Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Happy birthday to me!

It was my birthday yesterday, I think that beyond a certain age birthdays are best navigated in stealth mode, although, among other goodies, I did get some much needed underwear (you can't go wrong with pants!).

For a special birthday treat my wife & I went to a local restaurant, l'Ortolan see http://www.lortolan.com , it's certainly the poshest gaff around these parts (one Michelin star) and I've been there 5 or 6 times over a period of at least 10 or so years, the previous time being about a year ago. It's interesting to compare and contrast the experiences I've had over this period as the chef has changed, the food and wine changed and probably more importantly my own expectation and experience has changed.

I found the restaurant was great at first, back in the early nineties food in the UK generally wasn't that great (unless you lived in London) but having a gourmet restaurant out here in the "burbs" was a great novelty, like a taste of a glamorous lifestyle up until then only available in London, Paris, New York etc. Like all novelties I guess it wore off after a while, the popularity grew as did the prices and the value fell; I didn't visit for a few years and when I did I found the VFM to be "average" at best. Our visit last year though suggested that the cycle seemed to be back up again , the meal we had was very good indeed (8.5/10). Our food last night was good also (but not quite as good as last time) a couple of small things could have been improved, and overall I would say that 8.5 of last year dropped to a 7, I wonder if l'Ortolan has peaked?

A couple of factors worked against them last night, namely they just switched from summer to winter menu that morning (so I guess the dishes were new); also the place was pretty quiet (Tuesday night), so the atmosphere wasn't as good as say a Friday or Saturday etc. Also I found the food, although tasty, superbly presented and original simply wasn't hot enough - seems like a strange mistake to make for an establishment like this? My other gripe, although I must admit l'Ortolan isn't too different from most restaurants these days, was the wine list. Most of the classic regions were represented on the list, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Rhone, Italy, Oz, USA, Spain etc. but the choice in each was limited and the mark-ups punishing.

When I first went to this restaurant I knew nothing about wine, like a lot of people I simply picked something "reasonable" with a regional name or grape I recognised, i.e. Chablis or Merlot etc., back then red with meat and white with fish was about as discerning as it got. As I have learnt more about wine my choices and expectations have grown accordingly, I now look for producers I like, in good vintages, with wine characteristics that might complement the food, most people would think this increased insight would be a good thing, however there is a serious down-side to it, I know how much the wine actually costs.

Let me illustrate my point with some examples I noticed from last nights list, Beaucastel 1999, this is a Southern Rhone wine, great with things like duck and venison (strong meats), now, 1999 was an OK vintage not great, and many would say that the 1999 is only just reaching it's drinking window (the period of time when the wine shows it's best character). The price on the list for this wine was £90, I know for a fact this wine can be bought from a wine merchant for roughly £25, even at the cheaper end of the spectrum £10.99 Chilean wines (available in nation-wide merchants like Majestic - so by no means rare) were on the list for £35-40. At the upper end of the scale, some of the "trophy" Bordeaux wines hit mark-ups of 5 or 6 times the price you could expect to pay for the same product directly from a shop or merchant.

So, is this exploitation of the "majority" of clients who know no better or is it a justifiable component of the whole "Michelin star" experience, who knows I have never seen the P&L of a restaurant like this, what I can say though is that I eat at home a lot more these days!

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