I have plans for 2012. I have plans that involve a new passport, trips to Belfast and Bangor, and London and Paris; plans that must be executed before a bun appears in my wife’s proverbial oven, forcing them all to be put on hold.
My plans will see me scratch the itches left over from 2011 and tick the boxes I thought by now I might’ve already ticked. They should take me on a fabulous roller-coaster ride of flavours, textures and aromas, like nothing I’ve ever experienced before.
My plans will see me cross many more items off my list of Foods To Try Before You Die.* It is my greatest hope that they will see me eat the meal of a lifetime.
These are my restaurant plans for 2012:
And these are the Foods To Try Before You Die I’ve got my eye most closely on:
Éclair au Chocolat [from Jacques Genin]
Macaroons [from Ladurée]
Macaroons [from Pierre Hermé]
Omelette Arnold Bennett
Pig’s Trotter stuffed with Sweetbreads & Morels [at Koffmann’s, London]
Roast Rib of Beef
Tarte au Citron [from Jacques Genin]
I wish you all a Happy New Year!
*My apologies for neglecting the primary focus of this blog in the last few weeks. As you’ll have seen, a killer Japanese restaurant, end of year lists and Christmas have been taking centre stage in my mind. I haven’t completely forgotten about The List though. I’ve been adding new items to it as ever – it’s now up to 66 – and another of my plans will see me recap the eating of these four bad boys in the coming weeks:
Food #9: Confit de Canard
Food #10: Raw Oysters
Food #11: Valrhona Chocolate
Food #12: Victorian Mince Pie
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.
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.
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.
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.*****
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.
*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.
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
(note: if you’ve not read A holiday dilemma, this might not make much sense…)
San Sebastián is a bloody trek. Looking up flight information from Manchester Airport, the cheapest journey I could make would see me fly Ringway to Gatwick, then transfer to Heathrow, then fly to Madrid, then fly to San Sebastián Airport. That’s three flights and as many train/bus journeys in between.
And, of course, the trip doesn’t end there. No, no, no – that would be much too easy. San Sebastián Airport, as it turns out, isn’t in San Sebastián at all. It’s in an entirely separate place called Hondarribia.
Presumably, I’d have to get another bus.
Now, obviously there are ways to shorten such an expedition; to reduce the number of flights and speed it up a bit. But unfortunately, there are no ways to shorten it enough. It’s too much travel for me. I’m just not willing to make that sort of commitment.
So we looked for somewhere else to go. Somewhere easier to get to, but which still met our needs. Barcelona seemed to fit the bill very nicely, but for some reason my wife didn’t really fancy it.*
Nothing interested me in the rest of Spain, so our thoughts moved across the border and we started thinking about France instead.
“Sod it, why don’t we just sack off the coastal town idea and go to Paris?” my wife said.
“OH HELL YES!” was my reply.
So it’s decided then. In October 2012, for my first trip abroad in eight and a half years, I’m going to the culinary centre of the entire universe. And I cannot wait.
But where else to eat, drink and be merry? If you have any recommendations, please let me know.
*When I say ‘some reason’, I mean ‘no reason’.