Food & Drink: Do not pass Gault before booking a table: Who judges the judges? Emily Green, as she assesses a new French guide to London's best restaurants

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
As if Britain needed yet another restaurant guide, the French team Gault Millau has just launched its English-language edition of The Best of London (Andre Gayot Publications, pounds 13.99). In divvying up the London market, it joins food guides by Evening Standard critic Fay Maschler, the listings magazine Time Out and those city slickers, the Harden brothers.

However, given the international prestige of the founding editors, Henri Gault and Christian Millau, its real competition will be from the hefty national guides: Egon Ronay, the Good Food Guide and Michelin.

So what does Gault Millau have that the other guides do not? Answer: pure cheek. Gault and Millau have been stirring things up in the restaurant world since they met as journalists on the Paris-Presse, a cutting-edge evening paper, in the Fifties. By 1962 they had published their first Paris directory, Guide Julliard. Joined by a third partner, Andre Gayot, they formed Gault Millau in 1969 and devised their (rather silly) system of rating top restaurants with from one to four toques (chef's hats) while at the same time rating all restaurants with numbers from one to 20 (perfection, never achieved).

Those who have not heard of them will still have felt their influence. Since 1969 there has been a monthly food magazine, Nouveau Guide Gault Millau, and guides to Paris, France, London and New York. A 1973 edition of the magazine dubbed a movement among French chefs as 'nouvelle cuisine'. Drew Smith, editor of the Good Food Guide from 1982-89, borrowed their numerical system.

As Gault Millau returns to the London market after a four-year hiatus, Mr Gayot is too much the gentleman to bash the opposition. 'We do different things,' he says. 'Michelin's code, for example, tells you simply what is good, very good, excellent. I believe we say much more - why it's excellent and why it's not. We do a job from a journalist's point of view.'

The Best of London certainly has a race-for-the-phone quality about it. So short were the deadlines, only an amateur would have agreed to edit it in the first place. She is Mary Ann Evans, an Englishwoman who started her writing career with 'a big book on Japanese erotic prints'.

Little known in the British food world, she nevertheless hastily assembled a posse of knowledgeable restaurant critics. These included Lindsey Bareham (a restaurant critic with 20 years' experience writing for Time Out, the Sunday Telegraph and Sunday Express), David Wolfe (freelance contributor to Decanter, the Independent and the Good Food Guide) and Matthew Fort (for five years food editor of the Guardian).

One critic, who admits receiving less than six weeks' notice, prepared as many as 100 reviews, another as few as 30. In the case of at least one contributor, no expenses were provided.

Clearly, economies were also made on proof-reading: for example, the delicatessen-restaurant, Villandry is described as a 'seethingly popular Marylebone lunch- venue'. However, Mr Gayot stresses that all the essential information (telephone numbers, addresses) were checked. The dozen I tried were, indeed, correct.

The book's only real asset is expertise. The combined experience of Gault, Millau, Gayot and the critics is considerable, and many contributions, though unaccredited, are easily recognisable to insiders. For example, it could only have been Mr Wolfe, passionate about oriental food, who insisted on the elevation of the modest Chinese restaurant, Fung Shing, to three toques and 17 out of 20, alongside Le Gavroche.

These numbers cause problems, even within the same cuisine. Some critics mark high, others low, said one inspector. The Brackenbury, whose Adam Robinson is one of the best young chefs in London and one of the few real talents content to stick to his stove, is given a mere two toques and 14 out of 20. The same mark, from the same critic, was given to dell'Ugo, the Italianate chain restaurant owned by media chef Antony Worrall Thompson. Here the numbers reflected cost-effectiveness and sheer capacity.

This is interesting anarchy, but for the vrai chose, the real Gault Millau voice, look only to the top ratings. As happens with Michelin, the French were imported to sample the cream of London's restaurants. Mr Gayot sees this as only natural. 'I asked them to make their contribution to the book, for they both know London . . .' What he is too polite to add is that it is their names on the spine of the book.

These old experts enthuse over the earthiness of the cooking at Bibendum, pet of London-based food critics, but chide it for self- satisfied service. They warn Jean- Christophe Novelli, the talented young chef of the Four Seasons, to simplify his food or miss greatness. And they congratulate themselves on having been the first to spot the genius of Pierre Koffmann at La Tante Claire in Chelsea as early as 1982.

I enjoy their somewhat floral, often elliptical tone. But like French cooking, it can go over the top. Henri Gault even made Private Eye's Pseud's Corner for his 1990 obituary of Lyonnais chef Alain Chapel, when he wrote: 'At his restaurant one evening, while eating the traditional gateaux de foies blonds, the same frisson ran through my body, the same tears formed in my eyes, as when I listened to a Mozart quartet.'

Both Gault and Millau are 65 years old, yet their strength is in having remained laddish journalists, always out for a scoop. The good news, from the men who first spotted nouvelle cuisine and were the first Europeans in the early Eighties to herald a new wave of American cooking, is that London has arrived. 'Now there are first- class British restaurants,' says Mr Gayot. 'British gastronomy has always existed at very high levels, but in private circles. Now it is for everybody.'

(Photograph omitted)