This just in: ABsence doesn’t make the heart grow fonder
High St, Canterbury
CT1 2RX 01227 766266; michaelcaines.com
Sunday lunch: £15 for two/£17.50 for three courses.
À la carte: three courses with wine, about £65
The English tongue, in all its majesty, has the paradoxical habit of producing words with diametrically opposite definitions. To sanction means both to allow and to disallow, for example; while to cleave is at once (1) to separate one thing violently from another, and (2) to stick to something like a limpet.
Until recently, this linguistic curiosity was rigidly confined to nouns and verbs. But the language literally never stops developing, and today the world of catering offers a novel version in the form of a preposition.
For in the formulation “Michael Caines at ABode, Canterbury”, the word “at” means “not at”. Or to be more precise, “not at anything like as often as he should be if he does not wish wickedly to degrade his reputation”.
What a lot of people know about Caines is that, some 20 years ago, a car accident cleaved his right arm clean off at the shoulder. Despite his initial assumption that he was finished as a cook, he cleaved heroically to his ambition. With a little prosthetic help he prospered spectacularly at Gidleigh Park in Devon, where he has long held two Michelin stars.
So much for the truly admirable: now for the less so. A few years ago, Caines cofounded a small chain of boutique hotels with Gidleigh Park owner Andrew Brownsword; these they chose to style as “ABode” (sic). However irksome the upper-case B may be (and in a civilised country, the perpetrators would do 25 years on a chain gang) it certainly catches the eye. I have often walked past branches in various cities, and wondered what lay within.
While the history of leading cooks lending their names to restaurants to which they are virtual strangers is not a glorious one, there is nothing intrinsically distasteful about the commercial whoring of a name. The great Renaissance masters signed works painted by students and acolytes, and no one seems to regard that as a fraud. Yet while those paintings are generally indistinguishable from the work of the maestro, no one acquainted with sanity could mistake this endeavour for Caines’s autograph work.
Everything about this large, square room is so desultory and cheerless that all our sympathies went to a staff (offputtingly sporting bright orange ties) who had compelling cause to seem blasé. As moribund as an undertaker’s parlour during the Spanish flu pandemic – if less crowded – the studied sterility of an off-white and mushroom colour scheme, barely leavened by a few monochrome prints of the neighbouring cathedral, induces a stultifying hush.
A brusque, distracted welcome had nimbly set the tone for what followed when a glass of a South African cabernet/merlot hybrid didn’t so much evoke the warm scented earth of the Western Cape as the acrid bouquet of a Sarson’s factory. The manageress raised a sardonic eyebrow at our complaint, blithely insisting the bottle had been opened only the day before. The food that followed ran the gamut from ABout Average to ABysmal. Beetroot panna cotta came with wincingly acrid pickled vegetables, tasted like supermarket brand “essence of beetroot” and abandoned the dish’s conventionally smooth texture in favour of a sort of soggy tofu vibe. A mechanical ham hock terrine was colder than the atmosphere. An accompanying “green bean salad” proved to be a few limp legumes. These were at least green, as advertised. But the menu threw down the gauntlet to Bletchley Park in the cryptography stakes by rendering “a few blobs of apple sauce” as “mustard mayonnaise”.
By now, the transcendently joyless hush in the room – one of those psychic dehumidifier spaces that saps the soul out of you – was striking an unnervingly surreal contrast with the ribald shrieking from a hen party in a salon privé, closeted away behind the bar to our right. If these women found merriment in their main courses, I doff my hat to them. We were not amused by a pan-fried fillet of mackerel which “tastes very fishy, but not in a fresh way”, served with a puy lentil mush flavoured with bad chorizo. Roast sirloin of beef came not medium rare, as promised, but medium well, with studiedly soggy roast potatoes and viciously over-boiled broccoli and carrots – though the Yorkshire pud was fine.
“Everything looks amateurish,” said my friend over a clumping slice of fig tart, “but not in a lovely, home-cooked way. They’re just not trying, are they?”
Perhaps they make more of an effort when Mr Caines pops in. According to the manageress, this is once every other month.
How as talented and vaunted a cook who maintains the very highest standards at one of the country’s premier restaurants can allow this theme park to the culinary standards of the Seventies department store canteen to operate under his name is beyond me. The best that can said of our lunch is that it was keenly priced.
For all that, an Act of Parliament should sanction the deliberately misleading claim that a superstar chef is “at” a restaurant to which he gives such a wide berth. As your lifetime dictator, in fact, I would go further down the path of tough love by sanctioning the deployment of a demolition ball.