The 50 best restaurants in the world have been named again by Restaurant Magazine. I haven’t blogged about this list in a while (since 2005, in fact) but lists are like motichoor laddos – I can’t resist them. In what seems a significant irony the list this time is sponsored by the very antithesis of cooking – natural, untouched-by-hand mineral water from S. Pellegrino. In an even bigger twist of irony S. Pellegrino is owned by Nestle, purveyor of that other antithesis of cooking - Maggi.
As in other years, the list makes for an interesting read as much for who made it as for who did not. Noma in obscure Denmark has been the number one - again. Spain gets three spots in the top ten (even though El Bulli is off the list pending its impending closure) - no other country manages more than one mention. It does less spectacularly in the rest of the list - managing only two more mentions to France's seven and six for both Italy and USA. Italy with Osteria Francescana at four makes it ahead of England (Fat Duck at five), which in turn is well ahead of France (Le Chateaubriand at nine, my vote for the coolest entry on the list).
As cities go Paris, with six mentions, defends its reputation as gastronomic mecca. New York similarly maintains its reputation just below Paris, with five entries (and I’ve eaten at three of them). Restaurants are otherwise quite scattered – of the thirty nine remaining entries only London (three) Tokyo (two) manage multiple mentions.
Asia takes a while to appear; Japan lands at twelve with Les Creations de Narisawa, a restaurant known for, what else, French food. China takes even longer, showing up at thirty seven with Amber in Hong Kong holding the hand of a European chef serving – what else – modern French cuisine. Australia is represented by Sydney restaurant Quay at number twenty six. Africa similarly makes a lone entry at thirty six - Le Quartier Francais in an unpronounceable town in South Africa (notice the french influence right in the name).
India has dropped off the list entirely. The sole desi representative – Bukhara - appeared on the inaugural list in 2002 (at fourteen) but had its last gasp in 2007 at thirty seven (the list puzzlingly called it Bukhra for a few years). We still squeeze in a spot in the top hundred though with (of all things Indian) sushi – there’s Mumbai’s Wasabi, at ninety two. Surprisingly, Morimoto’s other restaurants do not appear on the list while New York competitor Masa (three michelin stars and the top spot at Forbes most expensive sushi list) appears three slots below at ninety five.
The obvious euro-centricity of the rankings is interesting, specially in the countries outside Europe; South Africa, Hong Kong, Australia, Latin America and most surprisingly Tokyo. All the top restaurants on the list serve modern european food – most are heavily franco-centric. Even the few representatives from earlier years that focused on other cuisines (such as Bukhara or Hakkasan) have lost ground or fallen off entirely. I don’t think judging bias is an adequate explanation; I have two theories.
My first theory is our euro-centric view of luxury, shaped in no small part by centuries of European colonization. Its also reinforced by the billions that are poured into promoting wine, cheese, olive oil and the like – all of which go into shaping a particular kind of haute experience in our minds when it comes to dining. Food shows also go a long way towards promoting euro- and particularly franco-centric views of food as the ultimate haute cuisine. This is not a comment on reviewer biases – its a comment on the biases of the diners. Since diners demand franco-centric haute cuisine, those are the restaurants that present themselves. Think of Mumbai – its easy to find an expensive Italian or French meal; but think Malwani or Gujarati and the choices are in the hundreds but none will come anywhere close to luxury.
I must clarify here that by fine dining I don’t necessarily mean price – there seems little correlation even on the Top 50 list. Restaurants need to make diners go wow, and it’s not enough to make the classics well. Maa ki daal at a Punjabi dhaba, surmai gassi at the now-defunct Anant Ashram, kosha mangsho at Kolkata’s Shyambazaar are all these are hugely tasty and comfortingly consistent but they are craft rather than art – recipes reproduced perfectly rather than any broader interpretation of cuisine. In music terms, a great sound system rather than a great singer.
My second theory is going to be more controversial, and its more to do with why I think Indian restaurants don’t feature on the list. I’ve eaten at some five (that’s 10%) of the restaurants on the list and I can say that the food served at most restaurants on this will be very very good. You may not agree with the particular rankings, but there is little doubt that the kitchens turn out intricate, elaborate dishes that are always well crafted and occasionally ecstatic. Cooking is an odd mixture of art and craft – originality and creativity merged with the need to produce repeated copies – and the greatest of restaurants master both. Their dishes are original, creative, edgy and repeatedly perfect – day after day after day, sometimes for decades. A singer can sing his song a little differently every day (and usually does); not so for the chef. This requires, like all classical arts, a sound and comprehensive technical foundation coupled with generous doses of genius. And that’s what is lacking outside the franco-european world.
There’s a darker side to this. China, India and Latin America – source of much of the world’s richest cuisine, finds most of their native traditions decimated by a colonial past (though colonizers were not always to blame). In China’s case Mao’s Cultural Revolution discouraged fine food as an unnecessary luxury. In India, caste and religion kept cooking techniques confined to communities and families and faded out with their fortunes – few can now replicate the incredibly elaborate dishes of the Mughal court, or the courts of Lucknow, Hyderabad or Kashmir in its heydays. The food of kings, usually the most formal and elaborate of cuisines, has in India been pushed into steep decline with the fortunes of the kings themselves. What remains is usually the food of the people – fantastically tasty when done well, but without the formal elaboration or high art of royal cuisine.
India (and I suspect all over Asia and Latin America) is moving from shortage to accumulation. Our parents used to think it was wasteful to eat out, we have just started looking for fine foods as a form of reward. Our first instinct is to look for easy, visible symbols of luxury (such as wine or cheese) even though we barely understand it or have any childhood association with (Amul cheese and Goan port does not count). History tells us that if we continue to grow more prosperous, we will look backwards to reviving and reinterpreting our own heritage – pop culture will eventually lead the way to high culture. Great Indian restaurants will come when eating traditional becomes more fashionable; its starting to happen, though I wish it would happen faster.