We finally made it to Chez Lahlou’s restaurant last night – it’s only around
the corner from us, literally 1 minute’s walk, and is about the only French
restaurant in Sheffield, always fully booked and I’d heard good things said
about it… all of which makes it strange (very strange, for me) that
we’d never been there before. OK, slight lie, we went there a couple of years
ago, when Gill was about 6 months pregnant with Lola – but Gill came over very
dizzy, walked outside for some fresh air, and then fainted up against the front
of the restaurant, waking up in a slight mess of mixed bodily fluids – all of
this before our starters even arrived, so we caught a taxi straight home, and
my escargots somehow didn’t taste quite the same re-heated from the bag.
It was… well, it was exactly what I expected, which I’m sorry to say wasn’t
a great deal. See, although I’d heard good things about it, I know my
expectations of a restaurant are somewhat different from most of my friends’,
South Kensington has left me jaded. And from the short time we’d spent there
before, I did have an inkling what it would be like.
First of all the place is just too damned crowded – small restaurants are great,
not so milking the maximum out of them by squeezing tables up alongside one
another and not leaving enough elbow room to swing a steak-knife (which, incidentally,
is what Gill was given to eat her duck with – isn’t that supposed to be a bad
reflection on the toughness of the duck, or something?) Even the entrance was
tiny – a person-sized space between two doors which doesn’t leave room for the
two doors to open, making entering the restaurant a complex operation (especially
as both doors are prone to jamming) and let in vast quantities of the chilly
air that I presume the two-door setup was supposed to help keep out. We managed
to squeeze ourselves inside, and I climbed into my chair with some difficulty,
wedged as it was between table and wall.
We were promptly given two menus, no offer of aperetifs though, a shame because
I really fancied a Kir Royale – but as aperetifs were obviously very much out
of vogue there, I very much doubt they would have cracked open a bottle of bubbly
just for my sake. Unfortunately the menus did not come with a wine list, this
only turned up about 10 minutes later after we’d ordered. The wine itself arrived
a lifetime or two later, after we’d finished our starters. Even then, the waitress
opened it and left it standing on the counter for about 10 minutes before bringing
it to our table and pouring our glasses. The thing I was looking forward to
most when I set off for the meal was knocking back some half-decent wine – I
know things are supposed to be better if you have to wait for them, but it is
possible to have too much of a bad thing.
While we waited for our food we were brought nibbles – some little pieces of
chicken on the bone, with a crust of sweet something or other, and vegetable
crudites with a thick vinaigrette dip. I know I shouldn’t, but I just had to
try the chicken. Tasty, but very greasy. Next came some bread (hmm… two courses into the meal
and our starters haven’t even arrived, let alone the wine) – slices of supermarket
faux-baguette. Finally our starters arrived (along with some more bread – much
nicer this lot, home-baked soft mini-ciabatta style rolls). I had garlic mushrooms
(actually, I think there was something in the menu that made them sound slightly
more interesting that standard garlic mushrooms – flamed in pernod, or something,
but it didn’t notice that much). The plate of mushrooms was huge – it would have
made a decent enough main course, especially garnished as it was with half an
orange, slices of apple, cucumber, lettuce and onion, and swimming in butter.
Gill had a similarly huge plate holding a fish I’d never heard of before (pigeot
or something? Gill was worried it might turn out to be a pigeon), with maitre
d’hotel sauce and a garnish of strawberries – the fish was overcooked, too dry
For the main course, I had lemon sole with bearnaise sauce – probably the best
part of the meal, although still not great – the fish was encased in batter
and the sauce had a rather ageing glazed look, but the fish inside was at least
cooked right. Again, there was masses of garnish. Gill had duck – when the waitress
asked how she wanted it she said "just a little bit bloody", to which
the waitress enquired "medium?" – I warned Gill that this meant it
would be overcooked, and of course it was. There were tiny flecks of pink in
the centre, but most of it was brown and a little too dry. I much prefer the
approach of the serving staff at Simply
Heathcotes the other week – when Gill ordered the duck there, the waitress
says "it comes very rare, a little bloody – is that OK?" – leave
the chef to make the decisions, eat it when they think is best unless you have
strong reasons for wanting it otherwise. But, of course, this is Sheffield,
so not allowing a person the option of getting it "well done" would
be a sin. At least Gill didn’t lack for quantity – there seemed to be an entire
duck there, swimming in its own pond of orange sauce.
And, as if we weren’t struggling enough with the food on our plates, the waitress
turned up again as we were well into our food with a huge bowl of vegetables
(new potatoes, roast potatoes, cauliflower cheese, red cabbage, green cabbage,
courgettes, carrots, and probably a couple of others I’ve forgotten). More proof
that in Sheffield, the less you hear "less is more" the better. We
struggled bravely, but in the end we were only able to manage about half of
our main course each, and a measly quarter or less of the massed vegetables.
It has long been fashionable to slag off "nouvelle cuisine" with its
"tiny portions", but I have to say that even when I’ve eaten in places
where the servings looked tiny, I’ve never left feeling undernourished (especially
after 3 courses of tiny portions). It seems that people prefer quantity to quality.
In a similar way they also prefer choice – I’m quite happy going to a restauraunt
that only has three dishes on the menu, as long as they’re good dishes, my only
gripe with that is that if it’s a really good restaurant then I’m likely
to go back soon and two of the three dishes are likely to be the same – but
I can cope with that. But people want freedom of choice, freedom to choose crap,
the Americanization of sandwiches and ice cream, 573 varieties of everything.
This struck me when I visited a gastro-pub in the Derbyshire Dales a few years
back – I was mesmerised by their row of blackboards advertising meal-after-meal
of enticing-sounding grub. There were about 20 to 40 each of meat dishes, poultry
dishes, fish dishes, seafood dishes, vegetarian dishes, plus God knows how many
starters. It took me about half an hour of mouth-watering anticipation just
to choose something… then when my food turned up it was a heavily overcooked
piece of white fish in a mediocre sauce. I had to give up eating it halfway
through, the fish gunged my mouth up so much that I could barely swallow it.
Freedom of choice, pah! Give me a chef who can show me what I didn’t realise
what I wanted, not one who can make a pathetic attempt at what I thought I wanted.
Anyway, maybe I’m totally irrationally prejudiced, quite possibly so and I’m
certainly generalising, but I see Sheffield (and perhaps more generally
South Yorkshire) as the centre of quantity/choice culture. So culturally backwards
and closed to new ideas. Of course, most of the world is like that really, but
somehow it seems to me that here they are morseo. Gill’s opinion on the subject
definitely influences my views on this (as with most things), after all, she’s
from the place, she should know it well enough, right? If you were to personify
Sheffield, you couldn’t do much better than the "Rubbish"
character from the Fast
Show (whose philosophy of life, in fact, almost exactly mirrors Gill’s dad,
right down to the use of the word "Rubbish", every bit as much as
character could be Gill’s brother – in fact, I rather suspect that Paul Whitehouse
and Charlie Higson may have been sitting next to the two of them in a public
place when they were writing this part of the show).
So, did I enjoy my night out? Well, yes, I did actually. Despite my many protestations
about Chez Lahlou ("it was bluddy roobish!") it does have one or two
redeeming qualities. The food, despite not being good, certainly wasn’t bad (like I said, I’m just spoilt). It wasn’t cheap but neither was it frighteningly expensive
(especially when you calculate the price by volume) – we had the most expensive
bottle of wine on the list (a Sancerre which was, surprise surprise, fairly
mediocre) which cost £22. The meal including wine came to £55.
Also the staff, despite their treacle-slow dizziness, are as friendly as hell.
I felt less embarrassed about taking back a doggy-bag of snails last time, after
they offered to bag up the (substantial) remains of our meal for us on this visit too (but somehow
carrying home half a duck carcass, half-eaten fish and a market-garden’s worth
of vegetables didn’t appeal, neither did trying to tackle them again the next
day – although the cat might genuinely have been happy). Similarly, I didn’t
feel so bad about leaving early on our earlier visit, because this time a group of people
arrived, sat down for 20 minutes or so and ordered, and then made excuses and
left (I didn’t hear the reason why – I think it may have been the arctic gale
from the front door just next to them, possibly backed up by the fact that a
dish they wanted wasn’t available).