Entire families show up to greet us. They wave from their backyards. Kids race from front porches. Kayakers put down their paddles and raise hands in salute. A woman sitting alone at a picnic bench with a bottle of wine as company, holds high her goblet as we chug-chug past.
So we put down our forks and we wave back. How could we not? Besides, putting down our forks is no great hardship. What’s on the end of them holds little appeal.
Compared with the wavers, the view, the music, the food is the least engaging part of an evening on the Wakefield dinner train.
There are certainly lovely moments. The train magnets, say. We are warmly greeted as we climb aboard. The staff may not know where the cheese comes from (“I think there’s Brie”) but they are kind and attentive. The musicians, who minstrel from car to car playing guitar and flute, singing pretty ballads and choo-choo songs, have real talent. And the rail route from Hull to Wakefield and back, with the exception of a few industrial bits, is quite splendid. I would think even more splendid in the fall.
The last time I wrote about the Sunset dinner train was in 2000 and CafÃ© Henry Burger, under chef Robert Bourassa, was the caterer. For food that was cooked, plated, chilled, transported and re-heated, it was pretty darn impressive. The new caterer is Bytown, and dinner is pretty bleak.
We sit down to commercial tasting melba rounds, shredded mozzarella cheese (or is it Swiss? Or maybe Monterey Jack. Hard to know, it’s salty and tasteless) and a metal cup of acrid salsa that tastes mostly of garlic salt. Then comes a salad with canned mandarin orange segments and an orchid. The dressing arrives on the side, and it’s a nice fruity, walnut oil vinaigrette. Rolls are banquet-quality, butter comes in packets.
You chose your main dish at time of reservation. The choices are filet, chicken, halibut or a vegetarian phyllo, of which we’ve tried all but the last and found only the second to be edible. Although the chicken’s skin is flabby, the breast meat – wing bone attached – is still moist and the goat cheese-spinach stuffing is tasty enough. The halibut is fishy flavoured and cooked to hardtack, while the steak is a tough, grey hunk of steamed meat with a spam-like, wildly salty round of ‘foie gras’ on top. A metal bowl of commercial tasting gravy sits beside it, hospital food style. Baby carrots have an ominous white film on them, and are rock-hard, as is the cauliflower. The fish comes with a raisin-onion chutney (who wants raisins with fish??) and turmeric-stained rice, with grilled green and red peppers (warm, but raw) baby zucchini (warm, but raw) and a mushy black bean and mango salsa.
The cheese course is a nice touch. Served with good grapes. Just upgrade the crackers please. And teach your servers about the cheeses. Dessert tastes and looks like canned fruit (pineapple, mandarin oranges and pears) on a puff pastry base with fake cream.
Yes, this is train food. But the sort I might get served on VIA. I was hoping for something classier on the Wakefield dinner cruise.
I mean, call me dreamy-headed, but shouldn’t the train experience be Agatha Christie romantic? Starched white linen and all the right forks in all the right spots? Certainly, people, no plastic creamers, no whipped butter packages, no commercial buns or Ritz-like crackers, and absolutely no ‘keep your knife and fork for the next course’ stuff.
This food needs to be reworked. Steak may be please-all, but it doesn’t reheat well. And please ditch the halibut. How about a lovely venison stew, how about coq au vin, beef bourguignon, coquilles St Jacques? (Henry Burger did a lovely one of those.)
Either that, or ditch the caterer.
C’mon now. We can make this a wonderful thing. We have this fabulous train, this beautiful route, these darling beaming people who run from their cottages to wave at the choo choo. Surely we can get the food on track.