World's 50 Best Restaurants: While We're On the Topic of Food Awards...

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Just a couple hours ago, I was happily typing away, posting about the winners of the 32nd annual IACP food awards that just took place on Friday night in Portland when what should happen but, without my immediately feeling any disturbance in The Force, the entire food world changed dramatically.

How could this happen, you ask? Simple. Today was the day that the S. Pellegrino list of the World's 50 Best Restaurants came out and, after a years-long run of restaurants like El Bulli, the Fat Duck, Alinea and Per Se making up the absolute top of the list (El Bulli has actually led it for the past four years running), this year's top spot went to Noma in Copenhagen--an innovative restaurant to be sure (and one that has scored high in past lists), but most assuredly not one of the avant garde (like El Bulli, Alinea and their ilk). According to the Guardian's restaurant critic Jay Rayner, "if it isn't available in the Nordic region, he [René Redzepi, the 32-year-old chef at Noma] won't cook with it. The result is a very idiosyncratic style of food that speaks to concerns about the way a global food culture turns our eating experiences a uniform beige."

Rayner went on to say, "In some quarters, of course, the decision will be read as a slap in the face for the modernists, especially for El Bulli and the Fat Duck." And that, to me, is where the notion of this being a tectonic shift comes in.

For years, there has been a battle going on between the freaks and the foodies--between those who look at an egg and see something intrinsically perfect and those who look at an egg and just want to start messing with it. Neither impulse is wrong. I actually find myself most often falling into step with those who can't stop tinkering, experimenting and fucking with the essential natures of food and the way we eat it. But for years now, this kind of out-of-the-box culinary thinking has been rewarded by the S. Pellegrino list. It has leaned heavily in the direction of the innovators and the risk-takers, with its "Academy" (the folks who actually pick the restaurants for the list, a body made up of "the world's most celebrated chefs, renowned food critics, leading restaurateurs and well-travelled gourmands" according to the S. Pellegrino 50 Best website) handing off the top spots to the wildest and most cutting-edge chefs currently working. And while this year, El Bulli, Alinea, the Fat Duck, Per Se and Arzak have all made the top 10, that all-important 1st place slot was given to a chef and a restaurant which appears to be much more in the opposite camp--one that concerns itself primarily with locality, seasonality and a highly focused regional vision of cuisine rather than what kind of weird-ass thing it can do with a noodle.

Is this indicative of a total shift back toward restraint and classicism in the tastes of global gourmands? I don't know if I would go that far, considering that Wylie Dufresne's wd-50 made the list this year for the first time ever and St. John (the warm and throbbing center of the nose-to-tail, guts and offal movement) actually dropped 29 spots since last year. But the promotion of Noma may stand as a return to balance at the top of the list (one that some might argue is long overdue), and certainly sends a message that it isn't only an eyedropper, a vacuum sealer and a tank of liquid nitrogen that puts you among the greatest chefs in thew world.

You can check out the entire top 50 for yourself right here. A word of warning, though? Don't blame me if you suffer massive bouts of gastro-lust and crippling jealousy while reading through this list. It kills me that of the 50 top restaurants in the world, I have eaten at precisely two. And it makes me wonder what (other than a trust fund, a sugar daddy or a sudden lottery windfall) it would take for me to become a member of S. Pellegrino's Academy of globetrotting culinary ninjas.

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