Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Rankings Are Kinda Worthless (Le Chateaubriand)

Tuna, Mushrooms, and Herbs

People love to rank things, so we tend to make ranked lists for just about anything we can. Specifically, lists that give the "10 best ___" or "25 must-try ___" are made for everything from medical schools (US News Report) and high school football teams (MaxPreps) to things as trivial as New York City bành mî sandwiches (Serious Eats). Placing things in order and being able to determine at a glance whether one thing is better than another are probably the most attractive aspects of creating ranking systems. However, ranking systems have limitations -- namely, it's pretty tough to come up with a means of classifying whether #1 is better than #2, whether #2 is better than #3, and so on. US News Report uses some complex formula that factors in objective data, like graduation and retention rates, but also includes entirely subjective criteria, such as peer assessment and prestige. Subjectivity, an inherent characteristic of these types of listings, takes on an even greater role when talking about something as open to personal preference as food, but that doesn't stop people from also trying to rank the world's best restaurants.

S. Pellegrino releases an annual list of the world's best restaurants, and amid the glamorous three-star culinary palaces and gastronomic meccas sits Le Chateaubriand. Ranked #9 in 2011, this restaurant stands out from many of the other top-ten restaurants because of its unpretentious ambiance and more relaxed atmosphere. Think jeans and shirt, not jacket and tie. With Le Chateaubriand offering a set prix fixe menu priced at a reasonable €55, I jumped at the opportunity to see what food from the ninth-best restaurant in the world would taste like. Surely, my palate would be amazed and dazzled like it had never been before, right?

Amuses Bouche

Tomato Salad
The restaurant does a no-reservation seating after about 9:30 every night, so I managed to snag a table a little before 11 pm after waiting for nearly two hours. With only a set prix fixe menu that changes on a daily basis, there's really no choice to make other than a choice of a cheese course or a dessert for the last course. To start, a parade of amuses bouche arrived in rapid succession. All were good, but the gougeres -- gruyere-filled choux pastry puffs topped with sesame seeds -- were especially tasty. The tomato salad was really good and was one of my favorite tastes of the evening; slices of tomato dressed with olive oil and served with a creamy cheese. I also liked the duck, which was coated with a slew of seeds. The soup was forgettable, though, and what was supposed to be ceviche seemed to be just a raspberry. I was confused about that one.

Fish and Chips

After the amuses bouche, which counted as the first course, the second course was entitled Fish & Chips. Now, I get that lots of chefs these days are into making playful and classier versions of simple foods, but if I had wanted fish and chips, I would have gone to a chip shop and paid €6 for it instead of going to a high-end restaurant and paying €55. The fish was tempura-like, and the crisp chips were coated in paprika. All in all, a decent dish anywhere else, but underwhelming from what's supposed to be one of the world's best restaurants, leaving me feeling completely ripped off.

The next course smelled incredible when it arrived at the table. Described by my waiter as tuna, mushrooms, and herbs (pictured at top), the mushrooms' aroma emanated from the plate and smelled crazy good. Sadly, the dish did not taste nearly as good as it smelled. The odd combination of ingredients didn't seem to complement one another, and the herbs -- basil seemed to be the most prevalent and potent -- overpowered everything else on the plate. I hardly tasted the tuna at all, though the mushrooms held up a bit better to the herbs.

Veal, Seaweed, Almonds, Morning Glory

In another display of the chef's dump-a-whole-bunch-of-stuff-over-the-protein style of presentation, the fourth course did not wow me at all, either. Described as veal with seaweed, almond, and freshly ground morning glory, the taste of this dish was very muddled. The seaweed, which was kind of like thin string beans, had an off-putting sliminess, and the veal, which appeared to be cooked sous-vide, didn't have a crust to stand up to the seaweed's texture. It ended up as a kind of gloppy, mushy dish that wasn't very visually or texturally appealing. Another underwhelming dish amid a string of them.

Watermelon, Red Currants, Basil Ice

Apricot, Vanilla Ice Cream, Honey

With the choice to opt for a cheese course or two desserts, I went with the desserts. The first, described as watermelon, red currants, and basil ice, was actually very good. Refreshing, sweet, and tart, this dish was, sadly, actually another one of my favorites from the evening. When my favorite dishes from the evening are a tomato salad and a bowl of fruit, you know I must be pretty disappointed with everything else. The second dessert, half an apricot submerged in a cup of vanilla ice cream with some honey at the bottom, was simple and tasted fine. Nothing more, nothing less.

No matter the method for generating a ranking system, whether it is by polls, critics' opinions, or complex mathematical formulas, there always seems to be some element of subjectivity which creeps in and undermines the rankings. However, that doesn't stop us from continually going out of our way to do our damned best to rank just about anything we can. To me, ranking systems are best served to give a general idea of something's place in a tiered hierarchy -- #5 and #8 can be deemed as comparable, but #4 is probably better than #32, for example. I guess the other thing that people like about rankings is that it gives something good to brag about. You know, something like, "Oh, by the way, last night, I ate at the world's second-best restaurant," or "My son got into the country's fifth-best college." In the end, there's just way too much opinion and personal preference that manages to factor into these rankings, limiting their applicability and generalizability. While Le Chateaubriand may be ranked the ninth-best restaurant in the world and may very well be just that good on some nights, I didn't think it was anything special during my visit. Call me unrefined or lacking of a sophisticated palate, but while the ingredients were top-notch, I found the food to be mediocre and underwhelming. Of course, maybe I just picked a bad night to come -- the downside of a set prix fixe menu that changes daily. But based on this one dining experience, I have a hard time believing that this is ranked #9 in the world's best restaurants.

Le Chateaubriand
129 Avenue Parmentier
75011 Paris


  1. I'm not against deconstructed/reconstructed classics, but I expect them to be prepared with a novel technique.

    Sorry to hear about your meal brosef. Both the tuna and veal dishes struck me as odd (in the bad way) and they weren't much by way of presentation.

  2. @Rodzilla: If the tuna and veal dishes tasted great, I wouldn't have minded their odd ingredient combos. Unfortunately, the dishes really didn't work at all IMO. Oh well, at least I gave it a shot.