The Second Worst Restaurant in France

By Alexander McCall Smith

Polygon, £14.99

The obvious question posed by the title of Alexander McCall Smith’s latest novel seems a clever carrot with which to lure readers into the author’s first foray into rural France. Don’t hold your breath, though; rather than tell us which is the worst restaurant in France, the focus here is on why La Table de St Vincent, situated in an apparently idyllic village near Poitiers, has been so poorly assessed by locals. And how two Brits (as they are described) from Edinburgh heroically reverse its reputation.

Sadly, we don’t get to the heart of the matter until almost halfway through. Before then we have to endure the tedious company of protagonist Chloe, the overweening, five-times-married cousin of mild-mannered Paul, the food writer of McCall Smith's My Italian Bulldozer novel. This time Paul has a commission to write a new book entitled The Philosophy of Food. His chaotic Edinburgh lifestyle, made impossible by his girlfriend’s two ridiculous cats, prevents him from meeting his deadline, so Chloe offers him a room at her rented house in rural France. From there, they encounter the ailing restaurant.

Chloe has the irritating habit of addressing her younger cousin as “dear boy” and wears an oversized straw hat to boot. Her pronouncements on matters ranging from monarchy (who “provide people with a sense of tribal identity”) to Catholic nuns and saints (who “really are a bit much”) set a rather uncomfortable tone – not helped by some seriously clunky dialogue. Wrapping croissants neatly in paper, as the local baker does, would not be done in The Anglosphere, “a world in which people speak English, think in English and behave in an English-speaking way”. Eat your heart out, Peter Mayle.

This insufferable character is no Precious Ramotswe, the heroine of McCall’s No1 Ladies Detective Agency series. Would Precious dare describe an unsavoury character, who turns out to be fairly pivotal to the plot, as having “that typical Balkan male head”? Montenegrins, opines Chloe, “all look as if they’ve been hit on the back of the head with a shovel”.

Things get a little better with the introduction of the rest of the cast and an increasingly complex plotline involving twin owners of the house, a pregnant local girl, Paul’s decision to cast off his burdensome commission, the belated emergence of Chloe’s real identity and, of course, the restaurant itself.

The hapless chef Claude’s soupe a l’oignon is so bad its very existence simply beggars belief. Three days old, it’s a green, glutinous mass mouldering in the bottom of a greasy soup pot yet it’s on the lunch menu; try getting that past the Food Standards inspectors (ANSES in France) and you’d be shut down before you could say bon appetit. The quiche is improbably soggy-bottomed, white wine is served warm. The problems here are so screamingly obvious and so easily fixable as to be laughable, and render the novel’s fundamental premise more flimsy than an under-baked meringue. More worrying, perhaps, is the unpleasant whiff of jingoistic imperialism in the idea that it takes the Brits to show the French how to do it.

It’s a pity that we only encounter some serious gastronomy towards the end, when Paul goes to an olive oil tasting with the new young chef. I’d like to have read more of this. In true McCall Smith form, everything turns out for the best in the best of all possible worlds. Kindness conquers all and potentially irreparable divides are healed.

The author’s legion of fans may devour this latest offering without question. I wonder, however, if some will find it too formulaic. In short, The Second Worst Restaurant in France needs more than a pinch of salt to rescue it.