Given Jancis Robinson's article in the FT today (and a longer version on her own website) I thought I'd republish an article I wrote in Decanter three years ago about the difficulties of eating in the world's top restaurants.
Over the last couple of months, by chance, I’ve eaten the food of several of the world’s top chefs. And it’s confirmed an impression that’s been growing for a while that they’re not doing many favours to wine lovers.
The kind of food you get in a typical five star restaurant has become so refined and so fiddly, divided up into so many courses and littered with so many show-off dishes that it’s hard for a decent wine to get a look in.
At Charlie Trotter’s 20th anniversary dinner in Chicago last October for example, at a magnificent eight course feast cooked by such culinary legends as Thomas Keller, Ferran Adria and Heston Blumenthal we were five courses in before we got to a dish that was compatible with a red wine (Keller’s stuffed leg of chicken with pruneaux d’Agen and black truffle coulis) and even that was overwhelmed by the two year old Bonny Doon Syrah that was paired with it.
At the stellar Alinea in the same city it was eight courses before we hit a Saint Emilion and another two before they risked a full-bodied red (a 2004 Clarendon Hills ‘Hickinbotham’ Grenache) Before that we’d run the gamut of a Champagne cocktail, sake, Silvaner, Pinot Gris and a Valpolicella ripasso, all skilfully matched to the dishes but scarcely in the same league as the food.
At Marc Veyrat it’s even more of a conundrum. What do you pair with 'asperge verte sauvage dstructure, fruit de la passion, cume romarin' - tiny egg yolk-like balls of wild asparagus and passionfruit with a wisp of rosemary flavoured foam) or a dish of seabass and white chocolate? Not a first growth Bordeaux, that’s for sure.
This trend of putting the emphasis on fish and vegetables rather than meat is unlikely to be reversed, however. They’re quick to cook, perceived as healthier and offer chefs more scope for creativity. It’s a sign of the times that Gault Millau’s chef of the year for 2008, Jean Luc Rabanel in Arles cooks a largely vegetable-based menu, much better suited to an aromatic white or a crisp rosé than a Cote Rotie or a Hermitage from the neighbouring Rhone. Many dishes too are now Asian-influenced, derived from a culture where wine drinking is not the norm
Even when meat comes along dishes aren’t always balanced - often served with an intense sticky jus that can overwhelm subtler wines or with so many accompanying ingredients that they struggle to hold their own.
It’s rare that you get the kind of experience I had in Chablis recently where I ate menus devised by two old hands, Daniel Defaix and Herv Tucki of La Chablisienne, which showed of their wines to perfection. Granted, some dishes included butter and cream, both a no-no in many modern restaurants and that Chablis with its clean pure flavours is more forgiving than many wines but it was a real gastronomic experience.
In Italy too there’s a profound respect for wine at the table. In Piedmont recently I noticed how simple the main dishes were - a slice of veal, a spoonful of light sauce, a little polenta or potato pure - nothing to detract from the local Barbarescos and Barolos. No British or American restaurant would dare to offer anything as stark and unadorned to their guests.
“Outside our restaurants the one I go to most often is Enoteca Turi because they’re fanatical about their wines” says Nigel Platts-Martin, whose London restaurants, including The Square and Chez Bruce, are noted for their cellars. “I can choose a wine before I set off and know I’ll find something to enjoy with it.”
The curious thing is how few chefs know much about wine - oddly for individuals who make their living from their tastebuds. There are of course notable exceptions such as Michel Roux Jnr of Le Gavroche, Martin Lam of Ransome’s Dock and Rowley Leigh, whose new brasserie Le Caf Anglais with its simple roasts and grills is a delight to drink in, but they’re rare. Lam finds it strange. “Not being aware of the impact wine will have on a dish is a bit like being deaf in one ear. Most wine lists are put together without thought for the food. Only very few restaurants have a close relationship between the chef and the sommelier."
Even if they do the economics of modern restaurants forces them to buy wine young and hold on to as little stock as possible. Result - reds that are barely out of nappies being served while their tannins are still unintegrated and obtrusive, overwhelming for all but the most robust of dishes. “What do those tannins latch on to?” asks Marlon Abela, owner of The Greenhouse, Umu and New York’s A Voce and one of the rare restaurateurs who has deep enough pockets to fund a personal passion for fine wine. “All our wine lists have some age to them.”
But how many people can afford to buy perfectly matured wine in a restaurant? With the increase in wine prices over the last few years, very few, if truth be told. “It’s always going to be a minority sport” says Platts-Martin ruefully. “You can rarely get hold of the top stuff and when you can it’s so expensive. The best wines are not being drunk in restaurants any more.”
So what to do? You have three options, it seems to me. You can enjoy your meal at the likes of Veyrat without worrying about the wine, a solution Marlon Abela advocates. “When you go to certain types of restaurants that play with molecular gastronomy you go to enjoy the experience, you don’t necessarily go for the wine. That doesn’t mean there aren’t dishes that go with wine but the longer the menu the more difficult it is.”
You can dine in a simple Italian or French restaurant with a carefully chosen but modestly priced list that at least complements the food or you can eat - and drink - at home. Which is fine but something of a let-down in a world where dining out was supposed to have become more democratic. Whatever happened to gastronomy?
This article first appeared in the March 2008 issue of Decanter. Marc Veyrat's restaurant has since closed.