Peter James: Things that annoy me in restaurants, an utterly repulsive expression and a trip to France
PUBLISHED: 15:47 23 November 2016 | UPDATED: 15:47 23 November 2016
Bestselling crime writer Peter James talks us through his gastronomic adventures and keeps us abreast of everything relating to his fictional detective, Roy Grace
What are the things that annoy us most in a restaurant? A snooty receptionist not able to find your reservation? Being told that you can have your table for exactly two hours and no more? The waiter who continually interrupts to ask you if you are enjoying your meal? (“I would be if you didn’t keep bloody pestering us every five minutes…”) The fish dish that arrives with an unannounced meat garnish? Someone’s plate being swept away while the rest of you are still eating? One main course not arriving until everyone else’s has gone cold? The lighting so dim you need a torch to read the menu? Being given a table by the loos so you get the reek of disinfectant every few minutes? Your wine bottle being placed out of reach and sight?
One of my own particular bête noirs is those breezy maitre d’s you get in America who introduce themselves with a “Hi, Shane’s gonna be your server tonight, he’ll be right with you.” The other is again in the US, when a waiter comes over, looks at your plate which arrived stacked with enough carbs to fuel a Polar exploration team for three months and asks, “Are you still working on that?”
I go to restaurants for a number of different reasons. To relax; to meet with research contacts; to give media interviews; to catch up with friends and sometimes to celebrate. I go out to eat and to drink but I do not go out to work on food – it’s an utterly repulsive expression. Fortunately it’s not one I’ve heard during three weeks in blissfully civilised France.
It used to be said that in an ideal world the policemen would be English, the car mechanics German, the cooks would be French and the hoteliers Swiss. I’d add French waiters to that list. In so many countries the perception is that to wait tables is somehow a menial job. Either the staff must be students in need of cash before going to university, they are “resting” actors, or they are just down on their luck. For the French – and Italians and Spanish, too – many are graduates from hotel school. It is a career – and a very proud one – and so it should be.
I’ve been on a 2,000 mile road trip through France, partly for research and partly to take time out to focus on my new Roy Grace novel. It remains a wonderful country to drive in – largely quiet motorways and even quieter byways, with levels of food and service better than ever. Terrible things have happened in France recently, in Paris and Nice particularly and in a Normandy church. But strangely the effect reminds me of New York in the aftermath of 9/11. It has had a subtle but distinct impact on the French people. Much of the natural arrogance and insouciance has gone and instead they seem more gentle and caring.
Heading south from the Eurotunnel in Calais, the Chateau de Fere, Fère-en-Tardenois, is a stunner. Set in glorious countryside 20 miles from Reims, this is everything a dreamy French chateau should be: comfortable, traditional rooms, superb service, good food and it is an easy three-hour drive. It’s a place where you could linger for days, much to explore, stunning ruins and glorious walks.
Our next stop was Annecy, one of France’s gems, which was darkened four years ago by one of the worst multiple homicides in France. It is still unsolved, and of course a fascination for me. We stayed on the edge of the lake in Relais Chateau hotel Pere Bise in Talloires – gorgeous and faultless. We’d prearranged rental mountain bikes, and two virtually brand new bikes awaited us. We did the stunning 42km ride around the lake, almost all of it on cycle track.
From there we drove to Mougins, the beautiful ancient hill-town behind Cannes, and home to Picasso for many years. Our favourite restaurant there, La Meditérranée, under the ownership of charming Nicholas Catherine (pictured) remains terrific value. We started with courgette flowers stuffed with minced salmon, followed by sublime lobster. We stayed at the superlative Mas Candille, with stunning views from its vast swimming pool across the valley to Grasse. Another memorable meal was at the eponymous Daniel Desavie, former head chef of three-rosetted temple of gastronomy Moulin de Mougins.
From there to perfect, simple grilled John Dory at Plage de Passable in St Jean-Cap-Ferrat, followed by drinks at the engagingly friendly Monaco bar, Gerhard, owned by Austrian Formula One driver, Gerhard Berger.
Our return was via Paris – always a challenge to drive through. We stayed in the luxurious Pavilion de la Reine hotel in the Marais. Set in its own exquisite courtyard, it oozes old-world French charm and style. But incredibly, looking forward to dinner at Alain Ducasse’s Benoit and tired after a 12-hour drive, we had a snooty receptionist pretending not to be able to find our reservation. On a Monday night. In a half empty restaurant. They redeemed themselves – I had sensational escargots and one of the simplest but perfectly judged pieces of turbot I’ve ever eaten. Lara and I would go back like a shot – but we’d be worried about them not finding our reservation….
Peter James’ fee for this column will be given to the Sussex Police Charitable Trust.
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