Are Michelin-Starred Restaurants Worth It?
When The Guardian restaurant critic Ms Grace Dent reviewed Xier – a new London restaurant with a high-concept, multi-course tasting menu – it was surprising for two reasons. First, that she liked it, and second, that she reviewed it in the first place.
Why? Because the very-over-it practice of giving classically posh restaurants a wide berth has become the norm among critics. Nowadays, the hot new ticket in town is far more likely to be a quirky good-time gal, such as Gloria in Shoreditch, than Michelin catnip serving only a handful of diners a night.
But this phenomenon is fairly new. In the olden days, a visit to a capital-R restaurant was the reason a critic got out of bed in the morning. Legendary figures such as The New York Times’ Mr Craig Claiborne would tour Manhattan’s monuments to classical French gastronomy, dropping three or four stars on them if they deemed them worthy of joining The Times-approved firmament. Nary a scrappy hole-in-the-wall made the list.
This nose-in-the-air attitude was adopted by chefs as well, for whom earning three Michelin stars was the only worthy ambition. The system made it easier to codify and compare restaurants. There were obvious boxes to tick (or not tick), whether you were enjoying Michelin-starred pastas in Europe, royal curries in India, or multi-course Japanese kaiseki – the “good” places had legions of staff, prime-grade luxury ingredients, opulent interior design, and elaborate culinary technique. The “bad”? Well, these weren’t even worth mentioning.
In the past few decades, however, things have changed. The 2008 recession put unprecedented pressure on margins, meaning that even top-of-the-line chefs and restaurateurs had to decide which costly elements should be stripped out while preserving the high-end experience. The pioneer of the post-recession model may have been Mr David Chang. His tiny Momofuku Ko in New York, which opened in 2008, earned two Michelin stars in spite of the legendarily uncomfortable bar stool seating. Mr René Redzepi’s Noma in Copenhagen, which opened its doors in 2003, emphasized local flora and fauna, elevating vegetables to prime-ingredient status and serving them in a neutral-tone dining room on bare wooden tables. In both cases, the very idea of what a luxury restaurant could be was reimagined. And it was hugely influential.
In the wake of Lehman Brothers et al going bust, no-expenses-spared blowouts involving caviar and steak had the nasty ring of one-percenter obliviousness
Hard to say which came first: this new chef-driven approach or the public’s shifting perception of what qualified as fine dining. Classic fine dining, conventional wisdom increasingly dictated, was too poncey, too ego-driven, too ludicrously expensive to justify its own existence. In the wake of Lehman Brothers et al going bust, no-expenses-spared blowouts involving caviar and steak had the nasty ring of one-percenter obliviousness. Having a besuited server fawn over your every forkful in the dining room became naff and unseemly. As street food and small plates became the dominant culinary currency, eating out was all about having a good time, not paying through the nose. The definitive nail in fine dining’s coffin was probably hammered in by Mr Jay Rayner’s review of Le Cinq in Paris, which skewered much of what so many people increasingly found risible about Le Cinq and restaurants like it. First published in The Observer, the piece quickly went viral.
However, it may be time to revisit the old school. To be clear, there is nothing worth defending about fine dining when it is done wrong. A mediocre dinner is bad enough, but one that lasts five hours and costs hundreds of pounds, peppered with sneery, contemptuous service? That sort of thing will permanently rock your faith in dining out. But, when fine dining restaurant gets it right? It’s like rediscovering books after a boxset binge, or going for a really gorgeous hike – you realise what you’ve been missing.
I can think of a handful of dinners across the past decade or so that I still recall with astonishing clarity because the food – and everything that came with it – was so singularly fantastic. A lobster xiao long bao at Benu in San Francisco that was was the centrepiece to a dazzling journey through Franco-Korean-American cuisine. The perfect canelés that capped off a flawless sequence of dishes at three-starred L’Assiette Champenoise in Reims. Jamón-fat bonbons followed by a ludicrous procession of luxury ingredients (oyster, lobster, sea urchin and more jamón) in Azurmendi just outside Bilbao. Experiences like this stay with you forever, which does rather take the sting out of the final reckoning.
At the top of the whole pile is the dinner that made me fall in love with fine dining as a concept – the dinner that made me realise why fine dining has a place and a purpose, whatever is happening to the economy or the government or Brexit. It was at Mr Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck. I was maybe 21 or 22. It was before the recent refurbishment, the room was a little weird and boxy, but everything else was just right. The wine list was huge, but had plenty of bottles under £50. The service was polite, but a million miles away from starchy. And the food? Every bit as bonkers as Mr Blumenthal’s mad scientist PR push had led me to expect, but so, so much more delicious, cleverer and more thoughtful. It was the work, quite simply, of a genius, plus some very tired stagiaires, probably. There were more courses than I could count, more combinations of unexpectedly complementary things than I could ever have imagined. It was, in every sense, a lot. But that was the whole point.
Fine dining is undeniably excessive and unnecessary – the very definition of an extravagance. But strip out all superfluous flourishes from our food and we may as well all be knocking back those meal-replacement drinks. There is life-enriching merit in saving up for the occasional extravagance. There is value, too, in pushing the thing as far as it can bend. And so it is difficult not to feel a little surge of admiration for those chefs who keep swinging for the fences, who keep trying to impress a jaded, price-conscious public with fantastically labour-intensive miniature works of art, all accompanied by service that goes the extra mile and beyond.
Theirs is a craft that has been pronounced dead more times than I can count, but each time it comes back just as strong. Fine dining has persevered because at its heart it is about the truly extraordinary things people are capable of when they push themselves to ludicrous extremes – not (just) for profit, not (just) for acclaim, but because there is value in the quest for perfection. When he discovered champagne, Dom Pierre Pérignon is said to have uttered the immortal words, “Come quickly, I am tasting the stars.” Gongs from Michelin are all very well, but fine dining’s real value is measured in moments such as this.
Illustration by Mr Andrea Mongia