Fay Maschler digests the new-look Red guide to London and is struck by its methods and its madness
Derek Bulmer, Editor of Michelin Guide Great Britain & Ireland 2007, has been quoted – in this very magazine – as saying that "it's been an exceptionally good year for London" and "the fact that we have more stars than ever before reflects the fact that the cooking is better than ever before and there are more new restaurants to pick from than there ever were". Bulmer doesn't seem like what you might call a pithy commentator.
Let's look at the exciting four new One Star awards for London in 2007: Arbutus, Benares, La Noisette and L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon.
All the chefs have already received Michelin stars at previous enterprises, namely Anthony Demetre at Putney Bridge, Atul Kochhar at Tamarind and Bjorn van der Horst at The Greenhouse, and in the case of L'Atelier, its instigator, Joël Robuchon, once twinkled like a diamond in the sky. So, in real terms, not much change there.
And then there is the business of the Rising Stars. How smug and self-regarding do you have to be to indicate, in effect, ‘be a good boy (it is almost invariably boys) and we might give you a star next time'. Probably ‘Rising'
André Garrett, Head Chef at Galvin at Windows, will get his star in 2008. He had one at Orrery, after all.
To better understand why Michelin – despite annual protestations to the contrary – ploughs a familiar, unilluminating and basically French furrow, it is instructive to look at its London guide, which, for the first time this year, is published as a separate entity complete with photographs and relatively verbose entries.
From the introduction onwards, it is obvious that the guide is firmly aimed at tourists and visitors. In the language we now call Bulmerese, the chapter A Culinary History of London reveals "Today the world is London's mollusc of choice" – I read that over and over and still can't understand it – "with world-renowned restaurants throughout the city… these days bangers and mash can be cordon bleu if you source it right". It is unfair to expect the prose of a Joseph Conrad or even a Martin Amis, but it should not be too much to hope that entries be revealing and galvanising.
Michelin claims that, in its view, the food on the plate is paramount, but the London guide descriptions concentrate on surroundings and staff. They read as if lifted from freebie reviews written by Alan Partridge for a Norwich local paper. No word is left unqualified: The Ritz is "strikingly lavish" and "sumptuously elegant", Claridge's is "strikingly elegant" and "conspicuously lavish" – making some phrases tautologous: Sartoria is "reliably consistent", W'Sens (predicted to change or close long before the guide was published) is – or was – "hugely eclectic".
Restaurants, which might seem starworthy to some, such as St John and Moro, are dismissed with fatuous drivel. Fergus Henderson did not introduce "a new generation to old English recipes". The whole point is that he considered British food anew. Of Moro, they chirpily quip that "the wholesome vibrant Moorish food is certainly moreish". Poor old Morgan Meunier, garlanded in the past, learns that he has located his own restaurant in an area "where lifestyle gurus fear to tread".
So I suppose you won't see Stephen Bayley round there, even though "the reassuring service stops you worrying about where your car's parked".
In these days of restaurant review websites and blogs, it is not good enough to publish a guide book of tasteless pap. We are led to believe that Michelin has the wherewithal to finance annual inspections, in which case it should put its mouth where its money is. Chefs are said to toss and turn in their beds in the weeks before the guide is published. I don't know how the inspectors sleep at nights.