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Planning a gourmet break in London

Nothing ever seems to go right for me when I plan a gourmet holiday. Shops and markets are never open on the days I want them to be; restaurants are always booked up. I can’t count the number of times my schedule has been waylaid by mysterious ‘private functions’, which crop up with unnerving regularity whenever I dare to make a booking inquiry.

Have I told you that the queen ruined my honeymoon plans last year? Well, she did. We’d been planning to go to The Waterside Inn on night one ever since we got engaged and the whole week was arranged around it. So desperate were we to guarantee our table that I rang them up the very second the booking window opened to make sure we got in.

“I’m sorry sir, but the restaurant is closed that evening for a ‘private function’. Would you like to book for another day?”

Turned out the royal family had reserved it for some sort of celebration.* We were forced to reorganise the entire bloody week!

Impeded by the Crown

Naturally, as I shuffled hotels and restaurants around, more issues cropped up. We couldn’t get into Gordon Ramsay. Then we couldn’t get into Le Gavroche. I had no problems booking Alain Ducasse – which was always on the itinerary – but when I rang them up a few weeks beforehand to inform them of my wife’s dairy allergy they said they had no record of the booking at all!!

The guy at the end of the phone fortunately agreed it was the restaurant’s fault and sorted us a table anyway, but he didn’t manage to do so before my head exploded, splattering big gooey lumps of excitement and good will all over my bedroom wall.

The original plan had been to do all the country’s three-star Michelin restaurants in a week, in this order: The Waterside Inn, The Fat Duck, Gordon Ramsay and Alain Ducasse (with a night at The Dorchester).

After a month of headaches, we eventually settled for: Hibiscus, Goodman, The Waterside Inn and Alain Ducasse (with a night at The Dorchester). Not too shabby really, but a bit of a pain to cobble together.

Executive Deluxe Room at The Dorchester, Park Lane

We got there in the end – our executive deluxe room at The Dorchester

Annoyingly, I’ve been going through the exact same pain again as I try to set up another gourmet holiday in London this June. It’s gone like this:

We wanted to spend the last night with a room and dinner at The Ritz.

The Ritz was unavailable.

We booked a night at The Dorchester instead and tried to get into Le Gavroche.

Le Gavroche was unavailable.

I uttered the following phrase: “God this is irritating. Ah well, at least we won’t have a problem going back to Goodman – who books a steak house so far in advance?”

Goodman was unavailable.

I uttered the follo… actually, that probably doesn’t bear repeating.

I just seem to have no luck with these things; no luck at all. I know these places are popular, but when I go to book them as soon as is humanly possible, I’d expect to hit more often than not. It’s not like I’m trying to get into an El Bulli or a Next or somewhere where you might have to pay a few hundred quid on eBay in order to be sure of a reservation.

I know two different couples who are going to Le Gavroche in April and booked without a hitch. How is it they got in so easy? I expect the Jubilee has something to do with it. Yet again I’ve been thwarted by the queen with her sodding celebrations!**

Anyway, I should probably stop complaining. If there’s anything to be learned from going through this experience again, it’s that you should always have a back-up plan for this sort of holiday. And the great thing about London is it’s pretty damn easy to come up with a back-up plan that’s just as full of awesome.

My restaurant itinerary for the four-day trip is as follows:

Dinner at Hawksmoor Seven Dials

Lunch at The Ledbury

Dinner at The Square

(we’ll eat here when we stay at The Dorchester)

There should also be time for a visit to Borough Market

…and a macaron raid on Pierre Hermé.

I’m pretty happy with that!

It’s almost inevitable that some things will go wrong when the week actually comes. Lowlights from last year included a three-hour train delay on the way down and a ‘meal’ at an Angus Steakhouse.

But as long as the latter doesn’t happen again, I think we’ll be alright. I’m very much looking forward to it!

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*Or at least I’m fairly sure that’s the case. It’s certainly a more interesting story with the queen involved, so let’s stick with it…

**I don’t mean that really. I love the queen. She can thwart me all she wants.

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

A holiday dilemma solved

(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.

Visits to Ladurée and Pierre Hermé are a must. We’ll head to one of the city’s three-starred Michelin restaurants as well – although deciding which to go to will require a lot of thought.

But where else to eat, drink and be merry? If you have any recommendations, please let me know.

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*When I say ‘some reason’, I mean ‘no reason’.

A holiday dilemma

The last time I left my beloved England was in February 2004. I spent a week in Russia (3 days in Moscow, 4 in St Petersburg) and it was about as far from a gourmet holiday as you can get.

Almost everything I ate was served with boiled millet, which had all the consistency of runny snot flecked with grit. Borscht (beetroot soup) was thankfully millet free, but once the sour cream’s been mixed in you’re left with a sickly bowl of pink slop akin to a savoury Tubby Custard.

The vodka was cheap and good, the local beer Baltika was even better and the chocolate from the Red October factory was very pleasant. But that was it as far as positives are concerned.

Well, apart from the remarkably slick service at a Moscow McDonald’s.*

Not long after the Russia trip, my passport expired and it came as somewhat of a relief. I dislike airports intensely; travelling I hate even more. Anything that drags me away from Greater Manchester for longer than three days makes me feel ill.

Not having a passport gave me the perfect excuse to never have to go away, and for more than six years I was able to live in a state of total bliss. Then a friend of mine decided they were going to get married in Northern Ireland and I realised the days of my peaceful existence were numbered.**

With a valid passport in my pocket, my long-suffering wife – who hasn’t been abroad since 2003 – was always going to insist we jet off to foreign climes.

And apparently Scotland doesn’t count.

The silver lining, of course, to this rather ominous black cloud of doom is the potential for new gastronomic experiences. I can continue my descent into gout in new and exciting ways, and I can tick a few more items off The List.

You see, the thought of going somewhere different where the food is truly spectacular is almost as thrilling for me as the thought of this wedding being called off and not having to get another passport.***

Overseas restaurants dominate my Restaurant Wishlist. There are places on there that I’m desperate to go to and go to soon, for fear that they’ll no longer exist by the time I finally get around to it. These are restaurants that those in the UK can’t compete with; the ones that look and sound like they can deliver the food of my dreams.

Le Louis XV in Monaco, Ledoyen in Paris, l’Auberge du Vieux Puits in Fontjoncouse, Pic in Valence, Schloss Berg in Perl – these are just are few of the culinary destinations I would like to visit.

But as I might have mentioned, I’m married. And I’ve got about as much chance of getting all my own way on this first trip abroad together as Colonel Gadaffi does of winning Libya’s next election.

So then, the question is, where should we go?

There are a few rules before you start bombarding me with recommendations:

–          It can’t be too hot. No matter how nice the food is, it’s not going to be too appealing once it’s covered in the huge chunks of eczema skin that will have fallen off my face.

–          It must be by the sea. My wife has this romantic idea of a little fishing village in her mind; somewhere you can sit in a little wooden hut and eat seafood fresh from the boat.

–          It mustn’t cost a fortune to get there. Because I don’t like travelling, the thought of wasting lots of money on planes annoys me. I want my money to be spent on having fun, not on being crammed into an aircraft.

–          The food must be magnificent. I’d like to be able to go to at least one top class restaurant while I’m there, but as long as it has fabulous bars and markets, I might be willing to compromise.

Right now we’re leaning towards San Sebastián, ‘the culinary capital of Spain’.****

But what would you suggest?

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*They had three servers to each till: one to take your order while you queued, one to take your money and one to fetch your grub. It was very impressive, and presumably the result of some sort of government job scheme.

**Technically you don’t need a passport to travel to another part of the UK, but in recent years airport security has apparently been getting awfully funny about the kind of ID you carry and a driving licence isn’t always good enough. Factor in me looking bugger all like the dude on my driving licence these days and it’s clear a new passport is needed.

***Only joking – obviously I don’t want the wedding to be called off. I hear they do excellent fish and chips in Bangor. And I’m already eyeing up Deanes in Belfast.

****Guess which one of us came up with this idea…

 

You can read the follow-up post to this one below:

A holiday dilemma solved

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