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18 March 2007


Maybe I am lucky. Maybe, I choose well, but I rarely have a truly bad meal in a restaurant. The food may be dodgy but the service will be great, or vice versa. I cannot think of many times when both are off. Mother's Day lunch today at Villandry was one of those rare experiences. There were some merits to the meal but they were vastly outweighed by the problems. Which surprised me, because this is my third meal at the restaurant since management changed and it reopened in October 2006. My previous meals were great. Maybe service was on the slow side, but it did not seem to matter too much, because the execution of the food was good. On the basis of those two good meals, it was mine and Silverbrowess' recommendation that we take Ma Silverbrow there for lunch today.

Nothing any of the six of us ordered was technically complicated, or required numerous ingredients, yet everything took ages to arrive and fair amount of it was cold or undercooked. We started off by ordering two plates of Crudités with hot anchovy dip, which is basically a tamed version of bagna cauda, the classic Italian dip of anchovies, garlic and olive oil. I've had it before at Villandry and it was very good. It had a strong fishy punch and an interesting selection of crudités, including quails eggs and some sort of tomato confit. Today, about forty-five minutes after putting in our order, the copper pots of anchovy dip were under a third full (last time they were about half full) and the vegetables and quails eggs were fridge-cold. Thus negating the effect of the little pot-burner keeping the dip warm and dulling any taste the veg might have had. The cold veg combined with the rapidly cooling dip, made the whole dish a bit pointless.

Next came the real tour de merde: the main courses. Three of us ordered egg based dishes (one scrambled, two poached), there was a salad, beef tartare and mac n' cheese, plus sides of chips and zucchini. None of these are taxing, Silverbrowess could make all of them in her sleep (except possibly the beef tartare which might freak her out, but you get the point.) These took another twenty odd minutes to arrive, except for one dish: my sister's order of poached egg and smoked salmon on toast. Of all the dishes this has to be the most straightforward to prepare. Put some bread in the toaster, boil some water and vinegar, chuck the eggs in, swirl them around a bit, leave for a minute plus a couple of seconds, butter the toast, place eggs on toast, smoked salmon on top and away. Except not at Villandry. Initially they forgot the salmon, so the dish went back down to the kitchen. Some credit might be given to them for not just plonking the salmon on top of the eggs, they started from fresh. But it took a good ten minutes (we'd all made good headway into our dishes) before the replacement arrived. She cuts into an egg and the white is runnier than the yolk. We call over the manageress, she's apologetic. Another ten minutes before it comes back again. Again, my sister cuts into it, again the egg is undercooked. Such incompetence in a restaurant charging £12.50 for some bread, egg and fish is inexcusable.

As an aside and being a pedant, I noted on each appearance the dish was presented differently. On the first occasion the eggs were on top of the smoked salmon, the next, the salmon on top of the eggs. This could be dismissed as a minor issue, or it could be seen as a sign that no-one was paying attention to what was leaving the kitchen. I take the latter view.

To add to the general woes, my eggs royale weren't all that hot, neither was the mac n' cheese. On the upside, the chips were good and I believe the zucchini were as well.

Why the incompetence? One of the miserable waiters explained that the Mother's Day rush was to blame. Few excuses rile me as much as this one. They are a restaurant with a defined number of seats. We have to assume they know their seating capacity, we also must assume they know the capacity of their kitchen. If the kitchen and the waiters can't service the number of covers, they shouldn't take so many bookings. Being busy is no excuse for a rubbish meal. Especially in a restaurant like Villandry that does its best to sit at the top of London's foodie tree.

I have been trying to decide whether my two good experiences outweigh this bad one and have concluded that they don't. This meal was so universally bad, with the basics taking centre stage in the disaster - they can't poach an egg - that little can redeem it. The manageress said she would take the offending main course off the bill and all the drinks and the service. I'd already decided that we wouldn't be paying service so that was neither here nor there. As for my sister's main course, it was the least I would have expected. The drinks sounds generous except we only drank a few bottles of water and a couple of Virgin Mary's, one of which was still on the bill. She did also offer free desserts, but we decided to call it quits and left.

I feel a bit sad it was so bad. After-all, this was supposed to be a good meal in honour of Ma Silverbrow, I had recommended it and I had had good experiences in the past. But when a restaurant repeatedly fails so miserably in one meal, there is clearly a problem. It might take yet another change of management or a particularly brutal wedgie to convince me to go back. The one saving grace of this place remains the produce shop at the front. Although even with this, many of the products, such as the Foreman & Sons smoked salmon, can be bought at decent supermarkets these days.

Villandry, 170 Great Portland Street, London, W1W 5QB, UK
Tel: +44 (0)20 7631 3131

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Google Earth (download)

What others think

Time Out - Service (by several young lads) was well meaning but amateurish; there was a distinctive hard sell on the booze too.

Fodor's - Heaven for food lovers

Frommers - Food lovers and gourmands flock to this food store, delicatessen, and restaurant, where racks of the finest meats, cheese, and produce in the world are displayed and changed virtually every hour.

Something Glorious - ...it was really the food -- and phenomenal service -- that was noteworthy.


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Dear Mr Silverbrow
I have looked into this, and out of 230 smooth covers that we did on Sunday, it seems that we really did screw up your table. I have looked at the handover book, and talked to the staff with a view to letting you know some reason for the mistakes, and to be honest I can't find any. We just got it wrong. I'm so sorry, and if you would like to contact me (you should have my email address), I will let you know how we can make it up to you.
Apologies to Ma Silverbrow,
Jamie Barber

Jamie, thanks for your swift response. For those who don't know, Jamie Barber is one of the new owners of Villandry. I have to say I'm impressed at the speed of your response.

I have to take you at your word that there were no other complaints, although, I have to say I don't remember seeing anyone else kicking up a stink.

It is heartening to know that our complaints were officially noted and it is also fair enough that sometimes things just get screwed up. Nonetheless, as I said in the post, there were such fundamental balls-ups that I reckon there are deeper problems.

However, as per your tantalising sign-off, I will get in contact and give Ma Silverbrow your apologies.

One thing though, obviously yesterday nobody at the restaurant knew I was going to write about this, so would an ordinary punter also have the owner writing to them offering a sweetner? I don't wish to be churlish or ungrateful, but the response to our problems that we got yesterday, was not quite so accomodating.

Dear readers, I'll post about any progress.

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