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.