If Rick Stein chose to record an episode of his Food Heroes series on the South Coast of NSW it is easy to believe that he would be more likely to celebrate the wholefood charms of the Pilgrim Cafe in Milton than his own more celebrated eaterie in Mollymook. Whilst both are vastly different establishments, after eating at both last Saturday, it seems that one consistently delivers value for money whilst the other promises so much more than it delivers.
A much anticipated birthday treat, a weekend without kids and a night out with the Birthday Girls at a top class restaurant, what could go wrong. The weather and local beaches delivered on their promise in spades and lunch at the Pilgrim Cafe was an unexpected delight. Not being the most observant person, it failed to register with me that “wholefood” meant vegetarian only – I actually thought I had ordered a burger. Luckily the quality and size of the “burger” was enough to convince the most hardened carnivore and the fresh juice topped off the best sub $20 meal I have had in a long time. Friendly, efficient service and plenty of tables meant that even during a busy holiday time we didn’t wait too long. A great start to the Birthday Girls’ special weekend and still plenty of time for a visit to Narrawallee beach before getting ready for dinner.
After the beach and a bottle of bubbly at the holiday house it was off to Bannisters for a culinary treat – or so we thought. Unfortunately, it didn’t started well as we were greeted (barked at possible) by a Maitre d’ who was all stern, inefficiency – no time for a smile for guests that are just about to part with a considerable sum of the hard earned. All night he went through the motions mechanically but not through any emotions other than a grim determination to get the job done. Not dissimilar to someone diligently cleaning something unpleasant from their shoe. Not a good start but still time to recover. Our waitress was at least friendly and enthusiastic, happy to be working for the famous Mr Stein no doubt. But sadly, not very knowledgeable about the menu, perhaps she wasn’t helped by the fact that the descriptions did not necessarily line-up with what was put on the plate.
After a decent entree, for me at least, of Oysters Chantaraise (fresh oyster with spicy sausage of the side), the Birthday Girls decided that they did not want our table to be squeezed between two large group tables. Apparently shouting was something they would prefer to reserve for partners, pets and children not necessarily in that order. Like any good male I suggested it would be best not to make a fuss, however, the Birthday Girls were not having any of my spineless behaviour and asked to be moved to an empty table on the other side of the room. Initially they were refused, after all we had only made the booking two month earlier and there were no spare tables. “Behind you” the Birthday Girls cried out pantomime style pointing at the empty table. After insisting to the ineffectual but cheery waitress that she might want to consult with her boss once more the move was agreed. In my view it is always a fraught business complaining in a restaurant as you are playing Russian roulette with the staff’s emotional response. In this case, it is fair to say the atmosphere became much cooler and the already limited level of attentiveness dropped down a notch or two. Wine glasses were no longer topped up, Saharan nomads would have had greater access to water and the Maitre d’ carried on ignoring us.
Thankfully my Bourride (French fish stew) was tasty and for dessert the Tarte Tatine, although very rustic (three lumps of apple on a flaky pastry), was good. The Birthday Girls seemed to enjoy their food although the much promised Mascerated Strawberries never appeared with the Creme Brulee, an omission never explained by our replacement waitress who also seemed confused when asked to explain the dessert special, a Summer Pudding. Luckily, one of the Birthday Girls was able to fill in the gaps.
Herein lies the essential problem with Bannisters, the quality of the service and the attention to little details are just not good enough for an establishment where it is easy to part with $150-200 per head on a meal. Enthusiasm and a friendly attitude are enough at Pilgrims Cafe when customers are spending $20 but you do expect a bit more from a top class establishment. Beach resorts are always more laid back that’s why we go to them but that shouldn’t mean lacking care. This restaurant desperately needs someone in the dining room who knows what they are doing or the quality of service will consistently fail to justify the price tag.
It is pretty clear that Rick Stein’s presence at Bannisters has been good for the local area and has attracted many welcome visitors. Like Oprahs visit to Australia in microcosm, Rick Stein’s name will attract people to the South Coast. However, over lunch the next day at Pilgrims Cafe the Birthday Girls and I couldn’t help wondering how many others had planned a visit to Bannisters for a special occasion only to go away disappointed. If it weren’t for the stunning beaches, a good local cafe and the excellent value straw hat that I bought at a 2nd hand shop it would have ruined the weekend. As we headed for the exit and the journey home, there was a rich irony in seeing some of the wait staff from Bannisters enjoying the food and ambience at Pilgrims. They knew where to go to get value for money.