What is it that defines a good restaurant meal? The easy answer is the food, but that is not quite the right answer. Nor is it the ambiance, nor is it the service.
Individually, each of these forms a piece of the jigsaw, but each of us enters a restaurant with a different idea of the how the jigsaw should complete. It is a highly personal thing which can see one person’s favourite restaurant leave another cold.
We invest in dining out something that is impossible to define, it is why drinking retsina in Greece, or eating snails in Paris is not something that we replicate when we return home. It is an authentic experience which, to my mind, is the most important piece in the hospitality jigsaw.
For the most part we go into restaurants selling foreign food – Chinese and Indian apart – because we have visited and enjoyed the food in its natural habitat, so to speak, and we are looking to replicate the experience.
It used to be fairly easy. Enter a French restaurant in the UK and the sneers from the waiters were exactly the same as you received in the Loire, eat Greek and it was as if you’d never left Crete, lousy food but superb atmosphere. It was, for want of a better word, authentic.
The rise of the corporate restaurant and panic that its homogenised success has created amongst smaller restaurants has done much to destroy the most important part of the jigsaw. Go into any restaurant nowadays and the decor generally comes from the modern book of restaurant design, safe, neutral hygienic and above all – either faux country-style or cutting-edge modern: chinz or chrome. It is literally impossible to enter a restaurant nowadays and tell at a glance what nationality of food will be serving. The food itself has become the whole jigsaw and the surroundings merely the place in which it can be assembled.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this and it is true that the food being served in local restaurants now is far superior to the food being served even 10 years ago – yet somehow we have thrown the baby out with bathwater.
Coming across an authentic restaurant is, therefore, a rare pleasure which brings me nicely to Ciao in Poynton, a modest restaurant with very little to be modest about.
It starts with the decor, roughly rendered yellow walls and checked red table clothes; the type of decor which looks cheap and would have a restaurant designer suffering from the vapours. Yet it transforms the space – one could have stepped off Park Lane into a side street restaurant in Naples.
On a Sunday evening it was virtually full and with a mix of diners, from families to courting couples. Had they all been speaking Italian, the transformation from a dreary Poynton evening to the end of a sun drenched Italian day would have been complete. There were other touches all around, unplanned but nonetheless authentic, waiters willing to engage in conversation, an owner who clearly knew most of his customers and a huge welcome for the bambinos.
Only the food could possibility let it down and it didn’t. Like the restaurant itself this was cooked and presented without artifice – simple Italian cooking to fill the belly rather than the mind
I started with melon and prawns, my partner with a trio of bruschetta, which she declared delicious. The prawns came in a sauce which had clearly been lately residing in a jar and was far too salty and the melon was sliced into pieces the size and irregular shape of which would have caused many modern chefs to thrown a tantrum. I cleared the plate and can honestly say I haven’t enjoyed a starter as much for a long time.
The main course of veal for myself and Ravioli for my partner arrived in decent portions, and here is the difficulty in objectively reviewing. Both meals were better than average, but both I and my partner had tasted better, often, but neither of us had “enjoyed” a meal as much for some time. The ice cream to finish off was adequate but somehow delicious and the wine taken with the main course and served in – what else – a carafe was perfectly pleasant.
Prices are modest around £6 for a starter and between £8-16 for a main and although the quality of the food is far better than that offered by the chain pizzerias and faux Italian restaurants, it is not in the same league as that found in major city centres.
And yet for all that, both of us agreed that it was one of the most enjoyable meals that we had eaten in the past 12 months. It is this authentic thing, you see. For two hours on one Sunday we were not in Poynton, but in Italy; a dining experience which had transported us a thousands miles south and into the sun. There is something magical and indefinable in that and I cannot recommend this restaurant highly enough.
Ciao, Park Lane, Poynton
This review first appeared in Macclesfield Today