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When restaurant stars don't shine

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To say that John Lethlean’s review last week of the Hill of Grace restaurant was unfortunate is probably an understatement. Such reviews tend to deflate even the most optimistic restaurant and its hitherto loyal patrons.

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It’s also unfortunate in the extreme that Lethlean has made it a hat-trick in Adelaide – first the Grange restaurant at the Adelaide Hilton, then Olea after a very expensive refit of Electra House, and now HoG. Who would want to name their restaurant after a great wine and then invite Lethlean to dinner?

With threats of legal action hanging above it, the review has evoked memories of another famous, possibly notorious, review by Sydney food critic Leo Schofield, following his visit to the Blue Angel restaurant in 1984. He was not impressed and his review began:

“I have never really understood about live fish in tanks in restaurants. If they are seen as a way to guarantee freshness, then surely we ought also to have live pigs in pens in the middle of restaurants, ready for slaughter to ensure the freshest possible loin of pork and the odd steer waiting patiently to be zapped by the electric hammer before transformation.”

But this was a minor quibble compared to his assessment of the lobster, which became Exhibit A in the ensuing court case.

“Even Godzilla boiled for 45 minutes would be appallingly overcooked. Which is what our grilled lobster most certainly was, cooked until every drop of juice and joy in the thing had been successfully eliminated, leaving a charred husk of a shell containing meat that might have been albino walrus.”

The “carbonised claws” of the lobster “contained only a kind of white powder” and the treatment of the $25-a-kilo meat was “close to culinary crime”. The prawns and sole “suffered from the same exposure to heat, the former converted into chewy little shapes without a lot of flavour and the latter a slab of overcooked fish slimy with oil”.

Well that cost Schofield and The Sydney Morning Herald rather more than the cost of the meal – $100,000 plus interest for defamation.

More interesting and more relevant, however, is the demolition job by New York Times critic Pete Wells who, on January 12 this year, took on one of America’s most famous and awarded chefs, Thomas Keller, and his New York restaurant Per Se – which at various times has sported three Michelin stars and rated up to sixth in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants (2009). My thanks to colleague and wine savant Brian Miller for bringing Wells’ review to our attention.

It began:

“The lady had dropped her napkin.

“More accurately, she had hurled it to the floor in a fit of disillusionment, her small protest against the slow creep of mediocrity and missed cues during a four-hour dinner at Per Se that would cost the four of us close to $3,000 (A$4225). Some time later, a passing server picked up the napkin without pausing to see whose lap it was missing from, neatly embodying the oblivious sleepwalking that had pushed my guest to this point.”

But Wells had only just inserted the knife. Now he began to twist it.

“Dinner or lunch at this grand, hermetic, self-regarding, ungenerous restaurant brings a protracted march of many dishes. In 2004, the year Per Se opened, the price for nine courses was $150 before tax and tip; last week, it went up to $325, with service included.”

So what did he get for his $1000 meal?

“The kitchen could improve the bacon-wrapped cylinder of quail simply by not placing it on top of a dismal green pulp of cooked romaine lettuce, crunchy and mushy at once.

“Draining off the gluey, oily liquid would have helped a mushroom potpie from turning into a swampy mess.

“I don’t know what could have saved limp, dispiriting yam dumplings, but it definitely wasn’t a lukewarm matsutake mushroom bouillon as murky and appealing as bong water.”

Bong water? Give me mucoid gloop any day.

“It’s a bit of a mystery what pickled carrots, peanuts and a date wrapped in a soft crepe were supposed to do for a slab of Dorset cheese… but a good first step would have been allowing the washed-rind cow’s milk cheese to warm up to a buttery softness; served cold, it was rubbery and flavorless.

“Even canonic dishes could be mangled. One time the sabayon in ‘oysters and pearls’ had broken and separated, so fat pooled above the tapioca.”

Wells even gets his own lobster moment:

“Mr. Keller wrote in The French Laundry Cookbook that poaching lobster in butter ‘cooks it so slowly and gently that the flesh remains exquisitely tender — so tender some people think it’s not completely cooked’.

“There was little danger of anyone’s making that mistake on two occasions when the lobster was intransigently chewy: gristle of the sea. The first time, it was served with a sugary Meyer lemon marmalade and a grainy chestnut purée that tasted like peanut butter to which something terrible had been done. Subsequently, it was paired with a slick of cold oatmeal.”

As with Lethlean at HoG, there were a few brighter moments – considerably brighter in Wells’ case and worth reporting because at least they showed what Per Se could do:

“Lubina, the European sea bass, was sheathed in handsome golden scales of potato and bewitchingly sauced with a reduction of red wine and port swirled with butter. Bulging agnolotti filled with butternut squash and mascarpone were fat envelopes of pure pleasure. The flavors and colors of roasted sunchokes, vinegared beets, peeled Concord grapes and puréed pistachios came together in vivid harmony.

“The type of daring — where did that come from? — thrill that you hope to get at a restaurant like Per Se appears rarely, but it was there in a majestic pile of osetra caviar over deeply savory bonito jelly and cured fluke that had been pressed between sheets of kelp, a flavor-enhancing trick known in Japan as kobu-jime.”

Then there was the risotto “supersaturated with brown butter and creamy Castelmagno cheese… and the plate momentarily disappeared under a rain of white truffles. A few minutes later, even more truffles poured down”. That gorgeous “rain” cost an extra 250 Australian dollars.

If only that had been all he ate, but it was not to be.

Like Lethlean, Wells also had issues with the wine: “Wine glasses sat empty through entire courses… servers sometimes give you the feeling that you work for them, and your job is to feel lucky to receive whatever you get.”

Wells concludes: “Is Per Se worth the time and money? In and of itself, no.”

This is not supposed to be an exercise in schadenfreude – well not entirely, because Wells also nails the problem, which is that any restaurant that decides to charge unreasonably high prices should expect that a diner will demand an unreasonably perfect experience.

“With each fresh review, a restaurant has to earn its stars again,” he says. “In its current form and at its current price, Per Se struggled and failed to do this, ranging from respectably dull at best to disappointingly flat-footed at worst.”

But even Wells still gave Per Se two stars out of five.




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