Yes, I did write that eating out alone is good. And I stand by that. It’s relaxing, it’s restorative, and there’s no need to be ashamed of it. I will admit, though, that now and then there are times when it can feel just a tiny, tiny bit awkward.
For this week’s column I went, on my own, for dinner at The Salutation, an upmarket hotel in Sandwich, Kent. I was there to try its new restaurant, which opened a few months ago. After a drink in the bar, thawing my nose by the fire, I was invited through to the dining room, and shown to my table.
It was a long, grand, otherwise empty table for six. And my place, somewhat regally, had been set at the head of it.
To be clear: the waiter wasn’t seating me at an empty table for six to embarrass me. It was just that tables for six were all there was. There were no little tables for one or two. Only tables for six. To my left: a table of six merrily chatting friends. To my right: another table of six merrily chatting friends. And in between them, me, sitting at the head of my vast banqueting table, all alone, like a king with horrendous body odour.
In the photo above, admittedly, the tables don’t look all that large. But let me tell you: when you’re sitting at the head of one, all by yourself, it looks the size of a rugby pitch. It looks humiliatingly, crushingly, tauntingly long. And, with each passing minute, it seems to grow – while you seem to shrink.
Thoughtfully, the staff had at least attempted to make my table look less desolate. They had done this by placing in the centre of it a large Edwardian salmon poacher, containing three identical pot plants. Maidenhair ferns, I believe they were. Ah, maidenhair ferns. My only friends. For a moment, I felt so alone that I was almost tempted to strike up a conversation with them.
‘All right, lads. How was your day?’
‘Oh, you know. So-so. Produced a bit of chlorophyll. Converted some water and carbon dioxide into glucose. The usual.’
‘Cool. What are you going to order?’
‘Well, to start we quite fancied the 10kg tub of Westland Growmore Granular Garden Fertiliser, and then for our main, a massive steaming heap of horse manure.’
Still, here I was. Might as well make the most of it. So I ordered the tasting menu: eight courses, preceded by a couple of neat little snacks. First, a macaroni cheese croquette to dip in a beautiful chilli sauce: fresh, sweet and lividly red. Then, a cauliflower and parsley velouté, saltily delicious, with straggly little strands of oxtail at the bottom.
The tasting menu officially opened with a dainty, but not especially memorable, seared scallop, followed by pigeon, gnocchi and lentils. I must admit, I’m not the greatest fan of pigeon: such a tenacious, ungenerous, untasty little meat.
I much preferred the next dish: seared turbot, accompanied by a little barrel-shaped chunk of chicken, wrapped in a duvet of crispy potato. Odd, but great. I was slightly baffled, though, by the presence at the side of a tiny charred slice of corn on the cob. It didn’t look as if it quite knew what it was doing there either, and was attempting to hide its blushes under a leaf of watercress.
Next, langoustine, perched on top of a lasagne sheet cut into a circle. I know it sounds as if I’ve cut up a recipe book, tossed all the words into a hat and then drawn them out at random, but I promise, this is what I was served. It was actually pretty nice, although langoustines can be such a fiddle to get much out of. You feel as if you’re trying to pick a lock using a pitchfork.
After that came loin of Kentish roe deer with pork cheek charred in cider caramel. Nothing special, I’m afraid, and I feel qualified to say that, as someone who has eaten pork cheek so many times for this column that I’m expecting a lifetime achievement award from Piggery Gazette any week now.
Next came an enormous cheese course, definitely not a one-man job – but one man was all I was, and the maidenhair ferns declined all entreaties to tuck in. After that, an interesting little palate cleanser: strawberry, fig and camomile kombucha. Kombucha is a kind of fermented tea, thought to have originated in Japan. It was extremely sweet. Imagine drinking liquefied jam.
The final course was a deconstructed malakoff. A malakoff is a type of Austrian cake, but here, as is the way with deconstructed dishes, the ingredients had been taken apart and reassembled in a series of disparate little blobs: a chunk of pistachio sponge here, an almond macaroon there.
I liked it, but am still in two minds about the whole ‘deconstructed’ thing. One of these days I’ll order a cheesecake, and the waiter will bring me 200g of caster sugar, three eggs, a pot of double cream and a packet of digestive biscuits.
Food-wise, then, my evening was up and down, from tremendous to mildly bemusing. On the other hand, Sandwich is a lovely town, and The Salutation is a very nice place to spend time: pretty hotel, cosy bar, attentive service.
Unless you enjoy making small talk with a family of pot plants, though, it’s probably best to go in a group.