Starved of Michelin stars
IS there something fishy behind the Michelin Guide giving Glasgow restaurants the cold shoulder again, asks Richard Bath
BRIAN Maule is a big bull of a man who is not given to being perplexed. Except every January, of course. That's when the Michelin Guide unveils the restaurants to be graced with their stars, the culinary equivalent of the Oscars. It is also the time of year when Glasgow's most accomplished chef finds out that he is cooking's answer to Kate Winslet, who was famously asked what it was like to be "the least winningest actor of all time" after the shortlisted actress was overlooked for an Academy Award for a record sixth time.
As I arrive at the Chardon D'Or, Maule's restaurant in the centre of Glasgow, he cuts a benignly agitated figure. He's getting used to being overlooked by the Michelin inspectors and tries to take it all with an exaggerated shrug of the shoulders, but it still clearly rankles, especially in a year when four new Scottish restaurants have received a star and the country has amassed an unprecedented 15 stars.
When it emerges that I had just been speaking to Derek Bulmer, the inspector of 30 years' standing who is now in charge of the UK Michelin Guide and who would have sat in Maule's Glasgow restaurant up to half a dozen times, the chef's natural curiosity gets the better of him. "What did he say?" asks Maule. "Did he give you any clue why we didn't get in, because I haven't any idea. Not a scoobie. I just don't understand."
Could it be, as many in the West of Scotland suspect, that Maule's main crime was to move to Glasgow? When the Michelin announcement was made last week there were stars for four Edinburgh restaurants – the most for any UK city outside London – and none for Glasgow. Is Scotland's biggest city really a foodie wasteland? Edinburgh's Martin Wishart doesn't think so. "There are some really good restaurants in Glasgow but Brian's in a different league," he says. So is there something about the Glasgow style of dining that just doesn't cut it in the gourmet world? Or is there simply a snobbishness about the inspectors' preference for Edinburgh?
Maule certainly has his suspicions. "I've eaten in one-star restaurants throughout the country and I honestly think we're as good as they are, and I know lots of other people think so too. I'm just bewildered as to what gets a star these days."
When I ask him whether he'd have a star if he was in Edinburgh or Leith, the hotspot that currently boasts three Michelin-starred restaurants, he just smiles and says "pass".
It's certainly true that since 2003, when Nick Nairn wound up his eponymous restaurant and Gordon Ramsay concluded that there was no market for fine dining in Glasgow and took down the signs at Amaryllis, Glasgow has not had a Michelin starred restaurant. The city doesn't even merit one of Michelin's cut-price consolation prizes, the Bib Gourmand.
The unspoken accusation by many in the West is that the Michelin inspectors have some sort of bias towards Edinburgh at Glasgow's expense. That, though, is flatly denied by Bulmer, the one man who should know.
"I'm probably not universally popular in Glasgow but I can honestly say that we don't have anything against the city," he says, pointing out that other major cities, such as Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester, have no starred restaurants while Birmingham and Bristol only entered the guide this month. "It would be nice to spread the honours geographically, but we judge by what's on the plate. We're looking for cooking at the highest level, for chefs who can combine flavours creatively and who can do it consistently, and unfortunately nowhere in Glasgow met those criteria."
At least there's a consistency in the pronouncements coming from the Michelin inspectors judging by the thoughts of Derek Brown, who was the first non-Frenchman to edit Michelin's Red Guide. He spent more than 30 years judging British restaurants and, more recently, deciding which restaurants deserved to keep their three-star rating. Recently retired but still consulting for top-level hotel groups, no one is better placed to explain why Glasgow is missing out.
"I did the inspections in Glasgow in February 1972 for the first (British] guide in 1974 and remember it very well," said Brown. "The Central Hotel had a star in the first guide and was a fine example of classic French cooking. In fact, Glasgow has had so many starred restaurants that, until recently, I can't remember a time when Glasgow hasn't had any stars.
"It's a shame Glasgow doesn't have any stars but it isn't being picked on. Every restaurant needs customers – are there enough restaurants in Glasgow who see the demand for food at that (Michelin] level?"
If Brown echoes Ramsay's thoughts on the market in Glasgow, this is at least one thing Maule can agree with. It may, he suggests, be a simple matter of Glaswegians' attitude to money.
"I have to work to my customers and the simple truth is that people in Glasgow won't pay 20 for a starter or 40 for a steak," says the chef.
"I see guys running up huge bills trying to provide the sort of service and menu they think will win them a star when what they should be doing is catering for their customers."
He has a point. I review restaurants every week and those who are consciously positioning themselves for a star stick out like a sore thumb. But Maule's on shakier ground on the money argument: my bill for dinner at Tom Kitchin's eponymous restaurant in Leith was 35 a head in the year he won his star.
There is a growing backlash, however, as Michelin is coming under sustained attack. Marco Pierre-White, who was the youngest chef ever to win three stars, has been a particularly vocal critic of the guide, which he considers to be out of touch and fatally skewed by commercial considerations. He is by no means the only critic: French A-list chef Yves Camdeborde denounced the Michelin Guide as "cuisine de snob".
But it is the Guide's subjectivity and the impenetrability of its criteria for selection – what does "cooking at the highest level" really mean? – that have become problematic as the diversity and range of cooking styles increases apace.
While I have to admit that I believe Edinburgh to be far better served by its restaurants at every level, I can also see why some of Michelin's selections have raised eyebrows. The choice of The Plumed Horse in Leith, for example, in the year when it was routinely and savagely panned by virtually every restaurant reviewer, including this one.
Reviewing is, of course, a subjective process. I wouldn't agree with Lesley Crosfield, the co-chef and proprietor of the Michelin-starred Albannach, when she says that "there are far more very good restaurants in Glasgow than there are in Edinburgh", any more than she's agree with me that Edinburgh has a greater diversity and quality of restaurants than Glasgow.
As for Brian Maule, he says he'll carry on ploughing his culinary furrow. "It's very sad for Glasgow that the city hasn't had the recognition I think it deserves," he says. "But at the end of the day my restaurant is doing well and giving the people of Glasgow what they want and what they're willing to pay for. That's worth more than any award."
Essential foodie experiences in Glasgow
Rogano Restaurant and Oyster Bar
A Merchant City Art Deco-styled gem, dedicated to serving the finest seafood, Rogano's mouth-watering trademark dish of lobster thermidor will set you back an eye-watering 36.
The Ubiquitous Chip
Nestling in a mews lane in the West End, The Chip has been at the heart of Scotland's fine-dining scene since 1971. A two-course dinner of braised Perthshire pig's cheek with wild mushroom sauce and truffled potato omelette followed by Scrabster-landed ling on clapshot with chillied roast red peppers and crispy seaweed comes in at 34.85.
The Horse Shoe Bar
Part of the Horse Shoe's enduring appeal must surely be down to its legendary lounge-bar lunches. Hungry shoppers can tuck into a three-course meal of broth, haddock, chips and salad and ice-cream and jelly for a jaw-droppingly cheap 3.75.
Eats 1 Takeaway
If you reckon the deep-fried Mars Bar is for wimps why not take on the Munchy Box at this Howard Street fast food joint. For under a fiver you can gorge yourself on pizza, doner meat, chips, cheese, pakora and chicken salad.
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