We are not a nation of eaters, are we? Walk into the worst trattoria in the village in Piedmont and you will eat like a King. Walk into the restaurant that looks closed in the tiniest of French backwater villages and the food will be good. Walk into any of the invariably themed restaurants in the average UK high street and the chances are you will come away £50 lighter and wondering: just why did I do that? It’s like we don’t care. And the rubbish chained restaurants stay open – they do business. Their average averageness is what people seem to want. Is it about predictability? Familiarity? I don’t know. Herewith a couple of exceptions. Well, sort of. “Cabotte” and the “Quality Chop House”.
I’d been to the Quality Chop House a couple of times before: once downstairs and once in the private room. My visit to Cabotte was my first.
QCH first: I am pleased to say that the pews downstairs have padding on them now, though you are still pretty intimate with your fellow diners. As it happened we were all mates so no problem there. And, whilst those church pews might not be ideal in terms of comfort or proximity to your dining companions, they are integral to the whole feel of the place, which is a good one. Before you’ve even eaten anything, the place has character.
I was greeted by two pals, giggling like schoolboys at the latest gossip. It was good to see them though it was even better to see (a) a bottle of Leflaive and (b) some rillettes and toast. The former – 2000 Bienvenues – was pretty good, not oxidized, holding up well and, to be fair, flawless aside from the fact that it clearly came from an average vintage. 7/10 on my new, simplified, scoring system. Rillettes on toast is the sort of thing that QCH appears to do best and comes in at 8/10. And they don’t skimp on the cornichons.
A bottle of 2014 Kumeu River Coddington Vineyard followed up the Leflaive and was arguably the better wine: what it lacked in breeding it made up for in freshness. Some time in the bottle and it will move up, I reckon.
My starter was a side of mozzarella, and was ok. The man opposite me got it considerably better with a duck egg on top of some black pudding on top of some toast. This, again, is the sort of thing that the QCH does best: simple, rich, meaty food.
Mains: they had sold out of bavette. A disaster. Really. I still yearn for one and it was a fortnight ago. I had some obscure cut of meat from the shoulder instead. Perfectly cooked, efficiently served. Not too big (lunchtime is for drinking, not eating), but it would have been even better if it was bavette.
We had two wines with this: the weirdly labelled 1989 Dominus and a quite brilliant 2004 Calera, Mills Vineyard. The former was tight. Not dirty, not corked, but not quite correct – a bottle in a bad mood. The latter was quite lovely; tasted about ten years younger than it did, and was the wine of the day by some margin (and by unanimous vote). This particular bottle was one of a case had been returned to Renaissance Vintners on account of its “undrinkable” alcohol volume. Humbug. 9/10.
All I recall about dessert is that it involved chocolate and it was delicious. I invariably enjoy starters and dessert more than mains. Maybe this is what chefs concentrate on; maybe it’s just me.
The Quality Chop House gets 7/10. Special mention goes to Big Phil for buying us the totally unnecessary beers before he left, and to the lovely chef that I think he fell for.
And then to Cabotte.
I’m not sure what the idea at Cabotte is. My initial understanding was that it was/is inspired by Burgundy, and Burgundian restos. I’ve just checked their website: “the feel of the restaurant, which was designed by Rosendale Design, is that of a traditional local bistro in the French countryside.”
Which is, quite simply, bollocks. Complete bollocks. If anything, Cabotte reminds me – in terms of décor at least – of a very cool restaurant in Delhi that I ate at some years back. At the time, I reckoned that the whole place could have been picked up in one piece from New York then plonked down in Connaught Circus. There is nothing “paysan” about Cabotte.
We brought our own wine: that this is OK is obviously a huge plus, and maybe missed the point of Cabotte’s hugely impressive list. A 2010 Brunello from Cerbiaona and 2010 Diamond Creek Volcanic Hill. These seem slightly incongruous with Burgundian Bistro fare but the more I think about it, the more they suited the place – the Brunello in particular.
The menu at Cabotte is clearly inspired by that local bistro that the designers have never been to. I started with Oeuf en Meurette (n.b. just one oeuf), then took the “Duo of South Devon Lamb”. I don’t associate lamb with Burgundy, the place or the wine (they grow cows in Burgundy, and lambs and are to be eaten with Bordeaux). The former was pretty good though not quite sloppy enough, and one oeuf short. The latter was spot on for what I would describe as “Modern British” rather than classic Burgundian. 6/10 for the oeuf and maybe 7 for the lamb.
The 2010 Brunello rather summed up the experience. It was pretty good. Very punchy, lots of flavour, a hint that you were drinking Sangiovese but, to be critical, a bit soul-less: a bit more winemaking than wine. And Brunello, 2010s in particular to a bitter soul like me, is as much about commerce as it is about the spirit of the terroir which, in turn, is what Burgundy is all about. There is an irony here: Cabotte is the child of a bunch of Burgheads.
The Diamond Creek was a firecracker. A wine with character. Dancing on the table, bare-chested and singing, and doing so with some class. As with most people that dance on tables I’m not quite sure how it will develop but, if you want a truly great California Cabernet to wow your friends tonight then this is something else, and not short of character by any description.
In this increasingly vapid, clickbait world there are some of us – or maybe even just me – who desire something a little different. The Quality Chop House, the Calera and the Diamond Creek (and, to be fair, the Kumeu) were just that. Cabotte, whilst undeniably of a certain quality, was a bit Manchester City, which is to say that that, whilst all was very good, it was all a little bit, well, clinical. And an oeuf short of 7/10.