Thursday, 8 July 2010
Cantina Laredo, Covent Garden
I suggest you start where I did - staring open-mouthed and incredulous at the Cantina Laredo menu. There's my rather dismal shot from last night, or click here to see it in crisp, shocking PDF. Just look at those prices. £13.25 for a pepper stuffed with cheese, £11.95 for a cranberry pecan salad, £7 - SEVEN POUNDS! - for some guacamole. This wasn't just bold pricing, not merely eyebrow-raising pricing. This was full-on, wallet-raping, slap-in-the-face pricing, as ludicrously bold as London has rarely seen, especially in the middle of a recession and especially for Mexican food, not exactly famous for its high mark-ups. That menu became a source of fascination; I'd find myself scouring it for hours on end, uncovering ever more outrageous items to gleefully share with my friends - "Mushroom enchilada, £13.95!" - but mainly wondering what on earth they could put in that guacamole to make it worth just short of seven full English pounds. Did it come with a diamond ring and a foot massage?
So it's fair to say that Cantina Laredo and I got off to a bad start. Regarding many things, I can be open-minded (stop sniggering), but at the merest hint of a rip-off, the walls go up. And so I would have been happy to carry on snorting at the online menu - "Cheese enchilada, £13.95!" - and the sad stories of naive couples somehow spending £85 on three dishes and a bottle of house red, except for the brave new world of Twitter and Cantina Laredo's switched-on PR team, who invited me and a friend to come and swallow our pride with a mouthful of guacamole and a house margherita. "What the heck," I thought, "I'm never going to go if I have to pay myself, and who knows - it might be amazing". Not £85 for two amazing, perhaps, but who knows.
There are a LOT of staff at Cantina Laredo. There are three people whose job, as far as I could tell, is to stand outside saying hello to passersby, and two more inside the entrance saying hello to arriving customers. They didn't move from those spots the whole time we were there, they are just hello people. That's their job. I might offer my services one evening; I consider myself supremely gifted at standing still and saying hello, and I bet they get a healthy wage judging by the mark-up on that guacamole.
Oh yes, the guacamole. We had to order it really, didn't we? Sure enough, it is made fresh and it is (just about) big enough for two as a small starter. Part of your £7 goes on the theatrics of constructing it before your eyes at the table, a nice enough touch and one often used to great effect (see the ash-baked celeriac at the Ledbury), but I couldn't help thinking the whole operation just served to remind you how basic the ingredients are and how easy the recipe is. Our waitress helpfully reminded us of this, in fact - "See how simple it is!" she beamed as she squeezed the £7 lime into the £7 avocado. "You could make this at home!". Yes alright love, don't rub it in. You're right - I could do, and it would cost about 50p. It tasted nice, by the way - no worse than guacamole I've had from Chilango or Daddy Donkey, but certainly no better either.
With the guac we each had a house margherita (£9.50), one frozen, one on the rocks. The frozen was declared "good" by my companion Carla of Bribed With Food, and she's from Panama so she should know. Mine really wasn't. I'm firmly of the belief that a drink on the rocks should be served in a rocks glass; here a couple of ice cubes floated on top of sweet, rather warm liquid in a thick kitsch martini glass. And if you're going to salt the rim of the glass, why also provide a straw? It was a clumsy, amateurish drink and not worth anywhere near the £9.95 I didn't pay for it.
In all fairness, my main course of Camaron Poblano Asada had a wonderful aroma and the beef itself tasted almost as good as I've had outside of the top London steakhouses. In itself, this is quite an achievement and is worth mentioning. The rest of the dish was pleasant if unspectacular - the rice was nicely spiced but sautéed veg were so-so, and I counted a total of three small prawns hidden amongst the (tasteless) cheese and chimichurri filling. Am I wrong to expect something a little more from a dish costing £19? To put this into context, eight whole courses of exquisitely presented food at Viajante costs £25. This dish looks like it was slapped onto the plate at a school canteen.
Carla's Enchiladas Veracruz used nice fresh tortillas and came with a genuinely good tomatillo sauce as well as the same rice and veg mix as my beef. But the chicken inside the wraps was overcooked and dry - an unforgiveable mistake - and at the back of your mind there's always that question of value. Was this plate of cheap ingredients really worth £13? Did they use Label Anglais chicken and heirloom tomatoes? Pretty unlikely I'd say.
This was how my flan arrived - as if someone had taken a bite out of the front of it and accompanied by a shrivelled up wedge of orange. It tasted fine, but it was just a flan, the kind of which is trotted out on every €10 tourist menu in Spain, and was hardly worth a fiver. Carla's strawberries and cinnamon crisp thingies (OK, OK - Strawberry Buñuelos) were better, but still fairly dull. I'm pretty sure they bought in that vanilla ice cream too, although I could be wrong.
Service was enthusiastic but... slightly odd. After the initial maelstrom of being helloed by about ninety different people it calmed down slightly, but there was always that dreaded "How is everything?" after you'd taken the first bite of each dish, and the very American plastic smiles and forced bonhomie soon grated. At one point a particularly keen server approached our table and gushed "Is everything delicious for you?", a leading question if ever I heard one. The thing is, none of the food was actively disgusting or cooked badly (apart from the chicken) or even anything less than tasty, it just wasn't worth anywhere near the prices they're charging.
Out of morbid fascination I asked for the bill to be totted up at the end. For our 2 1/2 course meal and three drinks (I had a glass of Italian red with my beef) it came to £80, an astronomical amount for some home-style food. If our meal had been half the price, it would just about have been worth it - there's nothing not to enjoy about Mexican cuisine when it's competently cooked and served with a smile. But £80 for two comes with a weight of expectation regarding presentation, ingredients and atmosphere that really wasn't in evidence last night. So instead of throwing your money at Cantina Laredo, just do what I do - have a good old chuckle at the menu, and those prices, and spend your money elsewhere.