A Tale of Two Cafes

Up in East Sutherland last week, I had two contrasting experiences in cafes barely ten miles apart physically and both in ideal settings but how different in all other respects.   I cannot bring myself to name the first one as although it is now so dreadful, I have such positive memories of visiting the place and I can only hope that it gets sorted out before it gets even more embarrassing.

It has a woodland setting with river views nearby and the building is attractive, if a little small.  However, what the proprietors should put up outside in flashing neon lights is a sign: “We really don’t care”.   The first sign of neglect was the dirty floor, not just unswept that day but possibly for several days; I also noticed that my table had not been wiped and the dead flowers had no water in their glass vase. Yes, it’s a lovely touch to have wildflowers on the table but they need looking after.

You order at the counter and my first attempt was rebuffed as the item was available only at the weekend.  Why then leave up the board with the weekend menu to confuse folk?  This was propped up, facing the entrance and yes, when I went for a second look it did have “Friday, Saturday & Sunday” in small letters at the top.  On a Monday, there was a choice of 3 items and I went for the leek & potato soup with sourdough.  There was also a cheese, tomato and chutney roll for £4.50 but I cannot remember what the third offering was.

The soup came in a waxed carton inside another box with the small piece of bread / butter propped up at the side; cutlery had to be collected from the end of the counter but I looked in vain for a soup spoon, eventually having to ask.  The bread was fine.  The soup however was a bit of a mystery:  there was a film of oil on the top and it was an odd greyish colour; the leeks were few and far between and the potatoes were in large cuboids, uniform in size and too big to get on the spoon; there was a strange chemical aftertaste and that plus the way that the potatoes had been cut made me suspect it had an industrial origin. Surely no self-respecting chef could have been responsible for producing it?

Indeed, I began to wonder if there was a ‘chef’ at all.  The woman serving at the till and bringing out the food disappeared into the kitchen for lengthy periods which resulted in quite a wait for the folk in the queue.  She was even having to go to the outside tables so it was no wonder she had a martyred air about her.  There was a baseball-capped lad ambling in and out of the kitchen, wearing a pair of black spray-on trousers so it was no wonder he was having to scratch his crotch from time to time as there was absolutely no air circulating down there.  I felt like telling him his breeks would be doing nothing for his sperm count but although The Loon would not believe it, I do have a line that I draw when it comes to passing comment. I wasn’t sure of his role but could not understand why he was not involved in the café service, especially at the busiest time of the day.   The only other sign of staff life was a scruffy-looking dog which ambled out of the kitchen to lick crumbs off the floor of the restaurant.

The whole experience had been so bad that observing it all had become almost a laugh but it wasn’t till I got outside that I realised I hadn’t been asked for Test and Protect details and if there was a sign up, I had completely missed it.  Between that and the lack of table-cleaning, they must have been sailing pretty close to the Covid wind.

What a pleasure then, a few days later, to go to the second place, with its lochside setting and its welcoming staff.  As soon as we sat down, the waitress was over to remind us of the Test and Protect app and she came back just a few minutes later to check we’d done it successfully.  The floor was clean and so was our table.  There were 3 items on their specials board to choose from, along with a fair choice on their main lunch menu including homemade soup.

I had a very pleasant apple and berry juice whose make I forgot to note, and then an open ciabatta with salad which came after a very short wait.  The cutlery was brought to the table.  There was a good portion of fresh-tasting and interesting salad on the side of the dish, and it was obvious that thought had gone in to the presentation of the food.  All in all, the staff showed that they did care about what they were doing – and what a difference it made.

Now for two other places, both excellent and highly recommended – though with just a toatie flaw each!

First of all, Milk & Honey has opened up in the premises previously occupied by Grace of Dornoch (I was lamenting its passing last November at the end of In Migdale woods).  I’m lamenting no more as this new place is just as good, though without the Orkney food produce on sale.  It was very well-organised for the times, with hand sanitiser just inside the door and my table was still wet from its recent cleansing; one of the waitresses came straight over with a clipboard to get my name and phone number.

The white walls have occasional yellow honeycomb stencils of different sizes but the main area could do with some more of the bee-themed paintings that I could see in the area to the side.  They do breakfast from 9 – 11.30, then lunch from 12.  On my first visit, I arrived about 11.40 but was happy to have coffee and take time to decide on my lunch choice from their menu of soup, sandwiches, quiches and salads; their children’s menu looked half-decent too.   When the time came, I went for lentil soup and a cheese scone; the soup was more yellow split pea, I’d say, but very hot and wholesome and the scone was light and fresh.

My next two visits were for breakfast: porridge with apple & cinnamon compote the first time and my second breakfast was the good old smashed avocado with poached eggs on sourdough toast.  This is where my minor niggles come in: the porridge had a sweet accent to it – surely it wasn’t a commercial mix – but the apple compote was refreshingly tart and made on the premises I’d say; for the sourdough toast I think they need to provide a sharper knife as I struggled to cut through the crusts, but otherwise the dish was really good and set me up for the day ahead.

Finally, no praise is high enough for Storehouse of Foulis where I had breakfast on my way home.  I’ve written about it a couple of times before (see Back in the Highlands – August this year, and  Give me the making of the scones of a nation * – November 2018), but it’s one of the treasures of Easter Ross and I don’t mind going on about it again.  Customers are back inside with all necessary social distancing measures in place and details taken before you order.  I chose to eat at the far end of the marquee attached to the inside seating area so I had a view of the firth.  While I waited for my scrambled eggs, I watched a waitress clear away dishes from another table and then spray and wipe not just the table top, but also the backs of the chairs.  They had vases of fresh flowers at the sides, none of your dusty plastic rubbish.  My only gripe was that the toast when it came was really just hot bread but I hadn’t the heart to say anything to the lassie who had trekked to my table with it.

Three of the places I’ve written about here were doing basic things very well and that’s, I think, what most folk want; they were not trying to be fancy and falling short.  They made the failings of the other place all too obvious and all too sad.

Fresh flowers in  the marquee at Storehouse of Foulis, looking on to the Cromarty Firth.




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