Last year we had lunch in Alain Ducasse at the beautiful Dorchester Hotel in London. The food was uninspiring; three dull, badly prepared dishes in a meal that was only saved by good wines and splendid cheese. A disappointment then, especially since we enjoyed a superb lunch there a couple of years previous. Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester has 3 Michelin stars.
When we review meals we never mention Michelin. The reason for this is simple; our reviews are of our experiences; Michelin's are of theirs. When we reviewed Amass we didn't complain that it hadn't been awarded a star yet, nor did we suggest it should have one and we certainly didn't predict it would be awarded one in the next publication of the guide. Similarly, anytime we reviewed a meal of a starred restaurant that we were less than enamoured with, we wouldn't complain that it had a star or rant about how Michelin got it wrong. We have given glowing reviews to non-starred restaurants and terrible verdicts on the starred.
Next month the 2017 red guide will be published – this year, for the first time, released with a ceremony in London; maybe an attempt by Michelin to keep up with the marketing hype of the Worlds’ Best Restaurant unveiling held every spring. The announcement of the Michelin guide will almost certainly be met with the same sour grapes, tantrums, conspiracy theories and irrational, pedantic claptrap from some food critics. These pundits seem to deem it just downright unthinkable that there aren't more starred restaurants gracing our small island. It is unfathomable to them that the restaurants they have given glowing reviews to haven't been awarded their supposedly deserved and, often, predicted star.
But is there anything behind these criticisms or is it just hogwash and conjecture? Maybe it is right to add a little bit of perspective and balance to these inevitable criticisms. This is not done to either praise or defend Michelin, but more to just highlight why some of these criticisms might not ring true with logic and evidence.
When the Scandinavian guide was released earlier this year and Amass was still not awarded a star, we might have been the tiniest bit surprised, but we didn’t complain that Michelin had dropped the ball, nor did we think we were wrong for praising the restaurant so highly. We can speak only for the meal that was served to us on that one Saturday afternoon the November before last. How on earth could we know what experience the Michelin inspector had when they visited? Well, obviously we can’t, no one can. For all we know the inspector was served an over-seasoned steaming turd in a urine consommé. Similarly, it is also not inconceivable that a restaurant that was a disappointment for us, like Ducasse in London was last year, might have served up a much more pleasing experience to others.
In the last few years in Dublin there was one decision that Michelin made that really vexed the some of the Irish food critics: not awarding a star to The GreenHouse until last year. To many of our esteemed professional gourmands The GreenHouse has been, since the day it opened, the pinnacle of the Dublin restaurant scene and it was just downright “breath-taking” that Michelin didn’t agree with them. Apparently, Michelin was slow to pick up on this great restaurant and when realising their mistake, they didn’t want to lose face by awarding the star the following year and so waited for a few more guides before finally making amends for the error of their ways.
Ignoring the fact that The GreenHouse did seem to change their culinary style in the year preceding the award of their star, the obviously foolish complaint here is that “I think the restaurant is great and gave it a glowing review, so I am outraged that Michelin doesn’t agree”. Unless you were at the table with the Michelin Inspector, on each occasion that he or she visited, which probably wasn’t on opening night, and personally sampled all of their dishes then you really have no right to comment on whether Michelin came to the right or wrong decision. If a friend ate out at a restaurant you loved and was to tell you, for example, that the beef was overcooked and the cod under-seasoned, would you tell them they were wrong? Would you say, “no it wasn’t because I ate there and everything was perfect”? You probably wouldn’t, and certainly shouldn’t.
One of the reasons spouted for the oversight of Michelin not to award more stars in Ireland is that their inspectors don’t spend enough time here and when they bother make the trip over they only concentrate on certain areas. Hasn't it even been claimed, without any supporting evidence, that Chapter One would have earned their star earlier if it had been on the south side of the Liffey. Is the charge here that the inspectors couldn't be bothered traipsing the one mile across our expansive city or that they didn't like the image of the north-side. Imagine the meeting at Michelin HQ where it was decided “The food in Chapter One deserves a star, but we can’t have our readers suffering the indignity of Dublin’s north-side”. But, joking aside, is there any indication that Michelin doesn’t pay enough attention to Ireland? Probably not. There are more Michelin stars outside Dublin than in, and bib gourmands have been awarded to places in the most obscure parts of the country over the last few years. Michelin’s Twitter followers will see that they have shown up all over the place in Ireland this year. So as feckin’ hilarious as the jokes about Michelin not putting their tyres to good use in Ireland are, there doesn’t seem to be a reason to think this holds water.
Taking Thornton’s star away last year was met with incredulity from many in the press – as if it was bloody audacious of Michelin to take a star off a chef who has held one for so long, suggesting they have some sort of sinister motive for taking this action. Maybe it would be wise to stop and think for a minute that maybe, just maybe, the food just wasn’t up to scratch when the Michelin inspector visited and that is the only reason that Michelin took this decision. Many people complaining about this probably haven’t eaten in Thornton’s, a restaurant that managed to delight and disappoint us in the last couple of years, since 2005.
Michelin prefers a very high server-to-diner ratio, white tablecloths, formal attire, stiff sommeliers and other classical French formalities. That is the opinion of many at least, but again it is worth looking for the evidence. There are a very many 3-star restaurants around the world that don’t have stiff white tablecloths. Some prominent 3-star restaurants come to mind instantly; Troisgrois in Roanne, Saison in San Francisco, Chef’s table at Brooklyn Fare in New York has counter service. Tom Kerridge’s 2-star pub The Hand & Flowers might have quite superb food, but the service and dining room are far removed from the old-fashioned image of fine dining that many think Michelin still prefer. The same would be said for April Bloomfield’s The Spotted Pig in Manhattan – another pub-style joint where the most popular dish is a burger.
Michelin is a French guide, with their roots in formal French fine dining and all the bells and whistles that come with it, but good food comes in many packages these days, from the classical to the contemporary, from the formal to the easy-going and there has been an obvious effort to stay current in recent years. Barafina, a reservation-free, counter service, tapas bar in London was awarded a star in 2014. For just a few euro, and after ticking boxes on a form-based menu, you can enjoy dumplings in the 1-star Tim Ho Wan, a rudimentary dim sum joint in Hong Kong.
Two years back we jumped into a cab outside our hotel in Singapore and asked the driver to take us to a hawker centre in Chinatown. He took us to the Chinatown Complex on Smith Street. We went inside, upstairs to the food court and joined the longest queue. The very, very long line of people was for a stall called Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle. For hardly any money at all we enjoyed three delicious dishes; a dumpling soup, char siew noodle and chicken rice. This tiny stall was awarded a Michelin star in the first Singapore publication of the guide this year.
Dress codes are thankfully a thing of the past for many restaurants now. We have even been sat in 2 and 3-star restaurants, great places such as Arzak, Noma, Cellar de Can Roca, and seen fellow diners in runners, and even the odd tracksuit. Even in Paris, places like the tremendous 1-star Le Chateaubriand is as informal a dining room as you can get.
So maybe there isn’t much truth to this common perception of Michelin being an antiquated guide. Or maybe there is, but it is something that Michelin are making strides to address.
If some of the Irish restaurants that have been overlooked by Michelin were in France they would have been awarded the star they so richly deserved. This is an accusation that has been bandied around by our friends in the media many times. What they are saying is that Michelin gives preferential treatment to French restaurants. That it is somehow easier to get a Michelin star if your restaurant was in Paris, or Lyon, or Marseille, than it would be Dublin. Whilst it is a fact that there are currently only 4 Michelin starred establishments in Dublin, compared to 100 in Paris, that has to be taken in the context of the two cities. There are approximately 2000 restaurants in Dublin, compared to around 14000 in Paris but pertinently, and let’s be fair here, Paris has a much richer and deeper food heritage and culture than our fair city. Marseille a city with around the same number of restaurants as Dublin has only 7 restaurants with a Michelin star. Lyon, the gastronomy obsessed belly of France, has only 18 eateries with coveted stars out of nearly 3000 restaurants, whereas Galway, with less than 400 restaurants, has a higher percentage with 2 Michelin starred restaurants. There are twice as many starred restaurants in Tokyo than in Paris, so the Japanese probably don’t feel too hard done by.
You may hear people say that a meal in a shunned Irish restaurant was better than a meal in a Michelin star restaurant in France. That might well be the case, but are they really saying that there aren’t restaurants in France who they would deem to be overlooked by Michelin too? Are they saying they have never had a bad meal in a Michelin starred restaurant in Ireland? We have certainly had some great meals in starless establishments in France.
Maybe Michelin does have a soft-spot for the old world classical French chefs. Some, like Paul Bocuse, have had 3 Michelin stars for half a century without changing the menu for twenty years. When Alan Ducasse at the Dorchester was awarded 3-stars, just two years after opening, it was met with scepticism by many chefs in London, who didn’t feel it was deserved. However, in last year’s guide, they did take the third star off Le Relais Bernard Loiseau, Alan Ducaisse’s Le Meurice in Paris and L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon went from 2 to 1-star. So who really knows if they are kinder to the French culinary establishment?
There are a couple of the more vocal critics of the Michelin Guide in Ireland who, before complaining that their favourite restaurants haven’t been awarded a star, might do well to ask themselves if it is plausible that the Michelin inspectors might possess more knowledge or expertise than themselves. If you find yourself disagreeing with Michelin’s decision on many restaurants they include or omit, then maybe, as crazy as it might sound, they actually might be the ones who are more informed. After all the inspectors are, apparently, well trained, experienced and are required to eat out around the world regularly.
If Michelin inspectors aren’t a better judge of a meal, then maybe they have a better process of judging a restaurant than the average tabloid critic. It is possible there is something in the anonymous inspector, who isn’t known to everyone in the restaurant, who goes back to check for consistency, maybe they might just have a better angle on the restaurant’s true performance? This method is certainly at odds with the critic writing in your Sunday supplement who will review a restaurant once, usual very soon after it opens, but will never issue a reassessment, even though the restaurant may have changed head chef or their style. These reviews become irrelevant very quickly.
Some of the criticism Michelin attracts is brought on by their, seemingly deliberate, lack of transparency of their methods. How often they actually visit a restaurant? Apparently before the awarding or a new or additional star they will do several visits, but after that they might visit less often, but this is just rumour. Are there certain criteria for the awarding of a star or a bib gourmand? Maybe if they were a bit more open about their processes and the reason for awarding or taking away a star, they might not open themselves up for so much ridicule.
So, in the era of social media, real-time reviewing, critics, bloggers and blaggers why is a guide by a French tyre company still so relevant? Some chefs certainly pay it far too much respect. It can be cringeworthily frustrating when a talented chef is cooking with the sole aim of winning a Michelin star, usually resulting in food that is an over-engineered, derivative collection of soulless dishes. Michelin claims that they don’t like to see this and prefer a chef cooking with their own identity. It is paid too much attention to by some diners who diligently follow the guide for all their meals and don’t look beyond it or develop their own opinions, analogous to the wine enthusiasts who will only drink wines with 90+ Parker points.
One obvious reason it is taken so seriously by restaurateurs is that a Michelin star puts bums on seats and money in the tills, but maybe the guide is still relevant, flawed as it might be, because of the absence of a worthy competitor? Imagine you are a traveller going to a new city. You probably won’t know which local critics are credible, if they even exist. You could use Tripadvisor, which many do, but you would probably have more luck going to a psychic. The AA guide is just daft really. The World’s Best 50 is a just a short list of the very top places. There are some major cities where the Michelin guide isn’t the only show in town, The New York Times, for example, is revered more than the famous French book.
We do reference the Michelin guide whilst travelling, not so much for our blow out, budget busting, meals, as these are places we are already aware of and have booked well in advance, but more often for the bib gourmand restaurants. When we travel we tend to go to a whole range of restaurants on all ends of the spectrum. Along with the knockout meals, we will look for the best market stalls, street food and occasionally cook for ourselves if renting our accommodation. But for the every-day lunch or dinner we will, quite often, look up the local Bib Gourmands. ETTO, in Dublin, a restaurant we eat in regularly, is the perfect example of a bib gourmand. Excellent produce, cooked well, resulting in tasty, flavoursome, no-fuss and affordable food.
If a restaurant we frequent were to be awarded a star we would be happy for them, but it wouldn’t increase our enjoyment of a meal there. If our favourite starred restaurant was to suffer a loss, we would be disappointed for the whole team, but it wouldn’t stop us going back. A restaurant having or not having Michelin stars has no effect on our enjoyment of the meal. So, who cares if you don’t agree with Michelin? Why does it matter? Michelin’s guide is their view and they are entitled to it. If you don’t like it, or you think they are outdated, or irrelevant, then just ignore it!