An Unplanned Detour Into Downscale Dining

DISASTROUS dinner? Well ... I remember a disastrous lunch in one of London's Italian restaurants.

As a change from carbonara I chose spaghetti alla vongole. I'd never had it before. But when it came, I had no idea how to eat it. The impassive waiter proffered no advice (indeed, he watched me struggle). It was a miserable dish that I recommend to no one -- like eating a scoop of seashore -- sand, brine, and bits of broken shell entangled with pasta.

But it wasn't a dinner.

Nor was it when my wife had peas served all over her excessively new dress. This was also lunch, at a friend's flat, an annual affair after a special day. No lasting damage was done (except to the peas), but the event was annually recalled as a day not to be forgotten.

But it wasn't a dinner.

I suppose it would have to be that meal in Chipping Norton. The name of the establishment is something over which I will charitably draw a veil.

I was on assignment with a photographer. I suspected her of living entirely on bubble gum until she disclosed a sudden need one day for food. She revealed this as we passed a McDonald's, her idea of haute cuisine. Since I had just interviewed one of Britain's leading food critics, I was not too sure we should eat hamburgers, but she was perfectly happy.

But Chipping Norton, that dark night, with ''miles to go before we sleep,'' evidently sported no McDonald's, and so, after rejecting several dubious-looking pubs, we settled on a certain inn.

We sent the soup back. It was liquid salt. The waitress opined that, certainly, the chef ''needed to be told.''

Returning with the chef's special pate as an alternative (of no use to my sensibly vegetarian colleague), the waitress informed us that chef did not really like being ''told.''

''But it is good for him,'' she added with a grin.

The pate's flavor was of untempered ferocity.

''Inedible'' is an understatement. I moved it around my plate to try to make it look partly eaten (to save our waitress further embarrassment), and awaited the monk fish.

The monk fish was in mourning for itself -- dull, dry, and thick. The peas had been canned in the Middle Ages. The french fries (straight from some discount frozen-food emporium via a microwave to the plate) were wizened and weary.

At least my photographer friend found it terribly funny to watch me wrap as much food as possible in napkins to pocket it prior to disposal in the car-park litter bin.

We had escaped before risking dessert.

Yes. That was an unqualified disaster. And, yes, it was dinner. Or should have been.

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