Dear Readers, this month we have a guest contributor who accompanied me to the re-launch of Isaac@ in Gloucester Road Brighton, one of the growing ‘set menu fine dining’ concept restaurants that are popping up here and there.
My friend Luca is not obsessed with food like me (but is obsessed with wine like me) but he has written professionally and so when he offered to do this piece, I happily agreed….. Here’s what he had to say.
A visit to new ‘Fine Dining’ restaurant Isaac@ is similar to sitting through an episode of The Apprentice’. Lots of youthful enthusiasm, embarrassing situations, stress, and the odd triumph along the way. In both cases, a verdict is delivered that can make or break a team and/or individual. Sir, Lord, His Highness… or whatever it is Alan calls himself these days delivers his verdict in the boardroom, this one gets delivered at the foot of the page.
An episode of The Apprentice in which the contestants were tasked with knocking up a ‘fine dining’ room within a week would result in an end product similar to this (with less complex food). Don’t get me wrong, some things are done really well; the music is appropriate, the paintings on the wall hit the spot, the tables and presentation are all well thought out and executed, and the food mileage chart is a winner (even if it does contain a couple of errors). But….and there are a few buts.
The kitchen is almost as big as the dining room, the plastic chairs would be an embarrassment in a comprehensive dining hall, there are no prices on the food menu at table or online (always disturbing), and there are one or two staff who, how can I put this nicely, may have greater strengths in non-customer facing capacities. A tip….when someone asks you a question, they don’t want the answer to be everything you have ever known about a certain subject, they want a brief explanation so they can get back to the person they really want to talk to…their dining partner.
Lets get something straight, however. This venture is brave, because lets face it, ‘Fine Dining’ is not easy…it’s a very tough gig to pull off, especially if you can still remember the days when you were in short trousers (which appears to be the case for the entire Isaac’s workforce).
Stumbling block number one, however, is describing your eatery as a fine dining establishment. Most fine dining outfits don’t call themselves that…they don’t need to. That’s what we, the customers do…if we feel it is warranted.
The main problem, I’m afraid to say is that this is not fine dining. It’s close, but no cigar. Food is about taste, and taste is about flavour, and that unfortunately is lacking in too many of the dishes on offer here. And no, we’re not talking about subtlety or delicate nuances here, we’re talking about good old-fashioned blandness.
So – in a nutshell: the Butternut Squash dish was bland, and without the excellent seeds would have been a complete washout. The Monkfish was overcooked and pretty much tasteless. The Pork Belly was excellent. The roast chicken was lacking punch, and the desserts were uninspiring. Every dish looked like a work of art… but I go to art galleries, not restaurants for that.
The thing about Isaacs is this: it seems as if they are running before they’ve even taken a stroll. If they didn’t aim at fine dining and just learnt their trade (all aspects of the restaurant business – not just the cooking) in a more relaxed atmosphere with lower expectations, they’d be on to a winner and everyone would be pulling for them. It’s very difficult to go into any business sector and think that you can start at the top. Experience needs to be gained, skills honed and lessons learned. Lesson number one – drop the ‘fine’ mess you’ve got yourselves into and earn the label via the journey, not self-proclamation.
When I was barely out of my teens making cheese on toast without calling the fire brigade was a major achievement, so I salute these ambitious upstarts and have to think that His Royal Alan would have seen the potential and concluded: ‘Isaac, you’re hired’.