Archive for July, 2008

The Top Ten Restaurants in Britain.

Posted on: July 30th, 2008 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

Hello and welcome to Fine Dining in the UK episode 4- the podcast brought to you by . Today we extend our feature of top tens by examining the top ten restaurants in Britain. This top ten is an extract from the Restaurant Magazine S Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants, so let’s tuck straight in to Britain’s top ten.

1 The Fat Duck, Bray, Berkshire

2 Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, Royal Hospital Road, London

3 St John, Clerkenwell, London

4 Hakkasan, Fitzrovia, London

5 Le Gavroche, Mayfair, London

6 Nobu, Mayfair London

7 Maze, Mayfair, London

8 River Café, Hammersmith, London

9 Zuma, Knightbridge

10 The Square, Mayfair, London

When looking at the Best of Britain extract, the first thing of note is that two through ten are all found in London, with four of those concentrated in Mayfair.

Its refreshing, in a way, to see a pushing back of French gastronomic dominance with the Japanese Zuma and Nobu taking their place alongside the Chinese Hakkasan and Italian food lead River Café. St John at number three is a rather bold and eccentric choice, Chef Fergus Henderson has a ‘nose to tail’ philosophy, hence offal, as you might imagine, features highly and regularly on the menu.

At number 5, the traditional bastion of gastronomy Le Gavroche is found anchored in a sea of cosmopolitan modernity. Le Gavroche was opened in 1967 by Albert and Michel Roux and was the first truly gastronomic restaurant in Britain. Now, forty- one years on, with Albert’s son Michel Roux Jnr at the helm, still going strong.

So how was this list decided? First a review of some background: Restaurant Magazine was formed in November 2001 with the strap line – for the professional and the passionate – and over the years the Magazine has met that promise with quality features, excellent journalism and one imagines successful circulation.

The San Pellegrino Restaurant Magazine 50 World’s Best was initiated in 2002 and is now in its seventh year. In 2006 an Academy of voters was formed, known as the Nespresso World’s 50 Best Restaurants Academy. The Academy involves a panel of typically thirty-one voters for each world “region” (for example, Italy, France, Germany are included as “regions” along with broader areas such as South East Asia and Eastern Europe). There are a total of total of 682 voters.

So who is on the regional panels and how does the voting system work? All we are told is the identity of the chairperson for each panel; beyond that the voters are exclusively chefs, restaurateurs and critics. Postscript: See panel list for UK 2008

The voting system allows each panel member to vote for 5 restaurants, there are two conditions: the panel member must have eaten at a restaurant they are voting for in the last 18 months (sounds sensible) and second that three of the five votes must be cast for a restaurant from a region other than their own (sounds more challenging). The results are collated from a total of 3,410 total votes cast.

So what is the end result? A list that is inspiring, challenging, thought provoking and controversial. Any list that claims to define better and ultimately best will always be subjective and open to debate. All in all, the Restaurant Magazine attempt is a good one, and eagerly anticipated each spring.

By way of a comparison we have an alternative Top Ten Restaurants of Britain – this time from the three leading guides, Michelin, The Which? Good Food Guide and the AA Restaurant Guide. Six points per Michelin Star, 3 Points per Good Food Guide mark out of ten and two points per AA Rosette.

So lets go back to the table for Britain’s Top Ten.

1= Fat Duck, Bray Berkshire (3 Michelin Stars 9 Which Good Food Guide 5 AA Rosettes 55 Points)

1= Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, Royal Hospital Road, London (3 9 5 55)

3 Waterside Inn, Bray Berkshire (3 8 4 50)

4 Le Manoir aux Quat Saisons, Great Milton, Oxfordshire (2 9 5 49)

5 Petrus, Belgravia, London (2 8 5 46)

6= The Vineyard, Stockcross, Berkshire (2 8 4 44)

6= Gidleigh Park, Chagford, Devon (2 8 4 44)

6= The Square, Mayfair, London (2 8 4 44)

6= Pied a Terre, Fitzrovia, London (2 8 4 44)

6= Restaurant Martin Wishart, Leith, Edinburgh (2 8 4 44)

6= Le Champignon Sauvage, Cheltenham, Glostershire (2 8 4 44)

An immediate positive note on the Guides list is the geographic spread; taking in Scotland, Gloucestershire, Devon, Oxfordshire and three in Berkshire.

The 2009 Which? Good Food Guide will be published in September, the early press release already explains that The Fat Duck will be following in the footsteps of Chez Nico in 1999 and Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in 2005 and awarded a perfect 10.

In 1995, Heston Blumenthal opened the Fat Duck on the site of the old Ringers pub. There were wrought iron tables and chairs and an outside toilet. The restaurant fayre was nothing spectacular – duck leg and mashed potatoes followed by sticky toffee pudding. However, the changes brought about by delivering molecular gastronomy were extraordinary; a meteoric rise through Michelin to Three Stars by 2004.

Blumenthal’s contribution is undoubtedly immense; there are three fundamental aspects brought to the forefront of chef thinking in Britain.

First, the physics – the molecules of meat determine taste and texture, these molecules are damaged when cooked at temperatures that are too high, so Heston introduced long slow cooking at lower temperatures to optimise taste and texture.

Second, the chemistry – certain taste combinations work at a chemical level that we would not otherwise appreciate, Heston explored this and found combinations like Salmon and liquorice work on the palate (which appears today on the famous tasting menu).

Third: The impact of senses other than taste on the eating experience. This is where Heston continues to experiment with things you see, feel, hear and smell that all add to the overall eating experience including and beyond enhancing taste.

So the undisputed top two are the same on both lists. However there the comparison ends with only Philip Howard at the Square featuring on both lists.

Why so much difference? To answer that we must take a closer look at the criteria used in each case. The Guides are clear in so much as they focus purely on the “food on a plate.” This means type and quality of ingredients, level of preparation, conception and execution of the dishes. It is fair to say that our restaurant going experience is determined by a number of factors that go beyond what we actually eat; such as the service, décor, atmosphere or ambiance, mood, fashion and modernity.

One restaurant, for example, may appeal to a completely different demographic compared to another. An understanding of this helps us to appreciate and rationalise both lists.

So in the end one may marvel or wonder, agree or disagree but in any event fine dining in this country is strong, vibrant and diverse. Should you choose to visit any of the eighteen different restaurants featured then you’ll be sure to have a good time.

That concludes podcast episode 4 of Fine Dining in the UK, the podcast brought to you by

Until next time

Happy eating

The Top Ten Restaurants in London. (2008)

Posted on: July 19th, 2008 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

We anticipate that each episode will be around 10 minutes with a changing format. Any research that is referenced can be found, for your further reading or interest, by following the links on the website to the podcasts page.

finediningguide was founded in 2004, we have approximately 15,000 page views a month from around 7,000 unique visitors. The top three most popular pages of the 150 page site are first, the overall home page, second the Michelin section home page and third, somewhat surprisingly, the Michelin Bib Gourmand page.

The entire site, highlighted by the One Percent Club, is targeted at the top 1% of restaurants in Britain – the top 500 out of 50,000.

In this podcast we will start a new feature, the top tens, in this case the top ten restaurants in London and not any old top ten: The top ten according to three leading guides – The Michelin Red Guide, The Which? Good Food Guide and the AA Restaurant Guide with a weighted points scoring system – 10 points per each Michelin Star, 3 points for each Good Food Guide mark out of ten and 2 points for each AA Rossette.

And so the top two restaurants in London, Gordon Ramsay’s flagship at Royal Hospital Road Chelsea and Marcus Wareing’s Petrus at the Berkeley Hotel. Gordon and Marcus go back a long way: From 1993 Marcus was sous chef to Gordon at Aubergine, they rose through the ranks of Michelin together before Gordon rewarded Marcus with his own restaurant in St James Street.

For a period the cooking there was sublime and one wondered whether the pupil was surpassing the master. Michelin were slow to see it that way, with Petrus, in its new home at the Berkeley, only elevated to two stars in the last publication.

Rumours have been around in the fine dining world for at least a year that Marcus was unhappy in the relationship with Gordon Ramsay Holdings and wanted his freedom.

Finally, come September 2008, he is expected to have a direct relationship with the Berkeley Hotel. Reported stories and interviews in the trade press, suggest a somewhat bitter parting of the ways.

finediningguide salute and respect what these two men have achieved over the last 15 years for fine dining in Britain and wish both every success in the future.

2008 will see Silvano Giraldin – the original master of the culinary art known as les art de tables retire as restaurant manager from Le gavroche. At the same time one of his protégés – Diego Masciaga is celebrating 20 years as the face of the Michelin 3 starred waterside inn in Bray. Congratulations and all the best to both of them!

Should you, like many, enjoy the distinct aromas of Epoisses and Chambertin or Liveraux and Munster or simply enjoy the theatre of watching the cheese trolley being wheeled around the restaurant then finedingguide bring sad news. It would appear that EU health and safety regulations may make this traditional part of the restaurant experience something of the past.

So to our final piece of this episode, an editorial about tipping.

What is the origin of the word tip in the context of giving thanks for good service?

The short answer is that no-one really knows.

There are two romantic urban myths; the first that a gentleman in the 17th century would ‘tip’ his hat to say thank you and one day this coincided with the handing over of monies. The second, and considerably more popular romantic conjecture, is that early tea and coffee houses held a box in the corner with the words inscribed “To Insure Prompt Service.” Over time this was abridged to TIPS.

Etymologists tell us that, prior to the start of the 20th Century, there’s no single example of an acronym providing the derivation of a word. One suggested fact often cited is that literature first described a tip in 1706, “Then I, Sir, tips me the verger with half a crown” in George Farquhar play, the Beaux Strategem.

Three hundred years later there’s a lot of confusion, for different reasons, about tips in restaurants. At the turn of the 1990’s the US IRS noticed missing tax dollars from the tipping of croupiers in Casinos. This prompted closer examination of restaurants where the IRS later found an estimated $9bn tax revenue shortfall.

Where the spotlight falls in the US sometime later the spotlight falls in the UK.

The UK however is more complicated, not only because it is laden with different old customs and practices but also the legal structure is very different. There’s the minimum wage, PAYE, National Insurance and VAT.

Untangling where and when tips qualify as income for each or any is a matter for sophisticated consultants and accountants.

Some clarity has come into view recently with acknowledgement that tips cannot make up the difference in a basic wage that is set below the minimum wage. The minimum wage is the minimum wage and tips go on top.

The most commonly used system for pooling and dividing up tips in the UK is called a tronc – literally meaning trunk, or the French example tronc des pauvres meaning poor box. Here a points system is used to reward members of the front of house and kitchen staff.

The administrator, or troncmaster (sounds grand and slightly Masonic), has the unenviable job of ensuring that all taxes are appropriately avoided and not evaded.

More complexity arises from the UK practice of a 12.5% discretionary charge taken on credit card slips.

The restaurateur has processed this payment and experienced a 2% administration charge from the credit card company. Owners too point to damages and breakages and whether they should be covered as expenses taken from the pool of tips?

In any event – Everyone – The restaurateurs, the waiting staff, the customers and the government would all appreciate clarity and transparency; although achieving this is understandably more difficult than first thought.

The Broadsheet Restaurant Critic – Here to Stay?

Posted on: July 19th, 2008 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

Should we believe that oft said bastion of information known as wikipedia, then the critic stems from the Ancient Greek word krites, meaning “a person who offers reasoned judgement or analysis…interpretation and observation.”

Whether the current crop of broadsheet restaurant critics fulfill this definition is a matter for a separate debate, for now we simply wish to ask: How do we choose one to follow?

It can be many things – writing style, knowledge, experience, weight or strength of opinion, or just plain entertainment value.

Most typically we choose to follow the critic whose taste, style and opinion is most closely matched by our own.

Why? When we go to a restaurant we want to know in advance, with great anticipation, that we’re likely to enjoy ourselves.

There may, however, be the more thorough – or cautious – who read them all and give greater weight to some over others.

After all fine dining is an expensive business and proportionate investment in having a good time is often required.

So is the broadsheet the natural home for these folks? They all have them; from Jay Rayner to AA Gill or Terry Durack to Michael Winner.

To understand the future we need to at least analyse the past and present.

With broadsheets that is as easy as ABC; no not a sound knowledge of the alphabet (although essential in journalism), nor is it the American Broadcasting Company.

No. For these purposes we refer to a more appropriate version of the acronym, namely the Audit Bureau of Circulations.

The “Bureau” is tasked with measuring and monitoring circulation figures of our beloved newspapers across both print and digital media.

Very useful for positioning and justifying advertising space or indeed, depending on who is up or down this week, just plain bragging rights.

Today, The Guardian Newspaper, for example, enjoys around 140 million internet page views a month from approximately 30 million unique visitors.

Wow! My first and only utterance – Wow!

Indeed every single broadsheet enjoys at least 100 million page views a month and the figures across the board are rising rapidly.

Rewind to the winter of 1995. There was no internet, not at least as we understand it today. Yes there were Compuserve and America Online but these were relatively fledgling private communities.

All content was textual and connection speeds across modems were at best 28kbps; you might wait three to five minutes for a page to load. A far cry from access to the full functioning, graphical, any place, any time, multi mega bit instantaneous connections we take for granted today.

One day in that same year, I was travelling with a colleague to meet a corporate insurance client. This colleague was a special one, one who had been flown to Europe from the United States to evangelize about the future of the “internet.”

He said something I will always remember about newspapers – “the internet,” he said, “will never replace the daily newspaper, people like to sit down with a physical newspaper. No, no matter how much content, or how fast or how slick, they’ll always be a newspaper, it’s a cultural thing.”

Was he right? One might argue that the decline of the physical newspaper is inevitable with the saturation of now satellite TV news broadcasting combined with internet fingertip news.

And after all, the physical newspaper is always a day out of date! To a point the ABC trend figures disagree. Yes, there has been a decline in circulations but only a marginal one.

In fact the opposite appears to be true: Newspapers have seized the opportunity offered by the internet – their digital sister products – by grasping access to a wider audience both demographically and geographically.

In 2004, when fine-dining-guide began, I clicked the ‘contact the author button’ on the digital LA Times and emailed David Shaw.

Mr Shaw had produced a fascinating article on molecular gastronomy; within five minutes he had responded, positively, from his first generation Blackberry.

The key points here are several – reading the LA times from 30 miles west of London, contacting the author and getting a speedy response. The latter two have become internet watchwords: Interactiveness and responsiveness.

Terry Durack’s column in the Independent, for example, has been reproduced on the internet as an interactive diary or blog. More Interactive and more responsive than we have ever experienced before from broadsheet journalism.

So are there any downsides for the broadsheets and their critics? Well yes, as with any business where there is open access to the market then competition will thrive.

In the digital age we all have access to a wider audience! Be it websites, blogs, forums, social networking or podcasts; every single enthusiastic amateur has the opportunity to present a new form of curriculum vitae to potential employers.

Take just two examples – Andy Lynes and Andy Hayler – today both are full time food writers.

For many years Andy Lynes worked for BT and his foodie claim to fame was appearing in one of the TV semi finals of the amateur master chef (in the good old days when it was hosted by Lloyd Grossman).

Thanks to his passion and enthusiasm and not least the opportunity of the internet, Andy Lynes is now doing, as David Everitt-Matthias put it, “something he loves.”

Andy has made it all the way to the broadsheets! His method was through extraordinary effort and commitment to the UK Fine Dining Forum eGullet.

Andy Hayler on the other hand made his name and fortune in the computer software and technology consultancy business.

In recent years, he made the global press for being one of the top innovators in Britain; at the same time he was making news for eating at all forty-nine Michelin 3 Star restaurants in Europe.

His exclusively top end restaurant focused website was an original pioneer and includes reviews and detailed ratings and rankings of all his many restaurant visits; including a compulsive reading weekly blog.

Andy Hayler has made significant contributions to the Good Food Guide and sat on the panel of Judges for Restaurant Magazine’s World’s Top 50 Restaurants.

So what of the future? People have wider choices in their selection of critics; physical or digital broadsheets aside, the digital world is abundant with critics, and while there will always be more opinions than experts (FD Roosevelt) there are plenty of good ones out there.

These can only be good things – the broadsheets pressured by the market to offer more value, more quality content, more quickly, more interactively and more responsively. It may also imply, as market mechanics do, that the price goes down as competition goes up. More journalists earning less money! Never!

Well maybe…perhaps the market for krites has taken a leaf out of the Ancient Greeks book; there’s plenty of room for quantity without compromising quality – one that some might argue certain restaurants could do well to recognise.

The Demand for Fine Dining – Is it Sustainable?

Posted on: July 1st, 2008 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

‘Sustainable’ is a new favourite. In 2008 our fine dining experiences revolve around the implied need to consume local produce that is organic and sustainable.

One might argue that local produce has too many benefits to ignore: Cultivating a local market community, a reduction in unfriendly transport costs and showing off what the local area has to offer.

If our opinion of the world is also a confession of character, as RW Emerson once famously said, then perhaps it also holds that our view of the world is coloured by our own experiences.

Should this be true then the ‘local’, ‘organic’ and ‘sustainable’ bandwagon is rolling right through fine dining from top to bottom. Why? As new diners come to the market their expectations and experiences require these things.

After all, it is all they hear about, all they read and all they see in the media. New chefs too want to rise to the challenge and meet this demand. Eventually, even the old guard will adorn their menus with platitudes about local, sustainable produce.

Since Al Gore’s pivotal Nobel Prize and Oscar winning piece An Inconvenient Truth, the notion that the environment is our best friend has seeped, by osmosis, deep into the ocean of world psyche.

It may not quite be the end of Bresse and Anjou or ‘line caught’ or ‘hand dived’ appearing on our menus but they will become increasingly marginalised over time.

But this is just a diversion, we are asking is fine dining itself sustainable not just its contents.

It is fair to say that over the last 10 years the demand for fine dining has exploded. And this appetite for top end eating has not been confined to Britain – We have seen Michelin produce Guides for the United States and Japan as they continue to expand into further markets.

Michelin is just a signal, a sign of the times, people demand to know what’s out there and, importantly, have had the economic clout to go and experience these best of establishments.

As has been said in previous editorials, people are influenced by near blanket media coverage in how best to consume in line with lifestyle aspirations and who have we seen on TV more than chefs in the last decade?

People have become so much better educated and discerning in their choices and over the last period considerably better off financially.

However, here comes the crunch – the ‘credit crunch’ in fact.

The economic circumstances of 2008 are far more worrying and gloomy than 1989, when the beginnings of the last recession hit Britain. The commonly coined credit crunch is unprecedented in economic history and in the modern world everything economic follows from the cost of credit.

The accompanying (but unrelated) record oil prices make a potent and potentially catastrophic combination.

(I have a conspiracy theory – one of many – that the price of oil is a fix to deter India and China from rapidly expanding their consumption of fossil fuel: OPEC control supply and supply determines price and as yet I don’t see the US leaning too hard on OPEC to fine tune their delivery of Crude.

Understandable and logical. Why? An expansion in supply and reduction in price would fuel demand in these developing countries to a point where the ‘unsustainable’ comes uncomfortably into view for the whole oil dependant world.)

But where does this leave fine dining? An economic downturn, one that is severe and prolonged, will hit all sectors of the market. Indeed , the first to suffer in a downturn are luxury disposable income items and who could argue that fine dining restaurants are not at the top of that list!

It may not be too long before the plethora of chef programmes follow the property programmes off our airwaves.

However, I suspect the top end will survive, a form of hibernation, before the first blossoms of economic spring in around 2012.

Perhaps a period of adjustment: fewer new ventures, fewer front of house, fewer chefs in the kitchen.

In any event, I’ve no doubt that fine dining restaurants will be sustainably selling sustainable menus to the sustainably wealthy for the foreseeable future.