Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Review: Restaurant Sat Bains

If anyone is ever racking their brains about what to get me for a Christmas or birthday present, rack no longer. A trip to one of the restaurants that feature on the right hand side of this blog will always be well received and I'm happy to say that my parents, without any prompting, have cottoned onto this. Last year they very kindly organised a trip to the Waterside Inn in Bray and this year our gift was dinner and an overnight stay at Restaurant Sat Bains in Nottingham.

Restaurant Sat Bains is Nottingham's only Michelin starred restaurant and is one of the places that Location Location Location researchers might have missed when they voted Nottingham as the fourth worst place to live in the UK. It's not surprising that they missed it given that it's situated near a flyover, adjacent to a industrial estate, underneath a line of electricity pylons. Location Location Location? Phil and Kirstie would not be happy, and they'd make it known with their annoyingly chipper, overly scripted banter.

We are shown to our room which would doubtlessly be described as "well appointed" in a brochure or travel guide, although I have to admit that I have no idea what this actually means. I imagine there's some government department, staffed by registered officiants, charged with organising room appointment ceremonies for new builds and refurbed properties.

'I, Sir Douglas Ponsonby-Smythe, by the powers vested in me, do officially appoint thee, a room!" at which point a crowd of onlookers clap politely and mutter their approval amongst themselves.

'Didn't he appoint that room well, Margaret?'

'Yes, Joan, terribly well. Masterful I'd say. Would you care for another scone?'

Conversely, how are rooms badly appointed? Perhaps elsewhere, a spotty 16 year old who has patiently been shadowing a registered officiant for a week, finally gets to have a go for himself. Full of enthusiasm he bounds through the gates of a property like an overexcited labrador, and waving his arms around proudly proclaims,

'I, er, Danny Wilshire, by the power of my vest, appoint you, a room!'

After a moment of silence, his mentor turns to him and says,

'No Danny, I think you'll find that's a wheelie bin.'


You sense there's as much opportunism going on at Restaurant Sat Bains as in a Heather Mills marriage. There's no question that the restaurant owes much of its current success to Sat's appearance on Great British Menu last year, where his duck egg poached at 62 degrees for 5 hours scored 10/10 from all three judges and was chosen as the starter to represent British cooking at a banquet in Paris. Great British Menu cookbooks are stacked high on the reception desk and available to buy for £20 (Amazon price: £13), and they have rather cheekily removed the famous dish from the £67 eight course tasting menu and offer it as an optional extra for a wallet-busting additional £15. Ch-ching!

Despite not taking the eggy extra, the menu is crammed with exciting flavour combinations - foie gras with corn icecream, poached figs with parmesan, salmon and plums, and magically they all work well. There are enough savory ice cream variations to start up a modern Mr Whippy van business, in fact I can see it now, driving around the gun capital of the East Midlands, with tinkling chimes broadcasting its arrival to the cascading notes of the Great British Menu theme tune. Ok, mister, stick your hands up and give me more of that pine-nut ice cream.

The cooking is adventurous, scientific and for the most part perfectly executed. The only let down was a course of foie gras which was served to our table of four in two different ways. Unfortunately the two dishes were markedly different in quality and execution and left those that had not had been served with the better one feeling cheated. One used 100% foie gras and the other didn't, one contained a leaf of thai basil but the other did not, one was served beautifully on a plate and the other in a cumbersome terrine pot. Why not just serve the same dish to everyone? It's the dumbest idea I've ever seen in a restaurant. Apart from that the food was glorious.

One of the hardest things things with these tasting menus is finding appropriate wines to go with the food. It's often a relief when you're given the option of matched wines with each course and adds an interesting dimension to the meal. This wasn't an option at Sat Bains and so naturally, I asked for help. Unfortunately instead of help, all I got was obstinate condescension and some of the unfriendliest service I've ever received in a restaurant. It went something like this:-

"Could you recommend wines to go with the tasting menu?"

"Well what wines do you like?"

" Well I like lots of different wines, but I don't really know what would go with the different dishes on the menu, I guess I need something versatile right?"

"Yes, that's right."

"So.....your recommendation would be.....?"

"Well as I said, it depends on what you like....."

"Mmmm, wellI like Malborough Sauvignon Blanc, I like reds from the Rhone Valley, I love Beaujolais when I want something light and fruity, I love a crisp Chablis, Champagne, Aussie Shiraz - it depends on what I'm eating!!!!"

"Well, you're never going to find a wine that will match with every course."

"Yes, I know that, that's why I want you to tell me the most versatile wines on your menu. Oh I give up!"

In the end I just went back to the wine menu and chose a Macon ("oh, that's very dry you know") and asked for a recommendation on what I deemed a versatile red, a medium bodied Pinot Noir ("were you thinking of the Central Otago Dry Gully, I drink it at home on a Sunday night.") No I wasn't thinking of that one actually as it costs £59 a bottle, but hey, you're doing my head in so let's just go with it shall we?

Not a good start and not really what you want from your head of front of house, a supercilious lemon-sucking, impersonal madam whose focus is on selling books and extra egg courses rather than mirroring the quality of the food being created in the kitchen. It's an example of how food is just one part of a dining experience, and it's a shame that it marred an otherwise great meal. I won't go into the fact that we weren't invited to taste the red wine, weren't offered the cheese course, had to pour our own wine all the time. These faults are so unnecessary and easily rectifiable that I hope they'll improve them and win the two stars that the cooking merits.


Trig said...

I couldn't agree more about the matched wines. When I experienced this for the first time at Bacchus it was just brilliant - nobody in my family is that much of a wine expert even though my dad used to be in The Wine Society, and the choices they made were just great and really enhanced the experience of the meal. It also meant having a wide experience without a massive bill, e.g. the dessert wine where we were given a shot but could never have afforded a bottle!

Alex said...

Pete - this really warrants a letter of complaint/observation. That kind of wine service is inexcusable. I guess in hindsight it would have been smart to "ask" for the sommelier!

It's so disappointing when other aspects of a meal let down the food - I really feel for you over the cheese, too!!

Pete said...

I agree Trig. I was at Bacchus last Thursday and had 7 courses with matched wine and as usual, it was fantastic. More news on that one to follow...

Alex, I don't think they actually have a dedicated sommelier. Our wine order was taken by Sat's business partner and wife, Amanda Bains. Maybe I caught her on an off night but the restaurant only has about 30 covers so service should be a priority. Also it would have been nice to see Sat to compliment him on the food but he didn't do a tour of the tables. It makes you feel really special when a chef comes out to meet his diners and ask their opinion which is something that Alain Roux does after every service at the Waterside Inn.

Alex said...

Hm, I do think that this kind of mark up warrants a dedicated sommelier. I think the Fat Duck only has about 30 or 40 covers but I'd hope the wine service is a little more on the ball!

I do agree with you about seeing the chef - in a small restaurant that's so important. My parents recently visited Appellation where the chef, Mark McNamara, toured the tables. This makes such a difference to the whole meal.

info said...

Hi Pete,

Quite disappointed you never mentioned any of this on the night or morning when you had breakfast, as an evolving restaurant who takes all issues of food, service and wine very seriously it would of been good to get some positive, constructive feedback , but as so many times in this country and industry it's all smiles on departure and then straight on the keyboard to criticize, We did have a minor emergency with our Wine waiter, who was taken ill at very short notice, but decided not to tell our guests as we wouldn't want to bore them with our day to day running of our Business. My Wife was asked to recommend some wines to go with the tasting menu, when she asked what types you liked as with food, taste varies tremendously, it was quite obvious you were not sure, we always have some guiding wines that will go well with our food so asking 'have a look through the list' I don't think is unreasonable. as for the cheese issue, we decided at the beginning of the Year to add cheese as an optional extra for £7.50 for a selection of 6 cheese's from the artisan supplier Premier Cheese, as some guests preferred this and some chose not to have it, it is clearly stated on the menu that this is an option, I personally do not visit the tables at my restaurant as I feel it can be quite intimidating when guests are out to dine having a sweaty Chef come round soliciting compliments, we do however invite guests into the kitchen on request to meet the team and give them an insight of what we do in there.
The Foie gras dish was something I introduced in February and has gone down very well with the guests, the idea behind it was whilst having the tasting menu the whole table will know what each other is eating as it is the same, but I wanted to include a surprise in the menu to keep the intrigue, so as in the foie gras dish we use corn and gingerbread but by doing it in 2 guises you get to taste what your companions are eating too, to showcase the versatility of ingredients and 2 varying techniques. This is the area we look for creativity, and as most of our guests 'get it' we do find some do not.
I hope this answers a few of your queries, if not you can contact me directly at the Restaurant and I would be happy to discuss this further.

Best regards
Sat Bains.

Anonymous said...

I think most people who are out spending a good deal of take home on a slap up, don't want to get into a discussion on food quality during the evening, especially if you are with other guests as clearly you were.
It should also be said that as feedback is the food of champions, most businesses should thrive on this kind of critique and be ready to adapt accordingly.
Keep up the good entertaining work Pete. Chris

Pieman said...

I agree with anonymous Chris - as food reviews go it was wasn't bad at all, and no one fancies a scrap after a nice meal.
Just be careful what you say about Phil and Kirstie, though Peter. Jo and I happen to be big fans, and I fear you've overstepped the mark...

Alex said...

People know we British find it hard to further spoil our evening by complaining on the night!

So, Sat Bains, accept the constructive criticism, don’t make excuses, you should have other staff members trained in the wine menu for such circumstances.

Anyway, your food seems amazing… which to me is the hard bit!


Pete said...

Thanks everyone for your comments, and thanks too to Sat for taking the time to respond to my review. If only you'd been there to explain your thinking behind the foie gras course on the night, things might have been a bit clearer. Unfortunately your waiting staff didn't communicate your vision, didn't encourage us to try each other's, didn't explain that the two dishes had been prepared differently and in what manner. So if constructive feedback is what you're after, make sure your diners understand what's going on when the dish is brought to the table! It's vital to the concept.

aforkfulofspaghetti said...

Nothing excuses behaviour like that (theirs, not yours!). Well done for not punching the guy's lights out.

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