Monday, May 31, 2010

Review: La Cigale in Parnell

La Cigale is best known for being the patron of Parnell's French Market, but the accompanying foodstore/dining area also offers dinner Wednesday to Friday: slow-cooked masterpieces served on long wooden tables at attractive prices. We tried it for the first time last week and the food was fantastic, although the service was a little patchy.

It's hard to criticise foreign wait staff with enthusiasm. The whole English-as-a-second-language thing makes it difficult to tell whether misunderstandings have occurred due to their ignorance, or your own cultural intolerance. The following is an approximate transcript of our attempt to navigate the ordering process with our French [I think] waitress:

Waitress: You would like entree? Pumpkin and cumin, is very good.
Us: So there's just the one entree then?
Waitress: Yes you would like one entree?
Us: Um, just checking, there is only one choice of entree?
Waitress: It is pumpkin and cumin, you will like.
Us: But there is no other choice?
Waitress: I will tell the chef no entrees
Us: We would like four entrees!
Waitress: I would like to go home to France and not work in this restaurant any longer.

Okay that last bit was made up, but you get the idea. The entree arrived about five seconds after we ordered it, although there was a long pause before our main arrived, two delicious bowls of tagine with sides of couscous, beetroot and mixed vegetables.

Waiter: Here is your fish and your lamb tagine
Us: We've ordered two of both, yes?
Waiter: Yes two tagines: fish and lamb
Us: But there are two of each?
Waiter: Yes, two tagines
Us: But will there be two more bowls coming or have the two been combined into one?
Waiter: I would like to go home to Morocco and not work in this restaurant any longer.

Anyway like I said, it's hard to begrudge patchy service when the staff are friendly and well-meaning as these guys undoubtedly were. I am, however, left with some begrudgmental feelings towards the, um, New Zealand-Pakeha gentleman who seemed to be overseeing the whole thing, as I shall explain.

The restaurant runs a brilliant system with wine, by which you're allowed to go to the excellent attached bottle shop, pick out any bottle you like, and drink it with your dinner for a $10 surcharge. Asking about this, we were encouraged to seek out a moustachioed gentleman for assistance, who was emphatic that we should abort the ($29) bottle of primitivo we had just picked and replace it with a (price unknown) bottle of chianti from the other end of the store. Eager to take advantage of his superior judgment, we followed his advice and were then told not to bother grabbing his recommended bottle as it was on the (very short) restaurant winelist (at $52, we were later to find out).

Are you following all this? It's very hard to describe a disappointing restaurant experience as it usually involves the culmination of six or seven different events, combined with three or four different emotions. Suffice it to say, if you followed the summary of the facts above, you'll understand that we were left with a slightly deflated feeling, having missed out on the wine shop pick and grab experience and having paid more than we expected for our drinks. Not to mention a lingering, more sinister feeling that we might have been intentionally stitched up by a restaurateur keen to maintain his margins.

Importantly, the food was superb. That pumpkin and cumin thing (a pastilla, I'm told) was spicy, tasty and generally delicious, while the tagines ($26 each) were equally good – fragrant meat dishes with almonds, prunes, currants and North African spices too numerous to mention. Sadly, there was no sign of the “traditional accompaniments such as preserved lemons, harissa & sultana”, mentioned on the website.

On other nights they do a variety of slow-inspired dishes suchas roasted scotch fillet, bouillabaisse and rotisserie chicken. We even spotted hare on an upcoming Friday night.

Given the set prices, BYO-ish scenario and long tables, La Cigale would be great for a group. And with a large bunch of friends around, the service quirks would be barely noticeable.

And, fromagophiles take note, there's a cheese trolley that moustache guy wheels around which you can choose from at the end of your meal. Alas we forgot to request it and our waitress forgot to mention it, so I went home full, satisfied and then dreamt of brie wheels all night.