‘If you’re going to kill a holy cow, use a bazooka’
Reaction to Jay Rayner’s searing critique of Le Cinq, the Michelin three-star restaurant in Paris
Restaurant critic Jay Rayner ... his review of Le Cinq in Paris has been viewed online 1.2 million times since being published on Sunday. Photograph: jayrayner.co.uk
A canape likened to “a condom that’s been left lying about in a dusty greengrocer’s”; a starter of gratinated onions that is “mostly black, like nightmares, and sticky like the floor of a teenager’s party”, and a dessert featuring “milk skin draped over it, like something that’s fallen off a burns victim” – restaurant critic Jay Rayner didn’t mince his words when writing about his €600 dinner at Le Cinq, the restaurant at the Four Seasons Hôtel George V in Paris.
The scathing review, which appeared in Sunday’s Observer newspaper and online, “has been viewed nearly 1.2 million times”, its author told The Irish Times on Monday. It has also attracted a record number of reader comments, 2,595 at the time of writing – “the largest number of comments I’ve ever had”, Rayner said.
Reaction to the review from chefs came swiftly on Sunday. “WOW!”, tweeted Michel Roux Jr of French restaurant Le Gavroche in London, while Irish-born chef and restaurateur Stevie Parle responded with: “As I think AA Gill once wrote: If you’re going to kill a holy cow, use a bazooka”.
The furore raised by the review of the three-course meal, plus canapes, that featured starters costing €70 and €92, main courses at €95, and a single dessert at €36 was such that Le Cinq was trending on Twitter in the UK on Sunday, and the volume of traffic to the writer’s own website caused it to crash. (It is still wobbling slightly, but as he instructs, repeat the request a few times and you’ll be allowed in.)
The cost of the second dessert Rayner and his dining companion ordered, which he described as “cheesecake with lumps of frozen parsley powder”, was deducted from the bill when he told a staff member it was “one of the worst things I’ve ever eaten”.
The reviewer and his companion each drank a glass of Champagne, and a glass each of white and red wine, with mint tea at a whopping €15 a cup, bringing their beverages tab to an almost, modest by comparison, €170.
Rayner is no stranger to the French capital’s temples of gastronomy and their wallet-lightening abilities. “My bill at L’Arpège in Paris was bigger, and I liked more of that,” he said on Monday, and Irish food writer and former resident of the French capital, Trish Deseine, recalls “having eaten most joyfully in Paris with him”.
So what turned what Rayner said he expected to be, less a review than “an observational piece, full of moments of joy and bliss, of the sort only stupid amounts of cash can buy”, into one of the most blistering critiques he has ever written?
The key to understanding the emotion fuelling Rayner’s invective, without actually tasting what he described as the “shamefully terrible cooking”, lies in the photographs he and his companion took of the dishes presented to them, versus the restaurant-supplied press shots the newspaper used to illustrate the review, after they were refused permission to shoot their own images, as is the usual procedure.
On his website, Rayner reveals, “Apparently it was too expensive for them to make these dishes just for them to be photographed.”
The most startling difference is with the gratinated onion dish, which in the images supplied by the restaurant has a burnished golden glow, punctuated by pools of darkness, alleviated by domes of vibrant green. You’d certainly want to eat it (whether you’d want to pay €70 for it is another matter). But in the images captured by the reviewer and his fellow diner, it is indeed “mostly black”, and compellingly unappetising.
But could it just have been an off night (not that those should occur, at those prices and with three Michelin stars over the door)?
Trish Deseine says no. “I went a few years ago, with a French companion, when Le Cinq had two stars, and before [current head chef, Christian] Le Squer. We disliked the stuffiness and the frankly strange cuisine. At least at L’Ambroisie, where you are treated even more haughtily, you are always blown away by the food.
“My companion is one of the most elegantly dressed men I know and they made him wear a horrid, cheap blazer which did not help l’ambiance.
“It had the reputation of a bit of a doomed dining room, stuck in the past, and has been trying for three stars for years, until finally they pulled it off last year.”
Deseine says reading the review, “made me miss AA Gill a little less. No hysterics or ego, more sadness and disbelief. I loved it”.
Gill, no stranger to the wielding the hatchet, also lampooned several “sacred cows” of the culinary world in the Sunday Times restaurant review column he wrote until his death late last year (including, in 2014, the restaurant at Ballymaloe House in Co Cork).
And, writing in the New York Times, critic Pete Wells revised the score given to Thomas Keller’s Per Se, where dinner costs $325, downwards from four stars (the publication’s highest rating, awarded by Wells’s predecessor Sam Sifton), to a scandal-inducing two. Keller responded by posting an apology to his customers on his website.
Le Cinq is unlikely to follow this approach. On Monday, Rayner said that he, and the newspaper, “have had no contact from the restaurant”.