I don’t like cheap takedowns. Not in life, not in my blog. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t actively avoid them, sometimes choosing to say nothing rather than say something negative. I’m not sure why. Maybe I’m a coward at heart, maybe I’ve just been on the receiving end of so many that I don’t want to inflict that on someone else. Either way, I’d rather keep this blog a place that’s positive about great places to eat and gives you lots of ideas of where to go, rather than where not to go.
However, I also pride myself on it being honest. I’ll never say somewhere’s good if it’s not, though I try to do it constructively. However, I am only human. And when I’ve parted with my hard-earned cash for food that I think could have been significantly better with a bit more care, love and general pride, it irks me. So here I am.
There aren’t too many ‘spontaneous’ lunches in the Manning household. Not because we don’t go out (obvs) but mainly because I spend most of the time that I’m not eating meals thinking about and planning the next one. But rarely, very rarely, we find ourselves somewhere having not actually planned to eat out. And so it was on a sunny Tuesday afternoon that we were in Leamington Spa after a productive meeting and wondering where to eat.
There is a plethora of places in Leamington – chains, independents, high-end, snacks, and we wandered around for at least half an hour trying to decide where to go. Some were closed, some were full, some too fussy, some too basic. Eventually, we decided to go into House. At the bottom of the parade, it shouts about a roof terrace on its signage and the menu looked fairly appealing. Not too fussy, not too simple. Great.
We were the only people in for lunch, bar one guy sitting in the corner and supping on a pint, and apparently the much-heralded roof terrace wasn’t open. Fair enough. We parked ourselves in the front window so we could watch the world go by and were tended to by a very helpful young man who brought us drinks and menus too. So far so good.
There’s a lunch menu of flatbreads and sandwiches, all obviously the product of thinking that suggests when you go out you want more than a ham baguette. I agree. And things like minted Moroccan lamb flatbread with spring onion, cucumber and mint yoghurt, or hot smoked salmon with marinated pepper, shaved fennel and spinach all sounded rather nice.
Also on offer is the impressively named ‘a la carte’ menu that features ‘nibbles’, ‘nosh’, ‘seafood’ ‘dirty burgers’ and ‘sides and carbs’. It’s a kind of all-things-to-all-men menu that seems to be aiming to please the yummy mummies, hipsters and office workers all in one go. I’ve got no issues with places doing this… providing they deliver (not literally deliver, but deliver as in ‘hit the spot’).
I’d been harping on about a burger all morning but decided at the last-minute to try to exercise a small amount of restraint. Instead, I headed for a main course portion of the Asian Salad and Crispy Beef from the nibbles menu. Maybe I’ve been spoiled in the past. Maybe I’m just too picky (I’m pretty sure it’s not this, as I’m far forgiving than most), but I was expecting a pile of crispy veg stacked high on a plate, probably drenched in some kind of dressing or sauce packed with savoury saltiness and the pleasant, sexy spank on your tastebuds that those kind of MSG-laced dishes bring. All topped with a stack of crispy shredded beef that I could devour without feeling half as guilty as if it was in the form of a burger patty.
That was the fantasy. And perhaps I should know by now that really, the fantasies are always far superior to the reality. But in this case, the gulf between the both was Leamington’s own version of the Grand Canyon. I suppose you could call my salad ‘Asian’ in the loosest of the term. Among the carefully-controlled portion (maybe they heard I was on a diet) there were definitely a few beansprouts and maybe a bit of pak choi or bok choi, but it was far from the stack of oriental leaves I had imagined.
This I could have lived with, but it was the beef that did it for me. Bizarre looking rectangular chunks that reminded me a bit of overgrown matchsticks. Crispy was definitely the right adjective and that’s about all I can say of them. I’m not sure I would necessarily have identified them as beef if you served them up to me as a surprise, and while they weren’t hugely offensive, that’s more down to the lack of any flavour than anything positive. Overall, the comparison of the reality of my lunch with my heart-fluttering fantasy was a bit like preparing for an encounter with Christian Grey (and his spank on your taste buds) and instead getting David Brent – unexpected, entirely left-field and an experience that leaves you overwhelmingly puzzled before you even get to anger or disappointment.
Jamie had opted for the Caesar Salad and Chargrilled chicken, another carefully controlled portion for the princely sum of £12.50. It ticked every box ingredient-wise, from the romaine lettuce to the parmesan, croutons and anchovy, with a freshly cooked chicken breast draped across it seductively. It didn’t taste bad and was certainly an improvement on my own choice, but again, was somewhat lacklustre. It’s like somewhere along the way between the menu writing and the execution of our lunch, someone had just lost the will to live.
It’s for this reason that I didn’t make a big song and dance (and the fact that I’m terrible at confrontation). Perhaps we were the fools for trying to have a nice lunch in a place that’s clearly a popular choice for Friday night drinks and dancing, especially when there are so many other great places in Leamington. But it was when I asked for the bill and it dawned on me that no, this wasn’t a cheap bite to eat – though improved slightly after I noticed (and asked for) the ‘20% off a la carte menu at lunchtime deal’ tucked away on the menu – that I started to get a bit annoyed.
In moments like that, you start to run situations through your head. ‘If I complain, I’ll be asked to describe exactly what’s wrong, and I’m going to have to concede that the meal is exactly what it says it is. I’m going to have to try to articulate that while it ticks all the boxes, is perfectly edible and something that some people might even find enjoyable, it just isn’t very good. It’s poorly executed, relatively tasteless and, quite frankly, disappointing. And then someone will tell me that’s all subjective and to go away.’
Yes, I went through all that, so I didn’t make a song and dance. Yes, I know I should have. Equally, I thought about scratching it up to experience, as I have on previous occasions. But do you know what, I’m finding it hard to let this one go. It wasn’t cheap, it wasn’t complicated food, and it could have been better. That is all.
We paid in full at House and they didn’t know I was a blogger.
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