There is something to be said about a truly disastrous meal, a meal forever indelible in your memory because it’s so uniquely bad, it can only be deemed an achievement. The sort of meal where everyone involved was definitely trying to do something; it’s just not entirely clear what.
I’m not talking about a meal that’s poorly cooked, or a server who might be planning your murder—that sort of thing happens in the fat lump of the bell curve of bad. Instead, I’m talking about the long tail stuff – the sort of meals that make you feel as though the fabric of reality is unraveling. The ones that cause you to reassess the fundamentals of capitalism, and whether or not you’re living in a simulation in which someone failed to properly program this particular restaurant. The ones where you just know somebody’s going to lift a metal dome off a tray and reveal a single blue or red pill.
I’m talking about those meals.
At some point, the only way to regard that sort of experience—without going mad—is as some sort of community improv theater. You sit in the audience, shouting suggestions like, “A restaurant!” and “Eating something that resembles food” and “The exchange of money for goods, and in this instance the goods are a goddamn meal!” All of these suggestion go completely ignored.
That is how I’ve come to regard our dinner at Bros, Lecce’s only Michelin-starred restaurant, as a means of preserving what’s left of my sanity. It wasn’t dinner. It was just dinner theater.
No, scratch that. Because dinner was not involved. I mean—dinner played a role, the same way Godot played a role in Beckett’s eponymous play. The entire evening was about it, and guess what? IT NEVER SHOWED.
So no, we can’t call it dinner theater. Instead, we will say it was just theater.
Very, very expensive theater.
I realize that not everyone is willing or able to afford a ticket to Waiting for Gateau and so this post exists, to spare you our torment. We had plenty of beautiful meals in Lecce that were not this one, and if you want a lovely meal out, I’ll compile a list shortly.
But for now, let us rehash whatever the hell this was.
We headed to the restaurant with high hopes – eight of us in total, led into a cement cell of a room, Drake pumping through invisible speakers. It was sweltering hot, and no other customers were present. The décor had the of chicness of an underground bunker where one would expect to be interrogated for the disappearance of an ambassador’s child.
Earlier that day, we’d seen a statue of a bear, chiseled into marble centuries ago, by someone who had never actually seen a bear. This is the result:
And this is a perfect allegory for our evening. It’s as though someone had read about food and restaurants, but had never experienced either, and this was their attempt to recreate it.
What followed was a 27-course meal (note that “course” and “meal” and “27” are being used liberally here) which spanned 4.5 hours and made me feel like I was a character in a Dickensian novel. Because – I cannot impart this enough – there was nothing even close to an actual meal served. Some “courses” were slivers of edible paper. Some shots were glasses of vinegar. Everything tasted like fish, even the non-fish courses. And nearly everything, including these noodles, which was by far the most substantial dish we had, was served cold.
Amassing two-dozen of them together amounted to a meal the same way amassing two-dozen toddlers together amounts to one middle-aged adult.
I’ve checked Trip Advisor. Other people who’ve eaten at Bros were served food. Some of them got meat, and ravioli, and more than one slice of bread. Some of them were served things that needed to be eaten with forks and spoons.
We got a tablespoon of crab.
I’ve tried to come up with hypotheses for what happened. Maybe the staff just ran out of food that night. Maybe they confused our table with that of their ex-lover’s. Maybe they were drunk. But we got twelve kinds of foam, something that I can only describe as “an oyster loaf that tasted like Newark airport”, and a teaspoon of savory ice cream that was olive flavored.
I’m still not over that, to be honest. I thought it was going to be pistachio.
There is no menu at Bros. Just a blank newspaper with a QR code linking to a video featuring one of the chefs, presumably, against a black background, talking directly into the camera about things entirely unrelated to food. He occasionally used the proper noun of the restaurant as an adverb, the way a Smurf would. This means that you can’t order anything besides the tasting menu, but also that you are at the mercy of the servers to explain to you what the hell is going on.
The servers will not explain to you what the hell is going on.
They will not do this in Italian. They will not do this in English. They will not play Pictionary with you on the blank newspaper as a means of communicating what you are eating. On the rare occasion where they did offer an explanation for a dish, it did not help.
“These are made with rancid ricotta,” the server said, a tiny fried cheese ball in front of each of us.
“I’m… I’m sorry, did you say rancid? You mean… fermented? Aged?”
“Okay,” I said in Italian. “But I think that something might be lost in translation. Because it can’t be-”
“Rancido,” he clarified.
Another course – a citrus foam – was served in a plaster cast of the chef’s mouth. Absent utensils, we were told to lick it out of the chef’s mouth in a scene that I’m pretty sure was stolen from an eastern European horror film.
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Now, at this point, I may have started quietly freaking out. A hierarchical pecking order was being established, and when you’re the one desperately slurping sustenance out of the plaster cast of someone else’s mouth, it’s safe to say you are at the bottom of that pyramid. We’d been beaten into some sort of weird psychological submission. Like the Stanford Prison Experiment but with less prison and more aspic. That’s the only reason I have for why we didn’t leave during any of these incidents:
- When a member of our party stood up during the lengthy stretch between courses to go have a cigarette outside, and was scolded to sit down.
- When one member of our party was served nothing for three consecutive courses, because they couldn’t figure out how to accommodate her food allergies.
- When Rand was served food he was allergic to, repeatedly, because they didn’t care enough to accommodate his.
- When a server reprimanded me for eating. These reconstituted orange slices (one per person) were a course. I asked if I could eat the real orange that had been served alongside it (we’d all gotten one, and I, at this point, was extremely hungry). “Yes,” the server said, annoyed. “But you aren’t really supposed to.” He let me have two segments and then whisked the fruit away.
No, we just sat there while the food was portioned out a teaspoon at a time, a persistent and sustained sort of agony, like slowly peeling off a band-aid. That’s the problem with a tasting menu. With so many courses, you just assume things are going to turn around. Every dish is a chance for redemption. Maybe this meal was like Nic Cage’s career – you have to wait a really long time for the good stuff, but there is good stuff.
BUT NO. We kept waiting for someone to bring us something – anything! – that resembled dinner. Until the exact moment when we realized: it would never come. It was when our friend Lisa tried to order another bottle of wine.
“Would you like red or white?” the server asked.
“What are we having for the main?” she inquired.
His face blanched.
“The… main, madame? Um… we’re about to move on to dessert.”
We sat for a moment, letting this truth settle over us. Because by now it had been hours, and at no point had we been served anything that could be considered dinner. (There was one time when I thought it might happen – the staff placed dishes in front of us, and then swirled sauces on the dishes, and I clapped my hands, excitedly waiting for something to be plated atop those beautiful sauces. Instead, someone came by with an eyedropper and squirted drops of gelee onto our plates).
“We’ve infused these droplets with meat molecules,” the server explained, and left.
I don’t know if our experience was the norm. I’ve looked TripAdvisor’s photo for Bros, and other people who’ve gone there seem to have been fed actual food. Like, even this person, who was served the same weird meat droplet course, at least got it with a triangle of foamy-looking bread. Do you know what it’s like to envy someone for a piece of foamy looking bread? IT’S NOT GREAT.
“There’s no … main?” Lisa said to us in disbelief after the server had retreated.
“Hey,” I said, my hand resting on her arm. She was shaking slightly from low blood sugar. “It’s okay.”
“They haven’t fucking fed us,” she said, her eyes wide.
“I know, I know,” I said, “But look. We’re in this amazing country. And I don’t know about you, but nothing is going to stop me from enjoying tonight.”
“Because I’m surrounded by my favorite people,” I said, and I squeezed Lisa’s hand for emphasis, “and I’m at my favorite restaurant.”
Lisa sputtered laughing. No more food was coming, but there was something freeing in that. Because this meal had never been about us to begin with. It sure as hell wasn’t about the food. And there is something glorious about finally giving up.
We sat through a few more courses including a marshmallow flavored like cuttlefish, and a dish called “frozen air” which literally melted before you could eat it, which felt like a goddamn metaphor for the night.
And then someone came in and demanded we stand and exit the restaurant. Thinking we were getting kicked out, we gleefully followed. Instead, we were led across the street, to a dark doorway and into the Bros laboratory. A video of the shirtless kitchen staff doing extreme sports played on a large screen TV while a chef cut us comically tiny slivers of fake cheese.
Rand was, of course, allergic to it.
The bill arrived. The meal cost more than any other we’d eat during our trip by a magnitude of three. They’d given us balloons with the restaurant’s name across it and the chef emerged and insisted on posing with us for a Polaroid that we did not ask for. We were finally released into the night, after every other restaurant had closed, ensuring that no food would be consumed that evening.
“That was abhorrent,” we all agreed as we shoved the balloons into a dumpster (I’d made everyone take one, with the baffling logic that they’d somehow help offset the cost of the meal). We howled at how ridiculous it was, and how they’d poisoned Rand. How maybe we should have known that a restaurant named “Bros” was going to be a disaster.
It was like an awful show that we had front row tickets to. But wasn’t there something glorious about sharing it together, the way that a terrible experience makes you all closer?
“No,” someone said, and we laughed even harder.
P.S. – The next day, one of the staff tried contacting the only single female member of our party via Instagram messages. “Hey, I served you last night!” he wrote. She immediately blocked him.
Bros., Via degli Acaya, 2, 73100 Lecce LE, Italy
Cost: a rather mortifying 130-200 Euros per person
Note: the TripAdvisor reviews show a lot of elaborate courses, and these were all way, way more food than anything we ate. I cannot express to you how little we were fed, and I’m not a particularly big eater. Allergy and dietary restrictions were largely ignored.
Recommendation: Do not eat here. I cannot express this enough. This was single-handedly one of the worse wastes of money in my entire food and travel writing career bwah ha ha ha ha ha ha oh my god