Restaurant Review: Rendezvous @ Nargile – Middle Eastern Fusion
“I can’t believe they say Scotland has bad food,” said one of my lovely co-diners. “I can’t believe this is being pulled off by a bunch of ginger-haired Scotsmen,” said I in response.
The exchange fell at an early supper at Scotland’s supposedly best middle eastern restaurant – an oxymoron in its own right – while we were having our minds blown in several different ways. It’s worth rewinding the tape a bit, though, and taking it from the beginning to get the full context:
As returning readers will know, I spent my summer trekking some 100 miles through Northern Scotland with a couple of friends. Along the way, we were determined to get a grip on Scottish food culture and in doing so we discovered both good and bad, interesting and downright bizarre eats, many of which are described in this roundup. To finish in style and celebrate a job well done, we had booked a few days of luxury in the beautiful coastal city of Aberdeen – and as the biggest foodie of the bunch, I’d appointed myself chief officer in charge of celebratory dinner arrangements on our first night in town.
Now, as stated in this earlier post, I knew nothing about Scottish food culture before embarking on the trip, but luckily I knew a few people who did. So doing what any luxury food blogger worth his salt would do, I consulted The Michelin Guide for recommendations in and around Aberdeen and was surprised to actually find quite a few choices. Thumbing through my options, I searched for something that was just right for a few weary travelers traveling on a budget just making their way back into civilisation, i.e. something exciting yet not too formal, not too expensive and not too elaborate. My finger eventually stopped on Restaurant Rendezvous @ Nargile, something as rare as a prize-winning Middle Eastern restaurant situated in Northern Scotland offering a wide variety of dishes, small and large, at reasonable prices. “This is it,” I thought, and made the booking.
And that’s pretty much where our story picks back up… A few weeks later, having just stumbled back into civilisation after a lengthy hike through small town Scotland, we arrived for our early dinner booking at Rendezvous, looking possibly a little worse for wear and maybe a little underdressed judging by the appearance of other guests paying a visit that evening. Appearances aside, we were warmly and respectfully greeted by the hostess as we stepped out of the cold and rain into the warmth of Rendezvous, and the girls’ rain jackets were taken with the same amount of respect as if they had been fancy blazers and stowed away in the wardrobe. We were then led to our table in the stylish, modern main dining room which provided somewhat of a welcome break from the cozy, little, dark pub dining rooms we had been used to on most of our trip.
Rendezvous main dining room – photo credit: http://www.rendezvousatnargile.co.uk
The dining room at Rendezvous is large, high-ceilinged and bright with a small open kitchen on one end and large, panoramic windows on the other, offering an overview of streetlife outside all while lending plenty of light to the stylish, modern room which was kept in a mix of white/sand/grey colors and had only a bit of a monster of an ancient airconditioning unit in the ceiling to spoil the illusion of a perfectly simplistic room of straight lines. No worries, though, we weren’t so much there to look at electrical appliances as we were to enjoy what was rumored to be some top quality Mediterranean/Middle Eastern food as well as top-class, friendly service.
And speaking of service, I’m happy to confirm some rumors. Service on the night of our visit was warm, kind-hearted and friendly albeit ever so slightly adorably clumsy and shaky at times. From the minute we were seated and presented with the menu and winelist to the minute we exited the door, we were treated with nothing but smiles and polite attention from the three waiters that ended up waiting on us over the course of the evening. Good service and warm surroundings mean little, though, if the food is questionable, so let’s get to it, shall we? How WAS the food at Rendezvous? Well, simple is one way to put it… But it’s a good kind of simple! Please allow me to elaborate over a thousand odd words…
Rendezvous @ Nargile – Simple, honest and never dull!
A growing trend amongst many better restaurants have been to start you off with a whole variety of snacks of varying complexity and flavors, others have chosen to go in a completely different direction and keeping the start of the meal about as simple as humanly possible. Rendezvous, clearly, falls into the latter category. While we pondered the surprisingly affordable and highly recommended supper menu, picking our starters and mains, a basket of humble looking pita bread was unceremoniously set between us to share. Nothing fancy, nothing gimmicky, just a basket of bread… And sometimes that’s all you need, sometimes less is truly more!
If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a hundred times – or, well, at least here and here – a lot can be said about the quality of a restaurant by looking at their homemade bread. Bread is such a simple thing, really, the essence of life if you will. A few basic ingredients, a bit of kneading and time and you’ve got one of the cornerstones of our existence. The thing is, though, in the hands of true masters, bread becomes something more: a thing of joy and admirability. And such was the pita at Rendezvous: wonderfully fluffy, soft, salty and complex with a wonderfully tangy note (yoghurt?) and a lightly charred exterior. “This is supposed to be so simple, yet it’s pretty much my favorite thing ever,” I told our waitress, honestly awestruck. “I know,” she replied with a smile, “I don’t eat bread, but I’ll eat this! “
Pondering for a minute the sanity of people who would give up bread, I eventually concluded that if non-bread eaters would eat it, the bread at Rendezvous would surely be worthy of note and praise. But I digress… I did not actually have time to ponder long before our identical starters arrived. Placed before each of us was a generous serving of pretty, symmetrical filo dough rolls stuffed with goat’s cheese and spinach served with what was, apparently, the Scottish national side dish: a slaw salad!
Unlike the usual Scottish coleslaw, though, this one arrived fresh and crispy, dressed in a light, fresh, acidic dressing rather than the popular, heavy, sweet mayonnaise-based alternative. Thank God. The rolls themselves were perfectly crispy, crunch, flaky and absolutely well-made. The goat’s cheese and spinach filling, however, sadly seemed a little dense and bland, and I’d have killed for a little more creaminess and a little more bite in the cheese. All in all a reasonably good start from the kitchen, though, and luckily I found my bite in the bottle of a very reasonably priced Sauvignon Blanc I’d picked off the wine menu to accompany our meal.
That being said, if ever there was a flaw with our meal at Rendezvous @ Nargile, it was with the starters and I swear it was as if the kitchen had heard me muttering under my breath about the dry blandness of the filo rolls because what arrived next in the shape of a couple of main courses was nothing short of spectacular! Two of us had opted for char-grilled chicken kebabs while one of the girls went instead for grilled rosemary-scented lamb chops served on a bed of a mediterranean style bean casoulet. Both selections arrived steaming hot in gorgeously presented and very generous servings amidst swirling clouds of wonderful exotic aromas.
The dishes, as such, were simple enough. Our chicken kebabs, for example, being nothing but honest to God grilled, marinated chicken served on a bed of rice with a side salad and a dipping sauce. But by God the attention of detail that went into the simplicity. The chicken, perfectly tender and expertly marinated, had obviously more than kissed a searing hot charcoal grill before serving, leaving it succulently juicy on the inside with just the right amount of perfect charring on the surface to create those deep, smoky flavors that are so often missing in your standard kebab-eating experience. Having been so expertly grilled, the chicken was served on top of some equally well-executed rice that had been boiled to perfection with enough herbs, spices and stock to, quite honestly, create the simplest, most perfect side of rice I’ve ever had. To top it all off was a warming, spicy but not too spicy, tomato and red pepper based dipping sauce loaded with spices and a pleasingly sour, slightly fermented note to balance things out.
On the side? A fresh Middle Eastern style salad loaded with tomatoes, onions, cucumbers, greens and herbs… And a whole pickled chili on top just in case things weren’t spicy enough, you know. In reality, this was simple food, comfort food… Street food, really… Yet perfectly executed and presented in a way that matched the atmosphere of the place and the Michelin-recommendation on the door! It was the pita bread (thus proving my theory that great bread is a sign of great eating to come!), taking something essentially simple and elevating it to something simply mindblowing.
The same, it should be noted, could be said about the lamb dish enjoyed by one of my lovely co-diners. The lamb was not only ridiculously tender, it was also some of the most meaty and deeply flavorful lamb I’ve ever had with the rosemary adding just the right note of pungent, grassy earthiness to the mix. The bean cassoulet a rich, creamy mess of beans, vegetables, tomatoes, spices and, rather brilliantly, just enough freshness and acidity to keep it from tumbling over into a heavy, creamy gut buster. Well played, guys, and this from someone who doesn’t really care much for lamb nor rosemary!
It was at this point and time that I started glancing with some interest at the kitchen to see just who was pushing out such great food. I was surprised, I must admit, to see a couple of young, visibly flushed but still very pale and decidedly Scottish faces beaming back at me rather than my admittedly stereotypical expectation: a couple of decidedly Middle Eastern-looking faces lined with a bit of age and experience. And I don’t mean that in a prejudiced sort of way, I mean that in a “if young Scotsmen can produce quality Middle Eastern food in a Northern seaside town, how dare they – again – say that the Scottish have no food culture or exciting eats worth speaking of?” – kind of way.
Having shaken off my perplexion, put away my chicken and even been so kind as to help the girls dispose of some of their “girly leftovers” (a highly scientific term invented to describe whatever befalls the Johan when the girls have given up trying to empty their plates), I was pretty much reeling by the end of the main course. The portions at Rendezvous are nothing if not generous, but they were also so tasty that I – against my better judgement – ventured a peek at the dessert menu. Not unsurprisingly, I found quite a few Middle Eastern desserts on there that have the one thing on common that they’re a little too sweet for my palate – and by a little I mean a lot. I did, however, also find something I most certainly did not expect to find, namely rhubarb/strawberry cheesecake with lemon and mint! And, uh, for reasons that not even I understand, I can’t see cheesecake on a menu without ordering it and so, against my better judgement, I did.
I don’t know what I expected when ordering cheesecake at a Middle Eastern eatery, but whatever it was, it was not what arrived in front of me. The dish, almost taking the form of deconstructed cheesecake, arrived in a glass bowl containing a biscuit crumble at the base, topped with a creamy but still airy and lightly runny cheese mixture and a compote of rhubarb and strawberry. Not that this was a bad thing perse. Cheesecake is dense enough as it is without being compacted down and loaded up with gelatine, this at least offered a slightly lighter form and an interesting change in texture. Flavors were excellent, too, with a bit of lemon in the cheese filling and a sprig of mint on top adding a bit of extra zing. I am, however, sure that my late grandmother would have had something to say about the color of the compote which seemed a little sad and dull.
While I struggled through my dessert, the girls offered mainly moral support and a few helpful nibbles, being too full from their main courses to even consider dessert let alone coffee or sweets. And so, we spent the dying minutes of our meal contemplating Scottish food culture as a whole and the experience in particular, noticing out of the corners of our eyes as we talked that the place which had been going on empty when we arrived a couple of hours before, was now a few short seats away from being filled to capacity. To say that Scotland had nothing to offer in terms of food, we agreed, was an offence, to Scotland in general and particularly to those hardworking, culinary revolutionaries working day and night to change the overall perception that Scottish food is bland, one-sided fatty and colorless.
The dining experience we had at Rendezvous @ Nargine was not perfect, but it was indeed not very far from it. It was served up to us by good, honest people who, like the food, had a few flaws in their execution, but did their damnedest with no uncertain amount of pride and satisfaction in their job. And in some strange kind of way, that adds up to a total larger than the sum of its part, especially considering our total for the night was significantly smaller than it would have been in most other major European cities for a meal of this quality and proportions.
Is Rendezvous @ Nargile worthy of it’s Michelin recommendation? In the opinion of this humble food blogger? Yes! But wait, what the hell is a Michelin Recommendation, anyway? I’m glad you asked!
Bib Gourmand: What makes – or breaks – a Michelin Star?
You may have noticed throughout this review that I’ve referred to Rendezvous @ Nargile as a Michelin-recommended restaurant. You may also have wondered just what on earth this means. Well, allow me to elaborate. The Michelin guide, very famously, rates restaurants on a scale from 1 to 3 stars: One Michelin star is rewarded to restaurants that are exceptional examples within their style of cuisine. Two Michelin stars are awarded to restaurants that warrant a detour for a gourmand traveler, should he be in their general area. The illusive three Michelin stars are awarded to the rare and the few, the gourmet temples, the places that are actually worthy of a trip on their own.
And that’s all fine and dandy, but since the criteria for making the cut are strict and many, a relatively small number of restaurants in any given geographical location actually obtain the sought-after stars. And therefore, possibly coupled with a desire to make the guide books seem more comprehensive, a fourth category – the Bib Gourmand or Michelin Recommended Restaurant category – has been introduced.
These are essentially the restaurants that almost, but not quite, made the cut – for one reason or another. In other words, they are damn good restaurants, usually reasonably priced as well, that for one reason or another failed to meet the expectations of the Michelin inspectors during their visits. Possibly because of technicalities, possibly because of sub-par performances. Possibly because of a slightly less than impressive starter, possibly because of a nervously clumsy albeit adorably so waitress. It’s anybody’s guess, really.
It may seem a little odd, possibly even slightly unfair and insulting, to have this gallery of runner-ups and near winners in the guides. But bear in mind that the Michelin rating system is arcane, it’s steeped in tradition and it’s, well, pretty f’ing French! For better and for worse. To qualify for consideration you’ve got to not only consistently put out great food – not good food, but great food – and you’ve got to, at the very least, be one of the best players in your field (be it French, Asian, Middle Eastern, modern Californian fusion or any other type of cuisine) in your geographical location… Not only in terms of food, but also in terms of plating, wine, service, attention to customers, atmosphere and a host of other written, or unwritten, criteria. Slight faults in any criteria may bump you from start to recommendation or from recommendation to no mention at all. As such, even being recommended is a pretty big thing.
Also, bear in mind that a Michelin-recommendation, aside from a stark reminder of how great things could have been, is still also very much a sign of approval and an indicator of a restaurant with no to very few faults… In other words, it’s as much of a guarantee of a good meal as you’ll ever get. And it’s often a chance to eat well in great surroundings but at a lower rate and with less hype, pomp and circumstances than would be the case, had the restaurant actually received one or more of the illusive stars. And that can be a pretty good deal for the diner, indeed, and a pretty good reason to not scoff at but rather embrace the Bib Gourmands for what they are: truly recommendable and often memorable dining experiences.
Pro tip: Michelin dining on the “cheap”
So you’ve gone and decided, maybe egged on by a few of my posts, that you want to try out Michelin-starred or recommended dining? Good on you! The good news, my friend, is that you’re now probably in for one of the best dining experiences of your life. The not so good news, is it probably won’t be cheap. I’m not saying it’s going to be outrageously expensive, but unless you’re somewhere in the more obscure parts of the Far East, it won’t be cheap. Sorry.
Comparatively speaking, Michelin dining is never cheap. It can, however, be surprisingly affordable given a bit of thought and preparation. So if, unlike me, you’re a little conscious about your budget for food and fine dining, these next few paragraphs are for you. Want to play it a little safe, not splurging more than necessary before you find out if Michelin-dining is really for you? Fear not, there are ways of scoring top class meals at reasonably low prices. Just as I did at Rendezvous (or one of the most memorable meals of my life, lunch at New York’s River Cafe). Want to know how to score a Michelin experience at a comparatively low cost? Fear not, I’ll tell you!
Fancy food does not have to be expensive. Here’s lunch the next day – Beet root and goat’s cheese salad for starters at the Michelin-recommended Restaurant IX @ The Chester Hotel
First of all, bear in mind the golden rule of thumb: The better the rating, the bigger the check. As with any rules there are exceptions, of course, but… In general, the better the rating, the better the quality of food and ingredients, the more elaborate the service and the higher the complexity of the menu and dishes. And an increase in any or all of these factors generally translate into one thing: higher prices. If you’re new to the game, I’d suggest going after a one star or a Bib Gourmand to begin your journey, you’ll quite simply find more value for money here.
Secondly, and most importantly, do your research. Go to a site like viamichelin.com and type in the city or geographical location where you seek to dine, bearing in mind that Michelin-starred restaurants are, by and large, mostly found in larger cities. You’ll be rewarded with a list of Michelin-starred or Michelin-recommended restaurants in the area, complete with descriptions, price details, opinions of the inspectors and link to contact information and web pages for the respective restaurants. Scan through the results for places that peak your interest and seem to fall within your budget. Make note of your possible dining choices and then slowly but meticulously visit their webpages one by one, and carefully scan their prices and menus for good eats and great deals. This is the most time-consuming, also most interesting and rewarding, part of the process: the scouring of menus for prices and great deals – and believe me, there are surprisingly good deals to be made!
In order to best save money on a Michelin dining experience, look through the menus of possible choices and keep your eyes peeled for magic words such as lunch, supper or early bird and specials. These words are your friends and your chance to save upwards of 50% on the bill. Why? Well, Dinner service is where everybody wants to be, but a restaurant needs to operate more than a few hours per day to stay in business. As a result, there may be a lot of money to be saved by dining outside the popular 7-10PM time slot. Your menu options may be slightly limited and dishes ever so slightly less elaborate, but the quality of service and food is, essentially, the same. Want a prime example? Lunch at NYC’s iconic three-star Le Bernadine is $80 for three courses, a lot of money to some, but considerably less than their most affordable dinner menu ($140). The lesson here, if there’s money to be saved at a Three-star restaurant, there’s money to be saved everywhere, you’ve just got to do the research!
Given this bit of research and flexibility, you should be able to make a pretty solid dining choice based not only on ambiance, location and cuisine, but also on price and available specials.
If that 7 PM dinner service spot is all you’ve got your mind set on, well, there may still be money to save on the final bill. As you browse through the menu, look instead for words along the lines of pris fixe or tasting menu as means of securing a reasonably priced meal. Pris fixe means a set meal, usually consisting of a starter and a main course with the option of dessert, at a set price. Usually there will be several options for each course, allowing for some variation, and usually the price will be very reasonable. A tasting menu, on the other hand, is a selection of smaller dishes (usually five or more) served in succession, meaning to showcase the height of the kitchen. Tasting menus are often reasonably priced but never exactly cheap. A tasting menu, though, is a great way of exploring many different expressions and dishes without spending an utter fortune by picking and choosing from the a la carte menu.
What’s that you’re saying?” What about beverages, eh? Can we save some money there, too? Well, going with water is obviously a great way of saving some money on the bill. It’s also a dull move. If, like the rest of us, you like a bit of wine, here are a few quick tips: wines by the glass are easily the most affordable option, but it doesn’t take many glasses of wine before a whole bottle would be the cheaper option. If your party plan on having more than 3 or 4 glasses of wine total, scan the wine menu and see if you can’t find a reasonably priced bottle that would go well with all or most of the dishes you plan on eating. If you’re unsure or don’t know a lot about wine, never hesitate to ask your waiter! They’re there to help, and at this level of dining quite skilled into the wonderful world of wine. If you’re doing the grand tasting menu, the restaurant may offer the options of wine pairings for each dish. This is a wonderful opportunity if money is not a problem and you can stomach a fair bit of alcohol. But again, finding a bottle that matched most of the menu and maybe supplementing with a few wines by the glass would usually be a cheaper option. If beer or cocktails is more of your poison, then abstinence or moderation would be your best choice. I’ve yet to see Michelin-restaurants offer Coors Lite or Margaritas by the pitcher, sorry.
Well, I hope I’ve made it clear with these tips and suggestions that Michelin dining does not have to be outrageously expensive. Following these simple rules and with a little bit of (enjoyable) research, you should be able to experience Michelin-dining if not on the cheap, then at least at a reasonable price, all things considered. Be warned, though, that if you do, your perception of what constitutes a reasonably priced meal may well start to change. Which may not be that bad of a thing. It’s good sometimes to not worry so damn much about the price of these types of experiences, but rather just enjoy them for what they are and dwell in the memories for days to come. I, for one, am toying with the idea of having my 40th birthday dinner at either Perse or The French Laundry. I mean, you only live once…
What’s YOUR favorite restaurant memory? Michelin-starred or not?