No star performance from Michelin guide
If Michelin is serious about including Ireland in its guide, then it needs to do it properly, writes Lucinda O'Sullivan
Last Tuesday morning it was a case of "synchronise your watches", for, at 11.40am precisely, Michelin announced on its website the recipients of its stars and Bib Gourmands for Great Britain and Ireland 2011. I imagine there were sighs of relief in some kitchens around Dublin at retaining their stars, and disappointment in others at not being recognised.
However, whatever about the UK and larger countries, I believe it was a non-event for Ireland that had me questioning how often a Michelin inspector comes to these shores. Not very often is my guess and, at best, for a wet weekend. It strikes me that Michelin is sadly in need of a new road map.
It is the 100th anniversary of Michelin -- although only 38 guides have been produced over the years -- but, like a government that stays too long, one wonders if it has passed its sell-by date. Traditionally, Michelin has concentrated on very formal, upmarket French-style food but more recently has been trying to modernise and get in on the mass market with its Bib Gourmands rating and Pub Guide. Food and dining out is no longer the prerogative of the elite; just look at the success of Come Dine With Me.
After three decades of working with the Michelin Guide, former UK editor Derek Bulmer retired in 2010; Rebecca Burr took over in October. Bulmer, whose identity was secret for many years, is now like a rose in bloom, granting interviews and going down the more commercial route by joining My Jam, a PR and marketing agency, to set up a consultancy arm for hotels and restaurants. Burr is Michelin's third female editor, after Juliane Caspar in France and the US editor -- who remains anonymous.
There are advantages and disadvantages to having a Michelin star, because the standards and regulations imposed regarding wine cellars, lunch prices, and so on, make it very difficult to operate in lean times.
Also, the pressure of holding on to the star has been so enormous for some that a couple of chefs have taken their own lives rather than face "disgrace".
No new stars were handed out this year in Ireland, but there was one deletion in Northern Ireland: Deane's in Co Antrim.
When it comes to the Bib Gourmand for "good cooking at moderate prices", there has been one addition: O'Dowd's at Roundstone, Connemara; and one deletion: Casino House at Kilbrittain, Co Cork.
I have an uneasy feeling that some of the few present Irish incumbents with Michelin stars have been resting on their laurels, coasting along producing decent enough but unexciting food that wouldn't set anyone alight. Some of them won't see 40 again, and it's as though they need to get the fire back in their bellies and go and visit some of the places in Europe that have been causing excitement with amazingly wild and colourful dishes.
Perhaps if they all got together in a little minibus they could coast around from Spain through Holland and up to Denmark -- what a jolly that would be. It would do them all the world of good.
That said, there are a number of other guys who should have been on the Michelin radar. Chefs like Graham Neville of No 41 Restaurant at Residence; Seamus Commons at Knockranny House Hotel; Wade Murphy at the Lodge at Doonbeg; Mickael Viljanen of Gregan's Castle; Eamonn O'Reilly of One Pico; Sebastien Masi of Pearl Brasserie; Sunil Ghai of Ananda in Dundrum; Sanjay Vishwakarma of Rasam in Glasthule; Michael Quinn of Waterford Castle.
When it comes to Bibs, where are places like Seapoint Restaurant in Monkstown; Max's Wine Bar in Kinsale, with the excellent French chef Olivier Queva; Patrick and Soizic Kiely's Les Gourmandises in Cork; the two Farmgates in Cork City and Midleton; Stephen McArdle of The Arch Bistro in Churchtown; Dax Restaurant on Pembroke Street in Dublin? I could go on.
I have said a couple of times over the past few years that one didn't have to leave Dublin 2 to visit the entirety of our few Michelin-starred restaurants; yes, the same regular names: Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud; Thornton's; and L'Ecrivain -- which waited a long time for one.
Then Michelin slummed it and crossed the river to give Chapter One a star. Dylan McGrath and Oliver Dunne of Bon Appetit in Malahide were then the subject of much media attention here with their new restaurants, and lo and behold they got stars in 2008. Again this drew attention to the fact that Michelin did not move outside Dublin until 2010, when Martijn Kajuiter of Cliff House Hotel -- which I was the first to review and praise -- received a star.
Michelin says it visits all the restaurants listed with a star every 18 months as a minimum, and Bib Gourmand establishments as often as is necessary. You can read that any way you like.
A few years ago, former French Michelin inspector Pascal Remy caused a furore when he published a book called L'Inspecteur Se Met a Table, in which he claimed that "restaurants in France were only visited every three-and-a-half years".
About five years ago, a very wealthy American came to a country town with me and an equally savvy American magazine editor. The former was clutching her Michelin Guide for dear life and determined to visit a restaurant there that 20 years ago was listed as one of the good places. I advised against it, telling them of change of ownership at least three years prior and that it was now a bit of a dump. Would they listen? Were they disappointed or what?
If Michelin is serious about including Ireland in its guide, it needs to do it better around Ireland. There is no doubt but that it is expensive sending people around the country reviewing restaurants in the hope of finding a gem. This is why so many guides tend to feed off what they read.
One guide at the moment keeps referring to its people here, there and all around the country, which makes me wonder how the actual editor of the guide can really recommend the places, based on third-party reports.
Another keeps pontificating about how it doesn't charge to be in the guide but, although heavily sponsored, it fails to say that it does charge to be on its website and for its plaque.
The fact is, it has to charge -- someone has to pay for them and no one works for nothing. But it needs to be more selective as it is very off- putting to see the plaques widely spread on your local fish and chip shop and every butchers and coffee shop in the country, and it diminishes the impact.
All in all, if you are visiting a country, a locally based guide or website has more up-to-date information.
Michelin needs to loosen up, get over itself and get up to date, as somebody seems to have let the air out of its Irish tyres. Michelin-starred restaurants
Restaurant Patrick Guildbaud, Dublin.
Thornton's at the Fitzwilliam Hotel, Dublin.
Chapter One, Dublin.
Bon Appetit, Malahide.
Cliff House Hotel, Co Waterford.
Michelin Bib Gourmands
Aldridge Lodge, Wexford.
Café Hans, Cashel.
Fishy Fishy Café, Kinsale.
Good Things Café, Durrus.
La Maison, Dublin.
O'Brien's Chop House, Lismore.
Sha Roe Bistro, Clonegal.
The Chart House, Dingle.
The Pig's Ear, Dublin.
White Sage, Adare.
Wild Honey Inn, Lisdoonvarna.