For some guests fine-dining and Michelin-starred restaurants are a regular part of life or even a hobby, but for others some uncertainty still remains about quite what to expect when you visit a restaurant such as L'Ortolan. We invited guest blogger Simon Carter, Editor of the Fine Dining Guide, to give us his take on modern fine-dining and a guest's view on L'Ortolan..
"Come unto me, all ye that labour in the stomach and I will restore you." Wrote Monsieur Boulanger, in 1765, on a sign above his restorative; an establishment that soon became recognized as the first 'restaurant.'
It has been argued that the French Revolution prompted the start of fine dining restaurants in Europe. Typically the aristocracy had private chefs, grand kitchens and servants to act as waiters. It was only this class of people that enjoyed fine dining. An objective of the revolution was to level out society and a byproduct was a surfeit of unemployed chefs, who had been forced out of their private commissions with wealthy families.
Quite quickly an aspiring class of people were offering a demand to these chefs; they wanted to experience what is what like to dine out in the style of the old aristocracy. Where demand meets supply we have a market and so the market for independent fine dining restaurants was born.
Brillat-Savarin - the first great epicure - who once famously said 'tell me what you eat and I'll tell you what you are' was an early champion of fine dining and had a great cheese from Normandy named in his honour. Brillat-Savarin cited the Paris restaurant La Grande Taverne de Loudres and the owner Antoine Beauvilliers (early 1800s), with being the first to combine his four requisites of fine dining: an elegant room, smart waiters, a good cellar and superior cooking.
The market for fine dining in Britain remained far more "conservative" than our French neighbours. Perhaps right through until the birth of Le Gavroche in London (1967), the emphasis was on grand hotels. In my early memory of fine dining the chefs you knew about, who were vaguely celebrities, worked in grand hotels. It was not until the Roux brothers, Koffmann, Ladenis and Blanc appeared that the independent restaurant could be taken seriously as a fine dining destination.
There were two distinct differences between the grand hotel restaurants of London and the independent restaurants. The most important was accessibility. As late as the 1960s you possibly needed a title or some serious connections to get a table for lunch at a London grand hotel. Meanwhile independent restaurateurs were delighted to open their doors to whoever could afford to pay. So in a sense we were witnessing a repeat of the experience of France some 150 years earlier.
And with the artist comes the critic: The Michelin Guide, The Which? Good Food Guide, The AA Restaurant Guide and so on. Since 1974, The Michelin Guide has awarded its coveted stars (in Great Britain & Ireland), with around 180 having at least one Michelin star in 2012. Let us argue that approximately 2000 restaurants in Britain & Ireland qualify as fine dining establishments, so around the top 10% of those are recognized with Michelin stars. L'Ortolan and Paris House of Alan Murchison's 10 in 8 collection are two such examples.
So how would you describe the modern fine dining experience. To some it remains intimidating - "Am I over-dressed," "Am I under-dressed," "Will I pick up the wrong knife and fork and make a fool of myself," "Will I look stupid?" "Can I possibly afford it?!"
Fortunately much of the mystery of fine dining has evaporated as the endless stream of top end chef programmes on modern television have opened up an appreciation of what the food offerings will look like: So too, the web with countless photo galleries of fine dining restaurant food. There is also a great deal of variety on offer, with each generation of chef adding an interpretation to the past as well as their own unique signature for the future. With each generation top end restaurant food has also become healthier with far less reliance on cream, butter and large doses of salt.
The objectives of the food from the modern fine dining restaurant chef are generally to deliver on taste, texture and presentation. Extraordinary lengths of labour intensive work will go into delivering on these three fronts but as one chef told me last week - "if something has lemon in it, I want it to taste like a box of lemons!" The techniques used to extract and enhance flavour and to deliver flavour combinations can be quite breathtaking.
In terms of the dining rooms of the L'Ortolan category of fine dining restaurants; I would describe them as a 'special occasion - like going to the theatre but having the bonus of something to eat!' There is a relaxed formality about these restaurants - formal enough so that you know you are at an occasion but relaxed enough so that you can relax, feel good and thoroughly enjoy yourself. Indeed the more often you visit the better the experience, as the level and nature of staff interaction improves naturally as you become more familiar with each other.
Price wise, these restaurants can represent far greater value than is generally understood. Those that seek out a set lunch will find the food bill not too dis-similar from three courses at their local pub.
In terms of L'Ortolan, there is something comforting about returning to certain restaurants; there are those for which you develop an affection for the bricks and mortar. It would be easy to suggest L'Ortolan has that affect but there is so much more; since the days of Richard Sandford and Nico Ladenis, through John Burton-Race, Daniel Galmiche and now Alan Murchison, this building has seen five great Michelin starred chefs.
There is a fundamental difference with the package that is now L'Ortolan to those of the past - a very intelligent difference - Alan Murchison has developed a combination of front of house, food, eating environment and value for money that hits the difficult leafy provinces market squarely between the eyes. Don't get me wrong, there is no implication of compromise or cutting corners, on the contrary; the food is of the highest quality; the service impeccable; the dining room more comfortable than ever - Alan Murchison simply knows how to run a restaurant that delivers the absolute best to their customers at an affordable price point.
Many thanks to Simon for his interesting and enlightening blog.
If you are dining with us at L'Ortolan and would like to experience a whole host of tastes, textures and flavours we recommend trying one of our tasting menus.