nearly pulled a muscle trying to cut the damn thing up), with a wobbly skin and an overly sharp red wine sauce. Sadly, that wasn't the worst thing about it though. Through the murk of the restaurant lighting (they had turned them down again) I noticed an ominous black blob of something very dark perched on top of the pigeon breast. Thinking it would be some sort of marinated fruit or braised vegetable, I popped it in my mouth. My stomach instantly heaved in reaction to a huge blob of bitter chocolate, sickly and overwhelming and completely unsuitable in this amount to the rest of the dish. Even if the pigeon had been good quality (it wasn't) or cooked well (it wasn't), the baffling addition of half a pound of raw 70% chocolate as a 'garnish' to this meat was a complete disaster. Adding a small amount of chocolate to liven up a red wine sauce or chilli con carne is perfectly acceptable. Dumping such a relatively huge amount onto a dish such as this (bearing in mind these are all small tasting plates) is a frankly unforgivable mistake. Awful.
Unbelievably, the house lights dropped yet again before the arrival of the pre-dessert, which was a lovely shot of lemon sorbet sat on top of an incredibly strongly flavoured lime and passion fruit jelly. Served with it was a perfectly moist almond financier (cake). I was beginning to feel dizzy by this point, and it wasn't just because I couldn't see the floor. How could the same kitchen that considered it acceptable to turn out that chocolate pigeon monstrosity also produce such an interesting and exciting dessert?
The final course was served in near-darkness. The ironically-titled "peanut butter and cherry jam sandwich" was nothing of the sort, it was just a pleasant combination of peanut-flavoured ice cream and cherry jam and sorbet. I would like to tell you it was presented well, but I could hardly see it - I just blindly hacked away in front of me with my spoon until it eventually came back empty. It tasted fine, but as the saying goes we eat with our eyes first, and if I wanted to dine in the dark I would have booked elsewhere.
I will also say a word about our waiters. The front of house was professional and sharp, and the sommelier friendly and helpful. But in between periods of excellent service was an incident where a member of our table (I wasn't drinking, for a change) was shown his empty wine bottle and asked (actually more like mumbled) something about wanting another one. This was, bear in mind, well after we had finished our last savoury course. Given a firm no, he slunk off, then another member of staff immediately returned and poured nearly a full glass of wine out of what suspiciously looked like the same "empty" bottle. Now, I wouldn't suggest for a moment they had swapped the bottles to make it look empty the first time, but even so the implication, without us being asked to examine the bottle closely, was that it was empty. And I wonder - had we had said yes to another bottle when first asked, would that final glass from the first bottle have mysteriously disappeared?
The final insult, as is sadly so often the case, was the bill. I had barely more than a sniff of our single bottle of wine between the three of us, from the lower end of the wine list, and we only ate the "recommended" number of dishes - that is, 7 small plates of food each. And yet the bill came to nearly £100 per person. This is too way much to feel like good value when there are such glaring errors in the cooking. Perhaps, if you went every day for a couple of weeks and worked your way through the myriad of dishes you'd eventually be able to construct a flow of their best offerings and be able to enjoy a reasonably consistent evening. But by that time not only would you still only have a solid single Michelin-star meal but you'd have permanently damaged your eyesight and be about £1000 worse off. So your best bet is just to go to one of the many other much better restaurants in this price range. And that, sad to say, is pretty much all of them.