A Tale of Two French Houses

Some weeks, culinarily speaking, I get a bit puritanical.  Especially when my waist threatens to leak over the top of my tights.  This is not a good look and encourages laughter from onlookers.  In those weeks I recline, chewing lettuce, crunching through cherry tomatoes, trying to think of cottage cheese as something to look forward to.  It requires an awful lot of affection for cottage cheese to do this.

This week I have put my system through a bit of a shock but piling in two city dining experiences in just over 12 hours and I think my colon is still protesting.  On Tuesday night, I had a late supper at the robust Arbutus which squats with Gallic certainty at the Soho Square end of Frith Street.  The menu took about a quarter of a hour’s reading to understand, but once understood, looked thrilling.  I kicked off with a curd goats cheese, hazlenut and heritage beetroot salad that was truly exceptional and I don’t think I had ever eaten such a beetroot so well-bred that it had it’s own heritage before.  The aperitif was a prosecco made with blood orange rather than the usual white peach.  This settled nicely – if oddly- on top of the vodka and lemonade I had quaffed shortly before at the bar at Little Italy down the street.  I was with my brother who lunches in Little Italy whenever there is an “a” in the day.  As soon as we placed our drinks order, a waiter arrived with a platter of extraordinary looking langoustine, having taken one look at my brother and hoping we were stopping in for the evening.

Back at Arbutus, we were cheered by our waitress, chatty and informative, full of good advice and charm.  For the entree I went for a saddle of rabbit, with artichoke and accompanied by a cottage pie made with shoulder of rabbit.  The saddle was as soft (and as rich) as chicken liver pate.  Most of the chaps at the table opted for the skirt of beef which came with it’s own carb-busting potato dauphinoise and a circle of bone marrow big enough to be worn as a bangle.  Most pronounced the food outstanding.   But the really good bit – and I mean the really good bit – as always – was the pudding.   The tarte tatin was apparently for two people, so being six of us we ordered two of them, only to be presented by two enormous pies the size of Victorian stovepipe hats which we were quite dazzled by.  Instead of wafer thin slices of apple we had – oh wow – enormous, fat, fluffy quarters of apples, laced in caramel and outstanding.  This came with custard.  Although this being a French restaurant they HAVE to call it creme anglaise.  The waitress, still attentive and cutting the tarte tatin majestically, asked my brother if he was French.  He replied, in his best GCSE grammar but she soon bamboozled him with language and he gave up.  She then asked him if he was Spanish but he didn’t try to get away with that one.

Obviously at this stage, I thought I was going to pass out or that someone should at least hand me a Rennie.  My brother suggested, as he usually does at this stage, that what I needed was an Armagnac.  He illustrated this by promptly drinking two of them.  But one of them was enough to render me, frankly, hysterical.  I giggled like a maniac all the way home, but regretted the double espresso that rendered my night’s sleep feverish, brandy-raddled and a bit sweaty.

Understandly, the next morning I was a little confused.  The world looked pixelated, like when the digital telly doesn’t work properly on Channel 4 and the image disintegrates into little fuzzy squares.  High on ibuprofen and the promise of good, low-carb, sober deeds still to come, I rocked on up to the office.  Shuffled paper, did some typing, shuffled paper, did some typing……………zzzzzz Rabid caffeine hit with sugar at 11.30am to see me through until – DING!! – oh, I’m off to lunch at one at Polpetto, you know.

Polpetto is related (maiden aunt?  sister?  cousin?) to Polpo, the Venetian bacaro which serves genuine cicheti in Beak Street (see https://thelondonbluebird.wordpress.com/2010/06/10/cheese-and-music/) and which I visited last year.  I adored Polpo and had been excited to try Polpetto.  This restaurant is housed in the somewhat claustrophobic upstairs room at The French House, in Dean Street, that hotbed of Gallic resistance and ferocious beer drinking in Soho’s south eastern flank.   Like Polpo, it’s reservations only at lunchtime and a first come, first fed system in the evenings.

The food was as staggering as Polpo, although for some reason a fifth of the menu, the part titled cicheti, was missing from the paper menus laid in front of us.  However, there were beautiful breaded sardines served with a rich homemade mayonnaise, zucchini fritte, a cavolo nero with lovely borlotti beans and rosemary crumbs, and an excellent grilled bistecca with fresh shaved fennel and parmesan.  But the experience was hollow.  The service was sloppy and slow.  There was none of the customer service which seems so rigorously adhered to over the street at Arbutus.  Our two waitresses appeared lackadaisical, and didn’t write our order down.  Perhaps this explains why the bellinis we ordered never arrived.  We ordered further sardines and – eventually – after about 20 minutes when they failed to materialize – just asked for the bill.  The plates were cleared by one waitress, only for the other to turn up just after the bill was paid, with the second dish of sardines.

The Polpetto experience teaches such an important thing; food is not enough.  I suspect – and this is a quintessentially English problem – that the waiting staff were  not professional waiting staff, but likely to be girls who took up waitressing for a while.  The gulf between the professional expertise offered at Arbutus and that offered here was extraordinary.  If the service is as sloppy and recalcitrant as it was in Polpetto on Tuesday lunchtime it leaves a bad taste in the mouth, no matter how good the salt cod is.  They simply cannot afford to let the relationship between the staff and the customer lapse.  I shan’t be going back to Polpetto, which it was originally my intention to do.  Not until they wake up and take some much-needed customer service lessons from Arbutus.

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