Is everything O.K.?
Have you noticed how waiters wait for the exact moment when you have your mouth full, before they ask you that? I often try and cheat them by staging my forkfuls when they're not around but, almost as though they're watching me from a distance, no sooner am I munching away, than they pounce. "Is everything O.K.?" Naturally, all I can emit is an unintelligible groan, and a nod. I wonder if their timing is purposefully strategic. Perhaps they're trained to schedule their question precisely when you cannot speak. Yes, I know, as my mother – or the Aunt Alicia in Colette's Gigi – would say, you could train yourself to chew and speak at the same time, elegantly. But still...
It was a relief going to cafés and restaurants while living in Brussels. There, nobody comes to intrude on your meal unless you specifically request their attention. Only at the end, as you're settling the bill, does the waiter ask Ça a été?
The cake on top of the napkin
I don't know if this is a strictly British practice, but I've not encountered it in Italy, the U.S., Germany, France, Greece or Spain. You order cake, or a sandwich, and it arrives lying on the napkin, as though it needs to be comfortable on the cold, hard plate. Surely, the point of the napkin is to be spread on your lap, and used for dabbing your lips and fingers – a point defeated from the start if, by the time you have slid it out from under the cake or sandwich, it's covered in chocolate, cream or dressing.
The parmesan and black pepper rations
In too many establishments, once your meal is served, the waiter approaches and offers you black pepper. Then s/he gives the oversized mill a couple of twists over your plate, and walks off. I might want to add pepper halfway through my meal, but the option is not available. Is black pepper so expensive, restaurants cannot afford to keep a small mill on the table, together with the salt shaker?
The same discourse applies to grated parmesan. When your pasta is served, the waiter brings a bowl of parmesan, and sprinkles a spoonful on your dish. If you say nothing, he sprinkles a second spoonful. At that point, s/he marches off, unless you specifically request more. If you do, s/he expresses shock, as though you're being unreasonably greedy. Sometimes, I tell the waiter, "just leave it here, I'll help myself" and that creates a mini panic response...
I know this is entirely a matter of personal preference but who actually enjoys crunching large salt crystals? What's wrong with a salt shaker that dispenses fine salt powder which blends in easily with the food?
Salt and pepper mills/shakers
"Katia, the table is off-balance," is what my grandmother would say if, while setting the table, I'd forgotten to put the salt shaker in the centre. Time and time again, I go to restaurants and cafés where there is no salt on the table and I have to ask the waiter to bring it to me. The other day, I asked why they didn't just keep salt and pepper on every table. "People steal them," the waitress replied.
I was speechless. Are we so poor a nation? Or so thieving?
Personally, I think automatically serving water with ice cubes in a country as cold as England is somewhat peculiar. Still, at least thus far, this is a free country, so people are entitled to order iced water if they wish. But why do waiters insist on bringing me iced water after I've specifically ordered it "without ice"?
Halloumi, Hollandaise, etc.
I doubt I'm breaking the Official Secrets Act by stating that traditional English food errs on the side of – how can I put it diplomatically? – well, let's say on the side of the bland, and is, originally, far from vegetarian-friendly. We've come in leaps and bounds since my introduction to English cuisine, at the age of nineteen, when it was meat and two veg, no salt, and pudding consisted in drowning anything at all in custard. Still, perhaps cafés and restaurants should expand their horizons a little further and, once they've discovered a new ingredient, not it serve exclusively over and over and over again.
Yes, halloumi cheese is lovely, and made a welcome change from mozzarella, after the latter had outstayed its welcome as the successor to cheddar. Now, however, wherever you go, it's halloumi. Halloumi burger, vegetable hash with halloumi, salad with halloumi. Why don't we also try various varieties of goat's cheese, manchego, ossau iraty, fontina, asiago, blue Shropshire, to name but a few?
Another relatively recent feature in restaurant menus is hollandaise sauce. A tangy addition to many eggs and asparagus dishes. In small doses, though. Sadly, British enthusiasm for this perceived bit of sophistication means that eggs Florentine and eggs Benedict are served drowned in it, the way custard used to drown stodgy puddings.
(This is a revised version of a post first published on 24 July 2011)