Michelin stars: Discerning travelers beware!

The Cliff restaurant in Barbados: no Michelin stars, but worth the price of admission!
The Cliff restaurant in Barbados: no Michelin stars, but worth the price of admission!

We do love to have new dining experiences when we travel.  We’ve waxed rapturously before about those times when we’ve had that defining experience that stays with us for years to come (The Cliff in Barbados comes to mind) – and despite opinions to the contrary, dining is not just about the food.

The concept of those restaurants that boast “stars” – you know the ones: those Michelin stars – is one that is intriguing for us when we travel.  Usually, we’ll want to splurge on one such experience during a trip, but our travel mantra is more focused on service and the overall experience, regardless of price or even some kind of external validation that is something like a Michelin star.

Dublin is a wonderful mix of the old and the new.  St. Stephen's Green in April.
Dublin is a wonderful mix of the old and the new. St. Stephen’s Green in April.

Last month we had the pleasure of a wonderful trip to Ireland with a three-day stop in Dublin.  Searching for restaurants, we found Chapter One, and even our driver recommended it.  We stopped by the concierge at the wonderful Westin Dublin where we stayed, and miracle of miracles, he was able to procure for us a table for that very evening.  We had heard that you have to book weeks if not months in advance.  So we were excited.

Even when you “Google” Chapter One the heading on the web site as listed in the results says, “Chapter One Michelin Star Restaurant Dublin…”  So it would seem that this little star is important and that restaurants trade on it.  But what does it really mean and will it guarantee a great dining experience?

According to Michelin’s own web site, the stars are awarded based on a “clandestine” approach to evaluation wherein their “full-time professional inspectors” (!)  anonymously partake of repeated test meals.  In other words, the evaluators are unknown to the restaurant and they could be there any day without notice.  Their description of what the stars mean is very telling from our perspective: “The star symbols judge only what’s on the plate, meaning the quality of products, the mastering of flavors, mastering of cooking, personality of the cuisine, value for the money and the consistency of what the restaurant offers to its customers both throughout the menu and the year.” [from their web site]

The notion of stars referring to only what is actually on the plate says a lot to us as discerning diners: we now know not to expect much in terms of service, consideration of clients or even selection of wines or spirits.  Case in point: our recent visit to the one-starred Chapter One.

We arrived there one lovely April evening to be greeted by fantastically friendly staff, although to be truthful, we found everyone to a person in Ireland to have this same approach, so it was no surprise.  Although we arrived on time for our dinner reservation, we were led to a tiny bar to sit, order a drink and in due course actually see a menu and order food – all before going to our table.  This was surprising, but we accepted it as their “way.”  We ordered two Martini Biancos on the rocks only to be  told they had enough for only one.  So whose job is it to ensure that the bar is always fully stocked, we wondered?  Not to worry though, we enjoy other drinks.  Okay, we thought, so they don’t have it.  What about an Aperol spritz?  The waiter had never heard of Aperol.  Two strikes and we haven’t even seen the menu.  He eventually

What an Aperol spritz looks like in its country of origin: Italy.
What an Aperol spritz looks like in its country of origin: Italy.

consulted with someone else who procured a bottle with some Aperol left in it and proceeded to produce for us Aperol topped with soda.  Oh dear.  An Aperol spritz, as any worthy bartender ought to know is topped with Prosecco, not soda and is served with a slice or twist of orange in a large wine glass, not an old-fashioned!  However, we saw no point in getting off to a really bad start and looking like annoying tourists, so we sucked it up.  Then it was on to the menu.

It was interesting and we found several selections to look forward to.  A waiter then took our dinner order, and were eventually led to our table.  With a corner vantage point, we could see the small room well.  It was one of two connected rooms, and we could see a private dining area beyond.  What struck as the most al throughout the evening (and it was long – too long for our liking) was the feverish activity displayed by one and all.  The waiters flew back and forth past the table so fast it seemed as if they were in training for a sprint.  In our view, it’s fine to be busy, but there should be a degree of calmness exhibited in the presence of the guests so that they can enjoy a relaxed evening.  The stress level was palpable and could have been contagious if we hadn’t already had a drink!   In spite of all of the frenetic activity though, we had been in the place for an hour before we had an appetizer.

There’s something about the ambience that makes an evening special.  Wonderful food is nice – and the food that evening was nice, but hardly worth the price (we’ve had a lot better elsewhere) – but the feeling we had was that old army saying: “Hurry up and wait.”  Additionally, there was no background music at all to provide even a perception of peace.  So, for us, the evening was not worth the price we paid for it – and it was expensive.   In truth, the restaurant holds one star which Michelin defines as indicating “a very good restaurant in its category, offering cuisine prepared to a consistently high standard. A good place to stop on your journey.”   After several days in Dublin, we’d have to say that if you have limited time (and/or resources) there are much better places where the experience will be more delightful.  The Pearl, a lovely French restaurant comes to mind: we had a wonderful evening enjoying the food and the ambience, where the relaxed atmosphere coupled with the knack for French sauces had us swooning.

Our conclusion is that when selecting restaurants, those Michelin stars tell only part of the story – a story which is very clearly described on the Michelin web site itself: “The star symbols judge only what’s on the plate…” and even at that, you might not agree.  So for us Michelin stars don’t really provide the kind of discerning travel guidance we’re seeking.  We have just by happenstance landed in Michelin-starred restaurants before and enjoyed ourselves.  But you won’t need a Michelin star to do that!

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Travel & Dining: Inseparable for discerning travelers

Come into Qusine aboard the Celebrity cruise ship Summit with us.

It would be hard to imagine traveling without considering the pleasures of dining on the road.  For us, travel means time away from our own kitchen and dining room, and invites us to sample more than just the sights and the sounds – we can taste our travels as well.  And when you seek information about dining while away, you usually think about finding restaurant reviews in the cities and countryside where you‘ll be traveling.  We’ve had many memorable experiences in wonderful city restaurants as well as some in more off-the-beaten track locales, but one of the most memorable dining experiences we had recently was on board a cruise ship.

The fun begins with the innovative decor in orange, black & white. See those light fixtures?

As difficult as it may be for some of the more jaded among us to comprehend, cruise ships today are truly entering the competition for dining experiences.  Of course we’re not talking about the main dining room where hordes of wait staff flutter about taking hundreds of orders and serving mountains of meals all within an hour and a half time frame – although that experience does have its merits.  We’re talking about the continuing move in the cruise industry toward offering more and more inventive ways to entice you away from that main dining room for an experience that you might not be able to have anywhere else.  As we’ve discussed previously, the notion of specialty dining spaces on board cruise ships is not without its challenges, but it is also not without its rewards.

Dinner for your group or just the two of you.

Earlier this year we traveled from Puerto Rico through Bermuda and landed in New York aboard the Celebrity Summit.  While on board, we had dinner in several of their specialty restaurants, but the one that rewarded us with the most original experience was Qsine.

From the moment we walked into the space we felt a bit like Alice Through the Looking Glass.  Surrounded by orange, white and black, we sat beneath a light fixture composed of multiple table lamps – all hung upside down.  Then the server brought the menu.

What fun!  An iPad menu.  This wasn’t the first time we’d ever been handed an iPad at a restaurant (it seems to be a bit of a fad for those that can afford it), but it was the first time that the menu had such interactive capabilities.  We were charmed from the start.

A bit like a tasting menu, the selections sounded interesting and different – just what you want when dining is more than simply eating, as it is for us.  Then we had a bit of fun with the mixed drinks menu.  The iPad allowed us to ‘mix’ the drinks by moving the offered ingredients into the glass on the screen, finishing with ice and then shaking!  A great way to get to know your drinks!

After a very entertaining run-down of the menu by the most enthusiastic and knowledgeable wait staff you could encounter anywhere (they seemed to be having as much fun as the rest of us), we chose a variety of their items all designed for sharing.  Then the parade began.

Chefs will always tell you that the presentation is as important as the dish itself, and it is true that we experience our food not only through taste and smell, but also through our visual sense.  The staff at Qsine seems to have this down to a true art.  We’ll leave some of the presentation as a mystery so that you too might experience this some time, but for those of you who might not, we‘ll highlight one particular presentation.

Have you ever had a dish served to you vertically rather than horizontally?  Didn’t think so – neither had we until we dined at Qsine.

The vertical serving dish as Patty peeks through from the other side.

When the waiter brought the course to the table, he placed something that resembled Patty’s Victorian dollhouse in between us on the table – but with the front wall missing.  In each little cubby-hole resided a different tasting dish from the part of the world we’d chosen for that particular course.  What fun it was to look, consider and sample the food.

Oh, and about the food?  It was one of the most satisfying dining experiences we’ve ever had.  It occurred to us that if Celebrity wanted to franchise this concept on land, hip Torontonians and maybe even New Yorkers would flock to just such a spot.  Maybe we’ll invest!

The Fairmont Algonquin: A fading lady

The Fairmont Algonquin in St. Andrews-by-the Sea, New Brunswick

It’s been a long time since we got behind the wheel of our car and headed out on the open road – instead of to the airport – for a travel getaway.  But autumn came upon us, and the thoughts of a foliage tour took over our good sense and we headed toward northern New England.  Along the way we stopped in St. Andrews-by-the Sea in New Brunswick, home to one of the grand dames of Canadian hotels: the Fairmont Algonquin.

Originally opened in 1889, the Algonquin Hotel was one of Canada’s first resort hotels.  Built by American businessmen, it was taken over by the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1903.[1]  The hotel eventually made its way into the hands of the New Brunswick provincial government in 1984.  The Fairmont Hotel group currently runs the hotel (and has for a number of years); however, that relationship comes to an end on December 31, 2011.  Our recent stay there provided us with several clues to the answer to our question: why is Fairmont not renewing its contract to run the historic property?
We might be wrong, but we’d have to wager a guess that it has something to do with the Fairmont brand and that this property doesn’t live up to the brand expectations of its clientele.

Evoking a bygone era of travel

These discerning travelers booked themselves into what is called a medium suite located in the main historic building.  The two-room suite was quaint as expected (although not the kind of décor we are usually drawn to), furnished with what appeared to us to be either antiques or cast-offs from an estate sale.  Although everything was sparkling clean, when Art walked out of the bathroom for the first time he said, “If Ian [our 22-year-old son] rented an apartment with a bathroom like that, we’d think he lived in a slum.”  It had not had benefit of a renovation in at least 40 years.  Need we say more?

The main rooms of the hotel and the grounds evoke a sense of eras past when travel was more leisurely, and activities to while away the time were more gentile: reading, strolling, sitting in Adirondack chairs in front of wood fires in the evening.

The real highlight of the stay was our anniversary dinner at the hotel’s main dining room, The Library.  The day happened to be Canadian Thanksgiving and the chef was offering his version of the traditional turkey dinner, finished off by pumpkin crème brulée that was exquisite and worth every last calorie.

What will happen to the hotel after the Fairmont folks pull out is anyone’s guess.  We did ask several employees who indicated that it will definitely remain open, but there was no word on who would be managing it. We only hope that the new operator has deep pockets, because this fading lady will fade off the radar of discerning travelers everywhere without the makeover she so desperately needs – and deserves.

the creepy corridor
The creepy corridor: Like a scene right out of "The Shining"