Have we had our fill of fine dining?
Fuss and formality is finished, argues the restaurant critic Marina O'Loughlin
Saturday 19 November 2011
The gourmandises trolley, twinkling like a chandelier, trundles over acres of thick, sound-deadening carpet. I feel I ought to accept the proffered salted caramel and weeny lemongrass macaroons because, bloody hell, I'm paying for them. But I won't enjoy a single mouthful. It's an eight-course degustation menu (not counting amuses and petit fours and trolleys of sweeties) and my hunger and appetite peaked round about course four.
I've been patronised by the maître d' and smirked at by the sommelier for sticking to the shallow end of the wine list. Mid-meal, I'm led almost by the hand to the "restrooms" by a member of staff; as he opens the door for me, I half expect him to say, "Enjoy your micturition, madam". There's the unmistakeable sound of someone retching in a neighbouring cubicle. And, to put the final garnish on the plate, we're about to hand over more than £200 quid a head for the privilege.
This is the world of fine dining, a phrase I can never hear without imagining it said in a Hyacinth Bucket, fayn daynin' sort of way. It's a niche pursuit by anyone's standards; always has been. But nowadays, in a world strafed by recession, poverty and war, it leaves an increasingly unsavoury taste in the mouth. Is this most bloated and self-indulgent of pastimes about to finally lie down gracefully and die?
How do we define fine dining anyway? Even the denizens of stomach-obsessed sites such as Chowhound find it hard to pin down. There are a few commentators who'd contend that it's anywhere prepared to stiff you senseless for your tea, and serve you right. But for me it's a formal, direct descendant of the grand old hotels and dining rooms of Edwardian Paris, their inflated prices, lifer staff, Bible-sized wine lists, haute cuisine menus and haute bourgeois clientele.
Reports of its imminent demise have been circulating for years. In major cities all over the world, restaurants with grandiose Francophone names and formally-attired waiting staff have been quietly closing their doors. In New York, whose fiercely hierarchical social X-rays kept any number of hoi polloi-repelling temples of gastronomy afloat, only Le Cirque and La Grenouille remain. Their clientele is quite literally dying out.
And the story in France, grand-mère of haute cuisine, is even more telling. The restaurant Grim Reaper is having a field day as the informality of the Bistro Moderne movement and the influence of Le Fooding – a faction determined to move away from the strangling rules of traditional dining and reinstate a sense of fun – cut swathes through the old pretenders. Even more disturbingly for the fiercely self-regarding French culinary tradition, it has now become the world's second biggest market for McDonald's. And if that isn't enough to have the old guard weeping into their pommes soufflés, I don't know what is.
Sure, there are still places like the two-Michelin-starred Michel Rostang in Paris. Solid, wood-panelled, white-clothed, the dictionary definition of bourgeois. The menu bristles with quenelle de brochette, poire 'belle Hélène' and blue lobster salad (a snip at €98). But so rarefied is this sort of experience becoming even in its home territory, that Unesco has recently elected to preserve it on its 'World Intangible Heritage' list (other candidates include the Peruvian scissors dance and 'the watertight-bulkhead technology of Chinese junks').
Here in the UK we have the likes of Read's of Faversham, whose menu would make an urbanite's buttocks clench – 'savoury nibbles'; 'a small appetiser to be served at your table'; 'we call it cocky leeky terrine'. Or Raymond Blanc's overpoweringly soft-furnished Manoir aux Quat'Saisons. Or the luxury country house hotels where an outing is a massive event and diners get dolled-up accordingly. Think of the kind of places that Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon visited during The Trip – Hipping Hall ('Fine dining and total indulgence'), Holbeck Ghyll ('the ultimate gastro getaway').
So the linen-tableclothed temples are still hanging on in there, but they're frequently money furnaces, subsidised by hotels, or losing loot hand over fist: the late El Bulli was losing a reputed half a million euros every year, while chef Ferran Adria promoted kitchenware and crisps. Their role is to provide a brand foundation for the real action.
Huge stellar names are spawning outlets where there's brown paper on the table and the waiter is entirely likely to call you mate: Daniel Boulud with his burger-toting Bar Boulud, Thomas Keller's Ad Hoc with its fried-chicken Mondays, and our own Michelin-botherer, Gordon Ramsay with his Plane Food and Bread Street Kitchen. It's a little like haute couture: in real life, few of us want to parade around in a hundredweight of one-off Swarovski crystal-embroidered vicuna, but we'll happily shell out for the fragrance.
Increasingly, the forward-thinking food industry isn't looking towards France; inspiration comes from Japan, Scandinavia and Spain, with New York calling the style shots. Restaurant observer Richard Harden, of the Harden's Guide, reckons the first salvo was shot here in the UK by the arrival of Nobu, which "showed that restaurateurs could get people to spend lots of money without acres of damask to eat their food on".
The restaurant world is changing almost as rapidly as that of technology: in a recent survey of the members of the World's 50 Best Restaurants 'Academy' – a group of over 800 people involved in the business either as commentators or participants – the trends were locality, or bistro styling, 'slow food' or street food. Nowhere on that list am I seeing the return of the cloche and the guéridon or the need for diners to wear jacket and tie. And why would we? In our TripAdvisor and Qype-driven society, we no longer think the establishment can dictate to us. We hold the power: get with the programme, old-timers.
The latest pretenders to our Brit fine dining title are a far cry from the fossil model: Hedone in west London, with its silent chefs cooking virtually in the centre of the room and smiling female maître d'; Roganic in Marylebone, which looks like it was assembled in an afternoon's trolley dash to B&Q. Paul Kitching's deliciously bonkers 21212 in Edinburgh. Heston Blumenthal's Dinner may live in the swanky Mandarin Oriental next to Hyde Park, but it's all steampunk styling and unclothed tables. Perhaps I didn't enjoy Ramsay-alumnus Jason Atherton's critically lauded Pollen Street Social, but he's hit the zeitgeist: flexible menus, buzzy cocktail lounge that's as much of a destination as the restaurant, drinks spewing dry ice, a dessert bar.
I'd say in recent terms, it was David Chang who kicked the new wave off with his Momofuku brand in New York: fun dining, not fine dining. Even though it will still cost you the predictable arm, leg and at least one of your kidneys.
The final nail in fine dining's coffin is that it's simply not cool anymore. The food world is a newly hip place to be, full of facial-haired young gunslingers, whether behind the stoves, creating the artisan cheeses and saucissons or scanning the menus. They're setting themselves up in funky mobile kitchens like food mavericks the Eat St collective in King's Cross, or opening speakeasy-style dives such as Meat Liquor with its perfect burger obsession, or leaving city life like James Swift, creator of Trealy Farm's silky British charcuterie. They're chefs like Stevie Parle or Young Turks Isaac McHale and James Lowe, working every hour God sends in the pursuit of good food.
These opinion-formers scoff at the idea that you need the likes of Michelin to define what constitutes good food. (It's chefs, mostly, who keep the belief in the tyre merchants alive; foodiegentsia diners reckon their credibility has been tarnished by a failure to capture the essence of foodie Mecca, Tokyo. Or continuing to award their ultimate three stars to the likes of Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester, or Restaurant Gordon Ramsay.) This lot aren't even vaguely interested in dropping the disposable income in a place infested by expensing-it suits or people who look like their mum and dad.
Who, then, is keeping the putative corpse alive? Expense accounters, older gastro-tourists, once-a-year treat-seekers, hoping to catch a glimpse of Gordon or Heston off the telly. According to a report commissioned by American Express Business Insights, "men place more importance on fine dining than women do". You don't say. Course after course of expensive food and wine: this isn't dinner, this is dick swinging. Thomas Keller, of Napa Valley's French Laundry renown – there's four hours of my life I'll never get back – ran a pop-up restaurant in Harrods recently which sold out in seconds, despite costing £250 a head. All it made me think was, how gauche.
The old-school, luxury-ingredient-heavy, formal kind of place is heading towards becoming a theme park for the super-rich. Writers like Adam Gopnik, whose book The Table Comes First is a hymn to the old French model, and Michael Steinberger, who wrote Au Revoir to All That: The Rise and Fall of French Cuisine, acknowledge that the traditional shrines of haute gastronomy have become museum pieces. Emerging economies like China, Dubai and Russia still love the starch, pomp and circumstance, but the West is maturing away from all that, more interested in taste, provenance and, crucially, a good time, without the need to put the Lafite on the table with the label facing out.
Traditional fine dining could, like the practice of eating ortolans, come to be regarded as so decadent and debauched as to be driven underground; there are already unsung, gilded rooms in London which serve elaborate, pricey food to a handful of rich diners, such as chef William Drabble's tiny Mayfair jewel box, Seven Park Place.
But if you strip fine dining of its pompous, overblown trappings, there will always be a market for exquisite food. The latest swathe of doom-mongers started their refrain in the States about 20 years ago when Bush and Quayle were kings and recession was the flavour of the month. All those 'Le' and 'La' places were replaced by steakhouses or groovy joints serving stacked food, then burgers and mesquite grills. Today it's gone almost as far as it can, winding up with designer poor food like meatloaf, mac'n'cheese and meatballs. But much as we adore troughing the likes of a gourmet hotdog at Hawksmoor, for instance– and I do, I do – there's little to touch the memorable experience of eating food prepared with consummate skill in places like San Sebastian's Arzak or the 'best restaurant in the world', Noma. It's a luxury that verges on the accessible for those who might never dream of driving a Bentley or wearing a Patek Philippe watch. Try getting a table at London's Roganic at short notice: there's no tumbleweed whistling down there.
So maybe it's premature to think about plugging fine dining straight on to the life support machine. It's not dying, it's evolving. The cooking techniques and sky-high prices remain, but the stultified environments are the deserving victims of natural selection. But even if the practice lives on, shouldn't we kill off the expression? Please? Fayn daynin' reeks of overfed napery freaks, sucking up to celebrity chefs and collecting Michelin stars like notches on a bedpost. Would you want to go on a blind date with someone who put 'enjoys fine dining' on their profile? Why not just go the whole hog and sign up for one of those Sugar Daddy parties? And when this most nouveau riche of phrases finally does the decent thing and shuffles off this mortal coil, I'll be dancing a gavotte on its grave.
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