Monday, 7 November 2011
Cassis, South Kensington
Before I get down to the dirty business of explaining just why my meal last night was so mediocre, I'll try and start on a positive note. Because, trotting through Knightsbridge on a bright summer's evening on my way to a restaurant that much better men than me had raved about, I certainly was feeling positive, at least initially. Cassis opened in November last year, and ten months seems like a very decent bedding in period - not short enough to catch early day technical or service issues, but not too long for the staff to lose any of their opening months drive and ambition. It's a pleasant room, too - bright and comfortable with a healthy chatter even with only two or three tables occupied at 7pm. Staff were professional, if a bit... tetchy (more on that later) and I liked my foie gras starter. And the toilets were quite nice. And... yes, that's the sum total of everything I liked about the place.
The very first thing we ordered was a Margarita - a £13.50 Margarita too, from the "premium cocktails" list, which I think contained a fancy tequila and Mandarine Napoléon instead of the more usual triple sec. "That's a lot of salt" my friend said as the drinks, after a good ten minute wait, eventually arrived. Each glass was coated a good half inch inside and out of the rim - enough to make your throat go dry just at the sight of it. But it was only when I attempted to clear a path through the "salt" to the drink with my finger that I realised that it wasn't in fact salt but sugar - lots and lots of sugar. Understandably, we assumed the barman had made a mistake and mixed up his condiments, but just as we tried to send them back we were told that the sugar was, in fact, intentional - they actually meant to serve us a Margarita with sugar. It was, of course, revolting - way too sweet, and with large chunks of broken ice floating around because they'd used the wrong filter while pouring. I wouldn't come to Cassis for the cocktails.
But on to the food. House focaccia was cold and oily, although the brown bread was better so we just stuck to that. Some little snail vol-au-vent things ("Pastis flambéed snails, puff pastry and garlic butter", £5.50) were greasy and tasteless, the snails doing nothing much more than providing texture, and texture isn't exactly a snail's strongest suit. I've had some very tasty snail dishes over the last year or two - I'm thinking particularly of a snails and meatballs dish at Bistrot Bruno Loubet which was magnificent, and although it's not quite in the same price scale a snail starter at Gordon Ramsay - but this was a real waste of the poor little blighters. We did mention our issue with them (as politely as we possibly could) to our waitress, who looked more annoyed than apologetic, and didn't take anything off the bill. And I could just be paranoid but I got the distinct impression from that moment onwards our service got decidedly cool - we noticed on a couple of occasions waiting staff having discussions just out of earshot and casting significant glances towards us, the difficult couple who didn't like the snails. It was uncomfortable and rather odd.
In the context of everything else, "Pan-fried Landes foie gras, caramelised kumquat, sesame tuille" (£17) was surprisingly good. A huge slab of perfectly cooked and wonderfully smooth foie sat on top of a sharp kumquat chutney to balance out the fat, and was hugely enjoyable. I've had stringy, mealy foie at the fanciest places (such as Alaine Ducasse at the Dorchester) but this was pretty much perfect, even if you would hope so for £17 for a starter portion. My friend's octopus carpaccio (£9) was less good though - the octopus itself was alright (though no more than that) but the plate was dressed weirdly with cold, oily croutons (why?), plain rocket and cherry tomatoes. And there's not much more boring than rocket and cherry tomatoes.
"Roast suckling pig leg, girolles" (£22) sounded exciting on paper (or rather, the daily specials chalkboard), and indeed the pig flesh was beautifully cooked to moist perfection, even if the skin was thin and crackle-free. But the sauce it sat in was over-reduced and bitter, and not particularly pleasant. Worse still was a scallop carpaccio (another chalkboard special, £22) containing bland scallops that would have been bad enough even if they weren't dressed exactly in the same way as the octopus, with oily croutons, rocket and cherry tomatoes. Snore.
Desserts were ordered more out of hunger than optimism. My strawberry tart (£8) was OK though, light soft pastry containing a tasty fruit mousse. But Creme Caramel (£7), served in an Irish Coffee glass for some reason, was runny and wrong, the bottom half of the glass seemingly consisting of nothing other than tooth-rottingly sweet liquid caramel.
If it sounds like I'm picking fault wherever I possibly can, then perhaps that's only because a combination of the service, the prices and the fact that almost everything we ate was somehow at fault made that possible. In all fairness, the service did improve towards the end as a more senior (and friendlier) waiter took over, and I am prepared to believe you could go to Cassis and, if you steer clear of the cocktails and the carpaccios, construct a fairly decent dinner for yourself. But I am also a firm believer that it should not, at these kinds of prices (our meal came to £100 a head with 2 glasses of the cheaper wines and a digestive each, which could have got us a tasting menu at the Ledbury for God's sake) be possible to order this badly. And it is not, in the end, our fault that we didn't enjoy it - it was theirs.
This post was originally written in August