Last Monday, my favourite restaurant in the world was The Sportsman at Seasalter. Nothing else came close. That delectable juxtaposition of slightly shabby pub (well, from the outside, anyway), complete with paper napkins, proper bar and condom machine in the loo. And Stephen Harris’ defiantly unshabby, blessedly beautiful, utterly unpretentious cooking… that home-churned butter, and the tiny onion custard tart that seems to contain the very essence of sweet allium. Oh, and the Whitstable native, all cool and elegant, topped with that plump lump of fat-flecked chorizo (home cured, of course).
But then I thought back to the Friday before that, when I devoured a plate of agretti con bottarga at London’s River Café. As the sun flooded through all that glass, and the humble, rather scrawny, ferric shrub was transformed into something quite spectacular by a few orange crumbs of dried mullet’s roe and lashings of the grassiest, greenest olive oil. Nope, I was wrong, that’s definitely my favourite restaurant in the world. Until I remembered Italy, and the Amalfi Coast, and Da Adolfo, a mile or so from the main beach at Positano, and really only accessible by boat. There, with the sand between my toes, I eat tiny mussels drowned in the most vivid, vibrant of tomato sauces, and mozzarella melted onto lemon leaves.
By now, I’m in full flow. Not Da Adolfo, no, but Da Michele in Naples, and the pizza with the vast, blistered crusts and molten pool of mozzarella. Or how about Central in Lima, yes, it has to be Central in Lima, where I refound my faith in the tasting menu. Tasting menus? What about Noma, and those tiny hopping shrimps? Or back to Lima, and Maido, with that flawless fusion of old-school Japanese and Nikkei magic. Wait, forget ALL that. It has to be Joe’s Stone Crab in Miami. Or Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack in Nashville. But I can’t forget Minetta Tavern in New York, or the flower crabs in rice wine at Victoria Seafood in Hong Kong. Nor those tacos al pastor from the hole in the wall in Historico, Mexico City. At that point I sat down, took a deep draft of wine, and gave up.
Because choosing my favourite restaurant in the world is nigh on impossible. It depends on the given hour, of the exact week, during a specific time of the month. It changes daily, with my mood, my appetite, my whim and my desire. As it does, I suspect, to us all. Some days, I crave the diesel fumes, fierce flavours and fag smoke of the street. Others, a great hunk of charred protein. And sometimes (and admittedly far less often), 30 courses of post-modern culinary trickery.
Which is why the notion of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants is so inherently ridiculous. If each of us, serious eaters all, cannot decide our own deeply subjective ‘favourite’, how in God’s name can a vast panel of international chefs, food writers and ‘foodies’ (ugh!) decide, empirically, on 50, not simply of the ones they like, but the ones are deemed somehow superior to everything else. It doesn’t help that the vast majority are resolutely high end.
I was asked, a year or so back, by a good friend, to take part as a judge on these awards. I said no, not out of some barely suppressed moral outrage, rather because I simply don’t believe it’s possible to decide a ‘50 Best’ of anything. Especially when it comes to food. Anyway, what exactly are the judging criteria? Well, little more than each judge nominating what they think are the ‘seven best restaurants in the world’, ones that they’ve eaten at in the last 12 months. That’s it. So does one judge on food alone, or atmosphere, or service, or the gleam of the cutlery or heft of the wine list or obsequiousness of the welcome? With that many judges, who knows?
As I’ve said before, I have a number of proper friends who are judges. People whose food I adore, whose judgements I respect. But 50 Best in the World? Really? Sure, a lot more work goes into cooking dinner at El Celler de Can Roca than it does at Da Michele. More work, more costs, more preparation, ingredients, expenses, staff, linen, overheads, imagination and sweat. And I don’t mean for a second to detract from the current number one’s undoubted brilliance. But is one actually better than the other? Of course not. Just different.
But enough. I’ve said my piece. And as a culinary Libertarian, I’m quite happy for people to hand out gongs as long as they want, as long as it makes them happy. And the one thing you cannot take away from the 50 Best is that. It not only makes chefs and restaurateurs happy, but it gets people banging on (like me), and debating, agreeing, arguing, hissing, spitting, grinning and gurning. This is a good thing. Better still, it brings together, from across the globe, some of the world’s most talented chefs. Where else would you find Heston chewing the fat with Gastón, and Ferran and Alex, René and the rest? It’s like a culinary gathering of the tribes, a chance to talk, drink, exchange ideas and drink some more. So let’s forget about the exact order and concentrate on what really matters: a meeting of like minds, a chance to celebrate and reap the rewards of many years of hard graft, thankless toil, antisocial hours and endless scars. The chefs have earned it. The least we can do is sit back and applaud.
Stay tuned on FOUR for all of the World's 50 Best announcements tomorrow!
Academy Dinner at HKK by Lidia Sakarapani © The World's 50 Best Restaurants sponsored by S.Pellegrino & Acqua Panna, April 2013
El Celler de Can Roca © The World's 50 Best Restaurants sponsored by S.Pellegrino & Acqua Panna, April 2013
Tom Parker Bowles