In the next 15 years, I might only get one shot at a ‘meal of a lifetime’. In 2012, I’m going to Paris, and that’s probably going to be it. Money’s one reason, the prospect of kids another. I have to be realistic and concede that there isn’t going to be too much fine dining going on in my immediate future.
Basically, I need to make my one shot count.*
Three-Michelin-starred restaurants in the UK aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. There are four and only Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck is considered truly three-star worthy. Not even that is thought to be a match for the very best restaurants abroad.
I’m not saying you won’t have a great meal at any of the top British places. Indeed, I had fabulous experiences at Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester and The Waterside Inn, both of which I visited recently. But if you’re after culinary perfection and want to see what it tastes like at the absolute pinnacle of world gastronomy, you’ll have to travel to a foreign country to find a restaurant that fits the bill.
Luckily for me, Paris seems to have quite a few.
There are currently ten restaurants in Paris with three Michelin stars.** I can only afford to go to one, but the choice is too rich and the stakes are too high to just pick it off the cuff. I need to make sure I go to the RIGHTone. A place that not only offers the food dreams are made of, but can offer it with exceptional service to an ignorant Englishman and his dairy intolerant wife, neither of whom can speak a word of French.
So I’ve done exactly what I have to do when faced with any tough decision: I’ve made a spreadsheet in Excel, invented a tremendously geeky 100-point scoring system, and done some research.
Here’s the result – my 8-step guide for choosing a three-star Michelin restaurant in Paris:
Step #1: Food
The first thing to look at, naturally, is the quality of the food. These places don’t send free samples of their dishes 400 miles overseas, unfortunately, so what you’re after is reviews of each restaurant that are trustworthy, comparable and that allow you to score them out of 10.
Andy Hayler and his essential 3 Star Restaurant Guide website, which features reviews of every three-star Michelin restaurant in the world, is a great place to start. His opinion is one that I rely upon and he’s scored all the three-stars out of 10 for you already, so it doesn’t take much work.
Food is obviously one of the most important factors, so it needs a suitably hefty weighting within a 100-point system. I multiplied Mr Hayler’s marks by three, to give a score out of 30.
Step #2: Menu
The second thing to do is track down menus for each of the restaurants and rate them based on how exciting they look. This is much more time-consuming and a bit of a pain, but it’s essential if you don’t fancy going in somewhere blind.
A few of the restaurants only have menus available on their websites in French, so it can take a bit of effort to find out what is what. Some of the others don’t have menus available at all, so you’ll need to fish around on review sites (thanks again Mr Hayler) to get a vague idea of the sort of food they offer.
The menu’s not as a important as the quality of the food, but it is more important than some of the steps coming up, so I’d suggest giving these marks out of 20.
Step #3: Dining room
After that, look up pictures of the restaurants’ dining rooms. A combination of Google Images and official websites should see you right, but again Mr Hayler has the odd snap and the Food Snob blog can be good.
This might not be as important to some as it is to me, but my thinking is: “Can a meal truly feel special if you’re sat somewhere rather ordinary? Not if you’re paying these kinds of prices, it can’t. I want to eat in a place that looks and feels amazing.”
Score this out of 10.
Step #4: Star quality
It’s great being taken by surprise and wowed by somewhere you’ve never heard of before, but there’s something extra exciting about being cooked for in a prestigious restaurant by a superstar chef.
Think about the reputation of the place and the foodie bragging rights you can attain by going there, and add another mark out of 10.
Step #5: Websites
This is hugely superficial and I might be way off track, but my fear of eating in a restaurant where I don’t speak the language and having to explain an allergy are forcing me to put a lot of stock in website quality. I want it in English, I want the menu to be in English and I want to be able to book online. To me, these things say: “We welcome English custom and will accommodate English people as best we can.”
The ones which are completely in French or simply consist of a blank page and a phone number (I’m looking at you, Ledoyen), do not.
Mark this out of 30.
Step #6: Price
If you don’t have a limitless budget, you should probably be hunting around for the best value. Look at the cost of the tasting menu and note this down. If you can’t find the cost of the tasting menu, or the restaurant doesn’t offer a tasting menu, just make it up. You can generally get the jist with a bit of Googling.
Don’t give the price a mark, leave the number exactly as it is.
Step #7: Maths time
Take your score out of 100 (steps 1-6 added together) and divide it by the price. Multiply by 100 and round up or down to get a whole number. Whichever ends up with the highest overall rating is the three-star restaurant you should visit.
Example based on average scores: (27 + 12 + 8 + 6 + 14) / 280 x 100 = 24
Step #8: Cheat
If the restaurant with the highest score doesn’t look like the one for you, then change the mark weightings until you get the one you want.
Let’s just say the website score didn’t become out of 30 until I needed it to…
And there you have it. A completely foolproof (aka not at all foolproof) way to choose a three-star Michelin restaurant abroad.
In my next post I’ll reveal what happened when I fed some numbers into my system and which of the ten restaurants came out on top.
Anybody care to take a guess where I’m going?
*I started writing this post days ago and I’ve still not been able to get Lose Yourself by Eminem out of my head. I suppose that’s what you get when you talk in clichés.
**The ten, as of October 1st 2011:
Le Pre Catelan
You can read the follow up post to this one here: How to choose a three-star Michelin restaurant in Paris: The result