Ask not what your country can do for you – instead, go to yet another chain Italian restaurant and order some farinaceous foodstuff that will make your stomach swell up like that of a cow that’s gorged on clover; not, you understand, that I believe you to be fashionably wheat intolerant – it’s just there’s so much wheat intolerance in the air, it’s difficult not to pick up on it. So, ask rather what you can do for your country and the answer is clear, in order to promote growth-through-increased consumption: go to Ask, which seems to have a preposterous 135 outlets nationally, from Ashby de-la-Zouch to Truro and back again.
How did that happen? How did this Triffid-like horde of identical eateries rustle up on us, all – presumably – with the same green-and-cream colour schemes, all with the same sense of being conservatories writ large and foodie (hence the ducts snaking across the ceilings from their let-it-all-flop-out kitchen areas), all with white laminated-MDF tables, all with varnished wooden floors and wooden chairs, all with bars behind which there’s a map of the Italian boot fetishised out of wine bottles thrust into plaster, and all with plump, slightly buck-toothed waiters, who, as you push through the glass doors ask, “How’re you today?” their intonation rising into that meaningless interrogative swoop so beloved of the Antipodeans.
Yes, how did it happen – because, frankly, until I walked through the doors of Ask, I had never put to myself a single question about the chain, this empire of bruschetta being as alien to me as a walking plant, while also, paradoxically, blindingly obvious?
I mean, were Ask not to exist, it would be necessary to invent it; and if not with this name, then one called “Hint” or “Allude” or “Quail”. I say this, but when I inquired of Andreas, my waiter, why Ask was so called, he explained that it was an acronym of the names of the three founders. “English, were they?” I essayed, and he conceded that they almost certainly were. At that point I realised the futility of naming an Italian restaurant chain Perché, and gave up on the whole business of human interaction.
I was eating alone. At the next table, an older woman in a wool appliqué top discussed something with a younger woman with her hair in an Alice band. The older woman’s info-tool was an iPad, the younger one’s was a spiral-bound notebook. Andreas returned with my San Pellegrino and green olives. I sipped and nibbled moodily while consulting the menu. (Ridiculous expression, really, implying as it does that I paid the menu a fat fee in order to justify my own pathetic act of professional closure . . . except that when I stop to think about it, that’s precisely what I was doing.) I wanted to have the agnello brasato (shoulder of lamb with tomato sauce on risotto), or the pappardelle, which came with chunks of Tuscan sausage, but it wasn’t that sort of a day – it was a ruminant day, a green day, a mean’n’moody methane day, so instead I ordered the risotto verde and a rocket salad.
Waiting for it to arrive, I looked up at the tight formation of unshaded light bulbs dangling from the ceiling high overhead. I looked to the kitchen area and saw a white coat withdraw a pizza from the wood-burning oven. I thought of Sylvia Plath and how back in the days of British Gas, its advertising slogan was “Don’t you just love being in control?”. A reference to the “cookability” of gas stoves, not their suitability for those who become felo de se. My salad and my risotto arrived. The former looked like a half-digested meal, the latter like a fully digested one that had been thrown up. But then that’s risotto for you, isn’t it? I mean, if you order a risotto you cannot complain that it looks like puke, because that’s part of the contract: “I want some food that seems to be vomit” translates into catering lingua franca as, “Bring me risotto.”
Andreas came back and asked me how my food was, and I told him it was bland and he looked nonplussed, so I expanded: “Y’know tasteless, dull, uninteresting, obvious . . .” but that didn’t seem to help and his face crinkled up with pained incomprehension.
“Listen,” I snapped, “I don’t mind my bland risotto, in fact, I positively wanted such insipid fare.” At last this seemed to satisfy him and he went away. The bill was 20-odd quid, plus service – as you asked.