This just in: AB­sence doesn’t make the heart grow fonder

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Front Page -

High St, Can­ter­bury

CT1 2RX 01227 766266; michael­

Sun­day lunch: £15 for two/£17.50 for three cour­ses.

À la carte: three cour­ses with wine, about £65

per head

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.

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