What would you do for the perfect meal? Put up with wannabe influencers? Pretend to like wine? Endure unfriendly waiters?
Back in 2011 the late A.A. Gill, a British food and travel writer and critic wrote a piece in Vanity Fair called “Tour De Gall.”
The piece skewered “the worst restaurant in the world” – Paris Bistro, L’Ami Louis. What it also did, looking back on it, is reveal a mistake a lot of Australia’s new age foodies make.
That mistake? Judging a restaurant (purely) on its reputation. And assuming everything must be perfect (when the truth is, a great dining experience is more like BDSM than a Balinese massage).
To give you a taste, this is how Gill describes L’Ami Louis: “The cramped tables are set with labially pink cloths, which give it a colonic appeal and the awkward sense that you might be a suppository.”
He then paints the staff: “The waiters lurk like extras for a Gallic version of The Sopranos… an essential part of Louis’s mystique. Paunchy, combative, surly men, bulging out of their white jackets with the meaty malevolence of gouty buffalo.”
“As you walk in, one approaches with an eyebrow raised and nose aloft to give you the benefit of full-frontal froggy nostril. If you get past the door, and many don’t, the first thing your waiter does is take your coat. The next thing he does is fling it with effortful nonchalance into the luggage rack. Returning customers know to keep wallets, BlackBerrys, and spectacles out of their pockets.”
As for the food? “We order foie gras and snails to start. Foie gras is a L’Ami Louis specialty. After 30 minutes what come are a pair of intimidatingly gross flabs of chilly pâté, with a slight coating of pustular yellow fat. They are dense and stringy, with a web of veins. I doubt they were made on the premises.”
“The liver crumbles under the knife like plumber’s putty and tastes faintly of gut-scented butter or pressed liposuction. The fat clings to the roof of my mouth with the oleaginous insistence of dentist’s wax.”
Lovely. But as we mentioned: the more punishing an experience, the more rewarding it can be. Something Gill articulates better than we ever could: “The reckoning. The foie gras appetizer was 58 euros. That’s $79. A single glass of house wine was $19. And the final bill for lunch for two was $403.”
“That isn’t the most expensive meal in Paris, but in terms of quality, service, atmosphere, and all-round edible value, it’s way out there at the far end of the naughty step.”
“So why do the Americans and English come here? Men who, at home, are finickity and fussy about everything, who consider themselves epicurean and cultured. Men who choose their own ties and are trusted with scissors and corporations, who have ‘sophisticated’ on their Facebook pages. Why do they continue to come here?” Gill asks.
“They can’t all have brain tumors. The only rationally conceivable answer is: Paris. Paris has superpowers; Paris exerts a mercurial force field. This old city has such compelling cultural connotations and aesthetic pheromones, such a nostalgically beguiling cast list, that it defies judgment. It’s a confidence trick that can make oreille de cochon out of a sow’s ear.
“Reputation and expectation are the MSG of fine dining.”
Food for thought… And as an aside: can we say the same about Melbourne? You be the judge.