After another hard day toiling down the corporate salt mine, Matt and Cat were sat in traffic inching their way homewards.
Some might imagine the reviewing duo plotting their next visit to some unwitting restaurant, but nothing could be further from the truth. A typical debate ensued: should they scrape the frost off whatever was in the bottom of the freezer, or stop at the Co-op and play short-dated-stock roulette?
Just then there was a peeping interruption from Cat’s phone. A pal was ringing to see if they’d like to go out for the evening. Go out? For the evening? It seemed the fish fingers were destined to spend another evening buried in Electrolux tundra. Soon the two were standing by the roadside, suited and booted, waiting for a ride to the West Wight. After a sedate drive in a flashy car, the party of three pushed open the exclusive door of The George Hotel, Yarmouth. In the absence of a greeter, they wandered around the historic hotel until they ended up at the restaurant.
The George Hotel is a landmark on Yarmouth’s shoreline, sharing some of its thick stone walls with Henry VIII’s castle. Despite this weight of architectural history, Matt and Cat found themselves in a modern, airy extension with views over the twinkling lights of Yarmouth Pier. At night, there wasn’t much more to be seen, but earlier in the year it would be a stunning place for yacht-watching as the sun sets slowly over the Western Solent. As the night-washed garden was mostly in darkness they took in the interior surroundings – memorable for the rather naive paintings of guitar bodies (interpreted in oils by someone who may never have seen an actual guitar in the wild), and the fortress-like waiters’ station from behind which figures emerged periodically.
There was only one other party in the spacious conservatory-style dining area but instead of seating the trio at one of the many larger pre-laid tables, the staff squeezed them onto a table set for two then scuttled about getting an extra place setting. Drinks and menus were proffered. The prices raised some eyebrows, and even the question of whether the group might move on to somewhere cheaper. The Blue Crab, maybe, or even On The Rocks? But no. They’d come all this way, and were determined to see it through.
Matt and Cat gave their order and settled down to the business of the day – gossiping with their friend. They’d barely started on the curious case of the pie shop promotion when they were brought bread, and a teeny pat of soft butter on a little slate, accompanied by an even smaller pile of rock salt crystals. A promising beginning. Matt and Cat crunched their way through the comprehensive and tasty range of warmed breads. These yeasty fancies were soon joined at the table by an unexpected amuse bouche course; tiny teacups filled with frothy carrot and parsnip soup. The veloute was extraordinarily tasty; its sweetly smooth texture punctuated by little cubes of root veg.
The evening had begun swimmingly, although the diners could have done without the oleaginous warbling of James Blunt, whose voice seemed to be on a perpetual loop. This popular soldier/songwriter may have sold millions of records to lovelorn housewives but Cat found him as enjoyable as a slowly deflating balloon pinched savagely at the neck to create an ear-bothering whine. Sometimes one almost longs for Phil Collins or Tina Turner to be rehabilitated. Almost.
Matt’s pan-fried calves liver starter was the softest of meat, beautifully presented with a nest of salad shoots, two intriguing cubes and a good dollop of chutney. The cubes turned out to be mead and thyme jelly; perfectly sweet additions to this delicate meal. Matt liked the warmed brioche which was delivered to the table covered in a napkin like a compliant budgie.
Cat declined a starter – she was saving herself for something special. Like a feline with a taste for Whiskas, Cat rarely resists fillet steak and this evening was no exception. Served with kohlrabi remoulade and port jus, her two cylinders of finest Mottistone Farm fillet of beef were exquisitely textured and nearly matched the fillet al porto that she had at Valentino’s. Not on the menu but also on her plate – perhaps as a substitution for the missing fondant potatoes – was a sausagey thing which, on dissection, turned out to be a very tasty beef shin croquette. Before it had been identified all three diners had a nibble at it and thought it may have been duck, it was so rich and flavoursome.
Calves liver starter £9.50
Beef fillet £28.00
Crème caramel £6.95
2 x coffee @ £2.95: £5.90
1 glass wine £4.75
Orange juice & lemonade £3.30
At this point, let’s pause for a moment to take a deep breath. Can anyone guess what’s coming up next? Yup, quite likely you can. It’s the usual rant about paying extra for the vegetables. Matt and Cat would refer you to their previous reviews. Praise for the generous majority – such as Valentino’s and the Woodman Arms; and brickbats for those few who still charge for what should be a part of the meal. Sadly, the George falls into the latter camp, and although the extra vegetables and chips were good, the cost rankled.
Last time M&C had eaten at a posh place, it had been the Priory Hotel, which disappointingly served them chicken under the guise of game. Matt spotted partridge on the menu at the George, and decided to see if Yarmouth could manage game better than Seaview. A fairly generous plateful of bird arrived, splayed artfully over creamed butternut squash with Puy lentils. It was definitely game, as a single grain of lead shot was able to testify; and was enjoyable eating.
Cat couldn’t manage a pudding, but luckily one diner was still on duty: Matt bravely stepped forward to give the dessert menu a whirl. This document caused some consternation amongst the diners. Once Cat had overcome her horror at the inconsistent apostrophes, she pointed with a doubtful finger at the list of dishes, which really wasn’t very clear. There were five entries, each on two lines, and each with two or three tangentially related dishes listed. Did you get all three, or just one? Matt knew how to find out. Throwing caution to the winds, he ordered “Crème caramel, cinnamon and apple doughnut, Granny Smith sorbet”. His two companions ordered coffee.
The coffee arrived quickly enough, but with no milk, and no pudding either. This was the moment the waiting staff chose to make themselves scarce. Over their cooling and milk-less coffee the diners, alone in the big room, listened with increasing discomfort to the music. Some fifteen minutes later someone was finally flagged down and milk was produced, along with the most perfunctory of apologies. The irritation this caused was almost immediately dispelled by the arrival of the pudding – in fact a trio of puddings on one plate. The mystery of the menu vanished as Matt carefully tasted the morsels. All three together made up one clever and very well-composed whole. The little deep-fried doughnut with its crispy sugar coating was perfectly complemented by the sharpness of the Granny Smith sorbet, and the smooth, creamy crème caramel with rich cinnamon. This really was top quality stuff. Matt would have liked a moment to savour what he’d just eaten, and perhaps discuss it with his companions, but it wasn’t to be. As Matt’s spoon clattered to rest the waiter whipped the plate from under his nose before Matt had licked his chops clean. Then, presumably recalling some vestiges of his training, the chap politely asked how the dish had been. Matt, who had been particularly delighted with the sorbet, found himself praising the dish to the waiter’s retreating back. The compliment ended up dying on Matt’s lips.
Sadly, this wasn’t the end of the decline in service standards. After another wait of maybe ten minutes, the waiter passed by the room again and so rather than wait for another opportunity the party asked for the bill. Once the painful transaction was undertaken, again the staff evaporated and Matt, Cat and friend were left to find their own way out, retrieve Matt’s coat by themselves (which had only been taken in the first place at Cat’s prompting) and make their unnoticed way back out into the street.
Matt and Cat enjoyed their food greatly. The venue was splendid. The menu was a good one, and, apart from substituting Cat’s spuds for extra meat, the kitchen didn’t put a foot wrong in producing it. Well-presented and delicious, it would almost have been worth what was paid for it had the whole of the experience been up to the same standard. But it wasn’t. From the frantic place-setting at their arrival to the over-eager plate clearing, the servers were either all over the diners or, as the evening wore on, nowhere to be seen. At these sort of prices Matt and Cat expected to be greeted on arrival and bid goodbye on leaving. They expected drinks and cutlery to be served from a tray, not in hand or leaning over the table. They expected the server to remember who ordered what without being prompted. They expected dessert menus after the plates were cleared, not before. These expectations were not met. The food and the location deserved so much better.
Matt and Cat could not resist the lure of that excellent menu for too long. What’s more, they heard from several other Island diners that they may have had an unlucky and uncharacteristic experience. In May 2012 they returned to the George, this time at the invitation of the hotel. And although this visit was not an anonymous review, and obviously the hotel were aware of the concerns expressed above, there was no doubt that the George proved more than capable of putting on service to match the menu, which was, as before, superb. Matt and Cat and their guests, the DigiBungalow bloggers, had a remarkable and excellent tour through the tasting menu, all served with impeccable skill and grace. Afterwards, a chat with the knowledgeable staff showed just how seriously they had taken the criticism. And rather than wring their hands about it, the George commendably took the unusual steps of putting the problem right, and inviting Matt and Cat to see so for themselves. As a result, M&C are more than happy to upgrade their rating to ‘We Love’, and will certainly be recommending the George unreservedly.
The George Hotel, Yarmouth