There are advantages to going undercover as a journo. On the downside you have to pay your way, on the upside you get to see how things are for yer average punter, free from any of the special treatment that might be afforded a member of the Fourth Estate.
This, of course, doesn’t always work out for the best. A few weeks ago, as part of a treat from my missus, we went for lunch at Dinner, the newish and much-vaunted Heston Blumenthal noshery at London’s Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park.
The food was great – I can’t fault that. But there was the kind of cock-up with the pre-dinner drinks that, if it were to occur on a football pitch, would have Alan Hansen shaking his head and muttering about ‘schoolboy errors’.
For starters, nobody handed us a drinks list when we sat down. And when they appeared to take our drinks order five minutes later (no water, no nibbles in the meantime) it was tempting to ask them to recite the entire range of options from memory.
My wife ordered a Tanqueray 10 and tonic, I wanted a Fino Sherry and asked the sommelier which ones they had in. He didn’t know and had to go and find out, which took another couple of minutes. Do you see now why giving us a drinks menu might have been a good idea?
Anyway, it turned out that the only one they had was Tio Pepe, which, in itself, raised a few eyebrows. I’ve got nothing against TP – it’s one of my regular tipples. But, well, wouldn’t you expect a bit more choice from a restaurant with such lofty pretensions?
About ten minutes after sitting down our drinks arrived. The G&T was fine. The sherry was not. My antennae are quite finely tuned when ordering Fino in a restaurant, and the fact that our waiter barely seemed to know what it was hardly inspired confidence. Sure enough, when it came it was tired and flat, from a bottle that had probably been on the go since Dinner started up.
I politely told the sommelier.
Up to now, I had been generally unimpressed, but his reaction here raised my misgivings to a whole new level.
He gave it a sniff and told me that ‘this is the style of sherry’. The implication being that I didn’t really know what I wanted and had ordered something that was perfectly fine, but that I didn’t like.
First of all, he was wrong: the whole point of Fino Sherry is that it isn’t oxidised; secondly he was making the cardinal sin of attempting to turn the tables on the customer, by making out that the issue is lack of knowledge not faulty product.
It’s tempting at times like this to step out from undercover and bluster about being a drinks journo for 15 years, visiting Jerez god knows how many times and, actually, I clearly know more about sherry than you do, my friend. But I didn’t.
I just politely insisted on a replacement, saying that if it tasted the same as the first one I would pay for both.
Our man disappeared for five minutes. My wife drank her gin. The clock ticked. I twiddled my thumbs. He reappeared and told us that that was, in fact, the last dregs of the last bottle.
Now, I don’t know about you. But I find that hard to believe. Either their stock control is lamentable if they can’t keep a workable supply of sherry on the go in the whole of the Mandarin Oriental, or (and I’m sorry to say that the following cynical thoughts are evidence of just how much I thought of my wine waiter) they had decided not to waste a second glass on a punter who, in their opinion, clearly didn’t know anything about wine.
Either way, we were now 15 minutes into our lunch and I still hadn’t had anything to drink.
His suggested replacement – a Madeira (I forget which sort) that he claimed was similar in style, was, when it finally arrived, actually sweet and mid-brown in colour. In other words, bugger all like a Fino Sherry.
When I rejected that and said, rather tetchily, ‘just bring me a gin and tonic’ it took so long to appear that the starters arrived before it did. Unsurprisingly, when it finally came I sent it away.
Perhaps because of this, they were slow taking the wine order, and that didn’t get to us until half way through the starters either. I’m sorry, but this is basic, basic stuff guys...
The bill for this cock-up was £180 (not hard to achieve when you’re charging £20 for a G&T) – and that didn’t include the wine, which (as we discovered later when we looked at the bill at home) they either forgot to charge us for or removed as an act of kindness. I suspect the former...
There are so many mistakes here it’s hard to know where to start, but if I had to pin down the main ones they would be:
i) They should have given us a drinks list as soon as we sat down. Everyone knows that the first 60 seconds in a restaurant are crucial – and they fluffed it. We were made to feel that we were intruding.
ii) Nowhere should be serving Fino that is tired and oxidised, still less a place with the aspirations of Dinner.
iii) Having served a duff glass they should have removed it straight away and replaced it without trying to justify it.
iv) I cannot believe that you can run out of a drink like Fino. Especially when you apparently stock only one of them. Amateurish.
Two key points. Firstly, if I was González Byass I’d have a training team round the Mandarin straight away. And if I was the sommelier there, I’d be running courses on all aspects of the wine list, not just the expensive French stuff, and making sure my staff actually knew what the hell they were doing.
Secondly, it’s depressing to think that beyond the rave reviews for the food and the expensive decoration, even places like this can still fall down on such absolute fundamentals of hospitality. It’s terribly clever to have your light fittings made of what look like old jelly moulds (how witty! How Heston!) but I’d settle for a Habitat lamp shade and decent service.
However good the food was, the lunch was spoiled by our sommelier’s incompetence. It’s bad enough anywhere, but when you’re asking diners to pay upwards of £100 a head for a not particularly boozy lunch, it’s totally unacceptable.