Murray Chalmers sets off to a pre-Christmas lunch at the Hotel du Vin in St Andrews, and has a dining experience he wasn’t quite expecting.
Despite Christmas being my favourite time, today’s dispiriting lunch at the Hotel du Vin in St Andrews made me turn into Scrooge, momentarily glad that it comes but once a year; truly I don’t think I could bear that level of indigestion a second time.
What a strange experience this was! First of all I tried to book online but it showed tables for lunch as being unavailable.
Then I tried calling and got no response three times. That should have set off alarm bells. But reviews need food to be served in some form, so I persevered and eventually got through to a living person. We were in.
The hotel itself sits in a pretty prime position in St Andrews, with some restaurant tables having a great expansive view of water and sky.
There was no one else in the room; in fact when we walked in there was no one to greet us, nothing except a tray filled with dirty plates sitting by the unmanned reception desk.
Eventually we found someone and were led to a window table but this window table also featured a huge tray of dirty plates left sitting next to it – like someone had just finished a room service banquet and dumped the empties.
That filthy, smelly tray would sit there for 20 minutes with various staff members walking past it and ignoring it, until eventually our charming waiter took it away.
I was beginning to feel that this might not be an experience to savour, like we’d entered the party just as even the dregs were being ignored.
The room itself follows that now well-worn Hotel du Vin blueprint of ersatz French style; there is so much brown that, on a good day and with a kind light, it might feel like a Parisian brasserie – today it felt like the dismal, misanthropic set of “Allo Allo”.
An artificial Christmas tree managed to appear threadbare amid the brown gloom, sitting forlornly by a window.
Well, I identified with that tree as I tried to ignore the leftover food in my sightline over David’s shoulder and really my festive heart sank a little.
Funnily enough I had stayed at the Edinburgh Hotel du Vin the week before and it was a much, much classier experience.
The food here in St Andrews was disgraceful. My starter of tartiflette (£9.50) largely comprised potato that had been given so little access to heat that it should have qualified for a fuel allowance; I had to send it back. The potato was hard and cold, sitting in a congealed mass of liquid that might have been cheese at some point. I never send food back but this was absolutely inedible.
The very nice waiter was hugely apologetic as I went into overdrive to assure him it wasn’t his fault (which obviously it wasn’t) but by the stained appearance of his apron he could have been doubling up as a kitchen porter.
That and the tray of leftover food next to us began to make me think we were dining at the last chance saloon.
Meanwhile a manager figure wafted around in a Santa jumper, joyously oblivious to the paying customers – the ONLY paying customers – at the window.
It was the opposite of celebration, like a Mike Leigh play where you didn’t just realise that the situation was grim but also that you were involuntary leading characters in the grimness.
David had a goats’ cheese salad (£6.50) which, in an attempt to be positive, we could describe as just about OK.
By now we were bickering over whether we should leave as it really was like walking on thin ice – thin, black ice – waiting for the next thing to fail.
My tartiflette appeared again, with a warning that the plate was hot. Well, the plate might have been hot but the potato still wasn’t cooked.
Had the potatoes actually had enough contact with boiling water before they were stuck in the oven with some cheese then this wouldn’t have happened; this is a basic cooking skill. I left most of it.
My main course of Normandy chicken (£15.95) was better. The chicken was cooked (by now I was on full alert) and the sauce was pretty good.
The braised lettuce didn’t have the depth of flavour of the classic recipes I follow by Simon Hopkinson, but it was still a good accompaniment to the chicken and I enjoyed it.
David’s tempeh “steak” (£12.95) was really the end of civilisation and I wouldn’t be surprised if he renounced vegetarianism because o f it.
At first I thought he just had a huge downer on this lunch as it hadn’t been my best choice of venue; but actually the contortions of his face and the convulsive movement of his mouth as he tried to tackle the vegan protein were so annoying that I leaned over and cut a piece for myself.
Now I’m a reasonably civilised person and I know it’s rude to spit food but this was so disgusting that I just couldn’t keep it in my mouth.
David burst out laughing at this rare loss of control; in truth I could have been lunching with Madonna or Nicola Sturgeon and I still would have expelled this…matter… from my body by any means possible.
The aftertaste was revolting and I imagine at the end of civilisation, as the cockroaches march over the planet, they will be engorged, emboldened and embittered by tempeh steak most foul.
Afterwards we tried to conjure up the taste and likened it to a rancid old wet dishcloth that had been left out for days and turned sour.
The taste of stale sweat basically. I wanted to leave but in the interests of fairness we ordered dessert.
I really wish the church-going me could report with positivity that redemption was a mere pudding away… but it wasn’t.
My trifle (£6.95) wasn’t trifle, at least not as we know it. This was a circle of layers of dry synthesis, as far away from the gloopy, messy, almost feral celebration of life that is the best trifle as its possible to imagine.
David’s pear cobbler (£6.50) was aptly named; it really was cobblers. The little rounds of pastry weren’t cooked and the addition of sour berries wasn’t an innovation that needs celebration or repeating. Another almost full plate returned.
The last insult at this disaster of a lunch was that service is automatically included in the bill. I didn’t notice because I was too busy thanking the waiter for voluntarily taking 20% off for the disastrous tartiflette.
Now this is my fault for not checking the bill properly but I just wanted it over with and to get the hell out of there – and also it had become embarrassing keeping up positive banter with the young kid who was our waiter.
I left him a tenner in cash because he’d had so much to apologise for and I felt bad for him; but really it sticks in my throat that a place this bad would automatically add on service.
As it was it summed up the whole dining experience here; double tipping, bad food, desultory experience, corporate dining at its worst.
As Johnny Rotten once said: “ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”. Time for a rethink.
Hotel du Vin
Where: 40 The Scores, St Andrews KY16 9AS
t: 01334 845 313
Price: Starters: from £5.50; main courses from £12.50; desserts from £5.95