Difficult dining in Merton

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For Sunday lunch The William Morris Riverside’s location passes with flying colours but food and service fails miserably.

 

Like most visitors, coming via the hectic A24 and A36 junction, our hopes weren’t high. On arrival however, William Morris’ Riverside Merton’s an hidden oasis. Tucked-away from traffic mere minutes away, it’s walled-in by Wandle River’s willows.

Abbey Mills’ craft stalls, eateries and open-air entertainment complete the illusion, providing a pleasant day out, even on a chilly early-spring Sunday. Unfortunately too cold to enjoy their perfectly placed river-terrace balcony, we opted to eat indoors. My English companion anticipated the enticing Traditional Sunday Roast scribbled on the sandwich board outside.

Entering, despite the delightful decor, exposed brickwork and an abundance of dark-wood, the missing manager to meet us reduced our expectations. Appearances really are deceiving. There were blackboards – each listing what we assumed were different specials. Maybe they were going for an academic theme and we were meant to memorise these? Ahead lay the bar, which wasn’t too busy. From his manner the barman seemed to be in charge. After my friend politely explained we wanted to eat in the restaurant any friendly pub illusion vanished entirely.

“Just a minute,” he snapped, simultaneously pulling pints for nearby guests. Another waiter/barman, we couldn’t tell, scurried around busily behind him. Through the bar we could clearly see the crowded conservatory-style restaurant and the Wandle winding past.

Maybe I’d misread the blackboard boast, but I’m sure the “Vision”, said: “…most welcoming pub”; “…friendliest staff”. I’ve checked the website and wasn’t wrong. “MOST” is capitalised.

We decided to seated ourselves. The corner table near a door to the river looked empty and once seated, after pinching a chair from another table, I could see Abbey Mills eponymous waterwheel. At least the view looked lovely.

Sadly, last year’s Christmas lights still stayed strung round the room by masking tape. Available for functions, perhaps they were last night’s? It was still a pity, more because they highlighted the place’s poor paintwork. Must try harder, I thought. The worried waiter was certainly trying, hurrying by several times in five minutes.

Having done my homework, I thought I’d try the lamb shanks with mustard mash on one of the many blackboards after I checked what else was available on our missing menus when they arrived.

Eventually my eagle-eyed companion spotted a pile on the bar, hidden amongst glasses and preserve jars – possibly for last night’s candles? I have no answer for the ever-increasing pile of glasses. There were no restaurant blackboards for specials, they were by the door but I guess if you’d studied hard you wouldn’t need them. No cheating now.

Retrieving two, our original barman/waiter spotted him and yelled he’d be over soon but as his tone was the only snappy thing he possessed we waited  a lot longer. The worried waiter, almost as distressed as his black jeans, tried to tackle ten tables, plus help his boss/co-worker and the kitchen.

Another waitress/barmaid appeared at the restaurant’s far end but we never saw her again. Was she looking after the Family Area? We knew one existed having heard children and noting when entering, yet another blackboard above an empty door frame helpfully marking it. No clues to the door’s location, or why several still reasonably behaved children sat in the main restaurant.

Needing a nibble, we studied our menus seeing the selection of roasts at the top, just as the stressed server brought two sizable servings of roast chicken to the wrong table. He placed both on the bar and disappeared, while I reconsidered my choice.

As it approached 2pm, the promising Riverside Sunday Roast Menu confused us. Maybe we got extra marks working this out? Following Roasts, Start with… featured: soup of the day; bread; olives; and dips. Beneath, Bar bites… with: chips; onion rings; a strange gap; chips with truffle oil; then nachos. A long list of Mains… drifted into the next column.

Deciding to try chips with truffle oil, sea salt and Parmesan with our drinks, the brusque barman eventually arrived so we also ordered our meal, as we didn’t know when he’d return. We’d confused him and he grew increasingly impatient.

“No, chips and truffle oil to start, not as a side, with our drinks,” I explained slowly teaching him his menu.

“They’re not a side are they?” my friend asked.

As they never arrived, we never found out. Brusque barman, he never introduced himself, disappeared. The glasses grew higher. We weren’t alone in our irritation as other guests began to lose patience.

After over 15 minutes our drinks arrived. I had apple juice and my friend a cider. Just as well we didn’t want wine – we never saw a wine list. It’s a good thing we weren’t overly thirsty either, that was the only drink we were offered all afternoon.

I’ve looked online. The wine list is short but soundly stocked with reasonable prices. Again unnecessarily complicated, especially for staff, there are three glass sizes instead of just two. Were staff being tested too? From their faces it certainly seemed so.

Employing three clearly untrained waiters to cover over ten tables, another dining room and double as barmen is unrealistic. This is management’s responsibility and it’s greed not economy. Even without a more expensive restaurant manager, a relatively inexpensive weekend barman would solve most of this place’s problems promptly.

Over 30 minutes after sitting, starters appeared. We were famished. Rolls and butter would help a busy kitchen during what must be one of the Riverside’s busiest days.

I’d ordered soup of the day – meant to be mushroom it wasn’t. Containing a considerable quantity of mushrooms, the thick brown liquid surrounding them looked and tasted suspiciously of onion gravy. My friend, tasting it, agreed. I left over half.

His hummus, taramasalata and grilled bread was passable but hummus looked though it was left out uncovered overnight. It was merely mashed chickpeas: there wasn’t enough olive oil and no garlic kick. Taramasalata was tasty but too watery. When, eventually, our starters were cleared, no one asked how they were or why we’d left most of them.

20 minutes later the meaty mains arrived doing a detour to two vegetarians at an adjacent table, one of who wasn’t eating.

Plentiful portions seemed more because the chef tossed everything on the plates quickly. Yes it was pub fare but a little food presentation doesn’t hurt. Salt and pepper would have helped.

My “tender” lamb shank” was not. I cook these often, one reason I’d ordered it. Lamb should fall off the bone. This was overcooked and my suspicions about the onion gravy earlier were confirmed when I tasted what covered it. The mustard mash was lumpy and dry, with far too much mustard. The red cabbage OK, but I don’t really like red cabbage and it wasn’t mentioned.

My friend’s roast beef passed. Thankfully he likes his well done as he wasn’t asked how he liked it cooked. The roast potatoes were good but carrots overcooked too and despite the proclamation: “all roasts come with traditional trimmings”, there was no Yorkshire pudding. He ate his meat and potatoes leaving most of the rest eating some of my red cabbage, which he enjoys.

Not wanting dessert, at nearly 3.30pm we requested the bill, watching children now as restless as their poor parents starting to run around the restaurant. What’s the point of a Family Dining Area we wondered? An outside play area is difficult by a river but, if it features good fencing and used only with accompanying adults, it’s not impossible.

The vegetarian and her companion explained to the waiter/barman in jeans they needed to go soon. Apologising for the delay, he offered them a complimentary drink. Why weren’t we offered anything we wondered? In the bar area the TV came on for the football. I don’t mind football in pubs but if the restaurant plays music couldn’t the volume be off?

The bill, when it arrived, was reasonable. £42.05 after we’d deducted £3.50 for the missing chips with truffle oil. There was no service in every sense. By now we were keen to leave but our waiter, the snappy barman, asked if everything was OK.

“Not really,” I answered honestly but politely.

“Why?” he snapped back as if I’d insulted him personally.

Listing our grievances, my friend suggested they needed more staff.

“Ha!” he laughed, “Try telling my manager that!”

Our lesson was complete.

The William Morris Riverside

20 Watermill Way

London SW19 2RD

Ph: 020 8540 0216

Food served Monday to Saturday 12pm – 9pm Sunday

Lunch for two, without wine or desserts £42 without service

Rating: 2 out of 5

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