...but not in the food.
Pretty much the last word you expect to write while reviewing a Hampstead French restaurant is "overcooked". Sadly at La Cage Imaginaire, which once translated sounds more like a sex club than a tiny bistro, it is the most defining word.
On the surface it ticks all the "a bit effing French" boxes. It's a quaint little dining room converted from a Georgian terraced house right in the heart of Hampstead. It serves foie gras and crème brulee, and the waitresses all walk about with their nose in the air and probably call us Ros Bifs when our backs are turned. But I loved all that (except the foie gras, which is incredibly cruel and usually tastes like regurgitated pate) and the service was excellent.
So, boxes ticked, we settled in with a lovely bottle of "rouge" hoping to live the cliché. So really I shouldn't have chosen the scallops with chorizo – a famously Spanish sausage. And sadly they don't seem to know it's precious qualities. When you fry chorizo the most magical thing happens. All that gorgeous oil comes oozing out, coating everything in a bright red dye that just screams with flavour. With the sweet, sauteed scallops it should be incredible, lightened with some lemony rocket. Sadly they grilled the chorizo, letting all that flavour drain away, and then must have slow-cooked the scallops in a water bath. No crust, no oil, no bite - just wet scallop with (by now cold) dry chorizo. My misery was only compounded by the fact that my friend's onion soup (a dish I hate) was not only pretty good, but topped with giant croutons and gruyere cheese.
I consoled myself with the knowledge that I had duck coming. Duck with figs and raisins and mash. How could that go wrong in a Frenchman's hand? Well he overcooks it, that's how – until it's the colour of mud, no longer that glorious blushing pink and leather. If it weren't for the creamy mash and divine fig sauce that it came with, I would have branded it a complete disaster. Meanwhile, my partner's sweet potato and goat's cheese tower was simple and perfect, leaving me to suffer the familiar pang of food envy for a second course.
And then a third as my date tucked into a giant, deliciously smooth creme brulee, while I tussled with...well I don't actually remember, but isn't that the most damning indictment of them all?
I wanted to love La Cage Imaginaire, and while I was there I did (except during the starter). It's perfect for a date - cosy, charming, friendly, small and slightly stuffy - but the truth is it was like a bad relationship. You cling on and make excuses until the end when, suddenly, you realise they were wrong all along.
But now I feel guilty, because somehow I walked out of that place thoroughly sated and delighted with my night's work. Aside from the food my night was perfect and you can't get away with that statement very often. Perhaps it's true that you can dine out on good wine and great company.