The GQ Dinner

The Halloween Tie: If only GQ knew they were being represented this way...
The Halloween Tie: If only GQ knew they were being represented this way...

If I had a duck for every time I’ve wistfully daydreamed about being a restaurant reviewer, I’d be styling my hair into fanciful and impractical shapes with a never-ending supply of pâté. Throw in a mini-cheese for every time I’ve daydreamed of being a cricket commentator and I’m dead of a heart attack by 35.

However, as lovely as daydreams that finish with pâté and mini-cheese are, they’re not exactly a 12-step program towards being paid to be disparaging about other people’s wine lists. Which is why when my dear friend Rebecca (who is paid by GQ to be snooty about other people’s wine lists) needed a partner for a visit to the particularly fancy French Restaurant Le Canard, a drum-circle of unwashed hippies wouldn’t have been able to keep me away.

I can probably count on one hand the amount of times I’ve been to a restaurant that’s actually required me to dress up for the privilege of paying to eat their food, and so the mere thought of it actually made me nervous enough to contemplate going out and buying a new tie. Which, I then realized I’d promptly lose. So instead I settled for a tie I’d bought as the finishing touch for a Halloween costume.

Yep, I’m a classy guy, me.

Now of course with a ‘fancy restaurant’, the experience begins waaay before you settle in behind the crisp white tablecloth and offered some weird egg thingie on a piece of toast as an appetiser (which we were). Which is why – when the gate-buzzer was missing, alarm bells started to warm up for the late-night show, and when the parking guy drunkenly insisted on calling me ‘General’ because I drive a rather battered Jeep Cherokee, the alarm bells started to wonder if maybe their entrance was going to be pushed forward a couple of hours.

Le Canard has been around since 1987 (or as they say on the website ‘hatched in 1987’ – gerrit? It’s a duck pun. Dear lord…), and the problem is that from the moment you walk in, you can tell. The place feels like an interactive museum designed to recreate the experience of eating in a French restaurant circa 1987, but with a bit of ‘rogue pirate’ thrown in for good measure. Well, the pirate bit was due to the fact that our waiter had an eye-patch, which was surreally awesome – except for the fact that when he poured the water (which he insisted on doing with determined regularity) he usually ended up comprehensively missing the glass and pouring it a lot closer to my lap than I’m completely comfortable with. You see, Le Canard is just that little too much marble, fake gold, and granny’s silverware for anyone to really feel at home: and the overall effect is that you’ve accidentally wandered into a discarded restaurant set from an early 90s-era Bold and the Beautiful. You honestly expect Brooke and Ridge to conceive a baby at the table next to you in-between mains and dessert (much to the surprise of the nice BEE couple trying to eat their lamb shanks).

But restaurants are not made or broken by their décor (my favourite Chinese seafood place serves it curried crab on garden furniture – and not because they’re being cute), we were obviously here to eat. And boy did we rack up a Greatest Hits of French Cuisine. Sweetbreads (Rebecca is more adventurous than me) and Lobster Bisque for starters, and Veal for mains while I seem to remember that there was also some fish hovering around the table as well.  As it turns out, eating sweetbread (a throat gland of some kind) is sort of like having a big dollop of pure marrow meat in incredibly rich gravy. Salty. And just that little bit softer than you’d like – but actually quite nice. However, if I was to use my lobster bisque as my template for what to expect from lobster bisque, it was a very nice mushroom soup with some unnecessary bits of lobster in it. Oh well, there is no starter so average that a good slice of baby cow won’t solve. But this is where things started to get really strange. My veal was served with gnocchi, and not only that, it was gnocchi cut into very precise little star shapes, which made it feel like I was eating an expensive plate of “fun-shaped noodles for kids”, one step away from the waiter feeding it to me making choo-choo train noises. And so after I’d had the last of the sparkling water poured onto my elbow by the kindly pirate-guy, I prepared to tuck into a crème brule as my final stop on French Greatest Hits tour. There was one thing that did make me pause though, because I was slightly alarmed by the word ‘surprise’ that came after the Crème and Brule bit on the menu. You see, when it comes to food, ‘Surprise’ is one of those words that always sounds like it’s going to be a wonderful and exciting thing: maybe with streamers and someone singing a fun song, but inevitably ends up being more along the line of a whole cabbage stuffed into a strawberry tart because the pastry chef has access to far too much mediocre cocaine and thought it would be a good joke. Subsequently I’ve learned to treat menus that are enthusiastic with the word ‘surprise’ the same way I treat drunk girls still hanging around the dance floor at 3am: with caution and maybe some insect repellent. Except this time, maybe I was caught up in the moment, swept away by the bizarre time-warp that was eating in amongst all the dented serving trays and chintz chair-covers, because I threw caution to wind and told the kitchen to give me its best shot. Well, the ‘surprise’ ended up being a swimming pool of Kahlua lurking at the bottom of the cup like it was waiting to catch a train or something. Definitely surprising. Not very nice though.

At the end of the day, I have this useful (ish) tip to offer: ‘fancy’ usually means ‘old’, and an expensive menu isn’t necessarily a good one.

I know this is far from an earth-shattering revelation, but I for one am comforted to know that all these years I haven’t really been missing all that much. So… who’s for some chips and dip?

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