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robert brown

NYC: Gastronomic Capital of the World?

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I first heard the statement “New York is the restaurant capital of the world” about three years ago from  Ruth Reichl during her appearance on the Charlie Rose program. Since then, I have come across it (or some variation of it such as “gastronomic capital” or “food capital”) several times. Jean-Georges makes the claim; the New York Times food writers write it every now and then; the culinary historian Alexandra Leaf recently staged a discussion at the 92nd Street Y based on this thesis; Tim Zagat says it a lot-not surprising given the two hats he wears- and just a few days ago Eric Asimov’s New York Times obituary of Jean-Louis Palladin quoted Drew Nieporent as follows: “They” (meaning the French transplants Palladin, Jean-Georges, Daniel, and Gibert Le Coz) “elevated us, and arguably we became the food capital of the world”.

I have often discussed this proposition with family and friends and am anxious to know what the e-Gullet readers think of it. One can approach discussing it from several angles such as the conceptual rigor of the premiss; if you think the premiss is more a statement of quantity versus quality; or if a smaller place than New York or other large cities can qualify as  the gastronomic or restaurant capital of the world even if the food and drink are local or regional; i.e Lyon or San Francisco. If you have traveled to or are are living in, or have lived in other well-endowed food places, you may want to compare other cities to New York, or if you have had a preponderance of good eating, drinking and food shopping experiences in New York, perhaps you can give us your idea of what might motivate people such as the aforementioned to go on the record as they do. In other words, is the premiss self-serving hype or is there solid evidence to back it up? Feel free to limit yourself, as did Ruth Reichl, to restaurants if you don’t want to tackle gastronomy in its other manifestations.

(Edited by robert brown at 9:47 pm on Nov. 29, 2001)

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Quote: from robert brown on 9:44 pm on Nov. 29, 2001

I first heard the statement “New York is the restaurant capital of the world” about three years ago from  Ruth Reichl during her appearance on the Charlie Rose program. Since then, I have come across it (or some variation of it such as “gastronomic capital” or “food capital”) several times.

yeah, so freakin what?  you gotta problim wit dat?  

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Tommy, you sure do play a mean pinball. I'm sorry if you didn't read the rest of the post. I think it is interesting, and hope the thoughful and caring readers think likewise. I spent a fair amount of time on it and see nothing in it to evoke a mean-spirited response to an even-handed submission.

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I don't think Tommy was being mean spirited.  I think he was playing on stereotypes of New Yorkers with mock-New York tough guy talk.  You know... like in "The Sopranos" or "The Godfather".  He was trying to be humorous, not confrontational.

Er... right Tommy?


Jon Lurie, aka "jhlurie"

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Quote: from jhlurie on 10:12 pm on Nov. 29, 2001

I don't think Tommy was being mean spirited.  I think he was playing on stereotypes of New Yorkers with mock-New York tough guy talk.  You know... like in "The Sopranos" or "The Godfather".  He was trying to be humorous, not confrontational.

Er... right Tommy?

yeah, so freakin what?  you gotta problim wit dat? ;)

and to directly respond, yes, i was being humorous, perpetuating stereotypes, and generally making an ass of myself for you all to enjoy.

:)

(Edited by tommy at 10:43 am on Nov. 30, 2001)

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Robert, if you talk to the chefs at Michelin three-star restaurants in France a lot of them seem to think New York is the restaurant capital of the world. Strange, given that New York has only one restaurant (ADNY) that could possibly qualify for three Michelin stars if a spaceship picked it up and dropped it in Paris. Maybe Lespinasse under Kunz came close, but probably not on the service end. As far as I'm concerned every restaurant that currently holds four stars from the New York Times would get at best one or two Michelin stars were it in France.

It is worth noting that our sole extant three-star candidate is (or was for a good long time) the most embattled restaurant in the history of the United States, reviled by those who have proclaimed us the culinary capital.

So if you're looking at the thesis from the standpoint of best restaurants versus best restaurants, I don't see how any nation can compete with France, except maybe Spain (though Spain lacks the high-end depth of France). Any Western nation, that is. If we bring Japan into the mix it gets a lot more confusing.

New York is clearly the restaurant capital of the United States. People who think otherwise are either using bizarre criteria or have very regional palates. But the world? I don't think so, not yet at least.

At the same time, if you listen to the French chefs, you see a prediction: New York and the New World in general are the future. France and the Old World are the past. There is a trend of improvement in the New World, and a marginalization of fine dining (which is largely tourist-supported) in the Old World. Someday, the consensus seems to be, these trend lines will cross. I don't know. Maybe they will. But I don't think it has happened yet.

Italy is also an interesting case. By most reliable accounts, it has the strongest baseline standard of cuisine of any nation on the planet, even if it lacks haute cuisine to rival France, Spain or even the United States. Plenty of educated gourmets prefer to dine in Italy than in France. There's a reasonable argument to be made there too.

New York does kick butt when it comes to diversity of available dining experiences, though.


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I think Steven has it right. I don't know if in the next decade or so New York will have the best restaurants of any city in the world, but if it does it will be because of  the same kind of American risk-taking, access to capital, and laissez-faire or pioneering spirit that have already accounted for much of the recent restaurant revolution in America. When you factor in how it has manifested itself in cities such as Miami, Dallas, Chicago, Boston, DC, and so forth, it really is amazing, regardless of whether or not you think the food is "world-class" or not. I really feel that Europe (ex-London/UK) and France in particular has never really recovered from the economic hit it took at the dawn of the 1990s, and you can see it in the restaurants. The value-for-money or keep-the-price modest concept is so pervasive over there. I think the way the dollar keeps hovering at its persistently strong levels vis a vis the Euro is telling us that reforms have yet to strongly kick in within Europe, and this is made apparent in the modest restaurant formation in France, at least in terms of luxury dining. As for Spain, I can only hope to get there in the near future. But isn't all the action in the north? Italy is the place, I feel, for consistently-excellent restaurant meals, but it is rare to encounter the overt technical wizardry such as Bux described in his visit to Ducasse in Paris. I have managed to miss some of the recent Italy writings by the American gastronomic press. Perhaps I can better elaborate on Italy after my quick trip there early next month.

(Edited by robert brown at 12:18 am on Nov. 30, 2001)

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I've just returned to the UK after a 5 day stay in NY and I have to agree with Steven's comments that NY certainly has a diversity, and a quality across that range,  in advance of any other city I've been to including London.

However at the higher end and from my extremely limited experience of 3 meals in NY, I'd say it lags behind London in terms of "michelin star" quality.  I can only base this on meals at Daniel, Gramercy Tavern and Cafe Boulud, but if I was to equate my experience of michelin restaurants in London to these one off experiences I think NY has a bit to find.  I would be interested to know what NY Times stars are awarded for.  Is it purely food related or the whole experience?

(I will be posting reviews of the above from an English first time perspective at the weekend for anyone who may be interested!)

(Edited by Scottf at 5:09 am on Nov. 30, 2001)

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Nobody knows why the Times gives the stars it gives -- sometimes even the reviewers can't articulate it -- though the official position is it's mostly based on food.

Looking forward to your reviews.


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Robert's question is irresistible, but (as I know from painful experience at another message board) it is extremely difficult to reach agreement on what it means.  For some, rating a city's restaurants means taking a broad, suitably weighted look at restaurants right across all price ranges.  For others, it means comparing the best dining available in the cities.  The truly vexing part of the equation comes when the question of value for money is raised.  It is enormously hard to make comparisons of value between cities in different regions, let alone countries, because of all the economic factors in play.

Without even beginning to address any of those points, my reaction to Robert's question is:  "What is the serious competition to New York?"  

In my ten or so years of experience dining around the United States, I have not discovered a better restaurant city (no, not even San Francisco).  London?  I was raised there, and am confident that it is not as good as New York: now, maybe Scottf is right, and if you had a run off between Daniel and Gramercy Tavern on the one hand, and Gordon Ramsey and La Tante Claire on the other, London would come out ahead.  Maybe.  But that's an extraordinarily narrow basis for comparison.

What are the other serious contenders for best restaurant city?   Nowhere in Spain I know of.  Rome?  Milan?  Sydney has some superb restaurants, but nothing like as many or as varied as New York.  I can't speak with confidence of the major asian cities:  Hong Kong, for example?  

I suppose the most obvious competitor is Paris.  The big difference, of course, is that Paris's reputation rests almost entirely on French cuisine.  New York's reputation is cosmopolitan.  No need to consider Lyons, for example, because if New York is better than Paris, it's certainly better than any other French city.

In a nutshell, I would say that claiming New York is the world's restaurant capital is "not obviously wrong".  Which is quite an endorsement coming from a philosopher.

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What city contains the greatest percentage of the 50 best restaurants in the world? Paris. What country? France.

Does that make Paris or France the restaurant capital? No. Wilfrid is exactly right. It simply makes it the victor in a certain narrow-band contest. We could word the question so New York is the answer, by including more categories and disregarding price. We could probably manipulate it such that the entire nation of Spain, Italy or Japan would be the winner.

So what questions should we ask?


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I think Paris may have an edge over New York in terms of 3-star Michelin restaurants, haute cuisine, etc.  But I think New York is the restaurant capital of the world in terms of sheer diversity of cuisine.  Let's face it, fancy is nice, but the ability to get _authentic_ cuisine of so many different cultures astounds me.  Where else can you find South African AND Bukharan AND Uzbek and Fukien AND every country in Latin America, not to mention our own regional specialties?  London only bests NYC in food from the Indian subcontinent, IMHO.

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How about 1) concentration and diversity of media devoted to dining, chefs and gastronomy?  and 2) competitiveness of chefs within a city and climate of competitiveness for restaurateurs?


Steve Klc

Pastry chef-Restaurant Consultant

Oyamel : Zaytinya : Cafe Atlantico : Jaleo

chef@pastryarts.com

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How about a more basic question. Where does the food taste best?

The ingedients, in my opinion, are not as good in NY as they are in England, France, Spain, Italy. Therefore, no matter what a chef does with the food, it's not going to have full flavor. There are excellent chefs in both NY and London, for example, but one gets tasteless vegs and sometimes meat in the former (despite all the hype about Greenmarkets) relative to the good quality in the latter. I'm always amazed to be reminded of how food ought to taste when I'm in Europe, and how plastic food tastes, by comparison, in New York, at even the high end places.

As for the "ethnic" advantage of NY over London, I'm still convinced that for Indian and Malaysian food, London is better.

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I've noticed much of the ingredients gap close in the past decade. I think at this point the most you can say is that some ingredients are better over there, and others are better over here. Maybe more are better over there, but we have some real standouts. And with air shipping, most things can be replicated regardless of place (with the exception of illegal products, such as young raw milk cheeses). If you wanted to do an all-Breton seafood menu in New York with ultra-fresh fish it would only be a question of paying for it. Christian Delouvrier used to do it every year at Les Celebrites. Not that all Breton seafood is better than ours. Our local lobsters are superior I think, just to give one example.

French supermarkets carry the same garbage as American supermarkets, pretty much. The quality of ingredients in the middle of the price range for restaurants in France is probably higher than here. But at the fine-dining level we could make a list and assign bests to each place.

Some of the best things in restaurants in France are the "building block" ingredients, like eggs and butter. I haven't had an egg here yet that rivals the ones I've had in France, but we're closing the butter gap bit by bit.

I think our beef is best, our seafood is as good as any (huge Japanese demand for it), some of our fruits and vegetables are the best in the world (apples, cherries, etc.). Ducasse did a whole book on this, called Harvesting Excellence. If you take a look through it I think it will put to rest the image of inferior American ingredients.

As to whether our restaurants always use the best ingredients, of course they don't -- not all of them. Not anywhere. But at the top places, and also at places like Craft, you will taste pretty much the best of whatever you're eating.

They also cook with a lot more salt in Europe than we do here. It makes everything taste different.


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I wasn't intentionally trying to narrow the basis of comparison and  I did state that I was speaking from very limited experience of the NY scene.  However I was saying that if you put my meal at  Daniel vs my experience of Gordon Ramsay, GR would come out on top hands down.  That's at the top end.

I don't think I took long enough over the question to construct the thoughts I wanted to.  Let's give it another try.  Of my experience at 3 of the top restaurants in NY I've had better meals in London.  

However I did say that NY appears to have a  strength in depth across its whole range in advance of London.  As an example I had the best Chinese food I've ever encountered in a small dumpling restaurant on the outskirts of Chinatown, in a different league to what I've had in London especially at the cost.  I also ate the best burger of my life in a little place called The Corner Bistro.

I'm probably better off summing up my rambling like this.  If I could only choose five restaurants to ever visit again I'd live in London.  If the whole city was my oyster I'd move to NY!

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I haven't been to all of them but would be shocked if London had a single restaurant as good as Ducasse in New York. And with all due respect to Daniel Boulud I do not think his restaurant realizes his talents as a chef at least not for the average walk-in customer. Did you like Cafe Boulud better? Most gourmets I know do. Jean Georges would be my candidate to compare to London's best. If you have not visited Ducasse and Jean Georges you have not had the best New York has to offer, in my opinion.


Ellen Shapiro

www.byellen.com

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Scottf: But what specifically made the London places better? I tend to agree with you, but I'm having a hard time putting my finger on it.  My thinking is that it is the quality of the ingredients, which are better in the UK. I've not covinced Fat Guy :)

This is so funny in a way--what you say about the burger at Corner Bistro. It is my favorite burger in NY, but Fat Guy can't see what the fuss is about!

I also agree with you on the Chinese food being better here, in NY.

This is an interesting thread. As for Jean Georges, I'll have to disagree with Ellen. I just didn't get it:), though my hisband did. Maybe should give it another try. Le Gavroche in London (which I've been to, tho' years back) wouldn't compare with Ducasse, NY (not been)?

Fat Guy, I must respectfully disagree with your comment that: ".. at the top places, and also at places like Craft, you will taste pretty much the best of whatever you're eating." Yes, the vegs at Craft were good, but the cauiflower and pots were nowhere near the top of my league. The best pots I've ever tasted were tiny pots from Egypt sold in Marks and Spencer in UK years ago. Second would be new pots in UK.  

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Quote: from Wilfrid on 10:36 am on Nov. 30, 2001

For some, rating a city's restaurants means taking a broad, suitably weighted look at restaurants right across all price ranges.

This is an issue that Mr. Perlow and I recently had a discussion about.  The "problem" centers around the fact that most rating systems (the NY Times is more guilty of this than most) don't accomodate for excellence in different price ranges.  A city like NY is particularly hurt by this, because it features excellence across all different price ranges, versus a city like London which is top-heavy.


Jon Lurie, aka "jhlurie"

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Maybe we are losing ourselves in a very trivial fight for who is best.  What country holds that title or what chef should be considered the best in the world?

I call this trivial, since all of this is so very subjective and as we come closer to living in a world past the cold war and coming closer to a concept of being a global village, we should not have to worry about such titles.

I did read one-person talk about Produce and ingredients being different in the US than in Europe.  In my humble opinion, that is certainly true.  While French supermarkets are now carrying the same kind of American trash, they still have street side vendors in abundance.  Selling fruits and vegetables and fruits of the seas like we never see in the US.  Maybe some vendors across NYC, but the produce happens to be the same big, fertilized product that looks better than it tastes.

San Francisco has better produce and so does LA, but again, our culture here is steeped in buying from bigger stores and the average restaurant that most people can afford going to, purchase their foods from giant corporations with little care about organic or fresh.

Then we need to think about how much canned, frozen and cold storage food we use in our cooking in this country.  It is far more than in any I other country I have ever gone to.  Maybe that should be telling about the higher cancer rate in the US than in most European countries and most of Asia other than Japan.

When it comes to ethnic foods, I think the US has had a slow but steady ride in that arena.  Many of my friends insist that America is far less racist than Europe.  Maybe that led in some ways to ethnic people finding it easier to integrate into t he communities they moved into.  With that, they found lesser need to just live in their own enclaves.  As a result, we have seen a lesser need from them to create worlds that are very different from those of their neighbors.  In London, the Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities worked very hard and fought many to create a world that was theirs and theirs alone.  They made every effort to leave an indelible stamp, unique to themselves onto the landscape of UK.  That has not happened yet in the US.  

One has seen it with the Italian, Irish and Chinese communities here, I have not seen that much of a community amongst the more recent ethnic groups migrating into America.  We certainly have little India's, Vietnam and Bangladesh in certain areas, but they are too small and too insignificant.

I am Indian, and I still find very little need to go running in search of an Indian enclave where I would be more comfortable.  In fact, their being far away makes them less of an attraction.  And then, the fact that the enclave that is Indian is not very representative of what I want to see there, I end up never making an effort in any case.  What I try to point here is the intrinsic ease with which people are living here.  Or at least the feeling of ease.

That creates a vacuum between what one is and what one wants to be.  There is no middle and certainly no reason to recreate where one came from.

Perhaps the recent developments and our war against Afghanistan and the racial profiling (I use it for a lack of a better word, yet), we will see enclaves that will house people of similar communities and create within them a sense of togetherness and a feeling that they are different from those they until yesterday, found comfort with.  But is that something we should be wanting?

Should our search for better Indian or Malaysian or Bengali cooking have to make us live such extreme steps?  What else can we do?  How else can we still have the same quality of Indian food as found in London?

There are no easy answers.  The Indians and Pakistanis and Bangladeshis that come to the US, come with great focus to better their lives in many ways.  Some for a furthering of education, some to come closer to family and others to further their financial well-being.  Others simply to create better lives.  In all these different scenarios, they get lost in their goal first.  And with the ease in getting into mainstream situations, they also learn a lot about the new land they have migrated to.  That ease with which they can integrate at least on the surface, pushes at the back burner their homesickness.

Thus, they enjoy the many other cuisines that were unknown to them in their own lands outside of t heir homes.  And at home, they cook the foods of their regions and countries.  

While we can keep arguing which country or city has better food and the best chefs, we need to really make an effort as citizens of the worlds most successful democracy how we can ensure our status as a melting pot of the world.  Thus, we should make our own decisions of why we prefer a certain restaurant or city.  In America today, we are faced with the very real possibility of making many ethnic groups feel very nervous and scared.  Our efforts in loving food from these places, should give us a very basic interest in also ensuring that these peoples human rights and dignity are at least maintained at the very basic level that any American should have.

With that behind us, America is certainly a melting pot unlike any other.  And through its restaurants and homes, one sees prepared foods daily like those eaten across the globe.  While some may choose to debate the best chef and best restaurant, we certainly can hold our ground on being a safe place for educated debates.

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Haven't been to The Garage (as the tourists call it), so I can't speak authoritatively. But the only place I've been that was better than Ducasse in New York was Ducasse in Paris, and I've been to probably ten or so of the Michelin three-stars now. I'm a strong supporter of Ducasse and think he operates in his own category. I don't love all his food but he is the master. This is all theory, though. My point was just that you can't ignore Ducasse when generalizing about best vs. best. Jean Georges you do have to try again. I find it consistently the best of the four-stars in New York. Have had better individual meals at Lespinasse but not consistently.


Ellen Shapiro

www.byellen.com

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What a concentration of interesting comments!

jhlurie:  Sure, but the question is how to weight the restaurants in the different price ranges.  Someone on another Board suggested you should forget about the top restaurants when you compare cities, and look at what you can eat on an average budget.  That approach, at least, seems wrong.

And ingredients?  Only one part of the jigsaw, surely.  The time I remember being knocked out by the freshness and quality of vegetables was on a visit to Istanbul.  Restaurant capital?  I think not.  I would contend that Germany had meat as good as France - in the case of pork, better - but the meat cuisine doesn't compare.  As an ex-pat Londoner, I am with Yvonne on the subject of produce: generally, I think the UK has better vegetables than the States; better meat too in some categories (chicken, game); but I don't know where that gets us with the restaurant question.

Diversity:  New York scores heavily, as does London (anyone else prefer London Chinese restaurants?).  But it seems unfair to downgrade French, Italian and Spanish cities, just because their restaurant scene reflects a rich and enduring indigenous tradition.

Fascinating that we can probably all agree on broad rankings:  Paris better than Hamburg; San Francisco better than Edinburgh; but get into conceptual difficulties with the question itself when it comes to close decisions.  The reason, I suspect, is that however you interpret the question, Paris scores higher than Hamburg.  But when it comes to New York versus Paris, you have to point out that each is better than the other in certain respects.

This may seem an inconclusive solution, but that doesn't make it wrong.  (Philosopher hat well and truly on today.  Will be exchanging it for lush hat after 6pm).

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Quote: from Suvir Saran on 1:25 pm on Nov. 30, 2001

Maybe we are losing ourselves in a very trivial fight for who is best.  What country holds that title or what chef should be considered the best in the world?

On this point I would disagree, as I think what is intriguing about this thread is the way in which the question is being very thoughtfully analysed; I don't think it really matters who "wins".

Otherwise, I am sympathetic to the general theme of your post, and value the multi-ehtnicity of my home town, London, and New York very highly.

I had a specific question.  I am surprised you find the Indian and Bangla Deshi communities in New York more integrated than those in London.  I won't argue the point.  But is that the reason Indian/Bangla Deshi/Pakistani food is so disappointing in New York?  There must be some reason.  I am bewildered by how poor the food is even in those restaurants which are run by and cater for members of these communities.

(Oops, maybe I'm getting into a different thread?)

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What a thread. I'm not sure there's much of substance to add. Robert Brown started it by asking if NYC's claim to being the restaurant capital of the world is self-serving hype or if there's there solid evidence to back it up? To both I would say yes and without much sarcasm note Steve Klc's comments regarding 1) concentration and diversity of media devoted to dining, chefs and gastronomy and 2) competitiveness of chefs within a city and climate of competitiveness for restaurateurs. Since when is hype not a part of the environment of greatness.

Wilfrid makes the best case of all. There will be no mutually agreed upon capital and no consensus of opinion on the standards. It does however, seem silly to speak of Lyon, as greater than Paris, when Vonnas or Veyrier-du-Lac would easily beat Lyon on the basis of concentration. I'm also curious about weighing different price ranges when speaking of "greatness." It's much like asking the referees how they scored the fight after a knockout. It should take more than one restaurant to score a knockout in this classification, but a great restaurant city is not about where ฤ will go the farthest. Ducasse is a contender for the greatest restaurant without asking about value.

A point on the quality of ingredients. What's available to restaurants sometimes has little to do with what is generally available to the public. There are great restaurant cities and cities in which you will do best if invited to someone's home for dinner. While I've tasted no butter in America that was in the same league as unpasturized artisanal salt better from a small Breton farm, French restaurants proudly feature Maine lobster.

I do not agree with Fat Guy that there are no multistarred restaurants in NY besides Ducasse. If the public would pay the price required to occupy a table for the evening, there might be several Michelin quality three star restaurants in NY. I certainly don't see the spread in terms of cuisine. I have to bring up something Fat Guy has alluded to in other threads though. If you eat well at a restaurant the first time you dine there, you are bound to eat so much better the fourth fifth and sixth time. this may make individual recommendations seem out of line.


Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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Three stars is a special and narrow type of excellence.  It is about elegance, and an overall experience that is partially dependant on incredible food, but also on the silverware, plates, etc.  It is "dressed up" to the ultimate.  

It's not necessarily the best way to run this contest.

I often prefer dining below 34th st. partially because I'm not personally as comfortable in a suit.  I've eaten often in Paris, but I feel  NYC is the best place to plan a food extravaganza (assuming cost is an object).  Dollar for dollar, I take NYC over Paris.  Rome is awesome, but there, I shoot for the moderate places.


beachfan

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