Joeblade

My first and probably last fine dining experience

I’d taken a few days off London to stay in Ludlow, a tiny town on the edge of Wales with a reputation for good food. I gave La Bécasse a go for my first fine dining experience because the other fine dining option, Mr Underhill’s, doesn’t do online booking and has a website that automatically plays ambient birdsong. Seriously, that’s actually a thing it does.

I’ve never been fine dining before so I went in without any expectations but I’m put into an edgy frame of mind straight off; the restaurant is dark and gloomy with anonymous Muzak piped in and it was a few seconds before I see any staff, the other diners looking up at me as if I’ve just walked into their living room. They sit subdued, mumbling small talk between courses, if they’re talking at all. The cutlery is deafening.

I’ve been in quiet restaurants before but this feels like walking into a funeral parlour. The Maitre’d arrives to help me pick out a casket pull my chair out and gently drape my napkin across my legs which immediately pushes me to the edge of a giggle loop, it’s done with such solemnity. I advance further into the loop after picking the cheapest half-bottle of red wine but still have to go through the tasting and looking at the label as the sommelier drapes it across his arm.

They then give me a ball of stuffing.

This is my first appetiser: about the size of a ping pong ball, a bit of chicken, sage and onion stuffing in a crispy breadcrumb coating. Imagine 20 of them in a bag in a chest freezer at Iceland and you wouldn’t be far off. I’m immediately confused; I understand the purpose of an appetiser but why a ball of stuffing? I like stuffing, in the context of a traditional Sunday roast or the traditional snacking on cold leftovers a few hours after the traditional Sunday roast, but it’s never struck me as a food to eat on its own before a meal.

I’ve not been given any specific cutlery at this point so I cut it in half with my butter knife and eat it with my fingers. It is a ball of stuffing, dense and heavy and tasting like a packet of Walkers Roast Chicken flavour crisps. Later, one of the staff will note that I have used my butter knife in a non-buttering capacity and replace it. Perhaps I was supposed to eat the ball whole like an Ortolan, consumed beneath a white napkin to hide my sin from God.

Next up is the carrot surprise: three tiny balls of carrot with a smear of “carrot caramel” doused in a few tablespoons of curried carrot soup. Again, I don’t know why, but I go along with it. I have cutlery this time and down the lot with a teaspoon. It tastes of carrot because it is carrot served with carrot. I assume this is all normal.

When the starter arrives, I discover I’ve made a terrible mistake; I’ve ordered fois gras and it turns out that I don’t like fois gras. Served here as a thick, cold disc alongside toasted brioche, caramelised almonds and some fruity gubbins, I can barely do any more than nibble at the edges; it’s like tucking into a wedge of unsalted butter with a knife and fork. It gets sent back mostly uneaten. I politely explain that it was fine, just a bit too much for me, while inside my brain is crying out “Jesus Christ! Of course I didn’t eat it! Why would anyone?”

Main course is a suckling pig sampler which suffers from me now being a bit bored, a bit depressed and weirdly full from having had a few bites of food with long pauses in between. This is a dieting technique, after all. So there’s a couple of bits of crackling, a couple of chunks of pork belly, another bit of pork in a fat sheath that I’m sure – I hope – I’m not supposed to eat. It’s fine but I don’t care any more. I’m feeling sad and tired and getting slightly irritable like a sleepy toddler. Everything is slow and quiet and I’m finding the atmosphere oppressive and soulless.

I skip dessert.

By Paul Haine, in