Thursday, 15 May 2014
The Beach Bistro at the Gallivant, near Rye
Don't worry - you won't be the only one getting a strong sense of deja vu from this post. Here we are again in Rye, in a well-appointed dining room (again), a very attractive-looking menu (again), eating very accomplished food (again) and - once again - suffering at the hands of some incredibly shaky service. Time was I could forgive almost anything that went belly-up front-of-house as long as what I was asked to eat was up to scratch. But increasingly - perhaps my age, perhaps the fact I've got so used to such good examples in London - I've begun to find bad service more of a worry.
Worrying, for example, in the way this "gin martini" was worrying, although if I hadn't been expected to drink it, I might have found it quite amusing. It is a neat summary of everything it's possible to get wrong about a martini in a single drink. Short of serving it in a dimpled glass and calling it a pint of mild, there's literally nothing else you could do to it that would make it any worse; see the wedge of lemon perched on the side like something Del Boy would make for himself; see the warm glass, the strangely colourful liquid, the two pointless mini straws in case I needed to drink and text at the same time. But the worst thing about it you can't tell from the photo - the taste of it; warm vermouth mainly, but a distressing note of lime cordial (what?) and, more impressively still, hardly a hint of gin. I remember an old episode of Blackadder where Baldrick managed to spell the word "Christmas" without getting a single letter correct.* This was the equivalent, in cocktail form.
Fortunately for them and us, the "martini" represented an early low point in what, by and large, turned out to be an enjoyable meal, but one we enjoyed despite the best efforts of their front of house, not very often thanks to it. Local goat's cheese soufflé didn't need the weird dry salad or sticks of celery (what were we supposed to do with them? Make a fort?) but was otherwise a lovely thing - rich and comforting, like very cheesy mashed potato topped with a Yorkshire pudding.
And seared pigeon, with just enough bite and commendably rare, sat in a light game consomme, in which bobbed about some geometrically-neat diced vegetables, chunks of local black pudding and a soft confit leg. It was a slightly undersized portion where the soufflé had been a bit much, but some portion-swapping soon put that right.
Having decided on the matching wines (saves a lot of messing about, and anyway, surely someone whose job is to match wine with food every day of the year is going to make a better job at it than most customers... well me, at least), I was somewhat surprised to have a glass of white wine brought over ready for my main course of lamb. Thinking this was more likely to be a mistake than the work of a contrary sommelier, I asked our waitress, in the nicest possible way, whether if she was sure I should be having white wine with lamb. "I didn't take the order, darlin'" was the reply.
Now, at the risk of coming over all Basil Fawlty, whose fault was it then? There was me thinking it was the first waiter's fault for not taking my order properly, or the waitress's fault for bringing the wrong glass of wine, but no, apparently it was my fault somehow that the situation had arisen and now I just had to put up with it because she sure as hell wasn't going to do anything about it. No "I'll check" or "let me change it for you", just put up or shut up. Bonkers.
A slightly more competent and less openly miserable member of staff did, though, swap it out and were eventually left to enjoy our main courses in peace. Local salt-marsh lamb (the salt marshes themselves surround the hotel) with buttered mash and truffled green beans may not be the most groundbreaking assembly of ingredients East Sussex has ever seen but it was all technically faultless; tender pink medallions of lamb surrounded by a nice cheffy truffled jus and fresh greens. But by this point we were less forgiving with other lapses of service - long waits to attract anyone's attention, plates not being cleared, that kind of thing. And why had nobody mentioned the specials, which I only happened to notice on a chalkboard on the way back from a visit to the gents? I was still happy with our choices, but still - would have been nice to know about alternatives.
It's just as well, then, that the food was so darned good. The other main course of plaice could not have been treated any better, golden brown but not overcooked, the flesh firm and meaty. As with the lamb, it wasn't radically reinventing anything but was definitely worth £16.50.
And there things would have ended, solidly and respectably and saved really only on the strength of the cooking but nothing much more to write home about, were it not for this wonderful thing, a pear tarte tatin, so good it probably deserves a blog post to itself. To save time I won't do that, but just take my word that every element of it, from the vanilla-rich house ice cream, to the gooey, treacley puff pastry tart itself, was a complete triumph. The kind of thing it's only possible to eat with your eyes closed, moaning softly. I wanted to live in it.
So, as with the George for lunch the same day, we have some very talented chefs indeed whose hard work is being severely undermined by the lack of effort gone into serving it correctly to paying customers. It was annoying enough to see as someone invited to review the place; at least I got to enjoy the food. But if I was putting as much effort in to my job as the kitchen brigade at the Gallivant quite obviously are, to have it all ballsed-up, forgotten and thrown about as badly as this once it left the pass would drive me potty.
But to give everyone involved the benefit of the doubt, perhaps they just suffered an off-day. And maybe you'd think any kind of abuse would be worth the chance to try that gorgeous pigeon consomme or God's own tarte tatin. But the thing is, good food is welcome, memorable, glorious even, and bad food is never very often more than regrettable. But while service is, at its best, invisible, bad service is personal. And that's something the Gallivant really need to work on.
*"KWEZNUZ" I think he came up with
I was invited to the Gallivant and the Beach bistro