Endgame: Whine dining
Laurie Taylor has his very own euro crisis
"Deux coupes,” I said to the waiter with the slightly bored air of a man who has spent much of his adult life quaffing champagne in expensive French restaurants.
But as I slowly began to realise, this wasn’t an expensive French restaurant. This was a very expensive French restaurant.
So expensive that instead of bringing me two glasses of house bubbly, the waiter reappeared with a high-class silver wheelie-bin stuffed with ice and a dozen bottles of champagne.
“Perhaps a hint of biscuit?” he said, allowing his forefinger to wander seductively around the gold and silver necks of the bottles. “Or perhaps one where the Pinot Noir is more assertive? Or the extra brut perhaps?”
Not one of these words gave me any clue to price. Would extra brut or extra Pinot Noir be more expensive than a hint of biscuit? The bottles themselves were no help. Each one only bore the name of the restaurant.
“D’you know,” I said, falling back on the only discernible difference, “d’you know, I think I’ll settle for the rosé.”
I could see his respect draining away. He’d advised this elderly Englishman on every oenophilic aspect of the champagnes on display and he had finally made up his mind. And which of the criteria had he brought to bear upon his choice? None. Not one. He’d chosen because of the colour. He’d said, “I’ll have the pink one.”
But even as I fretted about how many euros I was currently swallowing, I noticed with alarm that there were no prices on my partner’s menu. That meant that she’d have no idea that a whole meal in this place would cost about the same as a reliable four-door hatchback and it meant that she would never ever know that the shavings of truffle (éclats de truffe) which were billed as an optional house accompaniment to every dish on the menu came out at 80 euros a shaving.
I might have confronted her with this alarming news but the meal had been announced beforehand as her big birthday treat. You really cannot lean across the table to someone who’s embarking on their big birthday treat and suggest they might enjoy something a little smaller.
However, I did manage to steer her delicately away from the priciest menu items and somehow settle on an order. But then the sommelier appeared.
I’ve dealt with the odd sommelier in my time and usually keep my end up by listening to their advice and then settling decisively on the fifth cheapest wine in the house. “D’you know,” I say, “I’m very grateful for your advice, but I’m going to settle for the good old Cotes du Rhône. It is Villages, isn’t it?”
This sommelier didn’t have a list. He approached the table with a bound set of sacred texts, a gospel which I could look at but not touch as he told me that our choice of meal suggested the need for a white wine with “some real character”. Acidity would be needed. And a floral bouquet. He then hesitated like a man on the verge of solving a quadrilateral equation, heaved over several hundred heavy pages, and exposed one devoted to Châteauneuf-du-Pape blanc.
The situation might have been redeemed even at this stage if I hadn’t started to chatter. But absurdly I thought I might regain some of my lost esteem by telling the man about how I used to drink Châteauneuf-du-Pape at home in Londres, but had come to recognise that its well-known name did not always stand for quality. “Quite honestly,” I confided, sommelier to sommelier, “in England the red is regarded as a touch downmarket.”
He didn’t reply because his forefinger was already underlining the second wine down on the long list. To the right of this finger was a number. At first I thought that the final nought might be a badly done euro symbol. But no. There was no doubt. My sommelier was suggesting that I chose a bottle of wine costing 240 euros.
Could I ask for something less floral? Something with less acidity? No, I had to grasp the biscuit. Grab the bouquet.
“Do you have anything a little less expensive?” I said. “A little less”? What world was I suddenly inhabiting?
“Ah yes,” he said, his finger sliding down the page. “Here we are. And still a very good choice.” Choice? Had I made a choice? I looked to the right of his pointing finger. It said 150 euros. I said, “That’ll be fine.”
I can’t say much about the rest of the meal. While my partner murmured her delight at each successive dish, I was fully occupied cutting down on my sister’s birthday present, cancelling my Sky Sports subscription and cashing in half my Premium Bonds.
“L’addition,” I said to the waiter as my partner finished off her truffle ice-cream with a flourish of the tiny silver spoon.
“I know the service charge is included,” she said. “But should we leave them a little extra as it was all so delicious? I’ve got a five somewhere.”
“Don’t bother,” I said. “There’s a very real danger it might get overlooked.”