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This is the second of Wolfram Siebeck's articles describing his gourmet cruise through the Guardian's list of the world's fifty best restaurants. In his first article he visits the winning nanocuisine restaurant The Fat Duck.

22/06/2005

The ultimate yuckerie

Wolfram Siebeck continues to work his way down the English entries on the Guardian's "50 best restaurants" list.

There's an anecdote about St. John, the restaurant rated tenth on the Guardian's ominous list of the world's fifty (supposedly) best eateries. When the American chef and best-seller author Anthony Bourdain (Kitchen Confidential) dined there for the first time, he forced his way into the kitchen and prostrated himself at the feet of his colleague Fergus Henderson.

And what were the wonders on Anthony Bourdain's plate? Only the speciality of the house. Items rarely found on menus of good restaurants – not to mention those of the world's best. In a word: offal. Since then Bourdain has spread word of his English colleague like Frau Heidenreich and her beloved Harry Potter on the TV show Lesen!

A London journalist once wrote that she could never love anyone who didn't love St. John. This anticipates a love of chitterlings, grilled pig's ears, marrow bones, stuffed trotters, kidneys and brains. Henderson provides devotees of these much-maligned goods with the ultimate yuckerie. And I make no secret of the fact that I belong to this minority.

As you near this gourmet establishment from the West in a taxi, it is a joy to drive through residential areas far off the beaten tourist path. Apart from the Starbucks which have driven out all the traditional pubs from the street corners, the damages inflicted by Anglo-American solidarity are still relatively inoffensive in this part of town.

But that St. John's impressive reputation is based on this precarious alliance becomes all too clear after the first visit. All the hoo-hah about the "avant-guard and shocking" recipes is hogwash. The only people who fall for this claptrap think tripe is only fit for dog food and bone marrow is some sort of prescription narcotic. Because offal is as at home in Lyonnaise cuisine as it is exotic to puritanical Western eyes.

So when a cook like Fergus Henderson stirs the very foundations of the culinary arts and plays to postmodern horror fantasies there is nothing more to it than traditional bistro cooking. But in the primitive dining room in St. John street it doesn't even get that far. The marrow bones on my plate could have come from a horse, and the beef innards in the goulash had been braised too long. Only the house-baked bread which came in place of potatoes was in any way superior to your average fare.

And anyway, most of the menu consists of dishes typical of bourgeois cuisine, among them the skate wings, which are not served with the usual lemon-caper butter, but with tartar sauce. The wine menu is not bad but the glasses are terrible. At least the hordes of waitresses in white ensure you can exit this simple pub relatively fast. If it weren't for the grotesque ranking in the Guardian and Anthony's Bourdain's genuflection, St. John's would hardly be worth mentioning – apart from Fergus Henderson's cookbook. This includes recipes of all the dishes one scours the menu for in vain, and is called "Nose to Tail Eating" (Bloomsbury, 16,99 pounds).

As Nobu is the first Japanese restaurant on the Guardian list, coming in at number 20, it must be best Japanese restaurant in the world. But this verdict, arrived at by the 600 experts, contains the same level of dottiness at play in all the other crass errors of judgement on the list. There are at least half a dozen Nobu restaurants around the world and one of them might indeed be incomparably good. The one here in the London Metropolitan Hotel in lower Park Lane is no better than scores of others where I've fumbled around with my chopsticks. What's more, it has the sort of rustic Ikea charm typical of very middling Japanese restaurants. Perhaps what clinched it for the Guardian experts was that the place was crammed full of beautiful people, formerly known as yuppies who the staff welcome in with an aggressively loud three-syllable chorus. Various types of sake are on offer, warm or chilled, including some that have "ripened to soft music". A quarter litre costs between 18 and 25 pounds. If you want to achieve a similar level of drunkenness with wine you will have to spend double, but there are also bottles that cost five times the amount.

I am loathe to pass judgement on what Japanese food should taste like after one meal in the world's supposedly best Japanese. I was in Japan for ten days and still none the wiser. At the Nobu in London the aesthetic arrangements are missing from the tables which are far too small to accommodate such colourful variety. And a single soya sauce is certainly not enough when most of the components on the menu have no flavouring whatsoever.

It is no accident that this restaurant is located in a hotel. In London too, fine cuisine is increasingly under the protectorship of hotels. Luxury restaurants brave enough to stick their necks out and go it alone are increasingly rare.

Alain Senderens of the Parisian three-star restaurant Lucas Carton threw in the towel not long ago. The pressure on a restaurant like that (which does not even feature on the Guardian list) was too much for him. The enormous expense of products and decorations, the high personnel costs and the continual threat to the reputation of such world class chefs amount to nothing less than a nightmare. Things are no different in Berlin, which has an unexpected side-effect. You can be pretty certain you'll get fine cuisine in today's large hotels. That's a major change over the past, when the term "hotel cuisine" was synonymous for bland and boring food dished up by lacklustre cooks.

So on my London trip it was no accident that I ate far better in Lanes Restaurant in the Four Seasons Hotel than in restaurants on the Guardian's list of the world's top 50. And the cooks at the Dorchester and the former Hyde Park Hotel, now called the Mandarin Hotel, also know how to serve demanding modern cuisine with the right look and taste.

It's conceivable that urban literati like Evelyn Waugh, Nancy Mitford and Randolph Churchill, whose journals tell how they traipsed from one luncheon to the next, training their livers, even today might dedicate a few lines to the quality of these establishments. But traditional addresses like the Ritz, the Savoy and Wilton's are beyond the reach of contemporary authors. That is, unless the hedonistic ladies and gentlemen bear in mind that even the finest hotels offer astonishingly reasonable lunch menus. Eating in a luxurious environment where you not infrequently receive exceptional service is by no means as expensive as people like to believe in London. Only mediocre establishments are really expensive – as always.

As long as I can remember, the Connaught Hotel has had one of my favourite hotel restaurants in London. The distinguished atmosphere in the building on Carlos Place in Mayfair has one defining characteristic: unadulterated British understatement. Here pomp and swank are so remote that you secretly wish for a larger, more elegant lounge. Or at least one to suit the magnificent Victorian staircase that calls to mind England's glorious past, as does the shamelessly posted dress code ("Smart, with a jacket preferred"), that even tennis-shoe-sporting US tourists obey. And the fare was always good – the roast grouse even excellent.

But in my experience it was never good enought to merit spot 27 on the list of the world's best restaurants. Nevertheless a new chef, Angela Hartnett, took charge of the kitchen a short while ago. Is she the mighty talent this noble brick building so deserves?

Unfortunately not. The most important attribute of the stylish dining room, namely its elegance, has fallen victim to the modernising furore. That is not to say they've turned the Victorian ambiance into a chichi MacDonald's, like elsewhere in this booming metropolis. A couple of cushioned benches have been removed, a few more tables added, and now there's hardly a Japanese to be seen in the formerly posh dining room, although they were always the first to know where to find stylish Europeanness, that is Britishness. Now frequent flyers in shirtsleeves have replaced them at the tables, fussing with their mobile phones. At noon there's a menu for 30 pounds, which will probably be the ruin of the hotel.

Even a new chef can do little to change that. The sweet melon soup she portions out as an amuse-gueule would have been exquisite for desert. This is followed by an utterly impossible starter, an artichoke with leaves so hard they're inedible. The spaghetti carbonara with quail's eggs doesn't cut the mustard either, as it's missing the necessary pepper. The only really original and enjoyable thing about the meal is the chef's radical refusal of any accompaniment to the basic fare. If you order pigeon breast, you get a pigeon breast on your plate and nothing else. The tiny bit of sauce hardly makes an impression. Like the sauce, the vegetable rudiments that come with the halibut strips require a culinary explanation. The disappointment is only deepened by the sole desert on the lunch menu, a chunky and anything but delicate plum pizza. Number 27 of the 50 best restaurants in the world? I ate ten times better in the Colombi in Freiburg the night before I left.

The highest placed London restaurant on the Guardian experts' list is the Gordon Ramsay, at spot five. It is the only restaurant in the British capital to have three Michelin stars. In its case I would not disagree with the assessment, even if I couldn't get a free table. The last meal I had there I still remember with pleasure.

St. John Bar & Restaurant
St. John Street 26, London EC1M 4AY, Tel. 004420/72 51 08 48, closed Saturday noon and Sunday

Nobu
in the Metropolitan Hotel, 19 Old Park Lane, London W1K 1LB, Tel. 0044-20/7447 47 47, closed Saturday noon and Sunday noon

Lanes Restaurant
in the Four Seasons Hotel, Hamilton Place, London W1A 1AZ, Tel. 0044-20/74 99 08 88, open daily at noon and evenings

Angela Hartnett’s Menu
in the Connaught Hotel, 16 Carlos Place, London W1K 2AL, Tel. 0044-20/75 92 12 22, open daily at noon and evenings

Gordon Ramsay
68/69 Royal Hospital Road, London SW3 4HP, Tel. 0044-20/73 52 44 41, closed weekends

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The article was originally published in German in Die Zeit on June 15, 2005.

Wolfram Siebeck, born in 1928 in Duisburg, is one of Germany's most famous chefs and restaurant critics. He writes a regular column for Die Zeit.

Translation: lp, jab.
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