Recent events have spurred me into attempting to revive this blog. Mainly because I am convinced that I am all-knowing and therefore it is my responsibility to share my knowledge and wisdom. I am sitting at my desk (that's right, I do actually have a desk, I don't just cry in the kitchen all day - this would be whilst chopping onions, not out of any general despondency and despair....), looking at handwritten notes from various restaurants at which I've eaten over the last year, and I've realised that if only I had actually written them up into articles I would have felt very satisfied when the new Michelin guide came out last week, as my two biggest disappointments of the last year had their stars wrenched from their underseasoned and calloused hands – Maze and Castle Terrace.
I have little I wish to say about my trip to Maze, so I will only summarise my notes – a waste of time, do not go. Castle Terrace merits a closer inspection however as my disappointment with the restaurant highlights so much of what can be wrong with some modern restaurants.
The majority of my meal at Castle Terrace in Edinburgh was pleasing enough, if not spectacular. Worth mentioning at this point was an amuse bouche of spherified Caesar salad- basically a lettuce tasting liquid set in a thin casing - whilst not spectacular, it was certainly interesting and I thought showed a level of understanding in the kitchen at the very least. My mistake. Following a relatively ordinary starter and a slightly disappointing main, came a dessert which sharply took things downhill. What I received was a nicely set custard with a thin, barely crunchy sugar topping that was roughly an off yellow colour. Ok, bear with me and get comfy, I will now explain in painful detail why this is unacceptable, disappointing and quite frankly infuriating.
So my issue with this restaurant falls entirely to a small disc of under-caramelised sugar on top of my dessert. The sugar on top of a crème brulée should be caramelised to a golden brown colour at the very least. A crème brulée. The clue is in the name. Burnt cream.
I feel my anger at this seemingly small mistake, however, is not misplaced, for I think what it shows very clearly is a fundamental lack of understanding and thought. The custard in a crème brulée is basically double cream and sugar set with eggs - understandably rich. The idea of a crunchy sugar topping is twofold. First, it is to provide a textural contrast to the smooth custard; second, and in my opinion more importantly, it is to provide a taste contrast to cut through the richness of the custard. This achieved by burning the sugar to the point that you bring out its bitter notes. If you fail to colour and crisp the sugar properly, all you are doing is putting a sweet, soft topping on a sweet, soft dessert.
If the custard underneath had split or the sugar been burnt black, certainly the dessert would have been ruined to a far greater degree, but it could be put down to cooking error. Failing to properly colour the sugar, however, means that the chef was never aiming to colour the sugar 'properly'. A restaurant that is spending time spherifying Caesar salads but does not understand the thought process behind a crème brulée should not have a star. I do not consider myself a classical cooking evangelist, but I do believe that if you trying to operate a high end kitchen in an incredibly competitve market place, you should be able to demonstrate a reasonable degree of understanding of how flavours and textures will interact on the diner's plate.
Phew, I have been sitting on that complaint since August 2014. I feel relieved to get it off my chest.
There is of course another explanation, which is that whoever was cooking my crème brulée that day simply couldn't be bothered to do it properly. But given the optimistic, glass half full, always sees the best in people, kind of guy that I am, I would rather put it down to an entire kitchen's misunderstanding of basic flavour and texture combinations.
And to summarise, don't go to Maze.
Michelin, I'm ready for a job now.