I originally wrote this as a response to a question on Facebook, but realising I couldn’t hijack a post, I copied it here instead.
Having eaten at a good portion of the Top 50 restaurants over the last few years, I cannot think of anything in Canada that even competes. A few in Toronto come close….For instance Hawkesworth in Vancouver is good food, but it’s very derivative of what’s happening in the fine dining world right now, especially in the PNW, a touch of modern using local ingredients without really pushing any boundaries or being innovative. I eat that same meal once a week at least. And the overall presentation is very run of the mill. I could have eaten that meal anywhere, and I leave Hawkesworth feeling like the food is good but it was just another night out.
Canlis in Seattle is similar to Hawkesworth, but I find the staff to be incredibly more receptive. Perhaps because the last time I was there, they indulged my love of bourbon and created a special Scotch tasting that left me quite tipsy (literally). And while both are truly delicious restaurants mixing traditional and modern technique, their menus could be interchangeable. Well not quite anymore, as Canlis has changed their concept, but I hope you get the point.
For me, foodwise, most of the Top 50 tend to be incredibly innovative, which is why despite so many restaurants being better than Noma, it ends up in the top every year thanks to its amazing test kitchen where the chefs really are furthering cuisine. They aren’t blending techniques, the chefs are creating techniques.
And while I had several meals better than Noma, the overall experience was by far one of the best (both visits). The perfect combination of presentation, service, and food. What really struck me about Noma’s Winter menu this year is it was heavily vegetable based, while so many restaurants turn to heavy meats during Winter, and yet it was just as hearty and comforting. But beyond that, it was personal.
This time, we ate at the communal table, and by the end of the night we had spoken to the Seattle sous and all the british staff. We were asked how Blaine was doing, as if we regularly popped over to Lummi Island to check on him (we haven’t actually even made it out there yet). We were given milk as an “extra course” to answer a question about fat content. The manager sat down with us and had tea after our test kitchen tour. We had soot on our hands from the smoker (which is pretty low brow) behind the restaurant.
Course by course, the food may not have compared to Geranium the night before (Geranium was even keel where Noma had its highs and lows), but we left feeling like everyone we came into contact not just loved their job but loved sharing it with us–they allowed just enough of their personal lives into the meal and service as well. And that to me is the one thing all of my jaunts to the Top 50 and Michelin Three-Starred restaurants have in common, everyone we come into contact with was real and made our night as amazing as the food. Our waiter at Geranium was an Oakland Raiders fan and I got a tattoo artist recommendation from a chef, at Osteria Francescana our waiter kicked the sommelier to the curb and created a personal favorite beer pairing so we’d get a break from wine since we had to drive back to Florence that night, at Il Canto (no longer on the list) we were the only ones in the off season dining room and just chatted happily as if we were all old friends–even if only for a night, we became part of their world and they became part of ours. Like we were in a local pub eating some of the world’s most innovative food.
At French Laundry I often find that our table is the only one who has the staff laughing so perhaps it’s just us. Although I find the American additions to the Top 50 lacking when compared to their European/Scandinavian counterparts, if only in their personality. Americans tend to expect a degree of formality when shelling out large amounts of money. They look less at what is really happening on the plate and more at the crisp white jackets. They expect things to taste a certain way and enjoy when their expectations are met. And that I think is why when people start naming off restaurants that should be on the list, I just shake my head. Formal does not make innovative, nor does it make great. Expectations being met is a sad state when expectations should be shattered and you should discover something new, whether in a piece of cauliflower or a tub of foie gras.
I know this list has no real criteria, so it’s completely subjective. And so should the list of your favorite restaurants be; afterall, it is your favorites. With that said, some of my favorite restaurants in the world–the authentic thai place around the corner, the pub in Malmo where I ate simply divine Swedish meatballs, or the tapas Baja Med place in San Diego–will never make this list. What they are doing is authentic or delicious or fun, but it’s not quite the same as what’s happening at the French Laundry(s) and Nomas of the world. And what the chefs these places are sending out into the world are doing elevate some of the most common cuisine.
I am in the process of my across the world meal plans this year (2015 is France and 2016 is Asia) but this year is up in the air still thanks to the January jaunt.