Seems every restaurant review I write is preceded by some sort of proviso or disclaimer, in the same way that MPs and members of any committee are supposed to begin their comments with declarations of interest.
Mine is this: I’m all for chefs with flair, but by and large I’m against being flash for the hell of it. You know what I mean – silly descriptions, stupid combinations, flamboyance without the skill to pull it off. Maybe Blumenthal is the exception, but most times I’ve tried restaurants where the chef was more ambitious than his (because they are almost always male – female chefs would arguably be more sensitive) talents justified.
A simple rule of thumb should apply in 99.9% of cases: quality ingredients should stand out clear and strong by their own virtues, and not be encumbered by incompatible flavours or over-fussy presentation; and restaurants should major on getting basics right, not least good quality customer service with excellent attention to detail, not go overboard with themes or styles beyond their competence. If you want to run a damn good restaurant, ditching pretension, arrogance and ego is a damn good way to start!
Mark Baumann, whose brasserie in the sleepy Essex village of Coggeshall we visited one Wednesday night, is now closer to the celeb chef mould than most – he apparently hosts various TV shows. It seems his pedigree is fine and he does at least champion good local produce. I am told, however, that he hardly ever cooks in said brasserie these days. Indeed, the menu, as reproduced on his website, declares:
- Restaurant Manger – Samantha Welton
- Chef – John Ranfield
- Pain in the backside – Mark Baumann
Whether he is a pain in the backside for better or worse I shall leave others to decide, though it is worth saying that the restaurant originated as an outpost of the Peter Langan empire. Langan, you will recall, was a legendary and flamboyant restauranteur and drinker, he of Langan’s bistro fame who famously wore white suits and died in unfortunate circumstances. He went into partnership with Baumann, much as he had with Richard Shepherd in the bistro, and Baumann took over after Langan’s untimely death.
Baumann’s menu is something of an enigma, being a combination of good solid brasserie fare without the inconvenience of an attached brewery (moules mariniere, seared rib eye au poivre, braised ox cheek, sautéed calves liver with kale, colcannon and smoked bacon), and fanciful titles (“two way duck – crispy & tataki, teriyaki toothpaste”, “bonfire sorbet”, and “hot smoked salmon crumpet, fennel & olive carpaccio” – sorry, but a carpaccio is not made from fennel or olives!!)
The latter are effectively so much marketing spin, designed to attract curiosity value and stir debate. I love duck but “teriyaki toothpaste” has no culinary value other than as a talking point. By and large, classic recipes are classic for a pretty good reason, and innovation should be around improving techniques and flavours.
Personally I think understated descriptions do the food far more justice, but anyway… Look below the Baumann’s bluster (not least all the cook books and dipping oil for sale) and there are good signs: the fact that you order cheese with your starter so it is in perfect condition by the time it should be served does suggest an appreciation of how to treat good ingredients, though I would argue that fine cheese should ideally be kept in a cool larder rather than the refrigerator. Another healthy sign is the presence of garlic roasted rump of veal, a dish I could never restrain myself from ordering, even if it was accompanied by “splattered bramley apple & vanilla.”
But best of all, a note on the menu that reads thus:”
Please note – Your food is cooked to order. We therefore require a little time. If you are in a hurry, don’t get grumpy just let us know and we will do our best to accommodate.”
Hosannah! The antidote to people who simply don’t realise that the best things are worth waiting for. Fast food in its place, but slow food packs the punch, or at any rate food cooked fresh to order!
First impressions were bizarre. BB certainly looked like the interior of a restaurant, beautifully decorated with pictures aplenty, many depicting the late lamented Langan; Piaf sang a haunting chanson; diners relaxed at tables; but service came there none – it seemed we had walked into the Marie Céleste of restaurants. Had the staff deserted a sinking ship? Hopefully not!
When nobody appeared in the first five minutes, I went for a walkabout. Hearing sounds equating to human life forms emanating from the kitchen, I knocked on the door and a waitress wearing the stump of a tie appeared, smiling, as if nothing had happened. From that point on the service was charming and discreet, not too obtrusive but available when required.
Starting with the wine, I made a good choice: a fine Pinotage with a fair but not excessive mark-up. Having sampled a variety of Pinotages in their native South Africa, this one had evidently travelled well and impressed with an explosion of fruity flavours.
The food was less definitive. All dishes from which a certain warmth was expected arrived below tepid and chilled to stone cold in the eating. Yes, I know that kitchens prefer food to be served at that temperature, but it would certainly not have passed my mother’s test: she would have sent it back to said kitchen to be served scalding hot! Granted that food will in general taste better at a slightly lower temperature, but losing all vestige of heat does not make for attractive eating. There is a happy medium and this was not it.
Flavoured garlicky breads and olives created a humming start, but the starters were like the curate’s egg. The duck arrived as a sardine tin of crispy shredded fowl placed on a slate plate (deeply fashionable), a small pile of sliced duck moistened with a light green sauce (toothpaste?), and some minutely carved duck crackling on the other side. Somehow this contrived to be less than the sum of the parts, even if it did give me an opportunity to demonstrate my prowess with chopsticks.
The hand-held prawns were succulent and tasty, indicating crustacia cooked in the shell then part-peeled. The shell cooking makes for optimum texture and flavour, so good for the kitchen. However, the chilli dip slightly disappointed – could have been sharper, to the mind of my company for the evening. Out of a bottle? If so, not the standard you would expect of an ambitious restaurant.
Main courses kept up the über-cool but well cooked standard as the starters. The rib eye was perfectly rare, as requested, and the chips (actually pommes allumettes) splendid. Garlic roasted rump of veal did not taste of garlic, and should have been pinker; it proved reasonably tender, but nothing to write home about, certainly not the best I’ve eaten by a long chalk. A clump of apple sauce on top proved appeared to be the “splatter”, and vanilla was marginally detectable in the puddle of gravy beneath. Dauphinoise spuds did not match the standards of my own, in the estimation of my co-diner (blush) but were very tasty nonetheless. Accompanying veg were again pretty decent, though I felt the braised red cabbage was dry and lacked the zingy sweet-sour mouth feel you would expect.
Even the cheese, ordered beforehand, was slightly cooler than you might expect. Arguably this was because the waitress expected us to order dessert as well, but we ploughed on regardless. That said, they were six moderately decent slivered cheeses, an inadequate quantity of water biscuits, a few sticks of celery and a lump of apple chutney, amounting to a stingy slate’s worth for £13. This seemed a trifle excessive, so surely it would not have hurt them to offer a further helping from the trolley? One more small gripe about cheeses: while it was a joy to see smoked brie among the six, a number of the rest were rather too similar hard white cheeses. Why no blues, for example?
Good coffee and charm from the manager finished off our evening.
The fact that I sent this review to the restaurant and got no reply says something too. I wonder if they really care what customers think, or even bother to follow up instances of bad service? Hmmm… Somehow there is a lot to be praised within Baumann’s, but it could be so much better with just a little more attention to detail. I hope when I return that it will be to a warmer reception and warmer food.