|This is the tenth (March 2009) in a series of occasional restaurant newsletters devoted to both the eating scene in London and to top restaurants around the world. As ever, to unsubscribe just email a reply with the word “unsubscribe” in the title and you will not be bothered further.
Since not all readers seem aware of some of the more obscure features of the andyhayler.com site, here are some features which you may not be aware of:
• ”Value for money” rating for London restaurants
• Maps of 3 star restaurants, UK starred restaurants and all London places
• A trio of food trivia quizzes
• RSS feed (so you can see when a new review appears automatically).
If you have any suggestions for improving the site then just let me know.
State of Play in London
Traditionally January to March are the worst time for restaurants in the UK, and so owners will look forward to the Spring to see whether conditions brighten up along with the weather. There are still a few new openings happening (of course restaurant take a long time to plan, and even longer for builders to deliver). The Modern Pantry is a pleasant addition to the London dining scene, but one opening which perhaps shows the way is the Fish and Grill in Croydon, a simple enough place but which is clearly catering to its audience effectively as it was completely full when I visited, just weeks after opening. In the recession cheaper places are doing fine (including fast food chains and pizza delivery places) as diners trade down and consider eating locally rather than on fancy restaurants in central London.
My favourite recent opening is the Harwood Arms. Generally I am not fond of gastropubs, since many of them use the “Pub” setting as an excuse to knock out lazy dishes at prices that are actually far from low. I’d personally rather eat something simple at home than eat low quality ingredients, unevenly executed, in a pub. The Harwood Arms is the exact opposite of such cynical places, specialising in game but paying care and attention to all its dishes on the three visits I have paid there so far. Even if we are unlikely to get many ambitious openings in the coming months, it would at least be nice if our restaurants could show some care and passion in their cooking as The Harwood Arms does.
At the high end of dining, I have enjoyed excellent meals recently at Le Gavroche and The Square, which both seem to be on very good form at the moment, and both of which continue to play to full houses of diners, showing that some people are still prepared to pay for high quality cooking in the capital.
The 2009 Michelin guides are now all out. The changes at the top are a third star for:
Masa (New York)
Lung King Heen (Hong Kong)
Robuchon Galera (Macau)
The retirement of Oliver Roellinger was only three-star demotion other than the rather surprising dropping of the 3rd star at Heinz Winkler (who was, incidentally, the youngest ever chef to gain a third star). There are now 72 three-star restaurants in the world.
Of the new ones I thought that Robuchon Galera was well worth its third star while Masa was firmly not, and the Bristol seemed to be a good two star rather than a true 3 star place (I wish the same could be said of the prices). I thought the food at Lung King Heen was fine but I enjoyed Made in China in Beijing much more, and I suspect that Michelin felt that they had to find a Cantonese place to which to give a third star in order to sell their new Hong Kong guide.
While Michelin remains inscrutable about its selections, the least few years do seem to have hinted at an element of commercialism that was not noticeably present in the past. Newer guides such as New York and Hong Kong seem to have stars thrown about like confetti compared to France and Germany. Comparing, for example, Hakkasan in London (one star) with the vastly inferior Reikasai (two stars) and the barely better Lung King Heen (three stars) it is hard to find inter-country consistency. There are plenty of other examples.
Another issue that I find troubling is the seemingly generous treatment reserved for the outlets of big-name chefs. To take London as an example, I have yet to meet any serious foodie who thinks that Atelier Robuchon is worth two stars. Such oddball promotions do little to dispel rumours that Michelin “looks after the celebrity chefs, and the chefs look after Michelin”. An article in The Independent newspaper claimed that: “the Michelin Guide, that French bible of gastronomy, is under pressure to remove all those celebrity chefs who no longer have time to cook”. Any guesses as to the date of the article? It was actually published in 2000, and it is hard to see that the situation has improved since then.
Of course there will always be grumbling about where Michelin sprinkles its star-dust, but the expansion of its coverage means that it is all the more important that Michelin pay greater attention to consistency across its country teams in order for it remain credible as it heads towards its 101st year of editions.
Odds & Ends
The recession will expose a lot of the frothier restaurants that have sprung up in the boom times. Times seem especially hard in New York and London, which have a disproportionately large financial services sector. Per Se has introduced a limited a la carte offering rather than a compulsory tasting menu, and Masa has dropped its menu price from USD 450 (plus service) to USD 400 – times mu