What Should One Michelin Star Get You?
We very seldom eat in Michelin starred restaurants. Never before have we eaten in one as part of a group of 18 Americans, 8 of whom were teenagers. And double never for a starred restaurant with an under-table canine finger licker. Don’t get me wrong – the dog was one of the highlights of the meal.
It was gorgeous at our chosen spot near Avignon, beautiful grounds, huge old trees, trickling fountains, and the best bathrooms I’ve ever seen in France.
It was also a day hot enough to melt the butter on your plate. And when butter melts, so do I, so perhaps I was feeling a touch snarky. Our helpful server, himself as melted as the rest of the staff, said that it was at least 35° C, which is 95°F. So there you have it: hotter than hell, a giant group of foreigners including a sizeable youth contingent, and a reservation made too late to allow the kitchen enough time to prepare for us.
My meal started with this melon and ham salad. It was a decent melon, with some crispy ham that might have been crisped on another day, since it had a very faintly rancid flavor and aroma. I see from the picture that there was some sort of dressing on the salad, but I don’t remember tasting it.
Others in our group started with the soup. I think there’s a law that says starred restaurants have to serve something featuring foam, and so here’s a carrot soup with some shellfish swimming under the froth. The best thing about this soup was the beautiful spoon. I mean, the soup was okay too, in a carrot-watery way, but the spoon was really nice. Actually all of their silverware was quite beautiful.
This main course of tuna was a deconstructed Niçoise, and it too was okay. Nothing you wouldn’t whip up for yourself on a hot day, but nothing to complain about. Some of us got a delicious pork chop, but the kitchen didn’t have enough pork available, so most of us had the tuna. A pork chop like that doesn’t come from the neighborhood supermarché, so I’m sure that had we reserved earlier they would have stocked up so that more of us would have been able to choose the chop. It was probably our fault for not reserving well in advance, although we were practically the only customers for lunch, but still a lot of disappointed glances were cast by the tuna eaters in the direction of the porkers.
Some pretty raspberry ravioli in mint water, a far better choice than the underripe apricots in a tough pastry purse,
and the post-prandial mignardises brought the meal to a picturesque end. But I do have to say that they, like all the food, looked better than they tasted.
I’d be the first to agree that beauty in food is very important, and no doubt it counts toward getting a star. And I’ve already said that the circumstances of the day were somewhat sub-optimal. And it’s true that we chose the lunch menu at “only” 45 Euros a person, plus wine and coffee. Just for a little reality check, at today’s rate that’s $70.93 a person for lunch. Although with wine and coffee it really came to 55 Euros a person, or $86.69. Which, for a starred restaurant, is admittedly low. And the food was very photogenic. It’s also true that the restaurant was apparently more prepared for, and did suggest, that we all choose the menu at 78 Euros. Not to lean too hard on this point, but that’s $122.94 per person before drinks, which, alas, we ourselves were not prepared for, especially those of us with teenage mouths to feed.
But let it be said that the restaurant has a lovely lotus pond. And that we really enjoyed each other’s company, and the prettiness of the food and the grounds.
And that the resident dog thought the meal was peachy.
Me, I think it was a triumph of form over substance. All was correctly and prettily made, but nothing was exciting or even very interesting. There were no flavor surprises, and one day later I’m left with no clear flavor memories. It’s almost as if the food were created to be photographed rather than eaten. Not that it was all about the form. The servers, although there were only two choices for each course, arrived with trays full of dishes and had to ask each time who had ordered what, which I think is less than good form in a starred place.
But afterwards the kids, who had actually behaved better than the adults throughout the 3 1/2 hour meal, finally acted their age and were caught truly enjoying themselves for the first time that afternoon.
And I found myself feeling lucky not to be a Michelin inspector, wondering whether this restaurant really still deserves its star.