The age-old service question – at Amelies, Porthleven
May 28, 2019

What really makes a great dining experience? Is it just the food regardless of where you are and how it’s served up? Or does that other ancillary stuff somehow complete a meal and make the main part of it – the scran – somehow taste even better.

I’ve pondered this question before and in plenty of previous posts, I’ve commented on how service really can complete a meal. But what about when it can somehow taint the experience? Those occasions when even though the food is nice, the setting beautiful, somehow you end up walking away talking about neither of those, but about something entirely different?

Amelies in Porthleven has everything going for it. A great location overlooking the harbour, a beautiful interior, rave reviews. Porthleven is quite a foodie place, with a great festival, plenty of restaurants (including the obligatory Rick Stein’s) and some beautiful scenery. Add to this the fact that quite a few of the other places to eat don’t seem to be dog-friendly and it’s got a ready-made audience just waiting to pour through the doors.

We did just that, loving the fact that the pooches were welcome, and excited about dining on some great food. A quick look at the menus and we ordered heartily – bread and oil and olives for while we waited then monkfish scampi with curry mayonnaise for Jamie to start and aubergine and garlic arancini for me. For main course I chose the Porthleven fish dish “straight off the boat”, served with chorizo, spinach, crushed new potatoes and sauce vierge while he went for fish and chips. A promising meal!

When it came to the wine, I was delighted to see that they do carafes as well as bottles and glasses. We asked for a bit of help with which red to choose but were bemused to be told: “I’m not really a wine drinker, I’m afraid”, so took a wild guess as to which one to choose. Not really the response you’d expect – perhaps being pointed in the direction of someone who could help might be an idea – but hey, maybe we were dealing with an inexperienced member of staff.

The starters arrived. No bread had yet appeared, but we decided that if it had been forgotten then there was no point worrying since we now had food in front of us. The monkfish scampi were a delight – the meaty fish encased in a light, clean crispy batter and complemented perfectly by a sweet curry mayo and the tangy pickled red onion. So tasty that Mr M declared that he would try to replicate it at home.

Amelies, Porthleven

My arancini was also tasty – the meat-free starter fresh-tasting and full of the flavours of spring. The basil mayonnaise fragrant, the sauce vierge aromatic and full of Mediterranean promise. Two great starters.

Amelies, Porthleven

Excited about our main courses, we were surprised to see the bread suddenly appear. So surprised that we didn’t have the heart to send it back and again, reluctant to spoil a night with petty complaints. Perhaps it had been forgotten, and might be useful for popping up any lovely flavours from our main course plates.

Amelies, Porthleven

My fish dish looked impressive and tasted good. Simple flavours, executed well. More sauce vierge that reminded me that I don’t have enough of it, a slight smoke from the paprika, and more of those Mediterranean flavours that work so well by the sea.

Sadly, I was slightly distracted by some amusing attempts by Mr M to get hold of some ketchup to go with his fish and chips. Not a ridiculous ask in my book, but something that took three requests to get – by which point my meal was gone, and half of his reluctantly finished too.

We didn’t have dessert – not for any reason other than the fact we were full – so paid and left for a mooch around the harbour. And that’s when it hit me. Rather than being dominated by that excellent monkfish scampi or my tasty arancini, or perhaps the gorgeous setting or chic interior, we found our conversation focused on the little niggles that had bugged our night.

No, none of those niggles were huge. And as isolated issues, they’re certainly nothing to write home about. But when you combine the lacklustre response to a genuine wine query with the forgotten bread board and ketchup-gate, you can’t help but get the impression that there’s something a little bit lacking in the service.

Of course, mistakes do happen. I’ve waited tables before, I know from experience that things can go wrong – especially in a busy restaurant. But this was early evening and it certainly wasn’t full. Even if it was, while each individual issue was relatively minor, the combination really does end up dominating the experience and that’s not only a shame for the diner, but for those in the kitchen whose hard work is overshadowed by the simple matter of service.

If you read this blog regularly, you’ll know I don’t go in for cheap takedowns. I’d much rather praise places, especially independents that make our country’s food scene what it is. But having done a bit of research, it seems to me that our experience wasn’t a one-off, with a fair few people commenting on similar issues. And when you look at this situation as a whole, it seems to suggest to me that somewhere along the way something has gone a bit awry when it comes to Amelies’ front of house.

Perhaps they’re short-staffed. Perhaps they’re going through a few changes. But if I’m being a bit brutal, that’s kind of not good enough. Amelies isn’t cheap. It’s not crazy expensive but the dishes come with a price tag that I think allows you to expect a certain level of service and sadly, when we went that just wasn’t there.

Like I say, it’s a shame. I’d be being a bit melodramatic to suggest that it ‘ruined’ my evening. The food was good – better than a lot of places we’ve been, especially the starters. But the slightly sketchy service did make the meal harder work than it needed to be and left our enduring memory of Amelies about something other than the food, which I think is a shame.

Yes, service isn’t the be all and end all of a meal. It can’t remedy awful food, and it is unlikely to ruin a meal that is out-of-this-world good. But it matters. And those places that don’t seem to recognise this are missing out – as are we when we eat with you.

We paid in full at Amelies. They didn’t know I was a blogger.