Going out to a restaurant is getting harder at the moment. In France, at least, you have to try and find one that has agreed to pass on the new lower rate of VAT at anything other than a symbolic level, and there aren't many.
And then, most importantly, you have to find a good one: one where you can some out saying “Ah, that was a good meal!”, where you can still remember the menu several days later, and where you can confidently send friends without risk of them trying to sound polite when they tell you afterwards “Err, it was… hmmm… not bad.”
Personally, I'm fond of classing restaurants in this way: a month later, can I still remember at least one of the dishes I ate there? If I can, it's a really good restaurant, if not…
In fact, it seems increasingly rare these days to come across something that actually has an outstanding flavour, which makes me want to go back for more and wipe around the plate with a bit of bread.
It's the flavour that comes of being what I call “properly cooked”, difficult to describe because it depends on the choice of ingredients, sometimes the cooking methods used, sometimes both.
An example to illustrate what I mean: hachis parmentier (the French version of cottage pie) is a good old standby, but how often do you eat one which tastes like it should? Alas, too rarely! So often it's just cooked mince with mashed potato dolloped on top and, if you're lucky, a bit of (tasteless) grated cheese before it goes in the oven.
Therein lies the problem. For the dish to have its proper flavour, of course the meat needs to be well cooked, but it is even better if it is left over from another meal. The second cooking releases different flavours. The mashed potato
also needs to be good, made with proper potatoes, butter and cream if possible, not the instant stuff reconstituted with water. Last, but not least, the cheese on the top should not be that awful tasteless plastic-wrapped Emmenthal, nor (even worse) ready-grated straight out of a sachet, but real good cheese, like a piece of Comté or a mature farmhouse Cheddar, that you grate fresh onto the potatoes just before the dish goes in the oven.
Of course it takes longer to make, but what a difference compared with those insipid offerings found in bad restaurants and canteens.
A restauranteur reading this might well be saying by now something along the lines of: another ranting amateur who has no idea that in the kitchen time is money! Of course, chef, of course! But you know very well yourself that a real well-made hachis parmentier gets better with each reheating (or almost), so why not make a large quantity in advance and reheat it as necessary? I'm sure the customers would come back for more...
So, to finish with, here's a good hachis parmentier recipe.
P.S. Please note that etiquette normally requires that one does not wipe the plate with one's bread in a restaurant, which is a rule I always ignore!
In high-class French restaurants you might find a spoon at the side of your plate intended to permit the discreet consumption of any remaining sauce in civilised fashion: it's totally inefficient and, above all, instantly renders cold anything that you might have struggled to collect in it.
Long live the bit of bread! [Translator's note: the French have this habit of mopping up sauce with bread so deeply ingrained that they even have a word for it: “saucer”, literally, “to sauce”.]
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