A Lesson in High-Stakes Dining

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A few months ago there was a well-known meme making the rounds to which I added a question before passing it on through the blogosphere. “What’s on your all-time foodie dream list?”, I wanted to know, wondering what kinds of gadgets, destinations and experiences my fellow food enthusiasts found creeping into their fantasies. My own answer (besides the obvious goals of acquiring a good ice cream maker and traveling to some new culinary hotspots) was this: “A chance to eat in some of the world’s finest restaurants, just so I know what all the hype is about: El Bulli, Pierre Gagnaire, Le Cinq, The Fat Duck, Arzak, Troisgros…”. At the time, eating at any of these three-star apogees of cuisine seemed like an impossible dream, or at least one that involved several more years of penny-pinching before its fulfilment. I certainly never would have believed you if you told me that within six months of writing about this dream, I would be able to tick one of those meals off my list. Yet somehow, one afternoon last December, it happened.

Despite the significance of that particular meal, it took me a long time to decide if I even wanted to write about it. The problem was that I felt slightly uncomfortable about my lack of experience with the mighty Michelin. Before last December, I had never so much as set foot in a restaurant awarded a single star by this most illustrious of foodguides, let alone one that held three stars, their highest honor. The reason is not hard to find: although the exact price categories vary by country, a meal at a Michelin-starred restaurant is expensive. A dinner at a one-star restaurant in Edinburgh, for example (of which there are two), can easily set you back £100 (about $180) per person with wine. And that’s for a restaurant that, in the Michelin ratings key, is “worth a stop”. At the three-star level (“worth a trip” in Michelinese), the sky’s the limit, but I have heard rumors of dinners for two in some of Paris’ most esteemed establishments coming in well over the 500-euro mark even before you’re handed the wine list. To think of these numbers just boggled my mind, simultaneously intriguing and repelling me. But most of all, I just wanted to know what food at this level actually tastes like. How can a plate of food – or several, as the case usually is – be deemed to hold this much value, and would it, when I finally experienced it, be the most amazing thing I had ever eaten?

As it turns out, my first experience with a Michelin recommendation couldn’t have come at a more controversial time for this venerable institution. Long commanding the undisputed spot at the top of the European restaurant-guide pile, the Guide Michelin has always been synonymous with impartiality, rigorous standards, and exceptional quality. A single star awarded or not has meant the difference between success and failure of hundreds (perhaps thousands) of European restaurants, and for chefs of a certain caliber, these stars are like a drug that is impossible to resist – either a chef doesn’t have it and wants it, or does and is terrified of losing it. There is no indifference where Michelin ratings are concerned. The crisis that confronts Michelin now, however, is that cracks are starting to appear in this previously rock-solid system. First there was the scandal of the recently recalled Benelux guide in which a restaurant that hadn’t even opened yet was awarded stars. Then there was the juicy tell-all memoir of Michelin inspector Pascal Rémy who revealed that the institution is not impervious to lobbying, bribery, and perhaps worst of all, granting immunity from negative reviews to a select group of famous names. Add to this the scandal of triple-starred Bernard Loiseau who committed suicide after hearing rumors that he was about to lose a star. And finally, there’s the embarrassment of more and more chefs getting fed up with the whole charade and actually attempting to return their stars because of the pressure and expense they bring. According to this article in Travel & Leisure, these crises for Michelin are being taken more seriously in France than just about anything else, including riots, political cartoons and uncertainties about Europe’s integrated future.

But back to my own meal. The opportunity to shoot to the top of the Michelin ladder popped up out of the blue when Pim informed Michele that she’d managed to secure a table at Pierre Gagnaire at the precise time we would be eating our way through Paris together. It didn’t take us long to agree to join her. Pierre Gagnaire, one of France’s top names, is well known for his cutting-edge approach to fine dining, which like Ferran Adria and Heston Blumenthal is very much geared towards ‘pushing the envelope’. He’s a solid experimentalist, perhaps not taking as deep a scientific approach to flavor, color and texture as the other two, but equally brilliant in his own way in that he improvises much of his menu, changing it almost daily. The other equally impressive thing he is known for is being the only triple-starred chef to file for bankruptcy, which he did at his first restaurant in St-Etienne in 1996, only to reappear on the scene and defy the odds to open a second (and far more successful) three-star in Paris just a few years later.

Gagnaire’s restaurant struck me as tastefully modern, with a notable absence of the gilded opulence that I’d been conditioned to expect from a temple of French haute cuisine. The space felt almost cozy, with low ceilings, hushed voices and plush, heavy chairs – the tables, however, were enormous, the porcelain and silver plentiful and gleaming, and the seemingly endless parade of tuxedoed wait staff reminded me that I was most certainly dining in the big leagues. Luckily Michele and I knew what we would order even before we arrived, and so spent only a moment perusing the a la carte menu (which nonetheless quickly threatened to send me spiralling into sticker-shock). We both ordered the €90 menu du marché, a multicourse tasting menu of seasonal vegetable-based preparations that included in total about twelve different dishes, some served together and some on their own. Our selection of starters was by far the most daring part of the meal, including things like cucumber jelly with peeled grapes, sweet potato and mussels; cold-smoked haddock atop a fluffy poached meringue marshmallow; and artichoke ice cream with chewy tapioca and fresh coconut. Two larger
courses followed, one combining a disk of fresh foie gras mousse with soft stewed leeks and curry-scented langoustines, and the other a remarkably rustic slab of roasted pork belly atop a medley of Asian-spiced root vegetables. Dessert was another assortment of small, quirky offerings; I remember in particular a chocolate and hazelnut terrine with spiced carrots, and a crispy pancake with orange sorbet, calvados sauce and candied red pepper.

As we quickly realized, everything from Gagnaire’s kitchen had a surprise element, often relying on the unexpected interplay of salty and sweet, vegetable and fruit, and hot and cold. It was all perfectly executed, expertly cooked and served with inscrutable professionalism by our personal chorus of black-clad servers. The dishes were light yet substantial, and for the relatively low cost of the meal offered an enormous variety of experiences. The feeling of being treated like royalty for three hours certainly wasn’t unpleasant either. But was the food some of the best I’d ever had? Not by a long shot. In fact, I have a hard time even bringing myself to say that it was anything more than just moderately good. There were elements that really stood out, and I could appreciate how much time and effort had gone into everything from concept to execution, but to me the contrasts were too discordant, and the combinations too complex to find anything truly delicious. Instead of a fantastic meal, it was an exercise in focus as I struggled to identify strange flavors and textures and simply ‘get’ what the chef was intending with each dish. In fact, I left feeling slightly deflated; not disappointed exactly – though I might have if I had spent much more than I did – but just slightly sobered by the thought that I had just partaken in one of the most prestigious and applauded dining experiences on the planet, and the most appropriate adjective I could find to describe the meal was interesting.

There are certain meals that stand out crystal-clear in my mind despite the number of years that have elapsed since they happened, meals whose pleasure overwhelmed me to such an extent that at that moment I thought I was enjoying the best food of my entire life. These meals encompass anything from a simple, perfect pizza to a multicourse banquet eaten at a restaurant selected by chance. For the most part, I realize now, these meals were so special because they took me by surprise – I didn’t approach them expecting anything out of the ordinary. Unfortunately the thing about dining in the upper echelons is that there is inevitably expectation involved. With so much at stake for reputations, wallets and tastebuds, the consequences of anything less than perfection are severe – and unless everything is perfect (which it rarely is) you are very often going to be disappointed. Perhaps this is just par for the course at this level, but it will certainly give me much to reflect on before committing to my next high-stakes meal.

I must say I’d certainly hate to see Michelin close up shop. After all, guides – however flawed – still perform an important service and help us to discover places that are more likely to give us what we seek. The only thing I would hope is that the current crisis will act as a catalyst to break the institution from the shackles of its own tradition. A world where only restaurants that charge hundreds will get top accolades and where a chef is driven to suicide by the thought of losing a star is obviously not how things should be, and likewise there are many superlative eating experiences out there that don’t garner a single mention because the plates are not porcelain and the wine list not expensive enough. I certainly do intend to visit more of the restaurants on my list as the opportunity permits. But I’m also going to keep firmly in mind that whatever the guidebooks recommend, ultimately life’s true three-star meals will always happen when we least expect them.

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24 thoughts on “A Lesson in High-Stakes Dining

  1. Hi, I have only recently discovered Traveller’s Lunchbox. I trully fell for it. Your post has caused me great pleasure to read. If anything because I do feel that institutions can cause people to leave their judgement in a box. I found your comments very grounded. Another reason to keep coming back here.

  2. I’ve not had the experience of going to these famed restaurants, but I have gone to restaurants here in Miami that were supposed to the BEST place to eat… and have been seriously disappointed. I think one of the most important things I’ve learned in dining out with friends is that everyone has their own tastes and what is good for one person may not be to another. So, I tend to dine out everywhere and come up with my own favorites. Expensive, but fun!

  3. "But I’m also going to keep firmly in mind that whatever the guidebooks recommend, ultimately life’s true three-star meals will always happen when we least expect them."AMEN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  4. Ditto Amen.I have for a long time been wondering quite why it is that i haven’t actually gotten around to visiting all those fine establishments i could have easily have dined at by now considering my food obsession. I have turned down chances to eat at The French Laundry, cancelled Michael Minna, not quite sorted out the date I am going to try Manresa, been to Paris twice and not even the thought of eating at a Michelin star whilst fred has guided me around his favourite little holes in the walls instead. I also argued with another a blogger the other day about why I didn’t agree with his idea that I should spend my 40th birthday at Per Se in NY. And you have hit the nail on the head, I just can’t dine under the pressure of expectation. It stresses me out just thinking about it. Although I hate to be glad you didn’t enjoy your meal, I kind of am, because it suggests all my fears are not totally unjustified.But I will raise a glass and wish you a big cheers to good food, which I know I will always find on your site. Unlike some of the world’s finest restaurants, the thought of visiting the Traveller’s Lunchbox never freaks me out!xsam

  5. Dear Melissa,I couldn’t agree more. I’ve had the most remarkable, memorable and joyful eating (out) experiences in regular – no stars awarded- restaurants. I’d even take it a step further, some – not all – people choose highly awarded restaurants because of their own lack of adventurous spirit, judgement and general attraction to the glam factor ;)

  6. Hi MelissaI read your post with a great deal of interest. I can totally empathise with your view regarding the expectations when eating at a Michelin starred establishments. I have been lucky to have dined at a number of three star establishments and found them to be a mixed bunch, some phenomenal and others not so great.

  7. Hi Melissa – I’m yet to eat in any Michelin-starred restaurants, so reading your mixed feelings was extremely interesting. Clotilde mentions in her Paris restaurant guide in the Olive (3/06) how Alain Senderens tore off his 3 starts in order to "free himself from the pressure" – at least he didn’t commit suicide! But I can see what you mean with the potential crisis of Michelin..Should a chance to eat in a Michelin-starred place ever arise, I’ll try to remember not to have too high and too many expectations. Though I must admit that cucumber jelly with peeled grapes sounds rather tempting:)

  8. Dear Melissa, you know that I always feel enthusiastic about your wonderfully written stories. But this time you have spoken right from my heart (and so has Nicky in her comment). I could not agree more with your "down to earth" opinon. Really good food can make fly – but when it gets that sophisticated and laborious, yes, it may be interesting, but nothing more. When I see what so many of us food bloggers can attain by acting on instinct, by doing lots of research, by discovering authentic recipes, by adapting them attentively, I must say that many of those results would count much more for me than any 3 stars menu in the world. By the way, I have got me all ingredients yesterday for Makhouda which I am going to try – I am sure it will be worth it. Have a good weekend and kind regards from Vienna, angelika

  9. Louis De Funès, the french comedian, treated us years ago with parodies of a Michelin incognito "critic/inspector" and it was so funny to see the chefs and restaurant owners deal with him in the movies.If suicide can result (not even mentionning the drama of all the badly bruised careers and reputations lost), I’m all for the re-hauling of Michelin guide, may be its replacement even with more down-to-earth reviews of good tables, including the affordable ones.I wasn’t suprised to read the news about Michelin’s controversies unfolding lately. If Olympic officials fall for bribes so easily…Thank you for this great article.

  10. I live in NYC. More often than not, the boldfaced restaurants leave me feeling slightly robbed. Perhaps there are too many diners with blue hair, too. I miss the element of discovery I find in many ethnic restaurants here or in street kitchens on trips abroad – I think the hunter gatherer genes in me love the unexpected surprise finds.

  11. The element of surprise. An Armenian-owned restaurant in Madrid serving some of the best Arab Food I’ve ever had… my dad & I were in the last stages of a vecation in Spain. I was 18.The Vietnamese restaurant just around the corner from the motel we stayed at in San Francisco, on a family trip when I was 12.Discovering BLT’s in Manhattan. I was 10. I still love them.A surprising revelation in the form of "Agvania", a wonderful pizzeria in Tel Aviv, some of the best slices I’ve ever had were there.a can of coconut juice in a big food fair in Tel Aviv several years ago.Beautiful mashawshe (something which is similar to the more famous hummus salad) in the heart of Tel Aviv, of all places.Chilli pepper liquer in a burger place north of Tel Aviv. sweet, smooth as ice down the throat and then BOOM! FIRE…Pret A Manger in London, 1997. Funny stuff this is, calling their hummus and vegetable sandwich "exotic". I was really amused, especially considering that the hummus tasted more like mayo than anything else. They needed someone else to make the hummus – it would’ve been a killer sandwich, if only the hummus wasn’t so fake.The element of shock – all of these stories happened in Skegness. There was a salsa congress at the resort place in Skegness 3 years ago. I was there among a group of some 20 seriously devoted salseros from Israel, finding out that there was nothing really edible at the dining hall… No salad!!! And when there was, on the last day, we understood why there wasn’t any. I’m not sure what styrofoam tastes like, but I’m pretty sure it was close.British bacon. it’s soft. Dear God, it’s soft. it’s served soft. needless to say, I didn’t eat it. who in their right mind serves soft bacon, for breakfast?! I chose beans and omlette on toast. Nice for the freezing weather. No veggies availble. So all of us at the Israeli group (or at least most of us) resorted to Burger King. At least there was some lettuce and tomatos in the whopper. The element of shock came here: imagine getting a blank stare from the guy over the counter when you ask for a little bit of hot sauce. I only asked for tabasco, nothing exotic here. He looked at me as if I fell from the moon: "Sorry, we don’t have any" "Are you serious?""I’m afraid so""not even a tiny bottle??""Sorry, but no"So I stared at him right back. Burger King. Food that tastes like plastic. In the dining hall, they served everything but real food, and here we are 5 hours flight away from Israel, and 6 hours driving away from London, where real food is available. And no freaking tabasco. The day after I got back to Israel, I went downtown & bought some falafel. Some things should never be taken for granted. Things like salad.

  12. Thanks for the fascinating post. I dream of eating at El Bulli or The Fat Duck or Pierre Gagniere, so I was very keen to hear what you had to say. I’m so interested in this new style of cuisine — molecular gastronomy, to some — that my most recent post was about my attempt to make one of Heston Blumenthal’s signature dishes, white chocolate and caviar.I have to admit, I’m a little disappointed you didn’t enjoy your meal more, yet I can’t say that my desire to enjoy a meal at any of these restaurants is diminished.Thanks for the post.

  13. Very interesting post indeed, Melissa. We have one restaurant here in Copenhagen that got awarded two stars the last time around (The highest any restaurant has around here) One month after they got it, the two chefs that owned the restaurant decided to sell it. One of them now runs a small bistro-like place, open Tuesday-Saturday, serving one main course, a dessert and cheese. That’s it. He just wanted to get back to basics, I suppose. And I can understand why…

  14. Melissa, well you and I discussed this meal non-stop after our bellies recovered from the overload and long after that as well! I definitely agree with you that high expectations can often lead one to disappointment. We both came out of there feeling more than overwhelmed and a little confused. Mostly because we couldn’t remember all of those things that we’d just eaten! But its definitely a learning experience and will help keep us more grounded when next we find ourselves amidst those michelin stars. Excellent write up of the meal ;)

  15. The hubby has eaten at El Bulli and many other great restaurants. Together we have been to tons of places but Le Cirque, Combal Zero and Osteria di San Cesario stand out the most. I don’t think the stars matter after all is said and done. I dare to say some of the Michelin places leave you thinking "Is there more?" We love food and so anything, yummy, creative, well made, fresh and original catches our eye. We will be in London and wanted to try the Fat Duck, but even a 6 week advance reservation was too late. They were full.

  16. It is hard to be happily surprised when you have gone to great lengths to insure that you will be. Which is not to say I wouldn’t like to have a chance to try a meal like this anyway.

  17. hi melissa, i can totally identify…these days, i try to do everything (whether its watching a critically acclaimed movie or eating at a critically acclaimed restaurant) without expectations – life seems to throw up more pleasant surprises that way ;) re: those old books – some are on "long term loan" to ex-es and friends (i’ve pretty much written them off!) but the ones that i have managed to hang on to, i really treasure (tatty copies of richard olney’s simple french food and elizabeth david’s french provincial cooking being amongst my most prized possessions)

  18. Gia, I don’t know much about "the Fat Duck", I’m looking it up on the internet – just reading the "a-la-carte" menu. Maybe it’s just me, but to my personal taste and culinary ethic – anything fois gras equals faux-pas. I try not to dine in places that serve it.The poached turbot on the menu sounds amazing, though – with a side dish of beans in rosemary and vanilla, wow…The chocolate fondant sounds very interesting too.(harissa ice cream, that’s something to try. I think I can make it at home)Personally, I like street food and simple restaurants. the simple, real stuff immigrants make. To me, food is also about the people and the culture, so I take things from there.I’ve heard good things about a place called "world food cafe".If you haven’t been to "wagamama" yet, go there. Yes, it’s true that the interiors look like the dining hall of an average kibbutz. But the noodles are amazing, and who doesn’t like qualitative asian food at reasonable prices. I was there once, and I can’t wait to be there again the next time I’m in london. if I were you, I wouldn’t miss it. :)Have a great trip!(now didn’t that make me seem like one of the commoners? *giggling*)

  19. Valentina, thank you and well said! It’s worth keeping in mind that even prestigious guidebooks base their recommendations on someone’s opinion, and if anything that should cause us to reflect on our own rather than blindly accepting their directives.Merry, I think that’s an excellent way to do it. If I ever make it to Miami I’ll know who to ask for recommendations :)Matt – :)Sam, thank you for your lovely and insightful comment. I’ve tried to be as pragmatic as possible about the whole issue, but the fact of the matter is that I’m much like you – I too would rather be in those holes in the wall rather than have my expectations crushed. I’m sure there are really superlative fine-dining experiences to be had out there, but it is a gamble each and every time. In any case I’m sure wherever you end up, your good sense and great taste will ensure a spectacular birthday meal!Nicky – Absolutely, I agree with you too. There are certainly plenty of people out there who seem to care more about the restaurant than the food – blasphemy, in my opinion!GastroChick, thanks for your input. In general what you say about the 3-stars is what I’ve now heard from a lot of people, though it was completely different to experience it for myself. At least I’ll be somewhat better prepared next time!Ivonne – Thanks, I’m glad you found it interesting!Pille – If it does, I can certainly recommend a trip to Pierre Gagnaire! Of course it wouldn’t hurt to phone ahead and just make sure the peeled grapes and cucumber jelly are still on the menu ;)Angelika, thank you, and I agree completely. I’ve had more culinary revelations thanks to other bloggers than I’ll probably ever have at the hands of a chef, no matter how accomplished. Please do let me know how you like the makhouda!Zoubida – Manuel knew exactly which movie you’re referring to, and I’m trying to track it down now to see it myself! And yes, I don’t know quite why it has come as such a surprise that there was all this shady activity going on behind the scenes at Michelin. Where is it not happening?Anna – Hmm, you might be on to something there. I think the hunter-gatherer instinct may explain why we’re always driven to seek out new places and why we’re so excited when we find someplace great that nobody else knows about!Hi Malka – Glad to see I sparked some nice memories! I can’t say I’m surprised about some of your experiences in Skegness – there are many such areas in the UK where the nearest good food seems to be on the moon. But you’ve piqued my interest with your mention of chili pepper liqueur – I’ll have to keep my eye out for it!Rob, I’m glad you don’t take my post as a deterrent – that’s the last thing I’d want! I think eating at any of these places is a very subjective experience, and everyone will have a different perception of the food based on their own tastes/expectations. I certainly would hope you keep an open mind and who knows, you may well find it meets all your expectations and more!Zarah Maria – That’s a very interesting story. These things seem to be happening more and more frequently. As diners it’s easy to forget that the whole star race can be as stressful for the chefs as it is for us!Michele, I must say I was relieved to hear that we had similar perceptions of the meal – it shows my tastebuds are not completely off! Despite all its flaws, though, I can’t say I regret going one bit – it was a remarkable experience, and I’m glad we had it together. And next time I come to Paris, who knows where the winds will blow us? Gia, I agree that what should matter is the food itself, not the reputation of the restaurant. That said, obviously we pick our dining experiences based on reputation, so it’s not that easy to keep them separate! I’m sorry to hear you weren’t able to get into the Fat Duck, I had no idea the wait for a table was still so long!Lindy – Yes, it is amazing how much psychology has do to with should just be a purely sensual experience. I certainly do hope you have a chance to try a meal like this as I’d love to know what you think!J – I think I’ll have to adopt your philosophy, it sounds pretty sensible! Isn’t it hard, though, keeping that expectation from creeping in through the unlocked back door? ;)

  20. Hi Melissa–I have to agree with you on this one. The expense. The difficulty of getting a table. All of the rhapsodizing that you’ve heard.You show up at the restaurant expecting perfection. Beyond perfection. Trancendence. But sometimes all you get is food. Good food. Even very good food. But not the revelation that you were hoping for.Trancendence is a tall order, though, especially as it usually catches you by surprise.Reputations and expectations aside, I’m curious about what you thought of the "surprise" element of the meal. Did it seem organic–as in, "gee, cucumber and grapes–the clean tastes will go great together!" or forced, as in "artichoke ice cream with tapioca–the interplay of textures could be neat, and I bet *nobody* has tried that before!"

  21. Malka, I was introduced to fois by my husband and have always loved pate but since I saw some videos of how the ducks were treated, I also decided not to order or eat it. At some great places the bill can top 150-300 Euros a person without wine but here in Italy, I could kill and pay for some of my dad’s homemade wonton, my mom’s pho and her BBQ roast pork. Those things are music to my taste buds.

  22. Gia, I didn’t know you were Vietnamese!You know, I’ve never actually tried pho, but since I tried carpaccio (and liked it), I’m dead curious to try it. I have a recipe at home that seems decent enough, I should make it someday…Vietnamese food is indeed music for the tastebuds, even for someone who has no Asian roots what-so-ever. I still can’t forget the taste of fresh rice-wrappers stuffed full with fresh mint & cilantro, and the sweetest, most succulent shrimp shining like an opal from the center of all that greenery. That was so fresh and so foreign to me, being twelve years old and taking a first bite into a new culture. it’s these exact things that make your eyes sparkle when you remember them. :-)the same goes for Thai food, btw.PS: Melissa, as for that Chilli liquer – here’s their website! http://www.ychilli.comMade in Israel, all blue & white (and red hot!)… sometimes I think where did they come up with that thing… but it’s genius, it really is.

  23. This is a really neat site. Great job describing your experiences and the aesthetics of the food. What you see and taste come through with such clarity!

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