Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Flat Tire: The Michelin Guide in San Francisco

It's high-time that I weighed in on the Michelin Guide's rankings of Bay Area restaurants. I've been thinking about it for a couple weeks now. Overall, I'm just glad that the guide has expanded here and provided another critical voice. Clearly, they made some errors, both in fact and opinion, and those errors have been well-documented. However, they succeeded in spurring discussion and probably in selling guides as well.

For those that aren't familiar, here's a brief rundown of the Michelin Guide. They try to review/describe every notable restaurant. A very few restaurants get stars, and just getting a single star is a very notable achievement. Two stars is a huge achievement. Three stars is world-class/elite/rare. This star system is the snobbiest of the snobby (in a good way) as shown by how few restaurants are even given stars. Service seems to be valued at a premium, as is French cuisine. I'm told that value plays a factor – I don't see that in practice, but I'll use that criteria to gripe about their rankings in some cases.

For those that haven't seen it, here's a list of who got stars in the Bay Area:

  • 3 stars - French Laundry
  • 2 stars - Aqua, Michael Mina, Manresa, Cyrus
  • 1 star - Chez Panisse, Fleur de Lys, La Folie, the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton, Rubicon, Bushi-Tei, Quince, Range, Acquerello, Masa's, Gary Danko, Boulevard, Fifth Floor, Sushi Ran, Chez TJ, Auberge du Soleil, La Toque, Bouchon, Bistro Jeanty, Terra, Dry Creek Kitchen, Farmhouse Inn & Restaurant, K&L Bistro

So here's my take on it.

I'm not going to offer opinion on French Laundry because I haven't eaten a full meal there, though clearly its reputation precedes it and no one is surprised in got three stars. Given that standard, and the idea that Daniel and others in New York didn't get three stars, I can't credibly argue that any other restaurant should've gotten three stars with French Laundry.

That said, the one place I would've assumed was in that class was Gary Danko. I've eaten at just about every fine Frisco establishment, and Danko rises well above them all in my estimation. Thus, since I can't argue for three stars, I can at least say that its an abomination that they didn't get two stars.

GD approaches both its food and dining experience with a decidedly Californian flair, which is perhaps what did them in for the Michelin audience. If so, this exposes the fundamental flaw of the Guide – that overseas snobs are telling locals what's good for them and encouraging tourists not to fully embrace the local food scene. And I say “snob” in only the most positive way. Anyway, I can't see any scenario where Gary Danko didn't deserve at least two stars, and I could likewise make a strong argument for others as well.

Which brings me to the four restaurants that did get two stars.

Manresa is in San Jose. I don't eat in San Jose at dinner time. I'd sooner take a cab to Palo Alto than eat dinner in San Jose. I'm sure it's wonderful. South Bay people can go ahead and enjoy it and not worry about me taking their reservation.

Cyrus I've heard great things about but haven't been. The locals up in Sonoma County have strong opinions about their local restaurants and are exceedingly tough critics on their own establishments. I know, because I grew up there. Cyrus gets the universal seal of approval from everyone up there. Gourmet did a nice feature on their cocktails this past month (which they don't offer online). Basically, their bartender Scott Beattie does the whole cocktails-as-cuisine thing and is apparently the best around at it. I know other bartenders who know him and consider him the guru. Adding that to an already great restaurant is a nice bonus. I'll be at Cyrus dining sooner than later. (Dry Creek Kitchen, which got one star, does NOT pass the locals' test, by the way)

Michael Mina and Aqua are not nearly as good as most of the restaurants that got one star. Aqua is a straight-up has-been. Mina probably hasn't been inside that kitchen in four years, and the food has definitely slipped since its peak in 2000. He doesn't even list Aqua on his website. The namesake restaurant in the Westin has the feel of a chain, which isn't an odd phenomena at all, since it is a chain. There are now Mina restaurants in Dana Point, Atlantic City, San Jose, and Las Vegas (four of them) and he's all over the food channel. I don't begrudge him for branching out and making a buck, but neither restaurant belongs in this category. Some of the restaurants with one star have true craftsmen (and women) working every day in those kitchens making unbelievable food and creating a wonderful experience, and putting Aqua and MM above them is an insult.

Which restaurants are insulted, you ask? As I mentioned, Gary D was definitely deserving of two stars, as is Fleur de Lys, Masa's and Boulevard. The fact that Chez Panisse didn't get two stars goes directly back to my point about the Guide not understanding the local cuisine. And though I haven't eaten at these places, I hear that the Dining Room at the Ritz, Terra and La Folie should've been given a shot.

Now that I've been sufficiently negative and done my afternoon Frano-phobing, there are a couple things I feel very good about. If you've read me in the past, you know that I love Range, and I'm glad to see they were recognized with a star. Personally, I would've given them two (especially with value as a factor), but that's just me and I understand why others may not. Similarly, K&L Bistro in Sebastopol is an absolute gem, and I'm glad to see them get recognized.

I'm also a bit intrigued that Bushi-Tei got a star. I haven't been there but have walked past them near Japantown numerous times. I've always wondered what the hell it was, and I've never heard people talk about it. Either the Michelin Guide's local consultant knows the place well and used his one “I'm-giving-it-a-star-dammit” card on it, or it's a secret gem. Either way, that's cool and I want to try it.

The only one-star place I have an issue with is Fifth Floor. I think the food is uninventive, the décor is dated, the service is stiff (but professional). Basically, from a food perspective, they take standard ingredients, basic combinations, and then soak it all in butter. I suspect that they got their star simply based on their price point and their reputation, but since value is supposed to be counted, I would've taken them off my list.

So what missed the cut and should've been included? Not much, but here's a short list of places I would've considered:

  • Harris' (no steak on the list, and this is probably the best so it gets a star by default)
  • Isa (the one place off the list I'd say was really robbed)
  • Kokkari (maybe too inconsistent, but can be top-notch)
  • Piperade (truly quality Spanish cuisine)
  • Town Hall (I'm not totally sold, but it's better than many on the list)
  • Slanted Door (slipped from the glory days, but the décor counts for something)