Critical Hit

As is tradition at family events, we began with a warning. A reservation at Marcus at the Berkeley is less than habitual for us, but there’s nothing like a word of caution to make you feel at home. My uncle chose the champagne (we were celebrating) and then laid down the law. ‘None of us’, he said, with a diplomatic glare in my direction, ‘are going to be critics tonight’. Oh, goody.

So, there it was, a blanket ban on scrutinising our Michelin meal. He’d expressed a similar sentiment at Pizza Express earlier in the week: eating out is about enjoyment, it’s dinner, not an autopsy. He has a point. In Hipsterville, where cacao nibs are in, dairy’s out and no party is complete without a probe, there’s a pressure to conduct an anatomical assessment of provenance and method on everything laid before us. We sit at Frankenstein’s table, forensically picking over the bones of our latest victim. Just shut up and eat your ribs, Victor. I grew up being told not to play with my food, is it any better to study it?

I tried my best not to. The starter was slow cooked duck egg with shaved truffle and wild garlic; if you want an opinion on it, you’re asking the wrong guy. I paid no attention to the way that the rich, metallic tang of the yolk was teased earthwards by the truffle’s opulent aroma, how the mild heat of the garlic carried the dish, though the albumen had an unfortunately aspic consistency. Nor did I pause to consider the surprising (others, more critical than I, may say misguided) inclusion of avocado puree next to what was, presumably, impeccably cooked beef and artichoke crisps. It was while greedily demolishing the cheese board, actively avoiding the acknowledgement of how wondrous a thing fresh honeycomb is, that the absurdity of the situation hit home.

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Of course I want to judge my food. It’s literally a matter of taste. If you don’t engage with your meal then what exactly are you experiencing? And what’s more, I enjoy analysing unusual flavours and speculating over modern technique, I want to go to the probe party. Waging war with intellectualism is all fun and games until you end up with Brexit, Trump and a nuclear bunker full of chlorine chicken. Thanks for the meal, though.

We’ve come a long way since the diets of Palaeolithic man. Oh wait, bad example. Anyone who follows 70’s Dinner Party on Twitter (@70s_party) knows just how much we owe to the chefs who are driving our food culture forward. And if you don’t know what I’m referring to, three words: spaghetti mit currywurst. In case you haven’t noticed, nerds run the world now. We’ve been dragged out of the dark ages by Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Heston Blumenthal. You don’t have to like them, but you can’t argue with their impact.

Chefs are scientists; chefs are artists. I applaud their pursuit of perfection and, as a diner/audience member, feel my part in the performance is to form an opinion. There’s a magic to a good meal and, just like any good trick, it’s natural to be simultaneously enchanted and determined to figure out the illusion.

Clearly, not all tastes are equal, the continued existence of TGIFridays proves as much, so we must take it upon ourselves to be as educated and discerning as possible. Poor performances should be held to account and, if anything is to be discouraged, it’s a state in which the only recommendations come from indiscriminate influencers. A better understanding of food raises standards, not just at restaurants, but across the board.

Incidentally, none of us were particularly fond of Marcus, but not because the food was too clever or accomplished. It was because of the awkward and invasive service staff, with a lack of humour and an emphasis on topping up glasses. There is more to eating out than what’s on the plate and intelligent cooking must be communicated intelligently. What my uncle should have said, is ‘be a critic; don’t be a bore’.

 

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