Wild? I was absolutely livid
I used to collect tasting menus. I still keep a drawer, out of the way, and to peek inside it is to peek inside a pretty odd couple of years in my life – two years of being systemically overworked, probably overpaid, and definitely overfed. Some of the stuff I ate during this period is – I am sure – among the best stuff I will eat in my entire life; I will go the grave knowing that I have eaten some of the iconic dishes of a generation (precious, this). I’m a little ashamed to admit it now, but I liked the bells and whistles, too. I liked how, after going to a few fancy places, I began to gain fluency in the idiolect of the high-end dining room – remembering to turn to thank the waiter who would push in my chair as I sat down; reaching out a hand to graciously accept the proffered replacement napkin when one fell to the floor; courteously calling ahead to inform of my dietary requirements; learning to time my trips to the bathroom so they wouldn’t interrupt the delicate behind-the-scenes ballet required to deliver 30 amuse-bouches (amuses-bouche?) to a full dining room at the exact same time.
The problem with being a collector, though, is that after a while collecting is all you do; enjoying becomes secondary. When you have seen the same thing tens of times – even if that thing approaches the exquisite – it becomes difficult to discern. They call it the hedonic treadmill; it’s astonishing how quickly the new and exotic becomes the dull and quotidian. Comparatives lose their -er; superlatives lose their -est. Sensations must be even more intense to lift themselves off from the deadened surface of your densensitised brain and leap into full flight.
Today, there are only two tasting menus that I keep front-and-centre at home, in public view. The first is one from The Fat Duck (partly because it was genuinely the best start-to-end meal I’ve ever eaten; mainly because I’m petty and crave my friends’ envy). The second is from l’Enclume, Simon Rogan’s place up in the wilds of Cumbria. I’ve visited a few times now, but the menu on show is from the first time, which happened to be the time I realised what eating in a “fine dining” restaurant could be (whatever that nebulous concept means). To be clear, l’Enclume wasn’t the very first, like Heston at L'Oustau de Baumanière – that would be Le Chapon Fin, in Bordeaux, which I visited days after turning 21 with my girlfriend at the time, and where we’d sat open-mouthed as we were presented with what (to us) seemed ludicrously improbable flavour combinations (ceps and coconut? Get outta here!). But l’Enclume is a foundational brick, the first time I felt comfortable telling myself a pet myth I have parroted ever since – that a long, flowing tasting menu is like Test cricket or the novel: the fullest, purest expression of what makes a cultural artefact special.
I’d first visited Fera in the midst of The Tasting Menu Years, so I genuinely don’t know whether I’d forgotten almost everything about it because it was unremarkable or because I was a spoiled brat. But I was secretly quite excited about going back. A spur-of-the-moment rainy day lunch in Champagne aside, I hadn’t done a full belts-and-braces tasting menu for ages; I’d chosen Fera especially to celebrate my wife’s 30th (you met her earlier; she was the university girlfriend. Misdirect!). Adding to my excitement was a really outstanding week I’d had in the build-up: a mere 15-minute wait at Bao to celebrate her birthday proper; a dinner of jaw-dropping quality at Noble Rot with my mother; and a paragon of a pub supper with an old friend at my sort-of-local The Pig and Butcher. I even had a whole narrative lined up: a state of the city-nation that is London, 2016. The hipster places are great, the old-school places are great, the pubs are great, the high end places are great. What a time to be alive!
We went big, because it’s not every week you feel emotionally blackmailed into treating your wife to multiple gifts before going all-in on a multicourse dinner. We went large on the food front, choosing the longer of the two tasting menus; we went true big-dick player on the wine front, asking to split a Rare Wines pairing. I know it’s vulgar to talk about money so I’ll just be vague and say dinner, with tip and tea, came to four hundred and seventy four pounds Sterling, or four hundred and seventy three Euros.
It was weird, at first. We arrived early, walking into a practically empty room. I felt a palpitation of the same faint anxiety I experienced when I first started doing this – did I really belong here? But it's like riding a bike, or getting drunk and remembering all your GCSE French: suddenly it all clicks back into place. Except, at Fera, it wasn’t how I remembered. The waiter didn’t read the room and pick his moment: he sliced across our conversation, again and again. The sommelier didn’t gracefully accommodate the request to split a £150 pairing across two smaller glasses; with each course, she brought a single goblet, and watched impassively as we shared it back and forth across the table, like characters in a post-Apocalyptic Beckettian two-hander who have all the water they need but only one cup with which to drink it. The wine itself wasn’t eye-opening (which for £20 a glass you might expect it to be); it was ordinary at best.
And the food? Like, the food was fine. So, so not bad. Is it possible to be faultless but not perfect? It was that. It was so unremarkably faultless I have trouble recalling a single dish feelingly – just a succession of visual impressions, sub-noma Instagrammable presentations on a series of barks, pebbles and ruggedly hygge stoneware. If I push myself super-hard I can form specific criticisms: bracingly clear but actually not that pleasant herbal astringencies; bland toothless protein hunks (our friend the sous vide?); tiny micronuggets of actually flavoursome fat and chew (a lovelorn duck’s heart, a sneeze of hake belly); actively bad puddings (with the exception of his storied Douglas Fir milkshake, never one of Simon's fortes anyway). It was – quietly, in this specific context – a fairly devastating disappointment. Also, did I mention it was another overpriced cocktail away from costing five hundred quid?
The most recent issue of Lucky Peach is subtitled “Fine Dining”. Quite some real estate is dedicated to the question of quite what Fine Dining entails, what it means – they even ask a whole panel of chefs (still mostly dudes!) to define it themselves. For what it's worth, my own tentative definition would be an experience in a restaurant that rewards the investment of time, or money, or both. "Reward" is not just about food: it can also be the wine, or the service, or the special feeling you get from being in a specific room at a specific time. At the true top of the tree, at the brightest stars in the global firmament, they kill it on all fronts (read Will Guidara’s lovely piece in said LP for details of how service can itself be perfected). At Fera, not so much. If you want me to jump on the Michelin-bashing bandwagon, I'll say the whole experience felt mean, parsimoniously pared down by a GM to deliver the minimum viable product to lock down a single star. If you want me to jump on the tasting menu-bashing bandwagon, I'll say it reminded me of the low points of my Lost Years: micromoments of pleasure interspersed with pregnant twenty-minute pauses; patient, ball-achingly bored eye contact during the exposition of each dish; a whole that, perversely, comprised less than the sum of its parts. An itchy back; a sore arse.
I'll jump on them bandwagons, happily: it really was profoundly poor. It’s hard not to feel a little bitter, a little vindictive. But really I'm just sad – for Fera, for me, for tasting menus in general. As Ryan Sutton’s excellent red flag report on l’Arpège makes clear, when things go this badly wrong, you don’t just chalk it up to experience. It is your faith that is shaken (a little), a (very narrow) sliver of your worldview that you must reconfigure and in time repair. Like bad break-ups, these experiences leave a mark on you. I’m sure I’ll find my way back into the dating pool soon enough: like I said, when this sort of thing works, I can’t think of many better ways to spend my time. But I can’t believe the same is true of everyone who passed through Claridge’s that night.