Philip Hensher: Less home cooking than foam cooking

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The Independent Online

About five years ago, an Argentinian steak house opened just round the corner from us in Battersea.

It was a slightly awkward position, and had been an OK-ish pizza place, then an absolutely disastrous Polish restaurant. But it's nice to have a restaurant about 100 yards away for when you don't feel like cooking. Anyway, we went, and it was excellent; it did nothing but steak and chips, but did it perfectly.

Things went on very happily between us and the steak house for another couple of years. Then the word got out, and it entered a television Best Local Restaurant competition. It came third. The result is, now, that you need to book about 10 days in advance. Good for them. But that's one useful local restaurant the fewer.

So I rather dislike lists of the Best Restaurants. Everyone knows there is something terribly impersonal about the sort of restaurant that relies on passing trade rather than regular customers, whether it's an awful pizzeria in the shadow of the Colosseum or a five-star hotel restaurant with a celebrity chef's signature on the menu. Any official list of the greatest restaurants in the world is going to work against what a restaurant needs – regular and enthusiastic custom from the neighbourhood, however loosely defined.

Restaurant Magazine's annual list of the world's 50 best restaurants has just been released, to great fanfare. You can see why restaurateurs love it, and aim to appear on the list. It's now more or less impossible to get a table at Nomi, the Copenhagen restaurant at No 1 for the second year running, which I suppose could now charge whatever it felt like for dinner. As it turns out, I've eaten at only three of the restaurants in this list, so I can't really say whether it's deserved or not. But what can the food at these sorts of places be like?

I tried to look at some menus of the world's greatest restaurants, but it proved rather a challenge. One, Alinea in Chicago, gives a list of words, some of which seem to relate to food, but not much more of a clue; thus, "URCHIN watercress vanilla mint". Or simply "SNOW Yuzu". (I know what snow is, thank you, but Yuzu? And there used to be an old-fashioned dish called Apple Snow, but I don't think this can be the same thing.)

Some other of these restaurants bluntly refuse to tell you what you are going to eat at all. You just sit there and it comes at you. Les Créations de Narisawa in Tokyo says, "Themes of soil, water, fire, charcoal and forest permeate the menu to reflect Narisawa's bringing of nature to the plate, resulting in dishes complete with the smell, aspect or texture of the landscape from which they were drawn." However, the menu is not going to tell you anything about these dishes. I wouldn't bother asking Mr Narisawa if you could have courgettes instead of the Jerusalem artichokes, because, you know, they give you terrible wind.

It would be easy to make merry about the sorts of dishes which emerge from these grand kitchens. Inspired by Heston Blumenthal and Ferran Adria, many of them go in for illusion, foams, smokes, explosions, and other things which can't be obviously categorised as food in the steak-and-chips sense. Reading about some flavour combinations which appear on these menus, and the ways in which food is reconstituted and dealt with, the natural response is to wonder what on earth any of this can possibly have to do with the food you might cook for your friends and family.

The other day, however, I was reading a volume of criticism by Kingsley Amis from a mere 30 years ago. In it, in passing, he mentioned the contemporary tendency of experimental cooks to mess about with food in grotesque ways. Now Amis was a terrible stick-in-the-mud where food went, and much else besides. Still, it is startling that his example of Sod-the-Public avant-garde cooking is something no worse than noisettes of lamb with a redcurrant coulis – the sort of thing served up at dinner parties in every suburb from Truro to Aberdeen these days. The experimental becomes the familiar, and the familiar becomes the commonplace, and ultimately traditional before anyone really notices.

If you want to observe the first stages in this process, there is no more gripping television programme than BBC's cooking programme MasterChef, which reached its climax this week. Now I think of myself as quite a good cook, in that I know how to make a bigarade, knock out Wiener schnitzel without turning a hair and hold frankly prejudiced views on the proper construction of a potato salad. I wouldn't last two minutes on MasterChef. This week, some poor sod made a pea purée and poured it with a dropper into some complex chemical solution so that it would form into globes and – this is the clever bit – looked and tasted exactly like peas. Only cold, I expect.

On the other hand, you can nowadays buy sous-vide machines in Peter Jones, and five years ago that was definitely the preserve of professional kitchens. That mania for foams on everything, including haddock, has begun to pass from the smart restaurant to the Saturday night dinner, eager to impress. Of course, fashions in food move on. If you doubt that, take a look at 1950s cookery books, or for that matter 1980s ones. What Marguerite Patten or Delia Smith used to think ideal to impress your friends now looks a little bit like comfort eating, if not actively dowdy.

Express your amusement at the cooking at the World's Best Restaurants while you may, because in 20 years' time, Marks & Spencer will be selling you ready-made deconstructed shepherd's pie with potato foam and ketchup smoke. What the hell the most expensive restaurants in the world will be selling by then, God only knows. String, possibly.

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