When Restaurant Magazine releases something like its World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, sponsored by that avatar of good taste, San Pellegrino sparkling water, people are bound to talk. Outrage, backslapping and head-scratching ensue. And that’s precisely the point.
People take this shit seriously. NOMA is the best restaurant in the world. For three years running! Seriously, what could be better than that? (For me, the answer is, a place that’s open after 11pm in my neighborhood serving pretty decent sushi where I can eat after service. One that serves cold beer, and remembers what kind of fish I like to eat.)
I was considering this list last week. Much as anyone else who writes about, eats at, cooks in, or owns these sorts of restaurants probably was. And so we’re clear: I occasionally eat at and write about these sorts of restaurants. I don’t cook in or run one.
Forget about who came in at one, or ten, or, to my great delight #50 (nahm, in Bangkok). It’s not a representative list by any measure. Asia barely gets a nod, as Lawrence Osborne cleverly writes about here. Japan is largely (and bafflingly) tossed by the wayside, as are Hong Kong and mainland China, Singapore and Bangkok, KL and Seoul and Saigon.
But does that mean that Asia deserves half, or even a quarter of this list? I’m not so sure.
As anyone who evaluates restaurants on their relative merit knows, it’s about more than what arrives on your plate. Is there ice in your drink? Is there even a drink menu (or ice)? Is the drink menu sticky? Or the table for that matter? Are there napkins? Is the flatware clean? Are they playing Celine Dion on the flat-screen? Is there air-conditioning? Is the kitchen a filthier, open-air extension of the dining room? Are your waiter’s fingernails dirty? Is there a toilet? Is there an old man sleeping on a cot wearing a diaper in the back?
These are experiential things to consider. And there are a few dozen more. And Europe, America and Japan mostly do those front-of-house things much better.
Conversely there are many, many westerners who romanticize the allure of eating on the street. There are some who’ve made writing careers out of it, insisting that Asia’s finest food is cooked out-of-doors. That’s all fine and good, and the dish or two that one might serve on the corner could be unspeakably, RM-SP World’s 50 Best delicious, but that doesn’t make it a great restaurant. It makes it a street food shop serving a great dish. To be truly great, your pony needs to perform a few more tricks than putting good food on a pink plastic plate.
The RM-SP list is a recent phenomenon. An even more recent, and I would argue more influential one are crowd-sourced review sites on the internet. And here is where I think more people really, really get it wrong.
Nahm, which I mention came in at number 50 on the RM-SP list, and which I firmly believe is the finest Thai restaurant in the world, barely cracks the top 75 on tripadvisor.com, IN BANGKOK ALONE. This, from what seems to me the most influential restaurant site for independent, English-speaking travelers in Asia. (Meanwhile an Indian snack joint sits snugly at #2. Have a look, and draw your own conclusions).
Crowd-sourced reviews can be useful, venomous, venal. Sometimes all at once. After nearly two years in the business I can assure you that customers who have bad experiences are far more likely to convey them to their imagined readership than those who enjoy good ones.
“I read about you on tripadvisor” seems more of a threat than a greeting sometimes. Like arriving at your table dressed in chain mail.
The internet is populated with a lot of food reviewers who take their unpaid profession rather seriously. There is nothing wrong with this, but what is flawed is their lack of accountability, experience, or accuracy
(Should I really take the time to respond to Jaquilp, and tell her that in fact we don’t serve Mekong whiskey in any of our cocktails, let alone all of them? Or that there is no order to the food that arrives, unless you ask for it? Is Metacritic798 really just a disgruntled owner from up the street? Should I bother to explain to PapabearandPanda that Soul Food isn’t in a “weird neighborhood”? Probably not. But I know I'm not the only one considering their words.)
It’s far too easy for dishonest owners to fluff their numbers, and price seems to be the first consideration for many online reviewers. (Fair enough, but is value a measure of greatness? I don’t really think so.)
Which brings me back to the beginning...
Lists are infuriating. Lists are tantalizing. Lists are fucking lists.
But ice-cold Sapporo, some fatty slices of hamachi, and a smile, at 1145pm… That shit is for real.