Sunday, January 28, 2007

Bad Eating Out #1

For those who are in search of an exceptionally disappointing dinner, try the Restaurant A. Cerdan in Montpellier. It is, apparently, recommended 'Bonne Table Française', but this is just a joke because as there is no such body, it is merely deceptive self-glorification.

Maybe it had a glory day, but those days are over.

We went out in search of the fondue restaurant near place Jean Jaurès. As we stood outside the Cerdan wondering if it was the right place, the door opened and the devil beckoned us inside. Drawn, as if by invisible, magical strands of evil, our feet moved of their own volition and we found ourselves standing by a massive wooden bar with a dopey looking social case behind.

The restaurant was, in fact, full and we were invited (like we had a choice...) by the Arch Devil himself, to wait for ten minutes, the time to clear a table, and get us to drink their magic potion, Kir, which obliterated all capacity to refuse and flee. At least half an hour later (time was not of the essence in this place, especially for the 'second sitting'), we were led to the smoking side without being consulted on our preference and sat at a table for two next to a rollicking party of 8, two of whom were English (who could speak French).

The tables were chunky wood, with ancient, classic wooden chairs covered in burgundy-coloured fuzz. A beautiful vaulted ceiling sat impossibly above us, while the tacky flower-print crimplene table cloth fizzed equally impossibly on the table before us. The menus arrived and had all-inclusive menus ranging from the lunch time 13.50Eur to over 35Eur. We took one at 27Eur plus a half litre pichet of white wine at 4.50Eur.

The restaurant pretends to specialise in Normandy and Oranie (north west Algeria) dishes which is an odd combination if you ask me, but what do I know... it would explain the appearance of the waitresses though. We went for a Normandy-based menu and I started with gambas served with aioli (garlic mayonnaise). They took so long to arrive, I started wondering if they'd popped up to the coast to catch them themselves. I'll go to my deathbed swearing they weren't fresh as they were, let's say, just sad. Supposedly grilled, they had dry tail ends, blackened patches and needed the aioli if you weren't to give up out of boredom half-way through. My partner chose the foie gras which had just been sliced off an industrially-produced foie gras sausage. It was mottled in appearance which either denotes using too much butter, or using bits of foie gras from different livers and sticking them altogether.

So far so passable. Meanwhile, the conversation at the next table had moved on from comparing talking about sex in French and English to telling jokes and seeing who could laugh the loudest. We had ample time to take sonometrical readings and set up static electric experiments with the tablecloth whilst waiting for the main course to arrive. When it finally came, it was presented beneath one of those metallic domes designed to keep the food hot in hotels where the kitchen is at the opposite end of the building to the restaurant. Either that, or it's being pretentious. In this case, appearances are the greater part of value, and when the domes were removed, the food was exposed in all its tepid glory.

Every restaurant has a motto, and for this one it's 'when in doubt, throw cream over it'. I had mini coquilles St Jacques in a mushroom sauce. The scallops were those little ones you buy frozen in the supermarket, and they had been fried and then smothered in some heavy cream-based mushroom sauce. By the third mouthful, I was scraping off the sauce in a desperate attempt to taste the scallops and not die from an attack of cholesterol-clogged arteries. They were served, surprisingly, with industrial yellow rice with dried out peas and red bits in it, a defrosted, less than tepid carrot purée brick, and some sad, dry little French beans. I felt depression hovering over me, and rather than reach for the phone to get a prescription for Prozac, I just left the plateful, except for the scallops which I finished.

My partner had what purported to being veal in Calvados sauce. Not an escalope of veal, you understand, but what seemed like it could have been the knee. It had not been fried, but 'boiled', or stewed in some liquid, or microwaved, and the Calvados bottle waved in the general direction of the kitchen. It was then smothered in, you guessed it, cream, and they searched out for some semi-raw onions from another dish to chuck in just for good measure. The veal was not fully cooked, and so gristly that it needed crunching to get through the sinews. It got so inedible that my partner just gave up, just before he lost the will to live (luckily). He turned his attention instead to the potato and beans, and the smidgin of carrot purée that had been on the bottom of the spoon that served me.

It was, by now, 11.30pm. We had arrived at 8.45pm. I was bored with the food and my stomach had reached the limits of its opening hours. We still had cheese and dessert to get through. The cheese was acceptable, and we chose dessert. Whilst waiting for it to arrive, I asked for the bill. It arrived with a complimentary glass of Calvados, which everyone got. I took it as poor substitute for diabolical food. At midnight, dessert still hadn't appeared and no one had taken the credit card, so my partner had to get up and take it himself. We left, having paid for dessert, but not wishing to take root and merge with the crimplene table cloth before it arrived, just desperate never ever ever to go there again, and to warn any potential customers to avoid it like the plague.

If you happen to be in its vicinity, walk quickly past with your head down. On no circumstances look the beast in the eyes. There's no escape!


  1. Here's a tip: get a friend to phone ahead, warning that the lady who's about to arrive in the Peugeot 406 is a Michelin inspector.

  2. I really enjoyed this piece! I'm always apprehensive about going to restaurants (not that I get to go much these days :-( ). I have simple tastes but I love my food and I'm often deeply disappointed...and this puts me in a bad mood for the rest of the evening.

    I'll try Colinb's tip next time. I'll get someone to warn them that the lady in the - er - on the red bike is a Michelin inspector. Will it work, do you think?

  3. Aren't Michelin inspectors supposed to be anonymous?

    Anyway, this place is in the centre of Montpellier which is a car-free zone. You'd have to ring and say the person wearing her new, excrutiatingly painful shoes who'll be hobbling in with a partner wearing odd socks... or something.

    Thank you, Gigi. I wish we had had a fondue evening!

  4. I'm not suggesting that she'd come in wearing a big Michelin badge, Sarah.

    But she could definitely reinforce suspicions by pointing her mobile "phone" (ie camera) at each course as it arrives, and by asking the waiter to confirm the spelling of the chef's name, in case she wants to write something about him on her "blog".

    And since she does indeed write a blog, then no one can accuse her of using underhand tactics. She's simply playing the system to make sure that the chef and waiters give of their very best.

    But don't take this too seriously !

  5. I have been eating in French restaurants for a very long time. I was a student at Grenoble 50 years ago, and there is no doubt that the standard of food in your average restaurant is nothing like what it used to be. The metallic dome is pure pretention. "eh viola" restaurants we call them

  6. You're right, Glen. It was a disgrace, actually. No effort had been made to put together a coherent set of main course items, the food had obviously been pre-prepared by some industrial outfit and sent in vacuum packs, and the little fresh stuff they did have (beans) had been hanging around for so long it had dried out.

    And they expect you to PAY to eat their rubbish. C'était de la merde.

  7. Of course you can eat badly in France. Anybody can set up a restaurant. That's probably why every conversation eventually turns to a discussion on restaurants. And that's the best way to know where to go and where not. Nevertheless you can still have some surprises since everybody has a different opinion. The old test of full restaurants is also a good test, not in this case but it sounds like a touristy area which is definitely to be avoided.
    The quality of restaurants has definitely been hit over the years by the chains. It's americanised food but unfortunately they have squeezed out the family retaurants. Also people no longer want to spend all day serving food like they did in the old days. I think the cheap good meals which were great 25 years ago have now,in the main, gone. You now have to pay a bit in order to eat well or it's better to buy a plate of oysters from the fish shop and stay at home.

    But I still keep looking for those wonderful 50f menus which I ate in my youth.

  8. Surprisingly, Richard, the restaurant was full of locals, it not being a hot tourist period at the moment. In fact, loads of the proprietor's friends were there; they seemed to have boxing connections.

    Just opposite is a really good restaurant, though pricey.

    One of my favourite eating holes was 5 minutes from where I work, and I went there as a regular Friday lunchtime treat with co-workers. We had three simple but tasty courses, 25cl of wine each, all for 10Eur.

    Unfortunately it closed a few months ago and we still mourn our loss.

    There is another, slightly more expensive which I like. You can taste that they cook from scratch from fresh ingredients. They have a lovely terrace too, for sunny days.

    It is possible to find these places, but it's getting harder.


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