The hotel conundrum
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I have never quite made up my mind about restaurants that form part of a hotel. I’ve had some remarkably good meals inside hotels and I’ve also suffered memorable ones that are seared into my head for all the wrong reasons.
One of my worst, and this was admittedly quite predictable, was at the Holiday Inn in Croydon.
In the anatomy of Britain, I decided, Croydon was that part of the body that evolution detested but just didn’t have the heart to discard. Let’s be polite and call it the appendix.
The man who took my order was a very camp version of Manuel, the incompetent Spanish waiter from Fawlty Towers, and he proclaimed the speciality of the night to be ‘lightly breaded filet of cod served with French fried potatoes’.
Even his pronouncing ‘filet’ in French couldn’t stop me from blurting, “Surely you mean fish and chips?”
“One way of putting it, Sir,” came his reply, without a hairline hint of hesitation.
And so I suffered the most awful fish and chips ever cooked, served in one of the most awful hotels ever built, in one of the most awful towns I’ve visited.
Equally memorable is the Canard a la Presse at Hotel D’Angleterre in Copenhagen. The duck eggs are bought in Burgundy, hatched in Burgundy and the ducks are raised eating and drinking the finest wine France has to offer and must be ordered in advance.
The duck is prepared on a trolley that is wheeled to the table. The breast is removed and gently fried while the rest of the duck is placed inside a huge, copper, duck press (think of R2D2 from Star Wars and imagine he’s made of polished copper). Turns of a screw at the top compress the juices out of the duck and into another pan that is whisked by the chef into a sauce that tastes of heaven, angel’s choir and all.
The serial number of the egg goes into the margin of a hard-bound book where guests write their tiny review of the experience. Flipping back it is as likely to find the Rolling Stones as it is to spot the monogram of the Queen of Denmark.
With this range of experiences it is hardly surprising that committing to an opinion about hotel restaurants is nigh on impossible.
An old friend, whose opinion about food and wine is more important to me than my own, suggested that we try Comparucci. I hadn’t heard of the place but coming from him I was pretty certain I was missing out on something quite special.
I was even more surprised when he told me that the restaurant is inside the George Hotel in Paceville, St Julian’s.
I was pleasantly thrilled when this triumph of design popped up in Paceville because it was the last place I thought I’d see such a smart-looking hotel. I had never bothered to check out the food served inside but I expected the restaurant to look as good as the building that hosted it. A spiral staircase leads to the main dining area on the mezzanine level.
It is clear that the design has extended all the way here, with a neat and wide-open kitchen, tasteful lighting and neatly laid tables with a decent distance between them, making dining a pleasantly private affair.
We were met by a very smart man who spoke immaculate English with a noticeable French accent. Then he said ‘datteri di mare’ in perfect Italian. I was stymied. I thought better than to ask his provenance though, lest he tell me that he’s Jamaican and brought up in Nepal, which would have had me truly and properly perplexed. I don’t like to approach a meal in that state.
The menus are where the experience becomes interesting. Perfectly normal dishes like spaghetti with urchins nestle between items like bucatini with sardines and saffron or spaghetti with almonds and basil.
Sicily had travelled 60 miles south and has been laid out on these pages. Nothing on the menus is outlandish or bizarre but every item is the result of interesting combinations of ingredients.
Having spotted the date mussels that would be served raw, I was all for starting the meal with raw seafood, and voicing this caused an immediate consensus around the table.
The chef, who also runs the place, turned up to discuss our orders and he was happy to prepare a starter of mixed seafood.
He quickly figured out that we’d eat anything the sea had once hosted, provided it was fresh and preferably raw, so he nodded with a quiet authority and moved to the main course.
I had spotted an item described as ‘Calamari e gamberoni gratinati allo zenzero’ – a squid and prawn gratin with ginger – and had pretty much decided upon it.
My friend, who I’ll call Wallace to hide his identity because he’s wanted by the police in several countries, quickly settled his indecision by ordering the same main course.
The women were more adventurous. One picked a dish of stuffed squid with pistaccio and the other opted for the ‘Tonno alla Palermitana in Agrodolce’, seared tuna in a sweet and sour sauce.
We made sure the tuna would be cooked as rare as possible, much to the delight of our host who said that’s the best way to serve it.
Soon, a couple of members of staff headed over to make room at the centre of our table. They cleared an area that was considerable and yet the starters easily gobbled up every inch of available space.
Crostini with fresh sea urchin, timbales of tuna tartare with avocado, salmon tartare with fresh red peppercorn and raw date mussels were neatly laid out on a large, square serving dish.
Another serving dish had four mounds of carpaccio, each made of a neat arrangement of swordfish, tuna, prawn, salmon and red snapper.
Every item was simply prepared, delicately seasoned, and as fresh as is possible without having to bite into a live mermaid’s tail.
I tried to pace myself, savouring all the flavours. Despite my best efforts I was the first to polish my plate until it was squeaky clean.
The first of two bottles of Gemelli, a Sicilian Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, worked its magic with the seafood, with a muted nose of citrus and apple giving way to a pleasantly intense acidity.
We were all looking at each other by the end of our starters, clearly having loved every item served. I wondered how it could be possible to better this with the main courses.
Wallace and I were slightly dismayed to find out that our main course consisted of a single skewer, with three rings of squid and two prawns on it.
These had been grilled expertly but had practically no trace of ginger. It had probably been added before grilling and the normally powerful root had suffered as a result.
His wife’s stuffed squid was excellent and generous, with two decently sized cephalopods stuffed and cooked to a tender, almost liquid goodness.
The pistachio, subtle and colourful, added an exotic nuance to a perfect dish. Wallace and I were jealous.
The tuna was covered in the agrodolce sauce that added a sweet and zesty tang to the fish.
It had been surprisingly cooked through but hadn’t suffered as a result so the dish was entirely enjoyable.
The centre of the table had been occupied by a large dish of grilled vegetables that included baby potatoes, boiled and served with butter and parsley, braised chicory, stuffed mushrooms, grilled courgettes and aubergine.
We quickly realised that what we had considered a small portion was actually more than enough, especially when the central treasure chest of sides was providing so many additional flavours and textures.
We had no room for dessert by the end of it all and settled the bill that was reasonable at €40 per person. We stood outside for quite a while, discussing the meal and planning our next.
I promised I’d go back to Camparucci very soon, especially since I’m dying to try the tuna and coriander burger that sounds like a quirkily enticing dish.Wallace was quick to say he’d join, just as eager to eat his way through this wonderfully unusual menu.
If four people walk out of a restaurant and are already planning to return, it clearly has something very appealing going for it.
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