Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Incognico, Covent Garden

I'm sure there are restaurants that have a straightforward, charitable reason for putting out 50% off deals on Toptable. I'm sure there are plenty of sadly overlooked but nevertheless lovely restaurants, serving fabulous food, which find themselves in a position to lay on a very generous discount, keeping regular clientele happy and drumming up a bit of extra interest from those on a slightly tighter budget. This is how special offer menus should work, and I'm absolutely confident this is exactly what happens. Sometimes. Except in my experience, the Toptable 50% off food offer serves only as a rather handy indicator of which restaurants to diligently avoid. I've never seen St John offer a Toptable discount, or Rules, or The Square or Le Gavroche. Places that are booked up for months in advance based on word of mouth alone, places that serve exquisite food in sumptuous surroundings, places where you would happily pay full price anyway because you get real value for money even without a special offer, these places don't need Toptable. Tiger Tiger, Navajo Joe's, Gilgamesh, Mango Tree; these are the restaurants that need Toptable - get enough clueless walk-ins paying double what the ingredients are worth and fill up the other tables with "special" offers which actually just reflect the true cost of the meal and make people think they're getting a bargain. Sorry if this all sounds unbelievably cynical but I'm yet to see much to convince me otherwise.

Incognico, then, in case you had missed the point of that introduction, is a "Toptable" restaurant. And it would therefore ordinarily be somewhere I'd avoid, except last night I met a friend who was using up her points on not just a 50% off meal but a completely free meal, and wondered if I wanted to join her. As is often the case with these deals, she was given a shorter 'discount' menu on a small piece of paper and I the full foie-gras-and-fillet-steak affair. Apart from this distinction, and in all fairness to the staff at Incognico, service was as friendly and attentive as you could ask for anywhere, despite us only drinking tap water all evening, and it was just a shame that in the end the food confirmed all my deepest suspicions.

At a whacking £17.50 for a starter portion, I don't think I'm unreasonable in expecting a slightly prettier plate of food than this. Admittedly, some of the mess was mine, as I forgot to take a picture before greedily shovelling in the first couple of mouthfuls, but it honestly wasn't that much more attractive when it arrived. It didn't taste that good either. A couple of lobes of chunkily chopped foie were doused in a sickly sweet orange sauce, too one-dimensional to be interesting, and not citrusy enough to make wading through all that wobbly fat comfortable. There were no texture contrasts to speak of - why no lovely crispy coating on the foie, for a start? - and barely two mouthfuls in I felt queasy. For the rest of the evening the thick fat coated my lips like Vaseline.

Main course of duck breast and pommes duchesse were barely any better. Nicely pink duck breast was weirdly cut into cubes slightly too large to be edible, and in the absence of a serrated knife I spent far too long slowly sawing each cube into a more manageable size. The potato fondant stuff was fine, but the sauce tasted overpoweringly of honey and very little else, meaning, in common with the starter, the whole thing was sickly sweet. Hardly a particularly accomplished dish, and at just under £20, overpriced. In case you were wondering, my companion's "free" dishes were of a similar standard, an "OK" starter of grilled mackerel followed by a "dry and tasteless" portion of pork belly.

We skipped desserts, partly because the Toptable deal only covered two courses and partly (mainly) because we just didn't want to eat any more of their food. The best thing I can say about the place is that at least it was all was cooked fresh and to order and that the food was some approximation to French bistro cooking, albeit a rather incompetent approximation. But there was no way I can say my two wobbly, saccharine courses were worth the best part of £50, and my friend felt hard done by even though she didn't pay a penny towards hers. You live and learn, though, and if nothing else the experience has reminded us how useful the Toptable website can be, if not quite in the way they intended. Next time you have your sights set on a restaurant, have a quick check to see if they're running any offers. And if they are, eat somewhere else.


Incognico on Urbanspoon


Catherine said...

This reminds me of a meal nearly 20 years ago on one of those eat lunch for a fiver deals. A whole bunch of us went off for a posh lunch at Simpsons on the Strand where we were treated with utter disdain by the waiters. They ignored our requests for wine and tried to substitute salmon for turbot in the hope that we wouldn't notice. None of us ever went back and you have to wonder why on earth they signed up for a deal that was presumable intended to encourage people who hadn't tried the restaurant before to go and then hopefully return paying full whack later.

Matt said...

Ahem: http://cheesenbiscuits.blogspot.com/2009/06/launceston-place-kensington.html

Pavel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Pavel said...

We tried a toptable deal, booked at Kettners in Soho, the Lady booked and I didn't research so off we popped clueless as to what to expect. £13.50 for two courses. The starters were so non-descript I've forgotten what they were but the mains, as follows, have stuck in my mind.

Turbot with Tagliatelle, with a creamy mushroom sauce and the other Chicken Fricasse with Rattatoiulle.

I walked out, I haven't walked out of a restaurant in a long time but that menu actually upset me.

TC said...

We've just eaten at Racine on a Toptable deal, and at Launceston Place in the past, so I don't think your theory always holds true.

Chris said...

Matt: Ha! What a memory you have, except I do think LP has gone a bit downhill since then.

TC: Racine are on Toptable? Wow, well that blows my theory out of the water doesn't it. Or perhaps they're the exception that proves the rule? :)

Kavey said...

In the main part, I'd agree that most toptable offers are giving you 50% off what was never worth it's 100% price tag in the first place.

But there are exceptions. Patterson's at 50% off is one I've been back to a number of times over the years, though not in the last 18 months, so perhaps I should check it out again soon?

Moti Mahal's regular 50% off the set menu used to be a good deal that I took advantage of about 3 times before they put the original set menu price up by a tenner and it simply no longer added up for me.

That said, I'd agree that a lot of the habitual TT 50%ers are a huge letdown, at whatever price you pay.

Gregory said...

Having enjoyed and hated a couple Top table offers (and others), I think you have to ask yourself why are they doing this before you book ?

Firstly, on a Monday night in August (or January) when the restaurant business generally slows up, why shouldn't a business offer an incentive for people who wouldn't visit if they had to pay full whack ! At least then you still have the chance to make money on wine etc to pay your staff wages. The key is to ensure these customers still feel valued so they may justify the expense to pay full whack at a later date.

Alternatively, if a Soho venue is advertising offers at 9pm on a Friday night in October, don't bother because it will be rubbish.

Secondly, research it! The critics and blogshpere will give you the real drum. (we all know this).

If we avoided all places with economical "offers" we would also miss out some of the lunch menus (well below a la carte pricing) offered at restaurants such as Marcus Wareing or the Square.

Top Table 50% offers (or 2 4 1) may enable many lazy, quality shy restaurants to bring punters through the door, but equally we should not tar all offers with the same brush.

Alex C said...

It has to be said, though - Le Gavroche's <£50 for 3 course lunch, 1/2 bottle of decent wine and service, is and always has been an absolute bargain. Better than anything you 'll find on toptable I think. The only problem is that it rather writes off the afternoon - for who can, in all good conscience, do anything much after. Other than perhaps sip at a cocktail or two in the Art Deco bar at Claridges, I mean?

Hugh Wright said...

Similar points have been made already so I won't labour them, but I do think you're being a little too sweeping in your not-entirely-without-substance generalisation here Chris. While there are some turkeys (e.g. http://bit.ly/ch797t) I've also benefited from 25% off at Racine, as well as discounts on great meals at Rivington Grill & Apsleys (one I know polarises opinion but which I loved).

I do think you make a fair point in part, but can't agree that the simple fact of having an offer on Toptable makes a restaurant one to avoid.

Munch said...

I think the Toptable comments are somewhat harsh but the overall review of the food at Incognico is spot on...sorry for making you go and waste £50!

Hermano 2 said...

I wonder how many people reading this will remember Nico Landenis and just how important he was to the London restaurant scene in the '90's?

This and Deca were his last restaurants, I think. I suspect he would shudder at the standard of food there now if he was unlucky enough to try it.


Catriona said...

Very interesting, and your experience definitely matches mine in terms of deals - I remember going to Butler's Chop House on a 2 courses for a tenner, 3 for £15 and being really disappointed. It was somewhere I had wanted to go for a long time and if the food hadn't been so nondescript and unmemorable when I went on a deal, I'm sure I would have come back and paid full whack. Though back to Toptable more specifically, went to Axis at One Aldwych and quite enjoyed it..

Northern Snippet said...

Its true,although there may be a couple of exceptions,in the main the only places doing deals are the ones which are using cheap ingredients and can afford to discount.
If you have a quality product you are much better selling fewer at the correct price and maintaining your profit margin.
Alternatively some offer different/cheaper items on the discounted menu which also is pointless as existing customers will be disappointed and new ones don't get to see your actual menu.
I wouldn't bother.

toptable said...

We're very sorry that you didn't have an enjoyable meal, unfortunately some of the set menus can be a bit more restricting than the full menu. However we do have offers on a wide range of restaurants including Michelin-starred restaurants which might be worth a try http://www.toptable.com/venues/offers/?l=1&category=61

I hope you do decide to give us another try.

Douglas Blyde said...

I went there after a theatre escapade. Is it Italian or French? Seems very confused. The wine list is madness. Sorry you had to suffer. Still, I rather liked the room and the bar. The trio of dumbwaiters added quite some drama too. Intriguing to see Top Table have commented.