Friday, December 7th 2018 – The Yard, Towcester
It pains me to have to do what is essentially going to be a hatchet job on any restaurant but we tried the latest place to open in our home town last Friday and it was not an edifying affair. La Strada, after a chequered half decade since the original incarnation, has had a change of decor and name and become The Yard, advertising “Gin Tapas Wine” as it’s USP. It opened while we were in Finland so on our return we figured we’d give it a go. I booked a table for 19:30 on Friday evening, and we arrived to find it was completely empty, and cold. OK, it’s early days, but their website doesn’t work, there is no menu displayed on their Facebook page, and even in Towcester, it seemed odd that somewhere could be quite so deserted on a weekend evening. Anyway, we ordered a bottle of prosecco, which was a minor challenge as they didn’t have a full chilled bottle available. I did suggest they could just stick one outside for 20 minutes, but we accepted a glass while they bunged a full bottle into the fridge.
The menu was set in front of us and it quickly became obvious that what we were looking at was chiccetti not tapas, with just one Spanish dish on the very short menu.
We requested the taste of Italy, which was supposed to be meats, cheeses and hummus, and figured we’d share that while we decided where to go next. When it arrived the hummus was not present and had been replaced with what can best be described as a Russian salad (vegetables chopped up into a mayo dressing). No mention was made of it on ordering or on presentation. The meats were fine, but the cheese had been chopped up into small cubes and was very cold. We ate it and eventually our bottle was produced, still not really chilled (by now probably the only thing that wasn’t).
There was some bread – which was very good but could have used some butter or some oil or something but it was not produced in house and was instead brought in from the Whittlebury Bakery. It gave us hope for a short while.
We decided that we would next go for the prawns and a portion of risotto. I am in search, as you may know, of the perfect risotto so I’m always going to go for it if it’s available. The prawns eventually showed up after 20 minutes, and had obviously been cooked straight from frozen, and were overcooked and chewy. There were two people in the kitchen, and we were still the only guests, so I have no idea how they managed to do that.
And after we’d shared the prawns, we waited for the risotto, and waited, and waited. Finally, after asking, and abour 40 minutes after it was ordered, it arrived, and was undercooked, by about 3-4 minutes I would say. We mentioned it, and the restaurant owner tried to tell us it was al dente. It wasn’t. It was under. I’m very good at risotto and that was one ladleful of stock away from being cooked. And telling me the chef “grew up in Venice” doesn’t cut it either. I grew up in a fishing port; it doesn’t make me a trawlerman. I’ve eaten in a lot of Michelin-starred restaurants too, but it doesn’t make me Rene Redzepi.
We left most of it – it also didn’t taste of much, being as far as I could tell, mostly just rice and courgettes. They weren’t doing too well so far.
Questions revealed that the father and son team apparently running the place have never run a restaurant before, but that they’d often eaten in La Strada. Quite frankly, unless you’re using it as some sort of tax dodge, I don’t think that qualifies you to run a restaurant, and based on where we were by this stage of the evening I don’t think they are qualified. I also found it interesting that they said they’d put “tapas” because local people wouldn’t know what chichetti are, where I would argue that given the presence of the rather wonderful Nuovo in Northampton not 8 miles away they would know. Anyway, semantics aside, we decided we’d go one more round with the meatballs in a tomato sauce, and the polenta which they claimed was “with a delicious mix of cheeses”. Again, there was quite a long wait, while we made inroads into a bottle of red, Finca las Morras, Malbec, which was on the cold side but very drinkable.
It was just as well because the meatballs when they came were heavy as canonballs, and in a watery tomato sauce that lacked depth or flavour, and polenta which arrived as four unseasoned squares in a thin cheese sauce.
In all the time we were in there, three more people came in and they all had the cold plate of cheese and meat, so the chef really had no excuse for not focussing on what he was cooking. We finished up, paid the bill (the best part of £90 which seemed pretty unreasonable to me), didn’t leave a tip, and went home marvelling at what some people think they can get away with.
While I’m prepared to cut places some slack when they’re in the middle of a “soft opening”, either the “chef” is taking the piss, he actually isn’t a chef, or he has no taste buds. Wild horses would not get me back in there. Mind you, it probably won’t matter because I’ll be surprised if they last 6 months.