Last year, in Lisbon, I did something very rare: I visited a Michelin starred restaurant. I love good food, but restaurants of such quality, and the inevitable accompanying pageantry, not to mention strain on my wallet, take me so far out of my comfort zone that I can’t even see my comfort zone any more. As a child, “going out for dinner” meant you stayed IN the restaurant for your fish and chips, rather than taking them away wrapped up in paper. This usually only occurred in the event of a birthday or a wake. Frankly, the mere presence of cutlery that wasn’t plastic made us feel we were getting a bit above ourselves. Nowadays I’ve just about got over seeing Pizza Express as decadent, but nonetheless this was still a rare treat.
So, how do you know you’re having a world-class dining experience rather than a standard Friday night at your bog-standard tandoori or local Wetherspoon? Here are some indicators:
– The “tasting menu”. This is where you’re charged a set (usually large) amount of money for what is ultimately a series of canapes presented as mini courses which you need a magnifying glass to see.
– The dishes feature mysterious ingredients or are so incomprehensibly titled that you can’t work out what they are, but are too afraid to ask. What, for example, is a Mahogany Clam? And how does he differ from a Standard Clam? Suddenly you find your tiny portion of meat comes with “jus” (as my dad calls it, “crap gravy”) and pea puree (substandard mushy peas). Other parts of your meal sound decidedly unappetising, but to admit this would be to show your lack of culture, so you keep quiet and eat your smoked salmon with “a smear of liquorice gel”, even though this sounds like something you’d rub on a mouth ulcer, and your “shaved fennel with birch syrup” (I promise I’m not making this up) even though, as far as you know, fennel isn’t particularly hairy and birch syrup sounds like a hippy remedy for a hangover.
– Each staff member has a designated job, and is apparently forbidden stray onto a colleague’s territory. You must not ask the person who puts the napkin on your knees (posh diners evidently being above doing this for themselves) if you can order wine, the wine waiter (sorry, sommelier) if you can order your food, expect the person from whom you order your food to actually be the person who then brings you your food, or ask the person who brings you your food for the bill. At the restaurant we visited, there was one waiter whose sole job seemed to be to replace pieces of cutlery, and he looked positively excited when the woman next to us dropped her knife, swiftly replacing it with more aplomb than was strictly necessary.
– You are not allowed to eat or drink until the content of each course has been explained in extravagant detail. With each course, the sommelier appeared at our table and we were treated to a very informed description of the wine and why it was the best wine for what we were about to eat, and we had to nod sagely as we learned about the different types of grapes that grow along the Chilean/Argentinian border, feigning interest. We then had to go through the same charade with the food, with the waiter whose job it was to describe the food giving us an elaborate overview of what, owing to the tiny portions, would take us less time to eat than it took him to describe: “Here you have gently grilled, fresh shrimps which were caught just this morning off the Sussex coast. Their names were Barry and Derek, and they are served on a bed of fluffed quinoa with a light drizzle of menstrual jelly.” (OK, I made that last bit up.) When the Ballad of Barry and Derek was complete the first waiter whipped off the lid to reveal with a flourish their remains in all their small, overly-decorated glory.
– Once you have the wine, great care is taken that you do not pour this yourself. Instead, it is placed just out of reach, thus ensuring that the Head Wine Pourer stays in secure employment until retirement and you remain thirsty and increasingly concerned that the staff are passive-aggressively judging the speed of your alcohol consumption in their insistence that you wait a while being allowed more.
– At the end of the meal, it is obligatory that you try the recommended “digestif”. This invariably tastes a bit like cough mixture.
– The evening ends with a phone call from your bank querying if your card has been stolen or if you really did just voluntarily spend over £200 on coffin-roasted Trafalgar Square Pigeon with deadly nightshade compote and goat-sick glaze followed by organic blackcurrant soufflé sprinkled with locally-sourced vanilla-infused orphan tears.
*Pictures from a range of dining experiences.