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.