Sir Joshua Reynolds, the 18th century painter held the view that defining good art required standardisation and classification. He argued in one of his discourses on art that general beauty makes more sense than particularities because it was rational and because that’s how the human mind operates. Of his most famous critics was William Blake who replied to his notion of general beauty that “To generalise is to be an idiot; To particularize is the alone distinction of merit” Yes, I have finally eaten myself to madness. I once held the view that London was the gastronomic capital of the world. I have had some wonderful meals in the last eight years in the city, defending the Big Smoke’s reputation against naysayers. London restaurants naturally become my benchmark when defining a good meal. Generally speaking, there are lots of great places to eat in the city, but I just wonder if we examine the city’s gastronomic landscape through a microscope, would the finer details alter the general aesthetic?
Let’s start with the obvious metrics, the most obvious of them all being the Michelin guide. Favoured for it’s ‘uniform’ methods (if controversial) in forming city based lists around the world, and also for its general revere among the most illustrious of names in the business. The hunt for those ‘macarons’ (I was watching Will Sitwell’s show when I edited this) can become a hazard to health. In 2010, there are fifty London restaurants listed in the red guide but only two from that list hold the coveted 3 stars. New York has 55, with five 3 star restaurants; Paris boasts a whopping ten 3 star restaurants out of a total 96 and Tokyo glitters with eleven 3 star restaurants out of the total of 197. Does the Ledbury’s salt crust celeriac compare against Per se’s Oysters and Pearls? Who knows, if we were generalising, illustrious lists say very little about the strength, diversity or culture of a particular region’s (or city in this case) cuisine. All it is really saying is that there are fifty way to splash your cash.
Don’t get me wrong though, I am not disrespecting all the talent and hard work sunk into finely tuned Michelin kitchens, but rather than examine the high profile backslapping amongst the most talented as well as the most well connected, I want to look at it from the other side of the fence, from an everyman’s view on what the London dining scene looks like. And so, we are now the ultimate idealists. Our cause is not to search for a total sensory experience, nor is it to focus on the fine twill of Egyptian cotton hand towels; but we are more interested in keeping it real by looking at properties which are tangible, local and truly unique to it’s surroundings. Every city has its own footprint of gastro gems; New York boasts Josper flamed strip-joint strip-loin; Parisians with their bistros (craving confit du carnard..) ; Taipei and it’s microcosm of beef noodle houses; Sydney for the overwhelming selection of seafood and to Hong Kong where I believe they have perfected the egg custard tart. You see where I’m getting at right – what’s our trump card?
The city has always been known for its diversity. Take a look at the recent fads: viet-baguettes, coffee culture, steak, the tapas culture, dim sum, burritos. And then think about the incalculable types of genres you can sample in London, I’ll bet that you can name at least a couple of ‘good’ restaurants in each style of cuisine. Variety is never a bad thing of course; it means we get to experience all sorts of rather good imitations of imported cuisines. Personally, I am a fan of Spanish food, and I love all things Japanese, but I have never bought iberico ham from Huelva nor have I tried fishing for unagi at Lake Hamana. In my head, what I think are good examples of either cuisine, is limited to those restaurants in London. It’s all a matter of setting a point of reference isn’t it? Just what determines how faithful a cuisine really is, and more pressingly does authenticity correlate to quality? And what of champions of fusion; If a superior marriage of ingredients occurs, does it create a ‘new’ cuisine in itself, or does it get absorbed into the culture local to the area? Which cookbook does the california roll – born in Los Angeles – belong in?
It is that problem I have sometimes when making comparisons of imported cuisines, having only eaten at say a few hundred restaurants in my lifetime around the world – who I am to be passing judgement right? The point I am so desperately trying to get on to is in establishing the identity of London gastronomy. So. What is it? Roasts, curries and kebabs? I hardly believe London is the destination for fish and chips and how does Brick Lane compare to the Manchester Curry Mile? Surely there are restaurants in London which represent the pinnacle of British cooking. The obvious candidate is Henderson and St John : Holder of a Michelin star, high on the world top 50 list, internationally renowned – The London restaurant? Too obvious. I think a master chef is one who understands that brilliant cooking is a result of harnessing the power of local produce – it is the single most meaningful competitive proposition a restaurant can boast. You know, as much as I am in love with the idea of St John, I much prefer the crabs on toast at 32 Great Queen Street. When I take a harder look. I see the Hereford roads, the Harwood Arms of London and the concept of the Gastropub stands out for me. The reticent style which lets quality of local produce take centre-plate, a type of restaurant which is unique to this country, and a style in which I hope has its quintessence in London.
And so there it is, I don’t think I could ever say for sure where London lies in the premiership of gastronomic capitals around the globe, and I think I would indeed be a fool to make that kind of generalisation. Cracking restaurants exists in London, and cracking restaurants continue to open every year, I know I have eaten some wonderful meals in the city, and the belief that there are even greater restaurants to visit drives my adventure on this blog. So now it’s your turn – what’s your take on London restaurants, have you had memorable meals in London, and if so, where and if London is not your pick, then where are your favourite restaurants in the world?