The only memorable part of our dinner at Maemmo, Oslo. A juicy, gargantuan scallop in its perfect cooking point. Did I say I liked proteins? I wouldn't say I liked having two turns in a pricey Michelin restaurant and being pushed on during the whole dinner to make space for the following table. If I were a Michelin guide reviewer, I would have directly torn off the stars from the wall instantly.
This is not a restaurant review. I am not a professional critic and this article was not commissioned.
This is rather a gastronomical musing, inspired by a restaurant that left us with a bitter aftertaste, notwithstanding some good points such as an incredible cellar, a beautiful set of knives for one to choose from, and the lack of background music, leaving the room to itself and the subtle sounds of the kitchen.
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As a storyteller, my role here is (you guessed it) to tell stories.
And this is the story of how this past January, during a cold beautiful night in Oslo, my better half and myself went for a speed date with a three Michelin stars restaurant and let me tell you, we are NOT into that kind of thing.
Speed dating, not fine dining.
Once more I was left with the serious doubt that perhaps the so-much-talked-about and yet oh-so-very-secret list of Michelin criteria is, in fact, non-existent. It is beyond a reasonable explanation why this restaurant can sport three stars.
I have made charts, and lists, and tried to create a matrix crossing various angles to match three stars with three stars: the result is that probably whoever awards the stars uses his or her own very intimate criteria, and they vary greatly from country to country.
Because in Oslo, not even the service was cutting it.
Or better, it was cutting us very very short.
We were in and out of the restaurants in less than two hours, shipped home with some kanelbuller that was the best part of the dinner (together with the appeasing lack of music).
The worst? All the rest.
The feeling was that the waiters were hovering around us like vultures to snatch the plates out of our hands a split second after we had our last bite.
Quick! Hurriedly! Fast!
The next plate always came as fast as possible, and sometimes we were just done chewing the previous one.
A general feeling of haste and lack of care.
On the food side, an abysmally empty new Nordic nothingness.
Nothing to report.
Boring plates after boring plates of infused oils in drops atop seas of buttermilk sauces and very little value for food.
We felt rushed.
We felt cheated.
And we felt fooled.
The service was not quick and smooth, it was hasty.
And if you are a frequent flyer in terms of Michelin's upper stardom, you know that it is not what the experience should call for.
The food, “new Nordic style”, was plain old boring old and preposterous. Same there, as everywhere.
What can you serve, after all, when the whole fucking country is under a meter of snow and you make a point of being “local”, “conscious”, and all that circus?
Ah, yes, of course. There was one good scallop, and the deer was tough.
The service is impeccable, smooth, and oiled almost like a clockwork mechanism. However, is like in a chipmunk movie where everything moves faster than normal.
There are two turns in a night, like in a cheap eatery - yet very Calvinistic, this extreme sport of squeezing twice the dinner price in one night.
I think it would have been a way better choice racing up the cost of the whole experience, instead of cranking up the speed and ushering the customers through dinner to make space for the next.
And this brings me to two topics related with three stars - which is the Olympus of gastronomy, for the Michelin folks.
No, not the tires department, the other one.
The first topic is related to this disgraced visit: what the fuck are the parameters to designate a three stars restaurant?
I’m so bloody tired of the “mystery” and fog around these judgements.
Because - and I mustn’t be the only person on earth who goes to several three-Michelin stars in a row - even in this restricted club there is quite a huge variability. But standards are, by definition, a standard measure of something.
At this point, I concluded that none of the systems (stars, suns, pans, pots, whatever) makes any fucking sense. Or has any relevance to the pleasure felt by the customer.
These stars and suns and whatnot serve to fuel the ego of the chefs in the absence of real feedback from professional eaters and gastronomers.
Let me explain.
How can I assess and value, let’s say, a DiverXO and a Maaemo, or an Alajmo and a Da Vittorio?
There are no public, transparent, available and measurable parameters that can be invoked and that would make these restaurants comparable.
Parameters are OBJECTIVES measurement points.
I can measure the number of bottles in the cellar, the references in the wine list, the number and diversity of the waiters and their steps around the table, and the split second they take to many the plate on the table in their choreography.
I can measure the number of plates and ingredients and I can measure the number of spices and variety of vegetables and the number of euros gained by the workers. I can measure a lot of things.
But I can’t measure anything meaningful that can be comparable in the qualitative realm. Because qualitative data is highly variable and - you get it - it needs a vast and influential data sample to allow for applying scientific techniques to the evaluation.
And guess what, the gastronomic sensors eating around are a very tiny number that, in a scientific trial, wouldn’t be called representative.
Because they are asked to measure feelings more than realities and qualifiers instead of quantifiers.
And this is not even speaking of those lists where the more you pay, the more you will appear high in a classification that has no meaning whatsoever (besides the amount of money invested) like the 50 Best and the OAD.
If this is the case, why should we customer care for these lists? What does any of this tell me? Will I like “better” restaurant A instead of B because of the list?
Let me tell you a secret: entering this world means entering a world of deception where in some cases you’ll have the feeling of having flushed in the toilet hundreds of euro for a meal you didn’t like that much - but it was a three star and top of the listed restaurant, so you also feel guilty for “not having understood” the “concept” of the restaurant.
Bullshit, don’t let yourself be fooled.
Because here comes the second topic.
What does it mean today “fine dining”, and why should a customer (one that is not a gourmet, but is in search of an elegant place where to spend quality time with someone) go to a “fine dining” place?
The service is stiff and overly present.
Plates come in a rigid sequence and with the ubiquitous tasting menu, meals are a prolonged torture of plates coming at the table with their paraphernalia of gestures and waiters - right at the wrong moment of the conversation.
Once upon a time, when we read about the classical hedonistic banquets of just thirty or fifty years ago we don’t have this rigid ceremonial. We do have the French-style food all right, but you also had plates that you were allowed to repeat and when you study diplomacy you bump into official banquets dinners and lunches and you compare those with what you have now and well, it is a seriously different pair of shoes.
Read more articles from Sara Veronica Marcolla on Substack