Affirmative Restaurant Ratings

After a wonderful dinner at L’Arnsbourg in Alsace last month, I pondered on what a restaurant must do to make the San Pellegrino list of the world’s top fifty eateries on On Saturday, the GastroGnome aka Victor Strugo, one of SA Sanhedrin of the Stomach that votes on these things, responded in the Star.
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The Winenews story. Neil Pendock offers some reflections on San Pellegrino’s list of the world’s top 50 restaurants released at the end of April.

Until restaurants are rated blind via unlabelled meals from Mr. Delivery, sighted is really the only way they can be assessed. Unlike wine assessments which concentrate on liquids alone, situational variables are important factors when dining. It’s hard to imagine eating at Salt in Bantry Bay if you didn’t have that awesome view in your lap, which rather rules blind tastings hors de combat. So if you’re in the game of compiling a list of the top 50 restaurants in the world, as Italian mineral water giant San Pellegrino is, then sighted tastings with all their obvious problems, is the only algorithm to use.

Cape foodie publisher Lannice Snyman (with over half a million copies sold) is the South African gourmet goddess charged with assembling a panel of voters for South Africa’s input into the Pellegrino process. The epicurean electorate, consisting of thirty voters plus Lannice, raises a few eyebrows:

Allison Rutowitz, André Morgenthal, Andy Foulkes, Christophe Dehosse, Danie Jacobs, Dario de Angeli, Dave Wallace, Donald Paul, Elana Sabharwal, Gwynne Conlyn, Heather Parker, Horst Frehse, Jane Barenblatt, John Maytham, Jos Baker, Ken Forrester, Kim Maxwell, Letitia Prinsloo, Lew Rood, Liz McGrath, Marc Kent, Margot Janse, Mark Kretschmer, Michael Broughton, Nick Seewer, Nikki Werner, Peter Goffe-Wood, Peter Tempelhoff, Victor Strugo, Caroline Bagley

While Quartier Français culinary goddess Margot Janse is far too classy to vote for herself – her Franschhoekfranschhoekcellarwines Affirmative Restaurant Ratings
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establishment seems to have a permanent berth in the top 50 – having so many chefs like Dario de Angeli, Michael Broughton, Andy Foulkes, Peter Tempelhof, Pete Goffe-Wood and Christophe Dehosse rate their peers, exposes the process to charges of buddy-buddyism. After all, if the Veritas Wine Awards are roundly criticized for their panels of winemakers, chefs rating their peers sighted row an even leakier boat.

Franschhoek’s high profile winemaker Marc Kent is likewise too much of a gentleman to vote for Reuben Riffel while including WoSA media liaison André Morgenthal makes sense as wining and dining opinion formers in the best local and international restaurants seems to be part of his brief. At least Lannice didn’t follow the South African Airways algorithm of picking fatties as foodies, following the unfaultable logic that they clearly enjoy food.

But individual personalities aside, the voters roll is shockingly white and middle aged. But then as a black winemaker pointed out to me recently after his 93 point rating in Wine Spectator and Decanter was called an affirmative action score (of course it wasn’t, as both organs rate wines blind), raising the race issue seems to be a peculiarly South African obsession.

Lunch at Auberge Michel in Sandton confirms everyday that South African fine dining is no lilly-white affair. Sticking with Sandton – an easy thing to do given the Eskomesque traffic jams – it is also worth noting that the Pellegrino pundits are overwhelmingly Cape-based. Which goes a long way to explaining why all seven restaurants featured in the awards (one in the top 50, one in the top 100 and five regional winners) are all located in the Western Cape.

San Pellegrino could save themselves a lot of money (and gain serious carbon credits by leaving the foodies in the Cape instead of flying them to London for the annual awards extravaganza) by taking a leaf out of the Michelin Guide. Last year, 56 establishments around the globe trousered an illustrious 3 star rating (down from 59 in 2006); a good place to start looking for a top fifty.

Ferran Adrià’s El Bulli, which tops the Pellegrino poll, is a longtime Michelin three star stunner. But 56 into 50 won’t go and in fact many Pellegrino paladins are not Michelin marvels. So are the Pellegrino 50 really all better than the Michelin 56 or have affirmative variables and the desire to spread the awards around made for a Special Olympics award? Is there a political agenda playing out?

Having eaten in both South African establishments that feature in the top 100, the five regionalist recommendations plus three star L’Arnsbourg in Baerenthal in the Alsatian Vosges Mountains on Saturday night, I would have to agree.

At L’Arnsbourg there were sublime foie gras macaroons and others filled with eel and coloured black with squid ink; blue lobster poached in Riesling; rare pigeon breast in a coffee sauce with very young celery plus horseradish nems; potato and truffle cappuccino and citrus infused langoustine sashimi. That said, the menu découverte at L’Arnsbourg does cost 140 Euro (R1700) per person without wine (Alvaro Palacios’ Les Terraces 1999 from Priorat for 105 Euro, since you asked) and they’d never be as crass or new money as to actually enter a “best restaurant in the world” competition, anyway.

But what better a wheeze than a shoot-out between the Pellegrino 50 and the Michelin 56. Perhaps Perrier would sponsor it.

The GastroGnome’s response Come on, Jamon:

When it comes to hamming it up, no-one quite compares with the Spanish. The best proof that Iberian Serrano and Iberico jamons are the Rolls-Royces of non-kosher gastronomy is surely the fact that even blessed as they are with prosciutto di Parma and San Daniele, ham-obsessed Italians are the world’s biggest importers of Spanish jamon.

This was one of many interesting facts revealed when the Commercial Office of the Embassy of Spain hosted a recent expo in Johannesburg entitled Discover Spanish Taste. Local agents flaunted a wide range of traditional Spanish products and modern gastronomical methods.

The astonishingly vivid colour and heady aroma of aged Serrano hams preceded sensations of amazing texture, flavour and juiciness. Alongside these, stalls proffered samples of natural and spiced salamis, a wide range of olive oils, cheeses, wine from Rioja and other regions and cava (sparkling wine that can easily be mistaken for authentic Champagne).

Visiting experts from Spain addressed jam-packed seminars on the production and differentiation of olive oils and jamons. Then, after a modern-styled tapas buffet (including spheres of semi-liquid manchego cheese, mouth-watering foie gras and the world-renowned liquid transformation of Spanish omelette), Spanish TV chef Sergio Fernández Guerrero presented a workshop on the avant-garde methods developed by a new generation of creative Spanish cooks who have catapulted their country to the pinnacle of global gastronomy.

Their patron saint is still Ferran Adrià, chef, scientist and magician at the Michelin three-star El Bulli restaurant on the Costa Brava. His research into culinary deconstruction has redefined the boundaries of cooking by the adaptation of scientific techniques to the kitchen in ways that transform foods beyond conventional expectations.

A longer explanation would fill up pages, but take it from one who’s been there that this is no fad. Deconstruction achieves mesmerising, witty and surprising effects of flavour, texture, purity and leads to satisfactions beyond nutrition. But beyond the purely aesthetic, and the fact that El Bulli is widely regarded as the world’s best restaurant, Adrià has developed methods that will play an important role in a future of scarcer food supply. Mark my words.

I in turn have marked the words of a fellow scribe. Neil Pendock writes about wine for a small Sunday paper whose name has slipped my mind. Conversations with Neil are always interesting, especially when his sharply analytical faculties are heightened over a shared bottle of Chateau Lafite.

On the internet, he recently took a critical look at the World’s 50 Best Restaurant Awards, of which I have written before and am a judge. Neil didn’t really check up on how the system works. His objections: having chefs among the judges could lead to bias (but self-votes are prohibited); the extravagance of the sponsor flying chefs to the annual Awards extravaganza in London (they don’t – chefs pay their own way); and the fact that wise old restaurants wouldn’t “enter” such a competition (the system works on judge nominations, not entries).

He also questioned the marked lop-sidedness of a 30-member regional panel comprising 24 Capetonians (he has a point) and the futility of any food judging that is not blinded (like wine tasting) and is influenced by situational variables like ambience and setting (Cape Town again, inevitably).

For a mathematician like Neil, that old chestnut is a surprisingly faulty syllogism. Unlike wine, restaurants are judged on the satisfaction of the whole experience – not just the food. As for Joburg’s missing mountain vineyards and seascapes, unfortunately most of the human race prizes looks over substance. C’est la vie.

Sponsored by San Pellegrino, this Restaurant Magazine poll publishes an annual list of top destinations based on voting by 30 judges in each of 23 regions. Its virtues are casting a geo-democratic net and drawing opinions from seasoned, well-travelled epicureans, critics and chefs.

Neil’s comparison of the “50 Best” with Michelin (currently 56 three-star establishments) is playfully pointless. The 50 Best is a global approximation that gains relevance from broad vision. The other applies rigid norms within self-imposed constraints. One is pitched at the open-minded traveller, the other at the confirmed purist. A discerning diner will pick selectively from both.

Sadly one discerning diner – a man equally at home with caviar and Coco Pops – has gone to eat in the big restaurant in the sky. I will miss Braam Kruger, alias Kitchenboy. A world overrun by straight-laced, stuck-up, politically-correct, humourless, faceless grey automatons desperately needs characters. Just about everyone recognised that Braam was colourful, but those of us who looked beyond the zany behaviour, fantastic art, sartorial flamboyance and lascivious mischief saw a lot more.

We saw lewdness and shrewdness. We heard intelligence and sensed sincerity. We learned from his extensive food knowledge, jousted with his provocative intellect and roared at his outrageous stories.

It’s a pity that Braam only hung around for 58 years. When he was around, he lightened our mood. I hope we did the same for him.