Wednesday, 14 April 2010
Terroirs, Covent Garden
When you book a table at Terroirs, they ask you if you want to sit upstairs or downstairs. Having never been, it seemed sensible to reply "whichever is nicer", although it seems this question flummoxed whoever was manning the phones somewhat.
"Well, downstairs is bigger...?"
"We'll need the table back by 9pm. Will that be OK?"
I suppose it would have to be. After descending an impossible amount of stairs to a basement room so subterranean it had the atmosphere of a reclaimed mineshaft, I can confirm that downstairs at Terroirs is indeed bigger, and yet due to the remarkable popularity of this restaurant & 'natural' wine bar almost every seat was already taken. I was led up yet more stairs to a mezzanine level towards the back, and to a table that appeared to have been designed specifically for André the Giant. After a few moments gazing across a surface that only just cleared my chin from a sitting position, I called my waiter back and asked to be moved. Later in the evening, a second couple would be seated at the same table, make similar observations on the relative height of the chairs and dining surface, and also ask to be moved. Maybe Terroirs is abnormally popular with acromegalics, or perhaps it's just an elaborate practical joke. Who knows.
Sadly that table wasn't the only disproportioned or baffling thing about my meal that evening. First of all, I found the menu quite difficult to decipher. It was split into 'Charcuterie', which had five different cold options ranging from £5-9 each and a selection of three (you couldn't choose which) for £12; an area which looked like main courses labelled "Plats du jour" containing things like steak and potatoes and their famous cassoulet; and "Plates of taste" which as far as I could make out were just slightly smaller main courses, salads and soups.
The charcuterie selection was perfectly good - a very nice saucisson from the Pyrenees, a decent duck rillette and a generous block of pork & pistachio terrine with pickles. The terrine in fact was particularly good, with lovely moist pork and big chunks of crunchy nuts for texture. But just take a look at what arrived next:
What we have here is a huge mound of preserved anchovies (very nice they were too, to be fair), a few slices of shallots, half a pound (or so it seemed) of unsalted butter and just two half-slices of bread to spread it on. If I had divided equally all the provided ingredients onto those tiny bits of bread I would have ended up with a towering mass of traumatic salty, buttery mixture, both impractical to eat and probably fairly disgusting too. I don't know if I could have asked for more house bread without being charged another £1.50, but I wasn't going to risk it, and so we just shovelled in as much butter and anchovy as we could without gagging and left it at that. I estimate we left about half the anchovies and 3/4 of the butter.
Clams, ham, garlic and chilli were interesting enough and had nice fresh clams, but there was probably about a tablespoon of edible ingredient here for your £7. I realise that most, if not all, of my issues so far can be explained away by bad ordering, but we were not offered any suggestions from the staff and I do think that the menu was confusing. Well, that's my excuse.
Given that after the "mains" we were desperate for something to wash away the salt and butter, and to fill up our stomachs (respectively), we ordered desserts. Panacotta was pretty good, with a nice bitter Campari and orange accompaniment which did its job well.
Rum Baba, sliced in half and doused with rum at the table, was a bit more of a chore. The first couple of mouthfuls were delicious, moist and sweet and with a pleasant burn of alcohol. But after a while the dense cake became hard-going, and the pot of cream wasn't light or sharp enough to cut through the stodge and make things any easier. I left about half of it.
The bill came to about £60, which is a fair price I suppose but the whole experience had left me extremely uncomfortable, and I'm not just talking about that table. The dishes, though well-cooked and using good ingredients, were clumsily constructed and often unforgivably imbalanced, making the eating of them more of a challenge than a pleasure. I really wanted to like Terroirs, and clearly plenty of people do, but perhaps in the future I'll pay more attention to their excellent wine list (Terroirs at least have the distinction of selling me the first and only glass of "natural" wine I've ever enjoyed - a Vouvray - and their rosé was equally impressive) than the food menu. In fact, if you approach Terroirs as a wine bar that can serve you the odd bit of food to stop you falling asleep on the train home, then perhaps you'll enjoy it more than I did. Order carefully and make sure you're clear on the portion sizes, and you'll probably get along fine. Oh, and watch out for that table.