Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Unforgettable Meal, Besancon

The unforgettable meal

In the town of Besancon there are many restaurants. How we came to choose this one and eat at it is beyond me. We must have been under the delusion that all French food is good. Certainly the menu looked interesting and a bit different, the setting promised an alfresco experience and it was convenient to the hotel on our first night in town. The restaurant had a terrace, a small internal space and said in its window that it catered for parties and events.

On a terrace just set for the evening meal there were a number of tables, several under attractive umbrellas, and only one couple. While waiting for my husband to join me, I was rather uncomfortable to be sat right next to this couple who were clearly involved in an intimate conversation. They seemed irritated too, and I asked to be moved, but the waiter indicated that all other places were already reserved. OK, that boded well for the meal and I couldn’t understand their fluent French anyway. Their secrets were safe with me!

Several large parties did come in and the one waiter was rushed in seating and serving. The food read well, if sometimes unusually. Brochette of filet mignion, crumble of vollaile with its tomato glaze, but what we actually got was bizarre. From the E16 menu I ordered chilled carrot and coriander soup which came surmounted by sweet cream whipped from a pressure whipper and a slick of sweet green syrup. It had absolutely no taste, like nothing at all, except for the cream which tasted of sweet cream. Then came the chicken crumble, which was in layers. Tomato bits in melted dice in the bottom of the small casserole, then dry chicken breast cubes in an unthickened sauce with a vaguely curry flavour, topped with a sweetish crumble and a scoop of pale orange ice cream!!! Maybe apricot or mango but I really don’t know as it had no discernible flavour.

My husband ordered feuillete of salmon, which conjured images of pastry leaves layered with salmon. What eventuated was something like salmon dip on crisped pita bread, the salmon all creamed into a paste. He used the words “damp cardboard” in relation to this dish. Then his brochette of filet mignion came, a skewer of pieces of pork fillet, clearly sliced and skewered AFTER being cooked, together with baked pieces of pear. A sauce of indeterminate taste and a potato cooked in the oven completed the dish.

Meanwhile the other tables began to fill up, especially those for large numbers which had obviously been booked. The waiter was very busy when some rain began to fall. We were under an umbrella but it passed quite quickly and people all joked about it. As desserts were part of the set menu, I ordered a rose scented pannacotta and Nick a chocolate mousse and melon. The guy next to me ordered an avocado and lemon mousse.

Then the heavens opened! As most people were not under umbrellas there was a rush to carry tables and chairs, glasses and plates, food and drink under a mercifully nearby arch in the building. There was certainly no room inside the tiny restaurant to accommodate the some 35 or so people. We invited the couple next to us under our umbrella with our fractured French and we were all able to keep dry. The earlier frigidity was somewhat tempered by need and proximity and we joked together as best we could.

Desserts eventually arrived for all, and each of them was presented in a thick French Duralex glass, which was unusual to say the least. Flavours were also unusual. My neighbour almost immediately returned the avocado mousse as inedible, exchanging it for a clafoutis (cooked in the glass, like no clafoutis I have ever known). My pannacotta was lurid pink, heavily dosed with rose essence and, had it been out of the glass, could have been bounced across the floor. The chocolate mousse was thankfully set in a layer over the melon cubes (in the glass) and could be scooped off separately, as the combination of flavours was not to be recommended.

We are bemused as to who could have cooked this and be accepted as a caterer as well. I am fairly flexible in what I will eat and the set menu price of E16 did not lead us to expect gourmet food, but to us it seemed like a twelve year old had been let loose in the kitchen for the first time and we were expected to applaud the results. Actually it was barely edible, but the prospect of a complaint bringing better food seemed remote. Better to pick at what we could eat and get out.

To be fair, great sounds of bonhomie came from under the arch where the tables were relocated. Someone was having fun, but not us, except perhaps for a fit of the giggles at the strange awfulness of it all.

What did we learn from all this?

  • Just because a menu looks interesting does not mean it is good
  • Just because a place says it caters does not mean it is good.
  • Sweetened crumbles on savoury food do NOT work. Not at this place anyway. (The idea of savoury crumbles has some possibilities though. Hmm!
  • Icecream on top of hot savoury dishes does not work at any time.
  • Putting all your desserts in indestructible Duralex glasses is neither aesthetically pleasing nor good for the food
  • You can fool some of the people some of the time
  • French people eating in large groups at a French restaurant does NOT necessarily mean the restaurant is good

We will “dine out” on this one for quite a while.

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