In recent years, I have tried to sample some of the world’s most highly-rated restaurants while on holiday overseas.
Last month, I had an opportunity to try both of the three-star Michelin restaurants in Barcelona. How could this not be an epic dining experience?
What it showed me, however, was that all three-star Michelin restaurants are by no means equal, and while you can count on three stars commanding a high price, they are not the guarantee of memorable dining.
If it’s simply a great meal you are looking for, you might well be better off visiting a restaurant with one or two fewer stars.
That’s because dining at a three-star Michelin restaurant is not just about masterfully done food. Yes, you can pretty much count on incredible combinations of flavors, textures, aromas and colors, but what renders the dining experience at a three-star restaurant magical – what turns the dishes into edible art – is clever presentation and fantastic service.
The first of my dining outings in Spain was to ABaC, an attractive restaurant set within a boutique hotel in the chic Sarria-sant Gervasi area on the outskirts of Barcelona. ABaC first came to foodies’ attention in 2004 when chef Jordi Cruz earned his first Michelin star at the age of 24. Last year, he became the first Catalan chef awarded a third star by the Michelin inspectors.
But ABaC was not the first Barcelona restaurant to gain three stars. That honor goes to Lasarte, the Catalan outpost of renowned Basque chef Martin Berasategui. Lasarte was awarded a third Michelin star in 2017, joining Berasategui’s eponymous flagship restaurant in his native Basque country, which has held a three-star rating since 2001.
At ABaC, we were escorted to a lovely outside seating area for a drink, and then led into the kitchen for a tour and appetizers. That’s where things got off to a rocky start. While the first appetizers were indeed interesting, it was hard to appreciate the creativity while juggling them standing in the kitchen. The process felt way too rushed – as though the restaurant was in a hurry to get others inside.
We then were ushered into one of the very attractive dining rooms, where over the next 4 hours we sampled 13 dishes and 7 wines.
Some of the dishes were excellent, but when I asked my husband a couple of days ago which of the courses he remembered, the only one that came immediately to mind was the first: ABaC’s Bloody Mary on the rocks – a pale drink from which the blood red of the tomato had been drip filtered out of both the drink and the frozen cube. You would never have guessed it would taste like a great Bloody Mary. Cute.
But despite some innovative dishes and very creative plating, I cannot say that I left ABaC widely impressed – and the biggest problem was the presentation and table service by a very young staff that clearly needs more training.
Our experience was very much the opposite at Lasarte. Arriving with a friend we had unexpectedly encountered in Barcelona (our reservation for two had been made weeks before), the veteran staff warmly welcomed this unaccustomed surprise and quickly rearranged a table for the three of us.
In every way, the next three hours exceeded expectations – the service, the food and the wine. Not only were the wines paired with the Lasarte tasting menu a very good match, but our glasses remarkably were refilled until each succeeding wine was served.
The finely choreographed service – one person described it later as like a “ballet” – may have been the best we’ve encountered in a restaurant anywhere.
Both restaurants were expensive – about $300 a person for the tasting menu combined with the wine pairing.
So what to make of our Barcelona dining experience?
Had we just been picking one three-star restaurant for our visit, we probably would have chosen ABaC – and would have left mildly disappointed. Had we only dined at Lasarte, we still would talking about it (which we are anyway).
The bottom line is that three Michelin stars provides no guarantee that you are going to leave thinking your money was well spent. It’s worth trying to find out more about a restaurant than its number of stars – perhaps by reading the reviews of some experienced diners – before investing in what is certain to be a pricey visit.
I welcome your comments, and encourage you to send feedback to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The reviewer dines anonymously at restaurants at the expense of Vero Beach 32963.