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No Sacred Cows  
Toby Young
Friday 26th November 2004


I've often wondered what kind of person gets to be a Michelin food inspector. Presumably, the qualifications include a reasonable amount of culinary expertise, a sophisticated palate and, judging from the weird chinaware favoured by the world's best restaurants, an ability to dine off square, oblong and crescent-shaped plates. In addition, it probably helps if you're deaf, dumb and blind as well. If my experience of Michelin-starred restaurants is anything to go by, Helen Kelller would have made an ideal food inspector.

Why do I say this? Because the kind of restaurants awarded Michelin stars are, almost without exception, poorly decorated, badly lit and have about as much atmosphere as the municipal library in Birmingham city centre. They might as well have signs on the wall saying "No Talking". As a rule, the more stars a place gets, the more antiseptic and sterile the environment. I've been to funerals that have been more fun than dining at Gordon Ramsey's flagship on Royal Hospital Road. There are one or two exceptions--Le Gavroche has a certain haute bourgeois charm, for instance--but a Michelin star generally denotes that you're going to have a thoroughly miserable time.

I'm afraid that Capital, one of only four restaurants in London to be awarded two stars, is a case in point. Situated in an elegant town house hotel on Basil Street, this place wouldn't win any prizes for warmth or hospitality. The staff aren't cold, exactly, they're just extremely stiff, a throwback to an earlier, more aristocratic age. After entering the lobby, you're led into a pastel-coloured, chocolate-box interior where each occupied table seems to be surrounded by its own hostile weather system. Trying to strike up a conversation with one of your fellow diners at a Michelin-starred restaurant is like trying to chat up a supermodel at a fashion show--expect them to reply with one of three possible words: "no", "non" or "nien".

At Capital, my fellow diners included a pair of fastidious young homosexuals, a table of over-dressed Japanese tourists and an elderly, Eastern European couple who looked as though they hadn't spoken to each other for at least 50 years. It was like dining in the chapel at Heathrow Airport opposite the Terminal 2 car park.

Of course, it's possible that the reason no one talks to each other at Michelin starred restaurants is so they can concentrate on the food, which is always outstanding. Capital is no exception. My companion and I opted for the "Menu Degustation"--a five-course affair in which the chef, Eric Chavot, got to flex some of his culinary muscles. The bar was set extremely high by a first course of exquisite smoked haddock risotto, and only got pushed further and further up as the meal went on. The highpoints included a soft-boiled quail's egg that melted in the mouth, a little tower of cabbage interlaced with minced pork and a single, sauteed frog's leg. Everything had been prepared with an enormous amount of care and precision.

This is exactly the kind of meal I'd request if I was condemned man awaiting execution--yet I'm not sure I'd choose to eat it in the restaurant rather than my cell. Why can't the atmosphere at Capital be a little more convivial? Is the chef worried that if the Michelin inspectors hear the sound of laughter in the background they won't take the cuisine seriously? Why is it verboten to let the world know you're enjoying yourself while eating one of the best meals of your life?

One of the great conundrums of the restaurant world is this: Do the Michelin food inspectors only award stars to stuffy, over-formal establishments or do the restaurants in question metamorphosis into barren wastelands only after they've appeared in the Red Guide? Michelin should replace the famous rosette symbols with little tumbleweeds. Capital certainly deserves two stars--but if the atmosphere in the restaurant on the day I went there is anything to go by, it also deserves two tumbleweeds.

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