The British restaurant critic may be one of the few species that deserved to board Noah’s ark. Equipped with endless wit and flare for hyperbole, they have gifted the world with some of the best food writing I have ever read.*
However, their reports provide little evidence of discriminating taste, and rarely, if ever, a serious analysis of the food they eat. So they don’t really function as critics – at least not in the way this American thinks of criticism. Rather, most British restaurant writers are highly skilled arsonists, celebrated for their barn-burning pyrotechnics that often reduce their subjects to smoldering ruins.
I’ll admit, the teardowns (for which they are most known) seem cruel. But their targets often seem deserving of public shaming – at least, that’s the way these writers paint the picture. And their deftly deployed arsenal of sarcasm and bathroom humor usually includes a hearty dose of charming self-deprecation that saves them from an unredeemable ledge.
To mitigate my own guilt for indulging in their bombast, I file most British restaurant writing under the category “humor”.
Jay Rayner is not among the British restaurant critics I read or follow regularly.** But this past weekend, in The Guardian, the British paper for which he writes, Rayner issued a report from the tables of le Cinq at the Four Seasons in Paris that caught my attention. If you’ve been on social media in the past 24 hours, you’ve surely seen it.
I have a sad relationship with le Cinq.
A dozen years ago, it was one of the first Michelin three-starred restaurants I had ever visited (in fact, it may have been my very first). I’ll save you from suffering through my blog post about that lunch in the summer of 2005 – the writing is truly awful and embarrassing – so I’ll just tell you: I was disappointed. But I was a kid, and highly inexperienced with fine dining standards (especially Michelin standards, which, at the time, had not yet arrived on American shores). So, unsure of my assessment, I was both surprised and reassured in my disappointment when the Michelin Guide demoted le Cinq to two stars a few months later. A culinary pall having been cast over Avenue George V, chef Philippe Legendre, left quietly.+
Three years later, Legendre’s successor, Eric Briffard, had achieved a critical mass of praises. Encouraged, I returned to le Cinq in December of 2008. Looking back, I made the mistake of ordering the tasting menu, and Briffard made the mistake of serving impenetrable abalone, among other uninteresting things.
Based on that one dinner, I was unsurprised that Briffard never regained the star that Legendre lost.
Then came Christian Le Squer.
I first encountered Le Squer on that same 2008 trip to Paris. In stark contrast to the dim and generally forgettable dinner I had at le Cinq, the lunch I had at the three Michelin-starred Pavillon Ledoyen, where Le Squer was cooking, burst with whimsy and excitement. I can remember almost every single dish – the zebra-striped “blanc de turbot;” the fortress of spaghetti filled with ham and black truffles; a fist of roasted ris de veaux, burnished and beautiful; and peachy strata of citrus sorbets interleaved with sheets of caramelized sugar. It ranked among my favorite meals of 2008.
I would get to eat Le Squer’s food again in 2011, in the most unexpected place. He was repping the Swiss coffee company Nespresso at SIRHA, the ginormous food service convention hosted biennially in Lyon, France in conjunction with the Coupe du Monde and Bocuse d’Or. I was invited to Nespresso’s VIP suite for lunch, where Le Squer prepared a multi-course meal using the company’s coffee in every dish. That a Michelin three-starred chef would endorse a commercial product, which I viewed as glorified instant coffee, was both astounding and troubling. So, I arrived at the Nespresso suite a skeptic. But Le Squer impressed.
So, twice pleased by Le Squer and twice disappointed at le Cinq, I naturally welcomed the news of Le Squer’s decampment from Ledoyen and arrival at the Four Seasons a few years later, in October of 2014.
For the next year, I watched hopefully from afar, and was unsurprised when Michelin announced that Le Squer finally recovered le Cinq’s third star in early 2016. Encouraged and reassured once again, I decided to return to Avenue George V.
Sadly, my third time at le Cinq, in August of 2016, was not a charm. In fact, Rayner’s recent report echoes my own experience. Service was slapdash and showed signs of cluelessness, or worse, indifference, all of which was magnified by being seated in front of a service station, which delivered the confusion and commotion to me in surround sound.
Most disappointing, however, is that all of the joy that I had found at Ledoyen and the creativity and playfulness I met at SIHRA was missing from Le Squer’s food at le Cinq. As Rayner described, the food ranged from the Seussical (the use of spherification was odd) to the drab (yes, the onion gratinée did taste like French onion soup turned into glue and mixed with ash). But I also agree with Rayner that the pastry kitchen at le Cinq outperformed the rest. If my diner had one, brief but shining moment of redemption, it came at the end: the strawberry dessert was my favorite dessert of 2016.
In my own, post-game analysis, I’ve thought about all the factors that might have contributed to my disappointment.
Was it because I ordered the tasting menu?
I’ve read beaucoup de history. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that history repeats, especially when history is forgotten. Perhaps I fell victim to my own short-term memory. In fact, it was partly my disappointment over Briffard’s tasting menu, followed quickly by a wonderful, à la carte experience at Le Squer’s Ledoyen in 2008 that first made me seriously consider advice from trusted veterans of les trois étoiles, who had counseled me to avoid tasting menus at high-end restaurants in Paris. Unlike the top restaurants in America, where the tasting menu is considered a playground for chefs and adventurous diners, and the à la carte menu offered as a safe harbor for conservative diners who prefer to control their own level of adventure, the opposite seems true in Paris. There, tasting menus seemed pitched for tourists who want a tour and synopsis all in one go, whereas the serious diners are more willing to commit to larger plates, which provide chefs ample space in which to adequately explore a subject or theme. I know, this sounds dangerously reductionist. At best, it’s a generalization. And maybe it’s entirely inaccurate. But in my limited experiences at three Michelin-starred restaurants in Paris, my à la carte meals have been my favorite: l’Ambroisie; le Bristol and later, at its reincarnation as Épicure; and Pavillon Ledoyen. And to flesh out a statement of regret that I dropped with too little context above: the dishes celebrated most by those who urged me to visit le Cinq under Briffard were Briffard’s large-format dishes, like a much-touted tourte, which were offered á la carte (or by special order).
So, why did I order the tasting menu at my latest meal at le Cinq (which rang in at 310€, inclusive)?
After a short study of the menu, I discovered that most of the dishes that interested me on the à la carte menu were also on the tasting menu. In my experience, this is rare. There is usually little overlap between the tasting and á la carte menus at restaurants like these. So, out of sheer practicality, I ordered the tasting menu for exactly the same reasons tourists do: to get a tour and synopsis all in one go.
But Rayner ordered à la carte at le Cinq and was disappointed.
Then there’s Elizabeth Auerbach, who ordered the lunch tasting menu and enthusiastically awarded the restaurant 98 points (presumably out of 100). Auerbach writes the blog Elizabeth on Food, and offers perhaps the most coherent, respected, and believable opinion among British food writers.
Auerbach, Rayner, and I all visited after le Cinq was re-awarded a third star in 2016. So there’s no argument to be made here that Le Squer’s performance might have slackened once the incentive of earning the third star was removed. [I note: I spied LeSquer peeking out of the kitchen towards the end of my dinner, reassuring me that the chef was present.]
However, Auerbach’s meal included a couple of dishes that I recognize from my meal at Ledoyen in 2008: Le Squer’s signature spaghetti dish with ham and black truffles, and that blushing stack of pamplemousse I had loved so much. But she also had the onion gratinée and loved the onion spheres, which Rayner and I both found unappealing. She also had the mullet dish that I had. I agree with her that it was flavorful, and required an understanding and appreciation for the heavy flavor of mullet. But it was far from revelatory.
So, what does all of this tell us?
Very little. Dining is subjective. As far as I’m concerned, all of these opinions – Rayner’s, Auerbach’s, and mine – hold only anecdotal value. This is, perhaps, the biggest problem with British restaurant criticism (and restaurant bloggers): reviews are often issued after only one visit, as they were in all of our cases here. And what little context I provided from previous meals at le Cinq are taken from three snapshots over the course of a decade, representing three different chefs. That’s hardly context.
Ultimately, it was Rayner’s impetus for visiting le Cinq that spurred me to write this post: to examine a growing dissatisfaction with the value of dining out. Needless to say, this is a recurring consideration for anyone who visits restaurants regularly, especially at the high end. To rephrase Rayner for my own purposes here: even if dining is subjective, and even if restaurants can’t be expected to perform on all cylinders all of the time, is $400+ too much of a gamble?
I suspect I know Rayner’s verdict with regard to le Cinq. And I can’t say that my own experiences would have me render a different one. In his review, Rayner referred to le Cinq as the “scene of a crime.” For me, it has become an ongoing tragedy that hopes for salvation.
* If you want particularly brilliant examples of their work, I encourage you to find a copy of Giles Coren’s review of Il Divo, and any piece of writing by the late, great A.A. Gill (like his endearing ode to Chez l’Ami Louis entitled “Tour de Gall“). They will make you cringe with delight.
** This as a compliment. Despite his bullish outbursts, I think Rayner is actually one of the more keen food writers in the U.K. Bombast aside, he actually gets around to talking about the food. And, despite a needlessly rude encounter I had with him nearly a decade ago (a petty grievance, really), I’ve been reassured by a few people we know in common that he’s not actually as cranky as he may seem.
+ Following Legendre’s departure, I heard back-channel chatter that his Michelin demotion resulted from accidentally poisoning an inspector with bad mushrooms – or something like that. I admit that I’m probably not repeating this rumor correctly. But that’s the problem with back-channel chatter – the details are murky, and, as in this case, unconfirmed.
Photo: A mise-en-bouche of roasted peppers and tomato at le Cinq in August, 2016.