The Michelin Guide. For some, entry into this small red book (with a star or three, of course) is the glittering peak of culinary ambition, a stellar leap from gastronomic wannabee to the edible elite. To others, though, it’s a tome to avoid, a place where thick carpets, gleaming glasses and strangely shaped plates take precedence over real food, and the shared pleasures of the table.
I’ve wasted far too many hours in frigid, hushed temples to supposed good taste to be in thrall to these stars; restaurants where conversation is constantly interrupted by an irksome stream of menu explication; rooms where the only noise to break the sullen silence is the clink of heavy silver on bone china. And dinners where course after course of artful artifice, with their smears and towers and edible soils, depress rather than delight. Give me trattorias and ramen bars, dim sum joints and street food carts any day – but to write off every Michelin restaurant is as idiotic as it is myopic.
Some of my favourite places in London are served up with a star or two. Like Locanda Locatelli, Giorgio Locatelli’s eternally wonderful eponymous gaff, where you’ll find regional Italian food to make the soul sing. Angela Hartnett serves up more ever-reliable Italian magic at Murano in St James, while lunch at Jason Atherton’s Pollen Street Social still fills me with giddy, greedy glee.
St John, Fergus Henderson’s glorious paean to real food, is as far removed from the Michelin mausoleum as could possibly be. Succour and good cheer rule here. Galvin La Chapelle is another East End star, high end French tucker without the merest soupcon of pretension. Brasserrie Chavot (brasseriechavot.com) is pure Gallic bliss, just like the lovely Club Gascon.
Moving west, there’s the sublime River Café, along with Fulham’s The Harwood Arms, a gastropub that happens to sport a Michelin star. No foams here. Further south, down below the river, is Chez Bruce, Bruce Poole’s winningly elegant institution. Like all of my favourite Michelin places, it has a brilliant, generous chef who’s more concerned with giving pleasure than showing off to his peers.
Up in the ‘Two Star’ constellation, things get a little more serious. But at my favourites, things are never staid, overwrought or pompous. I’m still dazzled by Brett Graham’s genius at The Ledbury in Notting Hill. The same goes for Ashley Palmer Watt’s at Dinner By Heston Blumenthal, Marcus Wareing At The Berkeley relaunching this month as ‘Marcus’, and Phil Howard at The Square. Not forgetting, of course, the legendary Le Gavroche, where Michel Roux Jr and Monica Galetti never cease to thrill. Masters, all, and single-minded in their pursuit of culinary nirvana.
So while I refuse to be dazzled by the actual concept of Michelin stars, there’s no question that some of London’s great restaurants are garlanded with the things. True gastronomic delight is not about fleets of besuited waiters, and endless dreary amuse bouches. At all of these great places, the eating always comes first.
This month I have…
… Enjoyed lunch at Franco Manca
Still serving up the best Neapolitan-style pizza (well, Sorrento-style, to be precise) in town, Giuseppe’s Mascoli’s minute Brixton restaurant never fails to thrill. Blistered crusts, thin, chewy bases, covered with real tomato sauce and small, white blobs of molten mozzarella.
… Had my cake
I find it hard to get excited about cream stuffed cakes and pretty patisserie, but I did try some of the wares from the Parisian based La Patisserie Des Reves in Marylebone, and I have to admit, they’re pretty damn fine.
… Eaten with the best
Had lunch with chef Jason Atherton at Barrafina, one of my favourite restaurants in the world. Oozing tortilla, spanking fresh prawns and clams, beautiful morcilla sausage and a few glasses of ice cold Manzanilla sherry. Bliss, in every way.