Amid the all-too-predictable anger, the accusations of unfairness and the good old-fashioned Canadian hand-wringing that greeted the news of Canada’s shutout from the World’s Best Restaurants list earlier this week, the headline: According To The World’s Best Restaurants List Canada Is A Culinary Wasteland struck me as the most disproportionately misguided.
The list did not, in fact, call Canada a culinary wasteland. What it affirmed – and I say affirmed because I think that in spite of its evident weaknesses, the list is a good one – is that there isn’t a single Canadian restaurant that’s original enough and technically accomplished enough to rank at the very pinnacle of high-end global gastronomy. And though this will make me unpopular in some quarters, guess what? The list makers got it absolutely right.
Consider one of the Canadian restaurants that’s cited most often as an example of a place that’s unfairly overlooked: Langdon Hall, in Southwestern Ontario.
In 2010, Langdon Hall placed No. 77 on the list (though it’s called the World’s 50 Best, there’s a consolation list that goes to 100), but has since fallen off it. Langdon Hall is easily one of the best restaurants in Canada. Its chef, Jonathan Gushue, is incredibly good. (Let me emphasize here, in case it isn’t clear, that I love the place.) The food is generally exciting, the kitchen is technically brilliant, the service is extraordinarily smart and prescient, and the room and the grounds – complete with an orchard and herb and vegetable garden you can stroll through – are little short of spectacular. What it isn’t, however, is original: Langdon Hall, like Rouge in Calgary (No. 60 on the list in 2010), which was also cited this week as a spurned contender, owes a debt of inspiration to the French Laundry, Thomas Keller’s massively influential restaurant in California’s Napa Valley. The French Laundry is No. 43.
Au Pied de Cochon, in Montreal, is also held up as an example of the jury’s unfairness. The place is totally original – there’s nothing else like it on Earth, in fact – and exciting and an undeniably fantastic restaurant. But it’s also purposefully rough around the edges. The best restaurants list celebrates high-end gastronomy, for the most part. Au Pied de Cochon feels – and I mean this in the best way possible – like a beer-soaked bar that happens to have an out-of-control amazing kitchen.
Give it linen tablecloths, polish the presentation and cut the portion sizes by about 80 per cent (if you’re not in a meat coma, you haven’t truly eaten at Au Pied de Cochon), and then it would make the list. But it also wouldn’t be Au Pied de Cochon any more.
In the past few years, I’ve managed to eat at Chez Panisse (No. 99), Coi (No. 58) Momofuku Ssam Bar (No. 37) Le Bernardin (No. 19) Dinner by Heston Blumenthal (No. 9) and Noma (No. 1). What each of them has in common is that they get everything right: They’re one-of-a-kind and iconic, with pitch-perfect service and surroundings. For the most part they also took major artistic risks – smart risks, as luck would have it – in their early days. Noma was so out-there original that it sat empty for the most part for its first few years. The same is true of Mugaritz, which is No. 3 this year, and former No. 1 elBulli before them.
Canada’s getting there. Where only a few years ago, many Canadian chefs wrote a menu at the beginning of their careers and rarely changed it, that’s shifted enormously. Canadian chefs are getting bolder (albeit slowly; we’re still Canada), pushing more, striving more to learn new things, invent techniques and execute perfectly every time. We’re lucky to have them.
But let’s not try to whine our way onto the World’s Best Restaurants list. You get on there by taking huge risks and innovating from the ground up, getting everything right, and then by delivering, perfectly, consistently, day after day.
In the meantime, let’s be honest: Far from being a wasteland, Canada’s a terrific place to eat, and more so every year.
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