The List






A Star Worth Dying For


Shortly before he blew his brains out with a hunting rifle, the French chef, Bernard Loiseau, proclaimed that if he ever lost a Michelin star he would 'kill himself'. If anyone in France had doubted the importance of the Michelin Red Guide before Loiseau's suicide in February 2003, his death quickly led them to change their opinions. In the home of haute cuisine, at least, stars still mattered.

In the UK, though, it is difficult to imagine anyone resorting to such drastic measures. Stars are highly sought after by the high end of the market, but they aren't regarded as awards literally to die for. Many British restaurant reviewers are even openly critical of what they regard as the Red Guide's tendency to give primacy to the old fashioned, the expensive and the pretentious. The guide, and its stars, they say, are anachronisms, and are out of touch with the modern consumer.

They are, of course, wrong. The Michelin Red guide remains the definitive restaurant guide primarily because it shuns the vagaries of what is fashionable, and instead focuses all of its attention on the quality of the food and the dining experience. That this approach tends to favour the expensive and formal is an inevitability that seems nonsensical to criticise; to do so would be akin to complaining that performance car magazines always award their highest accolades to supercars.

The guide is not perfect, but, with its anonymous professional inspectors who make multiple visits to each restaurant, it is far more trustworthy and accurate than the often highly subjective opinions of restaurant critics, or the lowest common denominator judgements of the crowd-sourced review sites.

And so to the 2009 guide, published earlier in the month, which, with a page count to rival Proust's A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, and with print small enough to induce a headache in all but those with 20/20 vision, is not the sort of reference book that is carried around in a back pocket. It takes the business of fine dining as seriously as if it were a matter of global importance, which, to many French, of course, it is.

The UK, as for the past few years, features no new three star restaurants; the Fat Duck, the Waterside Inn and Gordon Ramsey's retain their positions at the top of the ladder, but Le Gavroche still remains, mystifyingly, on the rung below (the guide is not perfect, after all). Thankfully, though, the number of one and two star establishments has increased significantly.

One restaurant that has made the step up to a single star this year is the Manor House at Castle Combe, which, like many of the establishments in this year's guide is situated within a country hotel. Given the guide's apparent liking for this type of establishment, then, it seemed that a meal at the Wiltshire hotel might provide a good indication of what the star stands for in today's marketplace.

Now, those of you who perceive the notions of fine dining and country hotel restaurants to be diametrically opposed may be rather sceptical of Michelin's apparent liking for this particular type of eatery. Memories of poorly cooked food served by Fawlty-esque staff tend to stick in the mind.

I can, however, dispel your doubts; the Manor House both sweeps aside any lingering concerns that country hotels cannot produce food of the very highest quality, and proves that the Michelin inspectors are still capable of picking out the great from among the merely good.

True, there is a certain air of pretentiousness and formality to the dining experience; food is only served after an apparently compulsory aperitif is taken in the lounge, but this adds rather than detracts from the experience, elevating it to the status of 'event'. This could be annoying if you were time-limited, but I suspect that most of us would not choose to eat in such a restaurant were we in a rush to be somewhere else.

The food on our visit was exquisitely prepared and presented: onion risotto with a cepe cappuccino smouldered on the tongue, whilst the fillet of beef with wild mushroom ravioli and red wine jus was perfectly executed and offered far greater complexity of flavour than its relatively simple selection of ingredients might suggest. The final flourish was a pineapple tart tatin, which skilfully matched  the sharpness of the fruit with the richness of the base.

So, if we take the Manor House to be reasonably representative of what constitutes a Michelin starred restaurant in 2009, it is clear that the Red Guide is still slanted towards what could be described as 'event' dining; the type of food and presentation that is aesthetically and formally elevated from the everyday. Whilst this may result in many restaurants, and indeed pubs, which serve well crafted but less ornate and labour intensive food, missing out on stars, it does mean that Michelin remains true to its original aim, set out a century ago, of determining which restaurants are truly worthy of motorists making a significant detour to sample.