July 19, 2015

25 for 25: What's in a Number?

Last weekend we ate at Alinea.   It was the ninth meal in our quest to eat at the top 25 restaurants in the world this year, in celebration of our 25th wedding anniversary.

Except there was one small problem with eating at Alinea on July 10.  The World’s Best list, which we’re using to plan our culinary journeys, comes out with their new list on June 1.  What that meant for Alinea was that, overnight, the restaurant had gone from being ranked #9 in the world on the 2014 list to #26 on the new 2015 list, just shy of that “top 25” mark. 

Two weeks ago the same thing happened.  We ate at Restaurant Frantzen in Stockholm on June 27.  Franzten was #23 on the 2014 list; after June 1, it had slipped to #31.
But here’s the thing.  Those two meals alone were possibly the finest we’ve eaten so far on our culinary quest; and quite possibly ever.

It got us thinking: what’s in a number?

And more importantly, it got us thinking: what makes a meal – and therefore a restaurant – great? 

It’s no surprise that we’ve concluded there is no one answer, nor is there one authoritative source. 

Restaurant critics do a lot of heavy lifting for us.  The best visit the same place more than once, going with different diners, to form an opinion that is shaped over time.  The very best can distinguish between consistently excellent experiences that may on occasion be distorted by variables beyond a restaurant’s control: an off night for the kitchen; a food delivery gone astray; a crucial shortage of staff on a night with a full house.

And of course today, every diner has become an instant expert.  Whether we’ve been designated a “senior reviewer” on Trip Advisor; an “elite” contributor on Yelp or we frequent Chowhound forums imparting local knowledge to strangers that rely on us to make their precious restaurant reservations, everyone, as the saying goes, is a critic, with a decided point of view. 

The simple alchemy of Bjorn Frantzen's  brown butter, with a taste that lingers still

As we’ve reflected on the nine meals we’ve had so far – each extraordinary in some way, each with a touch or more of pure culinary magic and wonder – what we’ve concluded is this. 

Numbers, lists and designations do matter.  But they are merely there as guideposts, markers that help us decipher and choose where to eat from amongst an ever increasing pool of restaurants that spring up like mushrooms, too numerous to count, too many to frequent. 

A dining experience, after all, is a most personal thing – a moment that you and your dining companions alone have, bringing with you to the table all of your expectations, biases, hopes and desires.

The wonderful meals we’ve had in the past few months have been part ballet, part magic show and all theatre.  Watching a team working the room, gliding seamlessly around each other and between tables, is performance art, happening all around you.  Each employee – whether cooking in an open kitchen in front of you, or shyly describing a dish they’ve made, a wine they’ve selected, the provenance of your knife or edible flower – is partnering with you in your dining adventure and what they bring to the table goes far beyond the plate.

At the heart of it all is the chef as artist.  Whether we’re amateur eaters or professional critics, the same subjectivity that makes us prefer a Pollack to a Degas is at play here. And just as in art, trends start as underground movements and before you know it, we’re all foraging for our next meal.  

(left: Grant Achatz's dessert as art creation, composed in front of you with sugar instead of paint)
The World’s 50 Best is but one measure of a restaurant’s greatness.  We’ve had people weighing in with very strong opinions about what we should do with these two lists –  Stick with the original 2014 list! Use the new 2015 list!  One thing we know for sure. What nine meals have taught us so far is that  - regardless of number – all of these places live in rarified air.  And what delicious rarified air it is.

Coming up next: a fish tale and making it nice in the kitchen in New York.

Until next time,
Elizabeth and Richard