Folkestone is in danger of becoming a culinary wasteland. Sure, it has the usual collection of OKish Chinese, Indian and Pasta / Pizza joints. But, with the exception of the cosy Kapetan Michales, you have to go to Sandgate or Hythe to get a half-decent meal.
Which is why we were looking forward to the opening of the subterranean Timothy's Wine Bar, adjacent to Barclays Bank and across the road from Iceland. We went there on Spanish Night and, while it was a memorable night, it was for all the wrong reasons.
Dragging a vegan along to any restaurant is always asking for trouble. But any self-respecting , semi-competent chef can rustle something up that doesn't appear to have had all elements of flavour, texture and enjoyment extacted from it, and that is verging on edible and tasty. And, anyway, we had sent along an advance party at least a week beforehand to forewarn them that we had a lettuce-botherer coming. The owner seemed delighted at the challenge, especially when we handed over 80 as a deposit.
Anyway, the night itself. Free sangria on arrival - nice touch. Abundant Spanish decorations - ie, flamenco guitars and matador hats - tacky. And, at one point it looked as though one of the staff had put on a comedy "Manuel" moustache, except that it turned out to be real and was very definitely not meant to be ironic.
Then came the food. Starters were a set number of tapas dishes (including chorizo, frittata and a pork dish none of us had eaten before). It was all quite nice, if a little boring. The problems started, however, when we reminded them that we had a vegan with us. It soon became clear that they had not prepared anything for him, but we were re-assured that the chef would rustle something up especially. 5 minutes later arrived a hastily thrown together combo of lettuce, lettuce, lettuce, tomato, lettuce, apple and lettuce. Big warning bells could be heard tolling ominously in the distance.
Now, bearing in mind that this had been billed as a Spanish culinary night and was being charged at 25 a head, what happened next borders on the ridiculously inept and misjudged. Main courses, we were told, were Paella and Beef. What arrived was in fact, stringy, bony, dried out chicken that looked and tasted like it had been mixed with pre-ccoked rice and peas. Where was the seafood, the saffron, anything that is normally associated with Paella ? As for the beef. I really cannot do this dish justice. Imagine school dinner beef. Washed-out slabs of grey, fibrous, meat that had clearly come from a very unhappy cow, slapped on a plate next to boiled sliced carrots and soggy roast potatoes. In fact, I am doing school dinners a dis-service. At least at school, it only cost about 2 and you could usually take your chances with boulder-like Yorkshire Puddings and volcanically hot brown water (gravy) as well.
Not content with this, the owner then subjected our vegan chum to that sort of hectoring, slightly hysterical, questioning that every vegan must have encountered at some point in a restuarant - "So, no cheese then. Or eggs. What abot egg noodles ? No ? What do you eat then ? Do you eat ginger ? Lettuce ? Well, look, what do you want to eat ?". Eventually, having obviously scoured the darkest recesses of the kicthen cupboards for any ingredient that definitely couldn't cause offence, our pal with special needs was served up a delighfully sloppy concoction of soup, cous cous, tinned veg and chilli.
Now, even at this stage, all of this would have been bearable in that stiff upper lip kind of way if it hadn't been for what happened subsequently. When we were asked by the owner in that traditional restuarant game of manners, where the rules say that he has to ask whether we enjoyed our meal and we have to express sheer delight through gritted teeth, we made the cardinal sin of speaking our minds. Of course, upsetting the balance of nature in this way is unforgiveable. Qiute clearly there couldn't have been anything actually worng with the meals or the experience we had recieved at the restuartant thus far. The fault most certainly had to be with our ability to enjoy it. The owner assured us though that he would mention our concerns to the chef.
5 minutes later we are approached at our table by another bloke (who looked a bit pished) whom we took to be another of the proprierters, after we saw him talking to the other owner. This chap then preceded to argue with us for having the temerity to critise the cooking by his... wait for it... wife!!! It seems that this bloke was, in fact just a mate of the owner and it was his wife that had done the cooking that night because she was Spanish. Turns out, that not only had she never cooked in a restuarant before (and had never before cooked the dishes we were eating) the reason the food had been so bland (ie, no seafood in the paella etc) was because English people wouldn't eat it. This is, I presume, the same English people who year after year make Spain their favourite holiday destination and to whom, paella has become almost as close to a national dish as chicken tikka mosalla. And, the same English people who have paid 25 to come to a Spanish culinary evening - which would, I hope you will agree, presuppose at least some familiarity and enjoyment of traditional Spanish food.
Anyway, we left soon after. It wasn't all bad. One of the 2 puddings was OK and drinks were included in the 25 a head - although we didn't know that at the time and are still not sure if that was because we complained about the food.
But there are serious points here. Firstly, this was sloppy management and terrible customer service. 25 a head is not cheap and people expect quality results. Its not on to use paying customers as guinea pigs, espeically when it involves your mate's wife doing the cooking. It you are running a restuarant, do us all a favour and hire a professional chef. Also, if you say you are going to cater for vegans and people make a point of checking this with you first before booking, make the bloody effort on the night ! Vegans might be slightly weird and are best avoided, but they too deserve to eat properly and should not be seen as just a means of off-loading your excess salad ingredients. If you make an effort with vegans and veggies more generally, you'd be surprised how likely proper foodies will want to come back - even the most die-hard meat-eater likes a break now and then. But most of all, you cannot let members of public harangue your customers. It doesn't matter if they are your mates or whether their wives' are doing the cooking, to me, they are still just members of the public. If I have a problem with a restaurant's food or service I will speak to the owner / chef etc. I won't go round to other tables and complain. Similarly, I don't expect other members of the public to discuss my complaints with them, especially with the collusion of the owner.
Maybe things will improve at Timothy's. I probably won't take my chances and find out, and nor will any of the rest of my party, or any of our friends and acquitances whom we talk to. And thats the point really - pissing off 8 people can lose you potential custom of 50 or so. And in a small town like Folkestone, thats not good for business.
But, for anyone reading this - make up your own mind. And if you need any encouragement, it seems that after the success of Spanish night, they are intending to do a School Dinners night...