I recently went to Madison, WI and following advice received on the Midwest board here, tried L'Etoile, a restaurant touted as "the best in Madison" (and Smokey's, a steak house that was said to be "the best in the Midwest"). Maybe my expectations were too high, but I found L'Etoile fine, very good food with overbearing service (the server was nearly drooling as he painted a picture of the meal, lovingly licking his lips over the elderberry puree) - not PHENOMENOL and worth such raves, and the the steak place was barely adequate. (don't ask about the Chinese place, we've completely given up on good chinese in the midwest, sigh). Later on the Midwest board I posted my opinion and the response was "well, yeah, but it's really good for Madison."
So how do you take places that are rated "the best?" No matter where they are. Do you compare them to places in NY, Chicago, San Fransisco, London, Paris, etc, in their relative price range? To places in the city in question? How do you check your expectations? We ended up having GREAT Himalayan and Afghan food and excellent Brats, and to read in the Madison guides, you'd think there was no good "ethnic" food at all there. Frankly I was mystified.
To compare a restaurant to Chez Panisse, like most reviews of L'Etoile do, for example, implies you've been to Chez Panisse, and theoretically to other restaurants in some great food cities. It was good, but not at that level. But I expected it to be, based on the reviews (both professional and ones on people's web pages).
What's up with that?