A dining experience to forget
We were very puzzled by an advert which we received by email from the Old Vic a couple of weeks ago thus.
“Reserve your tickets now for this unique collaboration combining sight, sound and taste.
For two weeks, during Frieze Art Fair and London Restaurant Festival, Lazarides Gallery and Kofler & Kompanie will present The Minotaur. Transforming The Old Vic Tunnels into a subterranean cultural maze, the event features a unique contemporary art concept to stimulate your senses alongside the UK debut from Michelin Star restaurant, bar and music experience PRET-A-DINER.
Reserve your tickets here for the exhibition and bar experience, The Minotaur.
Register and book your table for your PRET A DINER Michelin star dining experience here, (includes entrance to the exhibition).”
The top Michelin starred chefs promised were: Nuno Mendes (Viajante, London), Matthias Schmidt (Villa Merton, Frankfurt) and Olly and Juan Amador (Amador, Mannheim).
Good, we thought. What a lovely evening this is going to be – the chance to see a contemporary art exhibition in an unusual setting and a Michelin-starred meal afterwards for a fixed price of £75. A bit dear, but no more than you would expect to pay at Claude Bosi’s two Michelin starred Hibiscus and you get an art exhibition thrown in for free.
The exhibition is fascinating, ranging from conceptual art, film, photography, sculptures, lighting effects to street and graffiti art, and is well worth a visit.
There is also a very popular bar in the Minotaur gallery steeped in darkness and candles and serving mostly very pricey but quite unremarkable drinks and cocktails.
Having been forced to pay a £25 a head deposit via the internet before they would accept our booking, we decided to book for the second sitting at 9.00 pm, (we don’t like being shoo-ed out of our seats if we haven’t really finished our meal) but when we got to the dining room the organisation was a bit chaotic as we had to wait and when we could finally be seated they offered as two stools perched on the bar! We declined, and eventually were found a table. (Clearly, they were not too good at shoo-ing people away so that the 9 o’clock diners could actually take their tables on time).
What was on the table was quite puzzling: the serviettes are dish cloths, the cutlery consisted of forks and spoons and chopsticks in a bucket. The bread was served in a paper bag, the butter on a small plate. As we found it difficult to spread the butter with a chopstick we had to ask for a couple of knives., which took some time to come.
An even bigger surprise were the two 3 course menus offered and when on examination they consisted of two Japanese menus to choose from, both three courses, at £75 and dessert £9 extra, we wondered why they bothered to get these chefs over from Germany. I was really looking forward to some Michelin starred bratwurst and sauerkraut or at least, something European.
On offer was the Nuno Mendes Menu and the Ollysan Menu (looks like Matthias Schmitt had the night off). We decided to have one of each and share. The Nuno Mendes Menu was described as a “non vegetarian menu”. Well pretty obvious you would think unless it WAS a vegetarian menu for those special people. The first course was described as “ an angry cherry and her friends go fishing at green rivers shore” How pretentious for a piece of cold mackerel with a few leaves and a garish cherry sauce which leaked onto my shirt as it seeped through the dishcloth that apologised for a serviette. The Ollysan first course was described as a ‘mystified swarm caresses our palate with grace and glory”. Quite a handle for a couple of slices of raw tuna and a couple of slices of raw salmon with yuzu and tamari and a tiny blob of wasabi, looking very much the same as you could get at Yo Sushi for £5.95.
Nuno’s second course was “a yolk shines down from the hill of langoustine dwell” with the emphasis on the singular. I didn’t realise that there was only one langoustine tail in the dish and I ate it which meant that Sonia didn’t have any! Still, she didn’t miss much – the egg was all mashed up with a sliver of mushrooms and a sort of rice pudding effect which gave the dish the consistency of a tin of Heinz baby food. Olly’s second course was “a fivesome from Japan takes you to a secret trip down in the tunnel”. Not sure about the secret but it was a pretty ordinaire sushi worth about £5.95 again. By this time we were getting a bit fed up – if we wanted to go to a Japanese restaurant we didn’t need to go to one where the food was prepared by German chefs – Michelin starred or not.
At least the third courses appeared to contain some meat at last. Nuno’s “a noble man from Iberico tumbles and falls from scattered dreams” consisted of two slices of (presumably) Iberico pork which was surprisingly tough and dry and not what one would expect from one of the best quality pigs in the world. By contrast, Olly’s “a rare invitation full of tenderness and wishful thinking” DID have a stunning piece de boeuf, really tender and succulent (if a bit small) with shitake mushrooms and a potato purée, certainly the best dish of the lot. We declined the no choice dessert of chocolate and beetroot at £9 extra, not because it was £9 extra but we somehow couldn’t get our heads round the combination. The people at the next table who had it were not impressed with it either.
The wine list was short but contained some good kit. We drank a bottle of Little Beauty Pinot Noir 2009 from New Zealand – quite typical NZ pinot with sour cherry overtones but a good food wine because of the lack of residual sugar so often found in New World wines and at £46 (around 3 times retail) not wildly overpriced.
Service was a bit chaotic. They had difficulties in getting the early diners out in time for the second sitting and although the restaurant wasn’t quite full, it was pretty busy and some of the staff looked decidedly harassed. But under the circumstances, they did pretty well.
Ambience was strange. The tunnels are a bit eerie and the higgldy-piggldy furniture and ancient candelabras gave the impression that the dining room was straight out of Hogwarts. At any moment we expected to see Dumbledore at the top table and Sir Nick ghosting over the rest of the tables in the room.
But perhaps the oddest experience was the bill. First of all, they didn’t deduct the £50 deposit we paid. I don’t know how they could have forgotten this since everyone had to pay a deposit of £25 a head otherwise their booking was not accepted. Secondly, there appeared a sum of £26.25 for “cover charge”. Did this mean service charge? If so, why call it a cover charge? Is this some tax fiddle? Anyway, after deducting the £50 deposit our bill should have been £146 – 2 times £75 plus £46 for wine, less £50 deposit paid. But the machine printout read £150.21. Now this is only a difference of £4.21 (or the cost of a sushi in a local Japanese restaurant) but the principle remains – how did the machine get to that figure? On top of this was a “cover charge” this time of £20.50 which is 13.6475% of the bill. We queried this twice but each time the waitress came back insisting that it was right. A very strange calculation. Maybe it’s the German way of getting funds for keeping the Greeks well greased, but by this time we were tired of the whole thing so we paid up what we thought the correct amount should be and went off.
A pity. We were promised a dining experience by Michelin starred chefs to be remembered, but this was clearly an over ambitious event. We could have gone to Yo Sushi for a fifth of the price or to Hibiscus for a far greater dining experience for the same money instead, but curiosity certainly killed the cat here.