I recently had quite an incredible lunch at a two michelin star restaurant just outside San Sebastian. This same restaurant is on the World’s 50 Best list, raising its Basque head at number 7. My companions were 15 Australian and British middle aged, middle-high income diners, with an Austrian thrown in for good measure. For some of us, it was our third night in the region, and by the time we had finished our 18-course lunch, most had declared that they preferred the pintxos they had eaten down in the old town over previous days.
Have you had that same experience, where you have shelled out the big bucks for a stupendous meal at a much-hyped restaurant, only to leave bereft of dosh and disappointed in both your own palate and the reviewing system that placed it on such a lofty pedestal? It’s more common than you’d think.
The reason why many people do not love what are deemed to be the best restaurants in the world is actually quite elementary when you ponder who submits these reviews and ratings – a set of complicated, experienced diners. Not only do they dine out often, but they are fortunate enough to have patronised many of the most exclusive restaurants in the world, and are usually au fait with complex techniques and forms of ethnic cuisine you’ve never even heard of. Restaurants that hit the top of the lists are therefore more likely to possess the following traits:
- They serve novel food. Molecular cuisine might be on the wane, but there are many other ways to spark the interest of someone who has tasted everything. Technique, presentation, combination of ingredients will be peculiar to this establishment only. It might be modern or ancient, but it will always be new right now.
- The menu will involve many courses. It’s the best way for a kitchen to display a wide range of talents. Imagine a scoreboard where all the boxes need to be checked – if there are 15 different dishes on the menu, and the diner gets to try them all on the same day, they will see just how clever Chef is.
- They have something unique going on with the ambience. Bentwood chairs, white linen and candlelight won’t catch the eye of someone who has seen this 1000 times over. These places will combine contemporary lines with cultural expression, be in a barn, overlooking a cliff, accessed by a hall of mirrors, be ridiculously tiny, be grandiose, be like your own dining room.
- They are the worst kept secrets. A link between discovering the unknown, chasing up a good lead and not wanting to be the only one left not to try a place bring professional reviewers. Then, of course, there is the demand for reservations, which leave a high percentage of diners out of the loop, but still seeking satisfaction. Normal people want to know about the places they can’t go, just as much as the places they can. Reviewers oblige.
- They are tied to their environment. Apart from unique food and atmosphere, there will be some reason that people want to travel to this place (three Michelin stars is defined by “Exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey”). This could involve a heavy use of unusual local ingredients, a way the kitchen clings to custom of the past, or a service technique that can’t be found elsewhere. This will be more than the decor and the view, and sometimes might be hard to put your finger on.
After many years of eating out all over the world, I’ve discovered that I’m not really a three-star myself. Instead I hover somewhere between one and two, with a penchant for the odd Bib Gourmand. I’ve wasted hundreds of dollars and euros of travel money by eating at some exceptional places that have failed to sate me. There are of course, some that have been ethereally good, but others I find weird – food that is experimental and interesting but just doesn’t taste good. Some 3-stars are pretentious, I feel like I don’t belong in them, or they strike me as ridiculous or cliche. Some venues fill me to the brim with sights, sounds and calories, and I feel overwhelmed and ill after the experience.
So I’d suggest that before you next open your Michelin Guide (or similar), you take into account the following. Review yourself – if you like these things, go for it. If not, book with caution. Don’t feel bad if you’re not 3-star, you’re in good company.
- 3 Stars – prohibitively expensive, experimental, complex, elegant and possibly pompous, difficult to get into, run by a big-name chef, waiters that are great at their job but can be condescending, menus that are enormous but full of tiny bites, other diners will be nonchalant fatcats, celebrities, die-hard gourmets or young men about to propose.
- 2 Stars – expensive, unusual, can be posh but more likely to be quirky, run by a keen young chef or old-school classic, eager and intelligent wait staff, must be booked well in advance, often a choice of a la carte or degustation, other diners will be chefs, savvy food travellers, local businessmen, couples having anniversaries, groups having a gourmet night out.
- 1 Star – less expensive in the main and often a bargain, commonly traditional or possessing a distinct local flavour, local patriach or up-and-coming chef, casual and slightly less experienced (than 2or 3 star) but efficient waitstaff, a la carte menus with good seasonal specials, other diners will be middle class locals, old fashioned travellers with money sense, family groups.
So how many Michelin stars are you?