All this week I have been a dutiful parent. I have ferried my two youngest children across Oxford to participate in entirely worthwhile yet eye wateringly expensive swimming lessons. Today, pleased with their progress and utterly knackered, we headed into Frankie and Benny’s for dinner.
It’s a chain with a New York Italian menu and feel. Think Frank Sinatra and Al Capone with a dash of Mario. I knew I wouldn’t get Michelin style food but I expected good value and a decent plate of food. On first glance, this seemed eminently do-able. There is a lunch deal available on weekdays up to 5.30pm with mains from £5.95 to £7.95, an option of adding a starter or dessert for £2.50 and refillable fizzy drinks for £2.65. It’s a small selection of some of their most popular main menu items so lots of pizza, pasta, a few burgers and wraps.
I should mention that this is a new menu and one that’s gone off on a tangent away from the previous more traditional one. Things like a burger with a mac n cheese patty, a bagel with pulled beef and a waffle burger have now appeared which I found somewhat discombobulating.
Also available on Fridays is there Kids Eat Free deal. You install the app on your phone, show the waiting staff and get one child’s meal from their menu free for every adult main meal. Kids meals are £4.25 or £7.75 for juniors so that was quite pleasing.
We ordered the black n blue burger off the main menu – a burger with blue cheese which was fine except for two things. One, the fries were served in a brown paper bag! Almost acceptable had they been spuds removed by hand at dawn by virgins, lovingly peeled before being deep fried at least six times in the fat of a Madagascan pochard duck. Two, it was all served on a wooden platter.
Kids ordered a pizza with bacon, chicken and sweetcorn which came on an extremely thin base and a smidgen of toppings, and chicken bites with fries which were as you’d expect.
The other two adult mains were a calzone which was “alright” with a side of cheese and bacon fries. This was a bowl of fries with a dribble of lurid cheese sauce and six slivers of bacon which looked like it had been heated on a dirty grill, complete with specks of charcoal. That was £4.95. Think I’m exaggerating for comedic effect? Here’s a photo.
And now to my order. I went for spaghetti and meatballs, having remembered big balls of herby, peppery meat on a previous visit. I hadn’t planned on this being a review trip so didn’t take photos, you’ll have to rely on my description.
A large white bowl of spaghetti in tomato bolognaise sauce, torn basil, sundried tomatoes, torn up mozzarella and two bread sticks with golf ball sized meatballs around the outside. So far, not bad. Pasta still had a nice bite, tomato sauce was a decent flavour, bread sticks were good until my kids stole them. But something was bothering me and it wasn’t until I dug a little speck off that I realised my dish was liberally sprinkled with lemon zest.
I’ve never come across this before but am happy to admit I’m not an expert on New York Italian cooking so I sent a tweet out asking if this was normal. There was a resounding “NO” and thanks to all who replied. Once I knew it was an odd addition, it became even more noticeable so I decided to head across dish to the meatballs.
They looked like Ikea meatballs. Don’t get me wrong, there is a time and a place for Ikea meatballs and we all know this is at the end of the arrowed walkway, before you descend into the eighth ring of hell otherwise known as the Market Hall and on a plate with some odd gravy and lingonberry jam.
Sadly, I wasn’t in Ikea and these meatballs weren’t a patch on Ikea’s. Bland, heavily processed, crusty, chewy hard balls. I ate a few and then decided I really couldn’t digest anymore. My daughter, having polished off her wafer thin pizza asked for my pasta and having slurped up several strands of spaghetti decided to try one of these meatballs. She couldn’t cut it at all and when a piece finally broke off, she pointed out that the inside was black. The outer was a normal cooked colour but the inside was definitely dark and hard.
We avoided eating any more and pointed out to the manager that the cheese and bacon fries were laughable and the blackened meatball. He explained that it was a new menu and that he has to work with the new supplies but would pass on feedback. Give him his due, he dealt with it very well and was apologetic, removing the offending dishes from our bill.
In hindsight, the only way we can explain away the cooking procedure is that they are precooked and heated in a microwave for too long. Like I said, I don’t expect gourmet food but this was still way past disappointing.