Birthday / Lists
Quick Q: which is more full of shit – The Michelin Guide, La Liste, or The World’s 50 Best?
You can convince yourself you have an answer that is rooted in fact, or reason. You’re lying to yourself. Making decisions is hard; so hard that we fall back on heuristics to do the job for us. Example one: the affinity bias. We are genetically hardwired to prefer people and things that don’t push us too far from our comfort zones; we prefer channels that parrot our opinions back to us. Example two: confirmation bias, which dictates that we are far more likely to discount evidence that challenges our convictions than we are to take it into account and revise our position. The net result of this pair of decision-making shortfalls is toxic: a self-perpetuating spiral of ill-informed gut reactions that insulate themselves against debate and rebuke – the odd celebrity death aside, the story of everything bad and “unexpected” that happened in 2016.
Lists are particularly dangerous in this regard, a convenient way of short-circuiting decision-making dressed up as a rational, data-driven answer to a specific question (Where should I eat in this city? Where can I eat well but cheaply? What is the best restaurant in the world? Can 292 Twitter egg keyboard warriors really be all it takes to make Liman Restaurant Tripadvisor’s number one in London?). But they are (of course) themselves the results of all sorts of biases and shortcuts, and holding up a distinctive methodology – We use anonymous experts! We use the wisdom of the crowd! We use a mother-flippin’ algorithm, yo! – doesn’t magically give it legitimacy. It’s why I’m always amused by the storm in a teacup of tits-for-tats you get every year on social media around the time the Michelin Guide is released: obsessives thrusting a little red book in people’s faces as evidence that their opinion – The Dairy is overlooked; The Waterside Inn is overrated – is somehow more legitimate than a pet peeve. Michelin fetishists hold the Guide up and apart on the grounds of its heritage, and lose themselves in its mythos, agonising over the meaning of a star gained or lost. Which – fine; everybody should have a hobby. But privileging Michelin just because it has history is like only going to restaurants that have been open for twenty years, or only using a landline with a rotary dial. At the end of the day, and like every other guide and list, its raison d’être is purely commercial, and so defending it becomes not a question of celebrating its integrity but signalling something about yourself. Prod beneath the surface: do you value your guide of choice because you believe in its recommendations, or because it rewards the sort of restaurant experience that you enjoy? And so, by singing its praises, are you really just singing your own?
I had an interesting dilemma last weekend: it was my 30th birthday, and I needed two places in London for dinner, one of which would be on somebody else’s dollar (albeit in a what’s-not-yours-is-also-no-longer-mine way). Michelin would dictate Restaurant Gordon Ramsay or Alain Ducasse (La Liste, for what it’s worth, would support this conclusion); San Pellegrino would push me towards The Ledbury, or The Clove Club.
We went to Hedone. It’s a fun case study in that it straddles the universes of Michelin and The World’s 50 Best and La Liste – it appears in all three – but it also acts as a stick with which you can beat them if you’re so inclined: it should have more stars! It should be higher! It should be higher in that one, too! And it’s true: the dinner I had on Saturday was better than almost every 2-star experience I’ve had, and would hold up well against anywhere I’ve been in both global Top 20s (certainly much more deliciously start-to-finish than the current number one in one list, and much more interestingly than the highest-ranking French place I’ve been to on the other).
Mikael Jonsson has always struck me as a cerebral sort, and it shows both in occasional flashes of wit – a homage to fish and chips is a fillet encased in a potato starch and vinegar cylinder; a steak tartare frites is reimagined as raw deer with potato ice cream and Oscietra – and in the thoughtful, genuinely perfect pacing of a long old dinner (10 courses and counting). The wine is exceptional – after a recent nightmarish pairing experience at a restaurant nominally Hedone’s equal or even its superior (depending on whether you consult Michelin or La Liste) we go by the glass here, and are more than pleasantly surprised at the almost unnecessarily high quality of what’s on offer (prior experience having taught us to expect some margin-bolstering swill for the poors who can’t afford to buy a bottle). The staff are knowledgeable and charming, and the food is – duh – frequently astonishing. It is refreshing – a cold poached oyster with Granny Smith as we’re warming up; a pumpkin tart with clementine sorbet as we’re winding down – when it wants to be refreshing; it is indulgent and rich – a veal sweetbread with a perfect sauce; a purely pleasurable chocolate mousse to finish things off – when it needs to ratchet things up. It is so winningly cutting edge it can pare raw deer fat with ice cream and make it seem like a classic; it is so rooted in technique that it can plate lamb with artichokes Barigoule and make you taste the combination anew. It truly does not get better.
But what so many lists overlook is that it does get as good – just in a different way. Take where we went for dinner number two: P Franco has been hovering on most people’s horizons since William Gleave started doing cool, Italian-inflected stuff in its tiny kitchen; under the auspices of current chef Tim Spedding it has stepped things up into another dimension. The skill on show is astonishing, especially since the performance in question takes place in an area of culinary real estate most places would devote to their cheese trolley. Spedding has stinted at The Ledbury and The Clove Club, and the tropes of Modern British pop up here, too: various expressions of roe, charcuterie 2.0, game. But there is also a cosmopolitan openness to other cuisines: various trips since August have featured a summery, Italianate dish of straciatella and Datterini tomatoes given unexpected depth by seaweed and sesame seed, a smoked eel toast in homage to Russ and Daughters in New York, and a rustic, vaguely Francophone dish of Brussel tops stuffed with chestnut, pheasant and bacon as the winter of my twenties (and literal Winter) drew in.
Whatever the time of year, it is – with pinpoint accuracy – exactly what you want to eat, and it is unstintingly excellent in the eating. This all complemented with a wine programme that is the polar opposite of Hedone’s in one sense – eschewing Bordeaux and Burgundy for less canonical regions; subbing out vintage champagne for vaguely barnyardy pét nat – but which is no less committed in finding the customer something unexpectedly delicious to drink (they have a lot to choose from: it’s really a wine shop with seats). There is nowhere in London I get more excited about visiting; there is nowhere in London you need to visit more urgently if you have not yet popped your head round the door misted with condensation from the revels within. Tim leaves in January. Take it from a man recently forced to confront the fact that he is ageing: the clock is ticking.
Dinner at one was four times more expensive than at the other. But they’re not so different, these two places (for one thing, wherever you live in London, at least one of them will be a shaggingly long way away). They are both gloriously unconstrained in their approach to trotting the globe and spanning years of culinary history in search of interesting ingredients and ways of serving them (in this regard, they chime nicely with each other: we encounter smoked eel at both, and clementines, and pleasingly hygge home-made caramel, though thankfully not on the same plate). They carry no airs and graces, and yet make it unambiguously clear that they take the food they serve incredibly seriously. The cookbooks on display at each drive this home: Semplice by Dino Joannides and Where Chefs Eat in Hedone, and Relae: A Book of Ideas and McGee on Food and Cooking at P Franco. On paper, it looks like I’ve got those the wrong way round: the tome from the 3-star joint and the molecular gastronomy ur-text belong at the Bibendum-bothering place in Chiswick; the guides to great local restaurants and to making simple things delicious should be above those induction burners in Hackney. That they are not suggests something meaningful about the minds of both chefs: one is stripping back everything unnecessary and wasteful from fine dining; the other is using every tool in his arsenal to make the potentially ordinary sublime. They meet in the middle.
But if you had to write a list that could contain them both, it wouldn’t be Michelin’s list of starred restaurants, or San Pellegrino’s annual compendium of dubious ethical practice and shoddy gender politics. It is hard, in fact, to think of a classification currently in the public domain that includes them as peers. This is a shame. For too long we have been obsessed with grouping and listing restaurants of the same ilk: the ones worth a journey in their own right, the best cheap eats, the top 50 granted the seal of approval by the Chang-Redzepi-Atala trinity. We do this because choice is hard, and factoring a whole bunch of variables into your calculus feels like a waste of effort. But the homogenous end result of this methodology doesn’t promote a debate I care about having: it’s always that’s right or that’s wrong, and never that’s interesting.
It’s an idea so established in cooking as to be axiomatic: consider two fairly similar things in relation to each other and you’ll struggle to get anything meaningful out of the experience; start contrasting things you wouldn’t naturally think to put together and the exercise delivers something richer. The Michelin Guide is foie gras three meals a day, or a whole Alba truffle eaten with a spoon. But shave it thinly and pair it with something else, and it transforms your understanding of both. Going to the extra effort of understanding the relative merits of truly different places brings a finer appreciation of what makes excellent restaurants excellent, allowing us to see affinities we might otherwise overlook, and to articulate ideas in new, possibly controversial, but ultimately more valuable ways.
So when I say that – on a pound for pound basis – these are the two best restaurants in London, I really do mean it. But I honestly hope you disagree.