Most of us have strong opinions about the best places we’ve dined in. Particularly New York Jews, who love to tell you about the best — and worst — dishes they’ve been served, and where to go for the ultimate whatever it may be. Steve Plotnicki, who readily admits being vehemently keen to share his views, took this a whole lot further.
Plotnicki started the Opinionated About Dining site in 2007 as an extension of his food blog, which started in 2003. That year, he sent out an e-mail survey to 175 voters, who in turn replied with their picks of the most recommended restaurants in North America and Europe. Plotnicki then compiled these into a downloadable PDF for anyone who signed up for it. This was the start of OAD.
He’d started the modest online forum after selling his hip-hop record label Profile, and doing extremely well from rights sales of the TV series Robot Wars in which he’d invested in 1994 — buying the trademark outright in 1998. Now the forum has become a website and OAD’s “Top100 Restaurant” lists for Europe, US and Japan exert considerable clout in the restaurant world.
Big name chefs vie to cook at his extraordinary annual dinners. Says Spanish chef, Elena Arzak, of Michelin-starred Arzak restaurant: “I love the intimacy of Steve’s dinners. I like being able to plate up and serve the guests from a tray myself and interact with them.”
Simon Rogan of Michelin-starred Lake District restaurant L’Enclume concurs: “It is huge fun to cook so collaboratively at Steve’s dinners and with such a great global mix of chefs whom I have not worked with previously. He invariably chooses challenging themes for the dinners and gives us complete artistic licence.”
The lists are carefully calibrated, taking in opinions from online voters and social media influencers. Most of the 4500 contributors eat out more than 100 times a year. But the real strength of OAD is the way it mixes the views of ordinary punters and industry heavyweights, with more frequent reviewers awarded more influence over the listings.
“It gives greater balance,” says Plotnicki, who sees his lists as benchmarks for chefs to aspire to. “What I love is when I taste something I’ve never experienced before. I like chefs who are breaking boundaries with their techniques and likely to have long lasting culinary influence.”
Over breakfast, at an art deco hotel in Paris the morning after the 2017 OAD awards that crowned Alain Passard’s visionary veg-centric L’Arpège best restaurant and Luigi Taglienti’s Lume in Milan the top newcomer in Europe, Plotnicki is unapologetic that the results of the OAD surveys are wildly different from Michelin and other guides.
Plotnicki, dubbed “king of the blogs” by food writer Jay Rayner, explains: “OAD’s strength lies in its diversity of voices.”
The previous evening, Plotnicki had chosen the theme of “celebrating grandmothers’ cuisine” for the celebrations marking the award announcements. Diners — predominantly OAD voters, many of whom had travelled from Asia — were treated to haute cuisine renditions of dishes ranging from Danish chef Rasmus Kofoed’s stuffed cabbage with horseradish and summer herbs; Japanese style chicken curry from Shinichi Sato of Passage 53 in Paris; and cod with potatoes and vegetables from the gardens of Mauro Colagreco from Mirazur on the French Riveria.
“Grandmas are a big deal in France, almost as big as the concept of booba, so it seemed fitting to me,” says Plotnicki, adding, “all the chefs adored the challenge”. He explains that most of his father’s family died in the Holocaust, so his maternal grandmother loomed large in his life and used to babysit him and make the most amazing blintzes.
Family and a sense of Jewish identity run deep with Plotnicki. He relates a complicated and joyful story of how his curiosity about his maternal grandmother’s origins led him to discover that she originally came not from Austria as he had believed but from the Ukraine. Delving deeper into family history, it eventually emerged that a charming OAD reviewer he’d met during last year’s conference was in fact a long-lost second cousin once removed. “All this came from blintzes,” roars Plotnicki with evident delight. What’s more, he points out, esteemed NYC food writer Joan Nathan says the best blintzes come from the Ukraine.
Plotnicki’s father was a kosher butcher, which ensured the family had regular access to good meat. “I could tell the difference and developed a finely tuned palate early on.”
These days, Plotnicki and his wife Linda travel often, trying the best restaurants worldwide. He likens their gourmet globetrotting to being like other affluent hobbyists following their interest in golf or opera. He insists however that most of his contributors, now numbering more than 5000, are far from multi-millionaires: “We simply prioritise dining as the knowledge we like to accrue!”
So which London restaurants does he rate?
He singles out the Middle Eastern influenced Josh Katz of Berber & Q as a favourite besides Yotam Ottolenghi’s Nopi and Eastern Mediterranean charcoal grill, Peckham Bazaar. “I find the cooking at this level really interesting with such eclectic and exciting flavour combinations that reflect the diversity of London.”
Ever the musician at heart, he says: “What I listen to most is Miles Davis and I want to find that balance between improvisation and organisation in the food I most relish eating. I like to taste creativity and its evolution.”