How could the world's best restaurant be a place called the Fat Duck which serves egg and bacon ice-cream? How could the world's best restaurant be found not in Paris, not even in France, but in an English village?
France's most fearless, and feared, restaurant critic stormed over the Channel to find out - and adored what he found (even the ice-cream). François Simon of Le Figaro is a man whose acerbic opinions make even French three-star chefs tremble over their copper casseroles. Last month he booked a table - incognito - at the £200-a-head, Fat Duck, in the village of Bray in Berkshire, recently identified by a British foodie magazine as the "best restaurant in the world".
"The Fat Duck reminds us that in England you can eat divinely (just as you can in Finland)," Simon reported.
Without mentioning the president's name, this was a clear rebuke for Jacques Chirac, who said in July that British cuisine was the world's second worst, superior only to that of the Finns.
In his review, published on Saturday, Simon admitted that he travelled to Bray ("a charming village 50 minutes from London") with a degree of Gallic scepticism. Which restaurant, he asked his readers, was recently named as the world's best after a poll of 500 food experts from all over the world? "Are you sitting down?" he wrote. "An English restaurant. Yes, there is no misprint." Worse still, only one French restaurant - Pierre Gagnaire in the Hotel Balzac, just off the Champs Elysées in Paris - made the top ten in a global league table published in the summer by Restaurant magazine.
Simon - known for his outspokenness and refusal to make friends with France's top chefs - went on to give the Fat Duck and its owner-chef, Heston Blumenthal, a lyrical review.
Mr Blumenthal's cooking, he said, demonstrated a "disarming poetry", a willingness to be both experimental and classical. He was reminded, he said, of the quirkiness of the movie Mary Poppins but also of the work of an imaginative French, regional chef, Alain Chapel.
"There is in Mr Blumenthal's cooking the reverie of a madman, an attractive candour, the twists and turns of a whirling dervish, an approach which is both spontaneous and highly technical." The "bacon and egg ice-cream", he said - one of the Fat Duck's specialities - was a "crowning moment...both excellent and hilarious". The bill, printed in Le Figaro, showed that Simon and his companion each had a "tasting menu" and a "tasting" wine selection - in other words a medley of the restaurant's dishes and wines. The bill, with coffee and water, came to £438.19 for two. "Expensive? Yes," wrote Simon. "Too expensive? No. A meal like this should be approached like your wedding night. To prepare, you should go on a diet and dress up your heart for a wonderful, new experience."
On the question of whether the Fat Duck was the best restaurant in the world, Simon was more circumspect. It was "absurd" he said to try to establish a "vertical hierarchy" but the Fat Duck, was, in his opinion, one of 20 restaurants in the world which were breaking the ground for a "new epoch in gastronomy".
It was long past the time, he said, when France could claim to be the gastronomic champion of the world. He took a swipe - as he has done before - at star-name French chefs who "duplicated" their ideas in money-spinning projects around the world, but were unwilling to stay in the kitchen and demonstrate the "incandescence of their talent".
Mr Blumenthal at the Fat Duck, he pointed out, was "really there, in his own kitchen, which is also a taste of what the future of gastronomy holds".
Simon refused to be drawn into the zero-sum arguments - British cuisine was much better; therefore French cuisine was now rubbish - beloved of the British press. France, he said, remained a "sweet and marvellous, gastronomic paradise" But the talented, younger generation of French chefs had been too timid to challenge a clientèle "spoilt" by tradition. They had been slower than chefs elsewhere to abandon the most rigid aspects of French cuisine and to join the "facetious" and imaginative revolution in world gastronomy. "But, take heed," he concluded, "All that's beginning to change."Reuse content