Eating at Michelin-star restaurants in France: A guide

Don't expect to enjoy yourself in a top restaurant in France. This pinnacle of gourmet dining and great Gallic cultural experience should be tackled at least once in your life, but is honestly something of an endurance test. Wrestle yourself into a suit, subdue yourself as if in church, pretend you know what you're doing, and prepare to be overloaded with salt, sauces and sweetness. Culinary perfection takes work, and not just from the chef.

Bring your dictionary, because the menu will baffle you with words like aiguillette and embrouillade, and you might want to know the difference between girolle and morille mushrooms. Abandon your efforts when it comes to the wine, however. Thousands of tiny French wine estates and a refusal to list grape varieties will leave you bamboozled.

Enter the sommelier, who'll hypnotise you with a suggestion such as Puligny-Montrachet "Corvée des Vignes" Jean-Marc Vincent. Just agree with as much insouciance as you can muster. Don't feel bad. To a French sommelier, everyone is an ignoramus.

Most menus stick slavishly to great 19th-century French gastronomy. Michelin-star restaurants are a bastion of rigid rules and long-held traditions. It's as if the world has seen no food trends, and France has had no colonies or immigrants to influence its cuisine.

True, that's slowly changing – you might find the odd nod to North Africa or Vietnam – but really, you come here for classic dishes that showcase complex cooking techniques, elaborate presentation and good old-fashioned, artery-clogging ingredients. Prepare yourself for things that would be banned at home and come with health warnings in the US, such as undercooked eggs and beef, and unpasteurised cheese.

You'll have a final occasion to demonstrate your dizzying inadequacy when the cheese trolley arrives with Cavelle, Chevrotin, Chabichou and a dozen other cheese you've never heard of. Still, even though you've just ploughed through an eight-course meal of improbable richness (with dessert still to come) you'd best make a selection. After all, as the great gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin once remarked, "A dessert without cheese is like a beautiful woman with only one eye."

What does that mean? Who knows. It doesn't matter, because haute cuisine is a theatre of the absurd, an over-the-top fantasy, an evening of magnificently enjoyable bafflement. Only the French can pull it off with such style, then charge an oligarch's ransom as you depart bemused but content.

See also: The world's 32 best places to eat in 2019

See also: Why our moral outrage over another culture's eating norms is wrong