It’s the time of year when people come up with their “top ten” lists. The New York Times has a list of “52 places to go in 2017” – one a week I presume, though when they are as far apart as Peru’s Atacama Desert, Thailand’s Chiang Mai and England’s own far-flung western outpost of Penzance, that could be challenging. Even for yours truly.
My own more modest list (see “Top ten places to stay for a month”) is posted at the same time as this little rant. Little rant? Well, yes. There is one “top-ten” type listing that completely pisses me off – and it’s the list of the world’s 50 “best” restaurants produced each year by London-based Restaurant magazine.
Best? According to who? Well, you don’t want to go there. The kindest thing you can say of the list’s haphazard voting system is that it is subjective. A place in Modena, Italy, succeeded to the title in 2016. Called Osteria Francescana, it is the creation of a man by the name of Massimo Bottura, a man whose opinion is now sought on the great issues of the day for no better reason than that he can whip up the likes of “Five Ages of Parmesan” and “Autumn in Modena”.
The latter of these dishes consists (apparently) of “a combination of porcini mushrooms, chestnuts and truffles”. The Guardian newspaper described it (more deliciously than the dish itself, I suspect) as “technically, a weather report under a cloud of foam”. It is a dish that the paper’s reviewer did not even want to eat – “an under-cooked vanity, and muddy. No copywriting, no matter how crazed, can remake it as something it is not. It is stock, and it is not good stock.” I made a note to increase my regular “gift” to The Guardian, a method of payment which seems to be the (tenuous?) way to maintain decent journalism in this crazy age of ours.
In my time, I have been to two places that come into the same aspirational category as Osteria Francescana. The first (some years ago) was Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck in the English Thames-side village of Bray (see photo above), a restaurant that itself also once received Restaurant magazine’s random accolade.
Heston was, I believe, a pioneer of “the meal as experience” type of gastronomy and he was not so infatuated with himself that he took what he was doing too seriously. The “experience” of his set menu was fun, and included putting on earphones to hear seagulls and waves while eating something fishy; being served a “confit of umbles” (don’t ask!); and consuming a “chocolate wine slush” that in 1710 was alleged to “add to the vigour of procreation”, a sort of 18th-century Cialis, I presumed.
While all of it was edible (and served charmingly by people who had not forgotten how to smile), the meal was more spectacle than serious gastronomy. My second experience, a few years later, told me (wrongly as it turns out) that this sort of eating had to have a limited shelf-life. I was in the North of England and went to a place called L’Enclume in Cartmel, a slate grey village on the fringes of the Lake District that at the time was aspiring to be the Bray of the north.
Apart from my wife (bless her), I did not see a single person smile during the whole of the evening. I should have known that a place with a French name whose meaning at least one dictionary that I consulted failed to yield, was not going to be easy fare – and in a part of the world where French-speakers are not exactly thick on the ground. (It means ‘anvil’ by the way.)
On arrival (on time) we were left hanging around, dodged by downward-glancing waiters as they trudged from table to table – for there was no entrance area. Customers went straight into the low-ceilinged pokey restaurant proper, a restaurant whose reputation rested on its inventive use of local produce.
The place was full, eventually, and many of the guests (like us) were cowed by the artificial sense of awe created around what was happening to us. I remember one young couple trekked off to the toilets more times than I put a spoon in my mouth. They had a slightly disconnected air about them, and my wife and I decided that they were headed there in search of white powder.
That evening we all needed cheering up, that’s for sure. And I suppose it’s “chacun a son gout”, as they say in a land where they really know a thing or two about food – a land, incidentally, that has not yet produced a single recipient of the annual “world’s best restaurant” award. (Which lends support to the widely-held theory that the award is motivated by Michelin-star envy.)
The “creative genius” behind L’Enclume was a man called Simon Rogan who subsequently went off to run a restaurant at Claridges Hotel. That place was called Fera (which is Latin for “wild” – now would that be the customers or the ingredients, I asked myself. Anyway, what is this linguistic pretentiousness with Mr Rogan?) I assiduously avoided the place.
I hope The Guardian newspaper continues to explode the myth of these self-promoting galleries that now pass as the world’s best restaurants. They have less and less to do with food and more and more to do with the showmanship of the people involved with them. One can judge the quality of Mr Bottura’s place (from a distance) by the company he keeps. Apparently he owns a collection of the works of Damien Hirst.