The only way to visit Europe’s finest restaurants is by air. The mission: fly to three of Europe’s best restaurants in 24 hours. The gastronauts: me, a 37-year old victim of compulsive flying disorder and pro-am restaurant critic; my wife and a couple of my long-time chums and co-pilots. The plane: a Cirrus SR-22 light aircraft belonging to Freeflight Aviation, fractional ownership club based at Denham, England. Our inspiration: the Michelin Hotel and Restaurant Guide.
The original Michelin Guide was published in 1900 by the tire company as handbook for a handful of intrepid car owners and their chauffeurs. It has evolved into the bible for foodies. The company publishes the famous Red Guide for most countries in Europe and, recently, New York City.
Michelin’s ultimate restaurant accolade, three stars, implies “exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey.” For the top restaurants, the rating may be the result of up to twelve anonymous inspection visits over the course of a year. To put three stars into context, in the UK there are just three restaurants in the top tier, three in Holland and just over two dozen in France.
To eat three super-gourmet meals in short order requires serious training. We decided to get match fit by starting with visits to ‘mere’ one and two-star restaurants. This spring training ran over the course of several months before the big day.
First, we flew to Exeter in Southwest England to visit the New Angel. Overlooking the beautiful Dart Estuary, it uses locally-caught fish to special effect. The small dining room is separated from the kitchen by a sort of bar, making every table a ‘chef’s table.’ Delightful. We wanted to sample some Dutch cuisine so we flew to Amsterdam a couple of times. First to visit La Rive, which overlooks the Amstel river. The view, service, food and décor were excellent. The second visit, to Christophe, was also good but cosier and more informal.
We were nearly at our gastronomic peak so it was time to turn the training up a notch. It was time to visit the French. We spotted two restaurants, both two-stars, which were close to small airfields. The first, Jean Bardet, is in Tours, in the Loire Valley. A five-minute cab ride from the local airport, it was exquisitely French. The dining room looked like a set from Dangerous Liaisons. The soup of langoustine and brill with truffles was astonishing. The most perfectly savory thing I have ever eaten.
The second restaurant, Richard Coustanceau, is found on the beach in La Rochelle, a pretty town on the French Atlantic coast. The fixed-price lunch menu was extraordinary value at €45 each. My tuna tartare starter followed by sea bass and then raspberry desert were all done to perfection. My passengers shared a bottle of Condrieu but I was the designated pilot for the journey home. Tant pis.
Finally after a lot of hard work, we were ready for the big game. Our palates had been intensively trained. My license and instrument rating were current. We selected our targets: Parkheuvel in Rotterdam, Holland for lunch, Guy Savoy in Paris for dinner and after an overnight stay at the George V, back to England for lunch at The Fat Duck in Bray, England. I planned the route and booked the plane.
Then disaster struck. One of Freeflight’s aircraft had a prop strike during a botched takeoff and another had a damaged nose wheel. The other three planes were booked solid. No aircraft! The upside of sharing aircraft in a syndicate is that you share the cost. The downside is that you share the risk. Luckily, I was able to reschedule the trips and rebook the restaurants but the dream of doing it in 24 hours was shattered. In the end, it took three days and three round trips instead.
I fly from a small airfield, Denham, in Northwest London. Because it is sandwiched between Luton and Heathrow airspace, it is always a challenge to gain altitude and join airways quickly. On the day of our trip to Parkheuvel, I was lucky. A friendly controller let me begin the climb within minutes of take off and we quickly reached 8,000 feet over North London. The view over the city was crystal clear. The flight to Rotterdam was over quickly and we taxied up to KLM’s smart private aviation terminal. A taxi was already waiting and we went from the plane to the car in under five minutes.
Unfortunately, the restaurant didn’t live up to the occasion. The food – lobster salad and sea bass for me – was well cooked. The location was charming: a modern building on the strand between a park and the river Maas. But Parkheuvel was badly let down by the service, which was slow and absent-minded. For example, the pre-starters were delivered without the cutlery to eat them and the coffees we ordered never appeared. We may have caught them on an off-day as the place had changed hands a few weeks before our visit. However, if it wants to keep the three stars of a world-class restaurant, the new owner, Erik van Loo, will have to get a grip.
Our second destination, The Fat Duck, was much more successful. The chef, Heston Blumenthal, is famous for his scientific approach to food. The first course of our 15-course tasting menu was a palate cleanser of green tea, vodka and lime meringue ‘cooked’ in liquid nitrogen at the table. Half-meal, half mad-science; the result was like nothing I’ve eaten before. More importantly, it really did clean my palate. The Tattinger vintage champagne suddenly tasted twice as good. His other signature dishes, snail porridge and bacon and egg ice cream, confused and delighted the taste buds in equal measure. We giggled and squealed like children all the way through the four-hour meal. The Fat Duck is a genuinely unique and delightful experience and all for the price of a few hundred Big Macs.
My home base, Denham isn’t the best airfield for visitors to The Fat Duck. The runway is just 2,100 feet long and there is a very steep approach. It’s a heroic, short field performance in a Cirrus but too small for a jet. I would recommend Farnborough instead. It’s got a long runway and a world class FBO.
For our Paris trip, we landed at Le Bourget and the approach took us over Paris within shouting distance of the Eiffel Tour and the Arc de Triomphe. This was as memorable as the Bay Tour I flew in San Francisco in 2002 and the visual approach into Cannes last year. Definitely the way to arrive in Paris. A limousine whisked us from the airport to the restaurant in about twenty minutes
I wasn’t sure that our last destination, Guy Savoy, in Paris could live up to the standard set by The Fat Duck. I couldn’t have been more wrong. It wasn’t better but it was equally good in a different way. Take, for example, the artichoke and black truffle soup with layered brioche with mushrooms and truffles. The joy of it was the best possible ingredients in the best possible combination. It was not the scientific product of molecular gastronomy but the loving result of years of experience. Similarly, desert was a tapas-like succession of sweet things. They kept coming until we could eat no more. The most memorable was a single grape, marinated in coffee and wrapped in chocolate. The size of a Tic Tac, it came on its own teaspoon.
Guy Savoy is opening a new restaurant bearing his name in at Caesar’s Palace Las Vegas. It will be run his by son Franck and with “the same spirit,” as its Parisian cousin. What is this spirit? What is its inspiration? He explains: “The smile is the simplest thing and the most important in our restaurants.” So it is at Guy Savoy and so it is whenever flying and fine dining come together.