The alternate title for this post should be “The Etiquette of Eating with Strangers” – for this reason I also didn’t take any photos of the food, but more on that later.
I recently was very privileged to win two tickets through Melbourne Food and Wine Festival to The Common Man’s “Urban Hangi” event, as part of the 2013 Roast Collection. Having been to New Zealand several times and eaten a real hangi meal (food baked in baskets in the ground over hot stones/coals, or in volcanic activity reasons, baked in the naturally hot earth near active geysers) I found this a pretty interesting concept.
They achieved a ‘hangi’ style of cooking by filling a large skip with earth and building a firepit in it, then cooking the food on trays.
The menu for the evening featured 3 courses.
- Pan fried pheasant – I have wanted to try pheasant for quite a long time, thanks to Roald Dahl’s Danny, the Champion of the World. I have to say I expected it to be somewhat larger though, closer to chicken sized, so I was quite surprised that it looked more like quail. Of course it has a moderate gamey flavour also. Served on ‘gratinated cauliflower’ which had a pleasant smokey flavour, and with a light sauce and some kind of fig paste, which helped to enhance the flavour of the pheasant whilst reducing the ‘gamey’-ness.
- Slow cooked wild boar – The main we were served was wild boar ribs, which essentially looked and tasted much like regular pork. Had been marinated in manuka honey and served with a spiced gravy, purple potatoes, sweet potato and black pudding yorkshires, which to me were the star (well, maybe equal first with the meat) with a good ratio of black pudding to pastry, and a tasty pastry that wasn’t too greasy and just a little spongy on the teeth.
- Vanilla Pudding – More of a sponge cake than a pudding, dessert was served with a pleasant honeycomb custard and ‘drunken’ apricots. They didn’t taste all that drunken to me but the pudding was warm, sweet without being cloying, and most importantly filled your nose with a comforting, rich vanilla smell the entire time you were eating it.
Overall, the food was pretty good, and even if I had paid I would have been pretty happy with the three courses provided for $45 (standard ticketed meal price, drinks extra). But I’m not so sure that the whole concept succeeded.
We were seated at large communal tables with people we didn’t know. With the exception of asking to pass dishes down, most of the time everybody spoke within their own groups (those they had come with) which was made awkward due to sitting side by side around a large table and having to twist your head to speak to your companions. Although the waiters were prompt in their table service and confident in their wine recommendations, they didn’t interact much otherwise, and there was a speech from the chef and restaurant owner after the main and before dessert but it would have been nice to have had the reasons for the choices of ingredients explained in a little more detail, so there wasn’t that real feel of urban community. The thing that stood out the most was that serving food communally amongst strangers really only works in a buffet setting, where there is serve-yourself-copious-everything, and people get up and move around. When there is the feel of a sit down set dining, it feels a little disjointed because there is really only so much of each item.
This stood out the most to me when everyone was about 3/4 of the way through their meal and the waiter came past and asked
“Has everyone had a piece of meat? Because some people on the other tables have missed out.”
Now, why the trays weren’t put on the table with the correct number of portions for the guests seated there, I’m not sure, but the issue is that everybody was insularly talking to their own companions and not really paying attention to what was going on around them. They were put in a position where it seemed like a help yourself situation, but really was a set menu with a measured quantity of food for each person. So as the waiter reached out to collect the meat tray from the table, the man next to me reached out and yoinked that last piece of meat off the tray and put it on his own plate, completely oblivious (or uncaring of) the fact that for some strange reason he was the only person on the entire table of 13 who had a second serving. And some poor sod on another table missed out.
So please.. if you are eating with strangers, mind your manners in more than just using the correct cutlery or not putting your elbows on the table.
Be aware of your fellow diners, their needs, what is going on around you, and how much of each item there appears to be on each plate so you take your fair share.
If there does appear to be an extra serve and nobody is eating it, at least have the courtesy to ask if everybody else has had some before you just snatch it without even stopping mid sentence to look around.
And yes, I do feel it is rude to take photos at the dinner table when I’m with people who I don’t know, especially when there are a mix of generations.
My dining partner was also pretty excited to see that The Common Man does $2 coffees until 11:30am (presumably on weekdays?)