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Restaurant Review: Northcote

As one of the best restaurants in the north-west for the past two decades, Northcote’s inevitably achieved some great things over the years. Yet head and shoulders above all its accolades, its 3 AA rosettes, the Michelin star it’s held since 1996, the brace of Great British Menu victories, was one day in February 2009, when the restaurant tenderly took my Michelin virginity and a certain special someone took leave of her senses and agreed to my proposal of marriage.

Now, one of these events is obviously not as important as the other but nevertheless it was the reason why we were paying our third visit to the Ribble Valley’s finest – what better way to celebrate a first wedding anniversary than a return to the place of our engagement?*

We went on our one-night gourmet break at the end of July, now dab hands at getting the most out of the experience after the two previous stays. We got a deluxe room with a view of the garden so we could see the chefs picking the produce we’d be eating that night. We made time to admire the great menus that bedeck the walls of the corridors and lounge, and I remembered to take a picture of the really interesting one.** We relaxed in the bar and enjoyed free botanical drinks in our room and made damn sure we didn’t go for lunch at the curryhouse down the road again.***

Northcote’s gardens, as seen from the window of our room

“The really interesting one” – menu from Joël Robuchon’s legendary Jamin, May 1993

By the time we went down to the lounge for pre-meal champagne and canapés, we were well set for a wonderful evening. As ever, Northcote didn’t disappoint.

The canapés were two: a rich tartare of dexter beef and an exquisite florette of cauliflower, perfectly tempura’d. I’d always thought cauliflower an insipid vegetable – this buttery little morsel sort of blew my mind.

We finished the Louis Roederer Brut Premier and made our way to the dining room, so much lighter and smarter and comfier than on our first visit 42 months before. An amuse-bouche of beetroot and goat’s cheese was a casual delight; ice cream in a sea of foam, fresh and clean. My wife’s amuse was a similar palate cleanser, a play on the theme of melon: sorbet floating on soup.

Beetroot Amuse-Bouche

Melon Amuse-Bouche

Bread arrived and I feasted. Butter was a fine companion but the olive oil with black treacle was special. A wicked Lancashire cheese roll awakened feelings previously reserved for The Ledbury’s bacon and onion brioche and Northcote’s own roast onion bread was almost as good. More came with the starter, an accompaniment to hand cut raw dexter, white radish, garden sorel and a quail’s egg yolk. I got marrowbone toast with caper butter, a delicious, crispy soldier of salt that married well with the beautiful plate of food. My wife got toast topped with cured scallops, which was infinitely, infinitely better.

Bread

Dexter Beef “Hand Cut”, White Radish, Garden Sorrel

Marrowbone Toast

Tail and claw of west coast lobster followed, carefully cooked and served in winning tandem with scorched leeks. Caviar, real and fake, added a classical sparkle to the dish though I was less convinced by the potato gel, which had a slightly bitter, chemical taste.

West Coast Lobster, Scorched Leeks, Scorched Leek and Potato Gel, Caviar

Chilled tomato soup with slow-cooked watermelon, sheep’s curd, avocado and peppers took us on a surprise – and in my case, unwelcome – trip to Mexico; a journey through flavours I don’t particularly like. Yet bizarrely this was perhaps the most impressive part of the meal, each element dazzling in its purity. So sweet was the tomato, so fresh was the melon, you’d think you were sat in the Med.

Chilled Heirloom Tomato Soup, Leagram Organic Sheep’s Curd, Avocado

Stone Baked Garlic Flat Bread

A side of stone-baked garlic flatbread helped to link it with the main course, lamb loin and breast with elephant garlic, pressed potatoes and marjoram. This was one stunning piece of meat away from being a lovely dish though the new season Yorkshire lamb didn’t quite deliver, the loin lacking succulence, the flavours somewhat overpowered by the herbs.

Loin of New Season’s Lamb, Slow Cooked Breast, Elephant Garlic, Pressed Potatoes, Marjoram

My meal ended with what appeared to be a basic construction of malt wafers and stout ice cream but which broke open to unleash the most incredible, velvety blackcurrant coulis. A small swipe of liquorice added subtle depth but really this was all about the home-grown blackcurrants, the quality of which made the dessert into an utter joy.

Organic Northcote Garden Blackcurrants, Malt Wafers, Bowland Cromwell Stout Ice Cream

I was enjoying my pudding too much to try my wife’s but she loved hers as well: thyme meringue with lemon curd, celery sorbet and celeriac. It was probably her favourite course of the day, tomato soup aside.

Thyme Meringue, Lemon Curd, Celery Sorbet, Celeriac

We returned to the lounge to finish up, tea with petits fours. I had the house’s take on a Crunchie, a chocolate truffle and an excellent mini Eccles cake. My wife had her own honeycomb and a jelly made from champagne. A fine brandy capped it all off.

Petits Fours

Petits Fours

The full menu along with wine pairing is below:

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GOURMET MENU

Dexter Beef “Hand Cut”, White Radish, Garden Sorrel, Marrowbone Toast

Clos Mireille, Domaines Ott, Côtes de Provence, France, 2010

West Coast Lobster, Scorched Leeks, Scorched Leek and Potato Gel, Caviar

Chardonnay, Neudorf, Nelson, New Zealand, 2010

Chilled Heirloom Tomato Soup, Leagram Organic Sheep’s Curd, Avocado, Stone Baked Garlic Flat Bread

Loin of New Seasons Lamb, Slow Cooked Breast, Elephant Garlic, Pressed Potatoes, Marjoram

Gran Reserva 904, La Rioja Alta, Spain, 1998

Organic Northcote Garden Blackcurrants, Malt Wafers, Bowland Cromwell Stout Ice Cream

Elysium, Black Musat, Andrew Quady, California, USA, 2010

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This was another excellent meal at Northcote, probably the best we’ve had there. Service was as good as ever and the breakfasts seem to keep getting better too.

Following my second visit I suggested I probably wouldn’t return for an overnight stay again as I’m keen to explore other places. Having broken that vow once and had such a fantastic time, I think I’m going to have to keep breaking it, at least every few years or so.

Northcote’s a special place, special to me personally and just special full stop. I look forward to going back.

 
Northcote Manor on Urbanspoon

 

Food: 20/30

Service: 8.5/10

Dining Room: 4/5

Experience: 8.5/10

Overall score: 75/100 (Brilliant – worth a special trip)

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*Erm, that’s “not as important” from the perspective of a food blog… yes, that’s definitely what I mean…

We were actually boring a member of staff with the story as he took us up to our room and he said that only a few weeks earlier they’d had a proposal and the woman spent the rest of her meal on the phone breaking the news to friends and family. I had the good sense to propose beforehand – wouldn’t want any distractions from the food now, would I?

**I’m not a big fan of my first proper write-up of Northcote but I do go into some detail about the menus so it’s worth checking out if that’s your thing.

***If you’re feeling a bit peckish and think you’ll just walk into Langho for a bite to eat, don’t. You’ll end up at this Indian restaurant and you’ll hate yourself for it. Stay in your room, bite the bullet and fork out for room service instead. It will be worth it.

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Restaurant Review: The Ledbury

Restaurant bloggers love to fill their posts with photographs but pictures can be deceiving.

Everything I’d seen of the dining room at The Ledbury suggested it was bland and lifeless; all whitewashed modernity without a hint of character. Even the professional photos on the restaurant’s own website carried a cold, unwelcoming air – it looked like the waiting room of a dentist with a feng shui fetish.

So I was amazed to walk in the door and find such a fantastic and welcoming space, bright and airy with a high ceiling and large windows. The sun shone through the greenery outside, the smart table settings provided understated elegance and I immediately got the impression that this is a room where special things happen.

“The photos really don’t do this place justice,” I said to my wife as I took my seat, as relaxed as you possibly can be outside your own home. A couple of minutes later I was saying the exact same thing about the food.

I’ve never liked the look of a Brett Graham plate. Photos showed his dishes to be overly busy, messy even. I always got the impression he was simply trying too hard to make up for a lack of genuine design talent. Yet this couldn’t have been further from the truth during my lunch at The Ledbury; there was this indecipherable, indefinable beauty to all the food placed in front of me. Dishes that I must’ve seen hundreds of times before just had this wonderful harmony that no photographer I know had ever managed to catch.

They say you taste with your eyes – this meal was great before I even started sticking forks in my mouth.

A nibble of foie gras parfait with apricot kicked us off; a dazzling little morsel which punched above its flavour weight like it was Stanley Ketchel in 1909.* I’m used to top restaurants being more generous with their pre-meal snacks but I wouldn’t swap any of their quantity for the quality of this. A one-bite canapé has no right to be so good.

The bread arrived next and I continued to be wowed. Two of the rolls were unremarkable but I don’t think there are anywhere near enough remarks to describe the incredible bacon and onion brioche: a wicked, buttery-rich pastry, delicious in that ‘all my arteries are clogging at once’ kind of way. If you had a heart attack through eating one, you’d think it was worth it.

Flame Grilled Mackerel with Smoked Eel, Celtic Mustard and Shiso is probably Brett Graham’s most famous dish so it seemed rude not to order it for our starters. Fresh as rain, it provided a nice contrast with the above-mentioned greasy spoon in a bun; the stunning mackerel fillet in perfect balance with the rest of the ingredients.

The plate was full of little wonders but I think the smoked eel took the prize. Flaked and dressed, it was housed in a supremely delicate cucumber parcel, so thin as to be almost transparent. It was magic.

My main course was another Brett Graham signature: Saddle of Berkshire Roe Buck with White Beetroot, Red Wine Lees and Bone Marrow. For me this was even better than the mackerel, the venison of spectacular quality and flawlessly complemented by everything around it. From the ingredients listed in the dish’s name to the crispy layered potatoes, venison sausage and the deep, sweet sauce that were also served, each element was a joy.

Usually I guard my food like a hippo mother guards her babies and begrudge giving any away so others can taste. But with this roe buck dish I was so excited and so desperate for someone else to know how brilliant it was I couldn’t stop passing forkfuls over to my wife. “You’ve got to try this!” I kept saying. “It’s amazing.”

Of course I got a few forkfuls back in exchange, allowing me to sample her Roasted Breast and Confit Leg of Pigeon with Red Vegetables and Leaves, Foie Gras and Cherry Blossom. It was another excellent dish – the foie gras particularly good, the pigeon the best I’ve ever had – though my roe buck was a bigger star.

I wanted to order pretty much all the desserts listed on the menu but, never able to resist the puffed up combination of egg whites and cream sauce, eventually went for Passion Fruit Soufflé with Sauternes Ice Cream. It didn’t disappoint. Light and fluffy and full of passion fruit flavour, it was a textbook example of one of my favourite sweets. I preferred the soufflé I had at The Square two days later, but only just. The sauternes ice cream was a faultless accompaniment.

Service was outstanding from start to finish; The Square’s spirit of generosity just as prevalent here at its sister restaurant. Before the petits fours (a jelly and a liquid centre chocolate, both very classy) our waiter brought out some complimentary sorbets as an early anniversary present. He didn’t care that our anniversary was two months away (!), he just seemed to be looking for an excuse to give us a present.

Our sommelier, who’d been so good** throughout the meal I wanted to take her home with me, followed this up with another gift. Seeing I’d finished my pudding wine (an electric 2009 DonnafugataBen Ryé Passito di Pantelleria from Sicily) before I’d made a proper start on the sorbets, she came over and poured me a full new glass!

It’s the little things that make life so great.

With two Michelin stars, first place in the Times Top 100 Restaurants list, 14th place in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list and a legion of critics and bloggers fawning over it, I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that you need to go to The Ledbury. But I’ll say it anyway.

In my experience, this restaurant is as good as any in London. I have the feeling that it’s only going to get better. So go once and then keep going back. I don’t think you’ll regret it.
The Ledbury on Urbanspoon

Food: 28.5/30

Service: 9.5/10

Dining Room: 4.5/5

Experience: 9.5/10

Overall score: 95/100 (Brilliant – Worth a Special Trip)

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*Yeah, a Stanley Ketchel reference. That’s how cool I am. In case you don’t know who he is and the analogy went over your head, he was one of the best middleweight boxing champions of all time and a ferocious puncher. Well-known for fighting heavyweights, who would often weigh a couple of stone more than him, he’s arguably most famous for flooring one of the greatest heavies of them all, Jack Johnson, in 1909.

**My dad complained the other day that I don’t talk about wine enough, so I should at least mention what else we drank under the sommelier’s expert guidance. With the mackerel we had a half bottle of the 2010 Schloss Gobelsburg Grüner Veltliner Lamm from Austria and with the mains we had another half of the 2009 Ridge Vineyards Geyserville Zinfandel from the US. Both top choices.

Restaurant Review: The Square

“Technically there is no wine with this course, but I could just pour you both another glass of that Riesling you loved so much. Would you like some more?”

Two unsolicited sentences and some pouring was all it took for our young sommelier to capture the spirit of The Square – the generosity of it, the eagerness to please.

I’d expected no wine with the immaculate cheesecake in front of me. Why would I? The menu – helpfully propped up on the table in front of us – made it clear there wasn’t any and I was perfectly happy with that. Being the second to last course of an incredible tasting menu, I’d had a skinful already and was very content.

But customers being “very content” doesn’t seem to fit in with the ethos of The Square, or at least not the one that prevailed on the night of our visit. Mere satisfaction didn’t seem to cut it. If I’d told one of our waiters I was only happy, presumably they’d have gone into the back and self-flagellated to repent their failures.

Everyone appeared determined to go above and beyond; to exceed even the highest expectations. It made for a magnificent evening.*

The effort I’ve alluded to was clear right from the off when a vast array of nibbles on the theme of taramasalata arrived. A lot of top restaurants make little attempt to cater for allergies at this stage, either shrugging their shoulders at the appalling notion of providing a dairy free substitute for my wife (I’m looking at you, Hibiscus) or trotting out a hastily assembled, inevitably rubbish raw salad.

But the tempura veg The Square offered up was supreme; the truffle-based dip they delivered probably better than mine. It was a very good start.

We moved on to some excellent house-made breads and then through to the tasting menu proper, where even an opposition MP would struggle to pick fault with the dishes. Tiny pickled Japanese mushrooms, an unexpected accompaniment to the cured fillet of beef and utterly delectable, were the first bit to blow my mind. They were surpassed two courses later by one of the restaurant’s most famous dishes, a luscious lasagne of crab with a cappuccino of shellfish and champagne foam. The cylinder of perfect pasta and sweet crab almost seemed to float in the texturally ethereal sauce, buttery rich and intensely flavoured. I didn’t want my eating of it to ever end.

Better yet was still to come. You don’t really expect the simplest dishes featuring familiar and ordinary ingredients to be the most dazzling, but that was the case with the saddle of lamb. It was a basic Sunday roast risen to heights of hypobaropathy by an exquisite piece of meat and spherified golden mint sauce, which literally burst with flavour.

“I never knew lamb could taste this good,” said my wife. Neither did I.

By the time the desserts were set to arrive we were positively giddy. Everything had been so wonderful and then the sommelier rocked up and offered us another glass of what was probably our favourite wine so far. Joy doesn’t begin to describe it.

Brillat-Savarin cheesecake is another Square signature and it was easy to see why. Simple and brilliant had been the kitchen’s hallmarks all night and this bore them both. Vanilla soufflé with rhubarb ripple ice cream, the next and final dish of the evening, did the same job and more. I adore soufflés and had eaten a stunning passion fruit version at The Ledbury two days earlier. This was better.

My wife had been able to eat most of the courses, some with the odd tweak, but where complete replacements were needed no half measures were taken.  Instead of the crab she got a beautiful lobster dish, which was £10 more expensive on the a la carte. Instead of the Wigmore cheese she got breast of barbary duck with a tarte fine of caramelised endive, new season’s turnips and cherries – also superb. For pudding she had a celebration of strawberries with meringue followed by something magical involving spheres of Alphonso mango.

When I asked at the end how she felt the restaurant had done catering for her dietary requirements her verdict was simple: “They win.” Being able to eat all the petits fours – delightfully fun lollies of coated fruit, jellies and swiss roll, and malted chocolates, an extra box of which was given to us to take home – was the icing on the cake.

Here’s the menu I ate in full. The wine matching was top notch, but I think by now that probably goes without saying.

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TASTING MENU

Roulade of Octopus with a Citrus Vinaigrette, Taramasalata and Mussel Beignets

Côtes de Provence, Symphonie, 2010, Château Sainte, Marguerite Cru Classé, Provence, France

Cured Fillet of Aged Beef with Tête de Moine, Tardivo, Grilled Potatoes, Scorched Onion and Truffle

Crozes-Hermitage Blanc, 2010, Champ Morel, Rhône, France

Roast Isle of Orkney Scallops with White Asparagus, New Season’s Cepes and Parmesan

Pinot Blanc “Mise du Printemps” 2010, Josmeyer, Alsace, France

Lasagne of Dorset Crab with a Cappuccino of Shellfish and Champagne Foam

Savigny les Beaune, 2009, Simon Bize, Burgundy, France

Sauté of John Dory with Turnip Tops, Snails, Morels, Peas and Parmesan

Chorey-Les-Beaune, Domaine Maillard, 2008, Burgundy, France

Herb Crusted Saddle of Spring Lamb with a Purée of Peas, Asparagus and Mint

Carignano Del Sulcis Riserva Rocca Rubia  2008, Santadi, Sardinia, Italy

Wigmore with Truffle Honey and Rhubarb

Riesling Spätlese Zeltinger Schlossberg 2009, Selbach-Oster, Mosel, Germany

Brillat-Savarin Cheesecake with New Season’s English Strawberries

Vanilla Soufflé with Rhubarb Ripple Ice Cream

Roussillière Doux, Vin de France MMX, Yves Cuilleron

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Having booked the meal at The Square several months in advance, I was interested to see chef Phil Howard on this year’s Great British Menu and get a (no doubt heavily-edited) glimpse into what he and his food are all about beforehand. Throughout the programmes I was glad to see that while other competitors were obsessing over new techniques and trying to do something different, his main priority seemed to be ensuring the food tasted damn good.

And that’s exactly what I got at his restaurant. There were no real gimmicks, no attempts to do anything ‘ground-breaking’. It was just fabulous, assured cooking from a team confident and mature enough to stick with what they know best. The waiting staff more than lived up to the food.

In the final episode of GBM, which was still on air when we arrived at The Square, Phil stated that the business he works in is all about pleasing people. I’m sure after all these years at the top I don’t need to tell a lot of you this, but he’s bloody good at his job.
Square on Urbanspoon

Food: 28.5/30

Service: 10/10

Dining Room: 3.5/5

Experience: 10/10

Overall score: 95/100 (Brilliant – Worth a Special Trip)

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*Interestingly the serving team at The Square apparently had quite a poor reputation until a few years ago. On this occasion they were about as good as it gets.

Restaurant Review: Deanes

Suggest to me a trip away and my response is immediate: “Where’s the best place to eat?”

Doesn’t matter where it is or what we’re going for, as long as there’s going to be spare time while we’re there, my preoccupation will always be to find the finest local restaurant.

My wife really wants to go to the Edinburgh Festival one day; The Kitchin’s already planned.

My family visit a relative on the Isle of Wight every year; The Hambrough is on the agenda for the next time I go along.

I simply can’t help it, it’s just the way my mind works. When some friends of mine announced they’d be getting married near Belfast, I began searching for the city’s best restaurant before I even got the Save the Date.

The place I eventually settled on was Deanes, which is probably the most famous restaurant in Northern Ireland, having held a Michelin star from 1997-2010*. With a convenient location in the centre of Belfast, it seemed the natural choice for the four-day visit.

Chef Michael Deane outside his restaurant

The first thing you notice about Deanes – and this hits you as soon as you walk in the door – is the atmosphere. This isn’t some temple of gastronomy with a congregation of food pilgrims silently worshipping every dish that emerges from the blessed kitchen. Nor is it a cold, expense-account-fest, filled with uninterested businessmen trying to show off to their clients. It doesn’t feel as if you’re trespassing at an elite club either; a dining room where if you weren’t public schooled and your credit card’s not platinum, you’d get snooty looks from patrons and waiters alike.

Instead, Deanes is a place of celebration, packed full of ordinary locals simply looking to have a good time. It’s informal and lively and you can’t help but get infected with how vibrant it is. Out of all the Michelin and would-be Michelin-starred places I’ve eaten at – and there’s been a few – this was definitely the first where I was certain I’d have a fun evening before my bum touched its seat.

Alas, the second and third things I noticed weren’t quite as positive. Service, while well-meaning, was a little on the chaotic side. One of our main waiters was excellent (hence the decent score below) but the rest were scatty at best. From being asked three times if we’d like to order after we’d already ordered, through requesting the sommelier who never arrived, and having to ask for the bill more than once (and then, after a ten-minute wait, having to ask for someone to let us pay it) it was a bit of a patience tester.

And I was disappointed to find that a couple of fine dining’s more conventional trappings were missing. There was no amuse-bouche. Bread had to be paid for. £4.50 bought a decent but not particularly interesting board; I would’ve expected better for free. Petits fours seemed stingy too, not that we got any as we chose to drink brandy instead of coffee. The two tiny macarons I saw make their way over to one table barely seemed worth the effort.

But these were relatively minor quibbles in the context of an otherwise great meal. It’s the dishes you order which matter the most after all – and, for the most part, they absolutely delivered.

My starter was a celebration of squab pigeon, flawlessly cooked: two succulent and tender breasts served with a delicately flaked leg confit and gory chunks of kidney and liver. The plating was precise, as were the flavours and textures; each mouthful highlighting the quality of the ingredients and the skill and knowledge of the kitchen which created and cooked it. It was easily one-star Michelin standard – there was nothing to fault.

Squab pigeon breast, leg, liver and kidneys at Deanes, Belfast

Squab pigeon breast, leg, kidneys and liver**

My wife’s scallops with chorizo dish was almost as good. The scallops, while small, were still of stunning quality, fresh and sweet and singing of spring. I’ve never got on very well with chorizo but this was nice too, a more subtle flavour than I’m used to and a perfect accompaniment for the shellfish. The only complaint was there could’ve been another scallop – at this size, two seemed a rather measly portion, and given the relatively large amount of chorizo on the plate, the dish was a little unbalanced.

Scallops with chorizo at Deanes, Belfast

Scallops with chorizo**

Both of us were sucked in by the day’s meat special: a 14 oz rib steak with chimichurri and triple-cooked chips. While I regretted not ordering a main that could better showcase the talent of the kitchen, it was still a very strong dish; a substantial piece of high-quality beef, well-cooked with a dazzling Argentinean sauce, full of spice and zing***. I did get a little bit bored with it halfway through and I think it would’ve been better served with the chimichurri on the side so I could mix up the flavours a bit, but it was still one of the best steak dishes I’ve ever had. The Rioja Viña Bujanda 2008, Crianza that was recommended by one of the waiters provided a worthy match.

Steak, chimichurri and chips at Deanes, Belfast

Chimichurri-coated steak and triple-cooked chips

I had a difficult time choosing dessert, mostly because none of the options sounded that appealing, but I eventually settled on a chocolate pudding with rhubarb several-ways. I don’t think rhubarb and chocolate go particularly well together but this was a fair bash at making it work, helped along by a really first-rate chocolate fondant.

Dessert menu at Deanes, Belfast

The dessert menu – not much for me here

Chocolate fondant with rhubarb at Deanes, Belfast

Warm chocolate pudding with rhubarb

The recommended sauternes (we weren’t told specifically what this was and I don’t recall seeing it on the menu) seemed a rather lazy wine match but it went down nicely anyway, and actually ended up outclassing the food, which lacked some of the harmony and confidence I’d expect from a Michelin-standard sweet. It was a beautiful drink in a beautiful glass.

Glass of sauternes at Deanes, Belfast

Sauternes

We rounded off the meal in fine style with shorts of Rémy Martin XO**** and left feeling generally happy with the overall experience. Deanes is not a restaurant I’d make a special journey for, and at £100 a head it was hardly a bargain. However, if I lived in Belfast I’d definitely go back, and if every meal was like this, I’m sure it’d become a firm favourite.

Does it deserve to win its Michelin star back? That’s hard to say. The starters were definitely up to scratch, but the dessert wasn’t and it’s difficult to judge a steak on that sort of scale. If pushed, I’d say it certainly has the potential to win a star again. But my hunch is it’s not quite there yet.
Deanes - Howard St on Urbanspoon

Food: 18/30

Service: 7/10

Dining Room: 4/5

Experience: 8/10

Overall score: 67/100 (Excellent – must try for locals)

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*The loss of Deanes’s Michelin star in the 2011 guide was blamed on a flood, which forced the restaurant to close down for four months during a time when inspectors were likely to have been doing their rounds. However, it is notable that Deanes failed to regain the star when the 2012 guide came out.

**Apologies for both the starter images  I forgot to take a pic until after we’d started eating.

***Another issue with the service was how the dishes were described – in great and enthusiastic detail by the good waiter or in sparse, confused mumblings by everyone else. The steak in particular could’ve done with more information. The chimichurri was very spicy, which I liked but I know would be too much for a lot of people. A throwaway comment about it being “a sort of salsa” did little to make it clear what it is, how hot it was or how prominent it would be on the plate.

****This was the first time I’d had Rémy Martin XO and it was lovely, but nowhere near as good as the Hennessy for me. It had a richer and deeper flavour, but the Hennessy is just much more sophisticated, with its many subtleties and floral notes and striking bouquet. I really must try the Hine now…

Restaurant Review: Aumbry

I love writing scathing reviews. There’s nothing more fun than donning the hat of mean and being a complete and utter bastard.

I’m much better suited to making negative comments than positive ones, or at least that’s how I feel. I certainly know far more insults than compliments. There’s just a pleasure to be had from constructing phrases of harsh ridicule that isn’t there when writing praise. I think I’m better at it, and when I have bad things to say, I reckon my posts are more interesting.

So do forgive me if I bore you to death while recounting my meal at Aumbry, which last week gave me the best meal I’ve ever had in Greater Manchester.

It’s the little things and how well they’re done that make Aumbry such a good restaurant. The tiny dining room – a converted domestic lounge which looks to seat 28 but felt nicely full with half that number on my visit – is a wonderful place to eat. Quaintly adorned and warmly lit, it’s cosy and intimate and has a lot of character. The open kitchen at the back provides a refreshingly un-showy focal point.

The team of waiters is small too – and magnificent. I can imagine it’s very difficult to get the balance right in a place like this, where high-end food demands rigid formality but the dining room calls out for casual friendliness. Each of the two staff members walked this fine line with aplomb, proving extremely efficient, charming and knowledgeable as they flawlessly tended to our table.

The small things done well theme continued into the food, where a focus on the little details gave everything a lift.* The bread wasn’t particularly special but the bread course was. Two types of butter including a wonderful brown nut variety were served in one pretty little pot; joyous beef dripping – the bread accompaniment of all bread accompaniments – was served in another.

In the nine-course tasting menu, it was the little things that outshone everything else. The Scotch eggs were excellent but it was the ketchup that made the dish, a luscious red sauce that had me raking at the plate to scoop up every drop. A hexagonally-cut mushroom, an ingredient so often an afterthought, was immaculate too. On a plate of turbot – my favourite fish – the itty-bitty frogs’ legs stole the show. On the cheese board, it was the beetroot and rhubarb condiments that stood out and sparkled.

Given the passion the kitchen clearly has for the fiddly bits, it’s perhaps not surprising that the first two dishes were the most successful. The most diminutive, refined and delicate of the lot, each of the morsels they encompassed was delicious individually; combined they truly excelled.

Home-smoked mackerel with poached rhubarb and mustard cream was my favourite, an absolutely dazzling dish from the top end of the 1-Michelin-star spectrum. But the home-cured ham with Derbyshire oatcake and potted cheddar that preceded it was every bit as good. My wife’s dish of the night – the Scotch egg – completed a very strong first act.

I didn’t feel the middle part of the meal quite reached the same heights, but there was still plenty to adore. The hogget was beautiful; the pearl barley and braised shoulder served under it inspired. I’ve already mentioned the frogs’ legs, but the smoked eel pudding was just as big a delight.

I did have a couple of quibbles, however. The cauliflower and oat groat porage wasn’t really to my taste,** and it felt a bit like porage overload given its similarity in texture to the hogget’s pearl barley accompaniment. There was a lapse in the precision cooking in this section as well. In fairness, it was the only blip during the whole meal, but it was not an insignificant one: the turbot was overdone.

The final act started with an attractively presented cheese board – six different varieties of cheese, three different condiments, two different ports, one big dose of heaven. This was followed by two very capable, if slightly uninteresting, desserts. Each was well-made, but I felt they lacked a bit of the imagination so prevalent among the other seven courses. Still good, mind!

The full menu (£60) with matching wine (£38) is below. All of the wine pairings worked well and I’d highly recommend it if you have the nine-course tasting menu.

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TASTING MENU


Home Cured Inglewhite Ham

Potted cheddar & Derbyshire oatcakes

Prosecco di Valdobbiadene 2009

Home Smoked Mackerel

Poached rhubarb & mustard cream

Chablis ‘Le Grand Bois’, Domaine Grande Chaume 2008

Bury Black Pudding Scotch Egg

Mushroom relish & tomato ketchup

Morgon Les Charmes 2009

Cauliflower & Oat Groat Porage (v)

White onion purée & cauliflower cheese beignet

Lapostolle Chardonnay Cuvée Alexandre 2009

Roast Wild Turbot

Smoked eel pudding, frog’s leg, parsley root & verjuice

Picpoul de Pinet, Languedoc 2010

Slow Cooked Herdwick Hogget

Pearl barley, braised Shoulder, smoked shallot, crispy lamb belly, Madeira jelly

Crozes Hermitage, Etienne Pochon 2009

British & Irish Cheeses

Rene Mure Gewurztraminer Late Harvest 2006 & Krohn Colheita Port 1978

Grapefruit Posset

Celery granita & grapefruit sherbet

Chateau Jolys Jurancon 2008

Beetroot & Chocolate Cakes

Heaton Park honey, hazelnut, caraway & bee pollen

Jean Bousquet Malbec, Dulce Naturale 2007

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Overall I had a fabulous meal at Aumbry. It wasn’t just the best I’ve had in Greater Manchester, it’s the best I’ve had in Greater Manchester by a long, long way. The couple we got talking to at the table next to ours seemed to be having a similar experience, breaking out the superlatives for every dish. There were just so many high points and nothing much in the way of a low. The four of us agreed that places this good don’t really exist around here.

I want to give a special mention to how well the kitchen catered for my wife’s dairy allergy. I’ve complained in the past about expensive restaurants promising it won’t be a problem and then doing a terrible job of it, and it’s always a big fear when we splash out on a meal. But Aumbry were outstanding; as accommodating as any place we’ve ever been. Discussing it afterwards we decided they were probably as good in this area as Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester, and better even than The Waterside Inn (both three-Michelin-starred restaurants, in case you didn’t know). A specially-made dairy-free chocolate petit four was the icing on the cake.

I’ve already convinced my family to give Aumbry a try – we’re planning to head back to celebrate my dad’s birthday in May. But if you live in Greater Manchester, you really need to try it too. I’m pretty sure it’s the finest restaurant in the county. And I doubt you’ll be disappointed.***
Aumbry on Urbanspoon

Food: 17.5/30

Service: 8.5/10

Dining Room: 3.5/5

Experience: 8.5/10

Overall score: 69/100 (Excellent – must try for locals)

 

Note: I returned to Aumbry in June 2012 and took some pictures of the experience. You can read that review here.

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*I forgot to mention the pre-meal nibbles: a couple of decent gougères and some seriously addictive crisps.

**I’m not saying the cauliflower dish was bad, just not up my street. I don’t particularly like cauliflower, nor am I that into foods that have a grainy consistency. Interestingly, when I discussed the meal with my sis-in-law’s fella, who’d eaten at Aumbry a few weeks earlier, this was the dish he really raved about. Different strokes…

***In case anybody is wondering where the food pictures are, I didn’t bother to take any. I was enjoying myself so much I didn’t remember my camera until after the bread, following which I decided snapping away would probably detract from the experience. Certainly, it would’ve been distracting, and I’d rather have a great meal distraction-free than a blog post full of pretty pics.

Food #7: Alain Ducasse Rum Baba

At the very top of my restaurant wishlist, standing head and shoulders above all the other three-star Michelin places in the world, is Le Louis XV at the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo.

With its iconic Monaco setting, palatial dining room and a menu that promises to deliver all I’ve ever dreamed of, the ode to opulence that is Alain Ducasse’s flagship seems to offer everything I want from a fine dining experience.

The dining room at Alain Ducasse's Le Louis XV in Monaco

Le Louis XV, Monte Carlo

As you’d expect from a restaurant so revered, a number of its dishes have become very famous. The one that springs to mind quicker than almost any other is Ducasse’s signature rum baba, which has been so venerated over the years it has become the standard by which all other babas are judged. No mean feat, considering it’s such a classic dish.

My chances of getting to Le Louis XV and tasting the food there any time soon are somewhere between sod and bugger all, but thankfully there are a couple of options for people like me who want to get a little slice of the great restaurant in the UK. Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester and its ‘Baba like in Monte Carlo’ is, unsurprisingly, chief among them.*

The dining room at Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester, London

Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester, London

Ducasse’s debut London restaurant received a real beating from critics when it opened in 2007 and its reputation has yet to fully recover. Its three-star rating is the butt of many a joke about the UK Michelin guide and its absence from this weekend’s Sunday Times Food List, featuring the 100 ‘best’ restaurants in the UK, was glaring.

But more recent critiques from people I trust indicated that Alain Ducasse had gotten over its rocky beginnings and started producing very accomplished food,** with its desserts in particular drawing a lot of praise.

Two separate reviews saying that its rum baba was every bit as good as the one it was recreating from Le Louis XV were all I needed to hear to decide I wanted to visit. This was an item off my Foods To Try Before You Die list I was really going to go out of my way to eat.

A table at Alain Ducasse at The Dochester, London

The table setting at Alain Ducasse

Ducasse’s baba au rhum is a dish of real showmanship. A beautiful silver*** tripod with a domed lid was placed before me by one waiter, who allowed me to stare at it with lustful anticipation for a few seconds before sliding back the lid to reveal the treasure inside. A silver bowl, shined to mirror-brightness, held snug a perfect sponge; an exquisitely moist yeast cake, split down the centre in a slightly yonic manner to show the contrast between the golden sheen of its exterior and the fluffy white of its innards.

I was given a few more seconds to take in stage one of the spectacle before stage two began – a sommelier arrived with a tray carrying six different bottles of premium rum. Each was presented to me and described, and I was asked to decide which I wanted. I know this dessert wasn’t free, and in fact it was costing me about £20, but dear god did this bit make me feel like I was being treated by a very generous host. It was a dazzling bit of theatre.

I selected one that had honey notes and watched as it was poured liberally over the sponge, which imbibed half and bathed in the rest. The adorning of the baba was completed by another waiter, who with a pair of spoons expertly widened the split down the middle of the cake and heaped a couple of large dollops of vanilla cream on top.****

“Enjoy,” is what I think I heard the captain say as the three waiters moved away from the table. I was in a sort of deep trance by this stage, so I’m not entirely sure. Sat in front of me was arguably one of the world’s great desserts; razzmatazz had set the stage, and all that remained was for me to do my bit and eat the bloody thing.*****

No pressure then. I was almost nervous!

When you think about rum baba, it’s not that exciting. Sponge, cream, rum – that’s it. On paper a trifle is more exhilarating. But Alain Ducasse has helped to lift this very simple-sounding dish to oxygen-depriving culinary heights.

The sweet, light as a feather cake – which somehow managed to be soft and delicate, heavy and rich all at the same time – was a wonder on its own. Soaked in luxury rum and flawlessly complemented by the vanilla cream, it reached celestial levels. Each spoonful was indulgence in its purest, most wicked form; it was the ultimate comfort food.

The intoxicating aroma was every bit as important as the taste. I imagine the bowl had a lot to do with it, but it was like everything in the atmosphere around me and the food had been infected by the dish, making me feel I was eating in some sort of hedonistic, rum-fuelled dream. Food sweats added to the fever experience – admittedly not in a good way – and I began to feel a little drunk.

At one stage I worried I might not be able to finish. After three courses and the week of fine dining that was my honeymoon, it was probably a little bit much, but I persevered and got it down me. When you’re eating a dessert of the very highest standard, you can’t let a little thing like an engorged stomach stand in your way.

I went into this dish with monumental expectations and it met every single one. The food couldn’t be faulted, but it was the presentation that cemented the legend.

Is Alain Ducasse’s rum baba one of the world’s great puddings? You bet your arse it is.

Verdict: Highest possible recommendation

NEXT UP: Potted shrimp

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*The other one is Gauthier Soho, which offers a dessert titled ‘Louis XV’, a version of the legendary chocolate croustillant that’s always on the menu at the Hotel de Paris and will always be on my list of Foods To Try Before You Die. The original has been called the best dessert in the world and chef Alexis Gauthier is fully qualified to deliver a masterful take on it, given that he probably made it thousands of times while working pastry for Ducasse in Monaco. I’m very keen to visit.

**I can confirm that this is true and we had an amazing dinner at Alain Ducasse. I’d say only the desserts were three-star worthy, but the rest of our meal was capably at two-star level. I loved the dining room, the service was sublime and as an overall experience, I think it offers one of the best in the UK. The key is to go in with an open mind and forget about the price.

***It’s gold at Le Louis XV. Apparently The Dorchester isn’t posh enough to have all the trappings of Monte Carlo…

****There’s a good gynaecology joke in this somewhere, but like a clitoris I can’t seem to find it.

*****If you want to see what it looked like, check out this pic from The Boy Who Ate The World.

Food #6: Beef Rossini

Every so often you come across a recipe which instantly makes you think to yourself: “How the hell have I never heard of this before? How is it that this food is yet to pass my lips? Where is the big pile of broken glass I can crawl over – fly unzipped – to get it?”

Beef Rossini (aka Tournedos Rossini), invented by king of chefs and chef of kings Auguste Escoffier* in tribute to the famous composer, conjured up all these feelings and more when I first read about it towards the end of last year and immediately went on my list of Foods To Try Before You Die. How could it not when the basic recipe consists of pan-fried fillet steak, a slice of whole foie gras, a crouton, black truffle and a Madeira demi-glace sauce?

Have we all stopped slobbering yet? Good. Then let’s carry on…

I’ve harped on before about how much I love beef, but what I haven’t touched on is how scared I am of ordering it in restaurants these days – or at least how scared I am of ordering it in restaurants that don’t specialise in dead cow. I’m genuinely frightened of it being a disappointment. Beef is my favourite food in the whole wide world and if anything short of stunning arrives on my plate, I’m going to wish that I ordered something else instead.

So it says a lot about how appealing beef Rossini is that I ordered it without hesitation when presented with it on a menu at Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester this summer.**

The dining room at Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester, London

Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester's dining room

The menu at Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester, London

The menu (exterior)

The menu at Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester, London

The menu (interior). Our waiter arranged for chef Jocelyn Herland to sign it for us.

The version they serve at Alain Ducasse is slightly different from what I’ve described above. Instead of a crouton, there was a thick piece of toast. The truffles and Madeira demi-glace were combined in a Périgueux sauce. Crunchy cos lettuce drizzled with vinaigrette, which you’d imagine was just a side, was a fundamental part of the dish.

And it was all so perfect; I couldn’t imagine it being done any other way. The beef and the foie gras and the truffle sauce just belonged together, offering an exquisite marriage of richness and corruption that you only tend to find among Premier League football club owners.

The toast soaked up all the flavours beautifully and added some extra texture to the plate. The freshness and acidity of the dressed lettuce cut through the richness like a guillotine in 1793; its vibrant green helping my eyes to survive the onslaught of brown.

Combined, it tasted like the greatest burger you could possibly imagine. It was absolutely brilliant.

(You can see a picture of it on the Food Snob Blog here.)

The kitchen obviously deserves a lot of credit for cooking it all so precisely, and the amendments to the traditional dish (lettuce, toast) were masterful. The delightful sacristain potatoes that accompanied – peppery, spiral crisps that take a staggering amount of work to produce – iced the proverbial cake with further texture and flavours.

But the real kudos should be reserved for the inventor of beef Rossini – whoever that may be. My overriding feeling, as I pushed knife and fork into the centre of the plate*** and waited for one of the excellent waiting staff to take it away, was that I’d just eaten one of the world’s great dishes. A recipe conceived by a genius – one that if you stay faithful to it, will deliver time and time again.

I’ve had much better beef than the fillet steak I had here. I’ve had better foie gras too. In fact, I had superior versions of both ingredients mere days before my trip to Alain Ducasse. But I’ve yet to have a whole dish involving either beef or foie gras that was anywhere near as good as this beef Rossini.

To be honest, I might not have eaten anything as good in my whole life.

Verdict: Highest possible recommendation

NEXT UP: Rum Baba [at any Alain Ducasse restaurant]

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*This seems to be the most common belief anyway. I’ve seen it said that Escoffier’s roi de cuisiniers et cuisinier des rois forebear Antoine Carême actually came up with it – either way, beef Rossini is a dish with serious pedigree.

**I was also thinking that if I can’t trust a three-star Michelin restaurant to get beef right, I might as well just give up eating the stuff altogether.

 ***I loved the plate, by the way. It looked very plain, but there was a really subtle, almost imperceptible, decline towards the centre, which pooled the sauce and saved me having to chase it around the plate with the other ingredients. Just one of those little details that makes you realise the amount of thought and effort a restaurant like this puts in to trying to give you a perfect dining experience.

Manchester Food and Drink Festival 2011

Manchester Food and Drink Festival 2011 logo

The highlight of this year’s culinary calendar in Manchester, MFDF 2011, gets underway tomorrow. The Manchester Food and Drink Festival has been running since 1998 and for me it’s by far and away the best foodie experience the city has to offer.

Manchester has often been sneered at for its lack of really high-end, Michelin-star standard restaurants and quite rightly so. For a city of this size to offer such little in the way of gastronomic brilliance is a bit of a joke. Edinburgh and Birmingham can do it, so why can’t we?*

But for 11 days every year, the place I call home offers up the MFDF, or as it should be titled, “The Engraved Apology”. A fantastic celebration of food and drink that goes a long way towards making up for the shortage of gourmet treats during the rest of the year.

I’m not going to do a preview, as there are way too many things to cover and half the fun lies in just turning up to the Festival Hub outside Manchester Town Hall and seeing what’s going on. Over the years this unguided approach has rewarded me with dozens of freebies, countless enjoyable cookery demonstrations, an item off my Foods To Try Before I Die list and my first ever three-Michelin-star food.** You really can’t go wrong.

(Besides, the official website will tell you everything you need to know.)

But what I will do is outline my plans for the next few weeks and say how excited I am to get stuck in.

The plan for tomorrow is to head down to Albert Square on my lunchbreak and see what’s on offer. They’re making a big thing about street food this year, so I’m hoping there’ll be lots of things to choose from for a dinnertime gorge. After I’ve finished work, I’m going to go back again with some friends and give the beer tent a thorough examination.

(Like many people, I imagine, I’m going to be trying to walk that delicate line between nicely drunk and too drunk to enjoy the rugby at 6am on Saturday morning.)

After England are done giving France a darn good thrashing in the World Cup quarter-final***, I’m off to the Big Indie Wine Fest at The People’s History Museum. I missed this event last year, so I’m doubly keen to go this time, even if it ends up more hair of the dog than sophisticated wine-tasting (from the sounds of it, it was a bit like that last year anyway…)

I’ve got a table booked at MFDF champion The Mark Addy immediately afterwards and am eager to see if they can deliver me a meal as good as they did last month. The restaurant actually first came to my attention at MFDF a while ago when I saw a great presentation by chef Robert Owen Brown. Not sure if he’s on again this year(?), but if they’ve not invited him back, someone needs shooting with one of those gun cartridges he serves herbs in.

Sunday I’ll probably rest, but I intend to be back again throughout the week to see what else I can treat myself with. I’ll definitely be there on Saturday, when I’ve got tickets to the Manchester Whisky Festival at The Lowry Hotel. I enjoy whisky, but I’m a complete and utter novice, so I’m hoping this will point me in the right direction and send me down the path of the connoisseur.

Can’t wait until tomorrow. Let the consumption commence!

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*The new Michelin UK guide came out today, and surprise surprise, Manchester didn’t feature again. You can see the full list, including the three restaurants in Birmingham and five restaurants in Edinburgh to carry a Michelin star, here.

**A note of caution here – I’m pretty sure that it was MFDF that one year had a Heston Blumenthal stand, but I’m not 100% certain. Why he’d be up here for another event I don’t know, but even if that was the case, it’s still a story I like to tell.

It wasn’t long after The Fat Duck had been named the world’s best restaurant, but as Heston was barely on TV at that time, few people knew who he was and as such nobody seemed to care that two of his development chefs were sat in a faux ice cream truck outside G-Mex selling three-star-Michelin food. There was literally nobody there when I went up to sample a red wine slushed ice and millionaire shortbread and I remember thinking how crazy it was that here was food from a world-renowned genius chef and nobody in Manchester gave a shit. Maybe that’s why we have such mediocre restaurants.

Anyway, my first taste of the three-star stuff didn’t exactly blow me away. The millionaire shortbread was perfect, but it was about the size of my thumbnail, so was hardly something you could savour for long. The ice was interesting at first, but was very one note and quickly became boring and sickly. I think I threw some of it away.

***I’m trying to be optimistic. France are terrible. We’ll be alright, won’t we?

You can read further posts on MFDF11 below:

Manchester Food and Drink Festival 2011: Cheese Fest

Manchester Food and Drink Festival 2011: Big Indie Wine Fest

Manchester Food and Drink Festival 2011: Manchester Whisky Festival

How to choose a three-star Michelin restaurant in Paris: The result

I like lists, as you can probably guess. This whole blog has been built around one and, in the coming weeks and months, more are going to be built to go around the whole blog.

One of my favourites is my Restaurant Wishlist – a top 25 (or thereabouts) of the restaurants I would like to eat at more than anywhere else in the world. France, as you might expect, is the dominant player, occupying ten of the places. Three-star Michelin restaurants in Paris make up four of the top ten, in positions 2, 6, 7 and 8.

If you’d asked me to predict what would happen when I worked through my eight-point system to decide where to eat in Paris next year, I definitely wouldn’t have guessed #7 would come out the winner.

(click that link for a refresher of the rules before we begin)

Ledoyen looks like an incredible restaurant, right at the cutting edge of world cuisine. It got the full 30 marks for Step #1: Food Quality and was the only restaurant to pick up the maximum 20 for Step #2: Menu. Its most famous dish, Spaghetti, Jambon Blanc, Morilles et Truffes is on my list of Foods To Try Before I Die, but pretty much everything it offers looks like it’s worth shoving down my gullet before I snuff it.*

It’s cheap as well, at least by the standards of three-Michelin star restaurants in Paris (ie not cheap at all, but relatively so). The tasting menu at Ledoyen will cost you around €199 a head. Only L’Astrance is cheaper. It’s even less expensive than Le Jules Verne at the Eiffel Tower – and that only has one star to its name.

I’d go vegetarian for an entire month – the most extreme endurance test I can think of – if someone would take me. But Ledoyen is not the restaurant I will be visiting next year.

Three-Michelin-star food at L’Ambroisie, Paris

L’Ambroisie is another place with a fabulous reputation and a very appealing menu. It’s not as modern as Ledoyen, but it more than makes up for it in opulence. Luxury ingredients dominate the various courses and its dining rooms have the grand, palatial decor to match.

After Steps #1-4, it was equal with Ledoyen at the very top of the leaderboard and surged ahead after Step #5: Website.**

If someone rang me up today and said they’d booked a table and would fly me out there on the condition that I cut off a toe, I’d tell my wife to run and fetch the pliers. But I won’t be going to L’Ambroisie next year either.

Besides these two restaurants, there were just three others left in the running by the time I’d reached Steps #6/7: Price/Maths. Le Bristol and Guy Savoy, neither of which are on my Restaurant Wishlist, had both done much better than expected, thanks to consistently solid scores and excellent (English) user-friendly websites. Nevertheless, they too fell at the final hurdle.

Le Bristol’s dining room. For my money, the second prettiest three-star Michelin restaurant in Paris. (Note: since this post was written, this restaurant seems to have moved to a less attractive dining room elsewhere in the hotel)

The failure of these two I didn’t mind so much. Neither scored the full 30 points for food quality and, as such, I doubt either could deliver the ‘meal of a lifetime’ I’m after. I don’t want to settle for a dinner that is merely superb; I want a magnum opus of cookery. An experience so wrought with divinity that when I have kids I can point to it and say: “Look at what the expense of your existence has cost me – and for what?!”***

It’s the kind of meal I’m hoping will be delivered by the clear winner of my three-star Michelin restaurant in Paris competition: Le Meurice.

The dining room at Le Meurice

Le Meurice is a restaurant that seems to have it all: an attractive menu, food of the highest order, a massive reputation. Its Palace of Versailles-inspired dining room could stand toe-to-toe with the purdiest I’ve ever seen (Le Louis XV in Monaco and The Ritz in London, if you’re interested) and give it the old Rocky Balboa. Its website smokes those of Ledoyen and L’Ambroisie like a pair of Woodbines, and while it’s €40 a head more expensive than the former, I wouldn’t need to sell any kidneys in order to be able to afford it like I would with the latter.

Here are the full results:****

I should say, the more I’ve looked into Le Meurice since it came out on top, the happier I’ve been with it as my choice. It’s in an iconic location, opposite the Tuileries on the Rue de Rivoli. It’s in a world class hotel – part of The Dorchester Collection – where I might consider staying the night.*****

An executive room at Le Meurice, Paris

And the fact that it’s in a hotel and one that’s historically kind to English speakers reassures me that there will definitely be no issues with language.

Hopefully they’ll be used to thicko foreigners like me!

 

January 2013 note: Yannick Alleno, the chef who won Le Meurice its third star, has now left the restaurant to focus on other ventures.

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*If you don’t mind dribbling uncontrollably on to your keyboard, take a look at these gorgeous photos of Ledoyen by one of my favourite food bloggers, Ulterior Epicure. He’s been to quite a few of the other Paris three-stars as well, although unfortunately not the one I’m going to.

**This wasn’t exactly hard. The information on Ledoyen’s barren website would struggle to fill a lonely hearts ad space.

***I’m going to be an awesome dad

****L’Ambroisie is so extortionate that its price dragged it down to last place, although it’s probably a bit better than the 19 given here – they’ve launched a new and improved website since I marked it. If you want a more detailed breakdown of all the figures, just ask.

*****One thing I’ve found in recent years is that it’s so much better once you’ve had an amazing dinner to be able to just retire upstairs to bed, rather than have to go out into the street and find your way back to wherever else you might be staying. Having to travel on a full stomach, even if you’re just walking down the road or taking a short cab journey, somewhat spoils the experience, I think. Stay in the same place and the fun doesn’t have to end until after breakfast the next day, by which time you’ll probably have had enough.

How to choose a three-star Michelin restaurant in Paris

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.

Hotel Plaza Athénée in Paris, where Alain Ducasse has another three-star Michelin restaurant

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:

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Step #1: Food

Whole Grilled Sea Bass with Sweet Spices at the three-Michelin-starred Restaurant Guy Savoy in Paris

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 front of the menu at three-Michelin-starred Le Pre Catalan in Paris, along with the first page of starters. Note the scary prices.

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

The stunning three-Michelin star dining room at Le Meurice in Paris

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

The iconic and revolutionary three-star Michelin chef Pierre Gagnaire, whose eponymous flagship restaurant is based in Paris

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

A snapshot of the all-French website for the three-Michelin-starred L’Arpège in Paris

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

The price of the 2011 autumn tasting menu at Le Meurice. It’s not the cheapest in Paris, but by no means is it the most expensive.

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

My Excel calculations. My wife called me a geek when she saw this, but she had no idea I was secretly kicking myself for not adding the code to round the totals up and down automatically. I’m sure that would’ve changed her mind.

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…

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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?

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*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:

L’Ambroisie

L’Arpège

L’Astrance

Le Bristol

Guy Savoy

Ledoyen

Le Meurice

Pierre Gagnaire

Plaza Athénée

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

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