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Thursday, September 08, 2005

Initial Thoughts Regarding The Chronicle's Four-Star Ratings

The San Francisco Chronicle's lead food critic, Michael Bauer, recently announced the seven establishments that came out with a 4-star rating in his periodic review of the Bay Area's best restaurants.   So, what can be said about the results?   Well, before even turning to the particulars, one preliminary point worth noting is the limiting nature of a 4-star system of the type used by The Chronicle.   As I have previously suggested, a 4-star system tends to compress a number of restaurants of disparate quality into the same rating, because there simply aren't enough discrete levels to properly reflect the full range of establishments.   The implication for present purposes is that two restaurants may both deserve a 4-star rating, even though one is noticeably better than the other.   With that in mind, here are some of my initial thoughts:
The French Laundry:
At A Glance
ChefThomas Keller
Address6640 Washington St.
Yountville, CA 94599
Restaurant Website

The French Laundry:   Although I have written here about my concerns that the restaurant is slipping from where it once stood, there is no question that The French Laundry remains one of the Bay Area's best dining establishments.   The food is excellent, the presentations are amazingly artistic, and the wine country setting is simply beautiful.   On a 4-star scale that measures only qualitative performance, the restaurant clearly deserves 4 stars.   Yet, I feel compelled to note that if value is also considered, The French Laundry does not fare nearly as well.   At $175 per person, Thomas Keller is charging substantially more than his competitors, but without providing a concomitantly more satisfying experience.   Put it this way:   if I were asked to choose between one dinner at The French Laundry or – for $20 more – two dinners at Manresa, my answer would be clear.

Fleur de Lys:
At A Glance
ChefHubert Keller
Address777 Sutter St.
San Francisco, CA 94109
Restaurant Website
Fleur de Lys:   Hubert Keller is a very talented chef who serves excellent French cuisine in one of the Bay Area’s most beautiful dining rooms.   A fire in the restaurant a few years ago forced a renovation of the physical premises, and Keller took that opportunity to completely retool his menu as well.   While Keller’s dishes are intrinsically satisfying, his cuisine is not as meticulously constructed or presented as that of Thomas Keller or Ron Siegel.   Moreover, the service at Fleur de Lys is sometimes less than professional or out of sync with the quality of the food, lagging significantly behind that found at establishments such as The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton.   Thus, while Fleur de Lys deserves the top score on a 4-star scale, it probably trails behind some of the other 4-star restaurants.
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There's more...
La Folie:
At A Glance
ChefRoland Passot
Address2316 Polk St.
San Francisco, CA 94109
Restaurant Website

La Folie:   Although the analogy is far from perfect, I have often thought of La Folie as a more casual version of Fleur de Lys.   Roland Passot has long done an outstanding job of marrying French cuisine with California ingredients, producing a menu that – in my opinion – is on par with Hubert Keller's.   Until just recently, however, Passot presented his food in a setting that felt more like a nice neighborhood spot than a 4-star establishment, due in part to a whimsical jester/clown motif that permeated the dining room.   And while that was redressed by a recent renovation that resulted in a significantly more elegant décor, La Folie’s service can often times be quite casual and unpolished – even more so than at Fleur de Lys.   Thus, like Fleur de Lys, La Folie deserves its 4-star rating, but it falls in the lower half of the top-tier.

Chez Panisse:
At A Glance
ChefAlice Waters
Address1517 Shattuck Ave.
Berkeley, CA 94709
Restaurant Website
Chez Panisse:   I tend to take Michael Bauer's reviews of Chez Panisse with a large grain of salt, ever since I read an article in San Francisco Magazine a few years ago suggesting that Bauer's close friendship with Alice Waters has compromised his ability to evaluate the restaurant objectively.   So, putting aside all sentimentality arising out of the historical significance of the restaurant, does Chez Panisse really deserve a spot on Bauer's list?   My own experience does not permit me to answer in the affirmative, as the breadth, depth and consistency of the menu do not – in my view – compare favorably with the menus of other top-tier establishments.   Yet, I also feel that it would be unfair for me to opine that Chez Panisse definitively does not deserve a 4-star rating – at least not until I have had a greater number of more recent experiences at the restaurant.   So, for now, I will remain agnostic.   I should, however, point out that although Bauer ultimately puts the restaurant on his list, even he appears to have some question about whether it really belongs there, noting "[e]ach time I survey the four-star restaurants, I feel that I need to justify why Chez Panisse should be among them."

The Dining Room at The Ritz-Carlton:
At A Glance
ChefRon Siegel
Address600 Stockton St.
San Francisco, CA 94108
Restaurant Website

The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton:   Anybody who has read my review of this restaurant will probably be able to predict my reaction to its induction into the 4-star ranks.   To put it simply, this is a well-deserved honor for both The Dining Room and Ron Siegel.   Bauer actually gave Siegel a 4-star rating once before, back in 2000 when Siegel was in charge of the kitchen at Charles Nob Hill.   When Siegel moved to Masa's a few months later, Bauer awarded him 3.5 stars - and that rating remained in place right up through the time that Siegel left the restaurant in 2004.   Bauer's unwillingness to grant 4 stars to Masa's was seemingly based not on the food, but rather on criticisms he had regarding table utensils and the location of the restroom.   Given that the restroom was in the same spot when Bauer gave an earlier Masa's chef (Julian Serrano) 4 stars – and considering that Siegel himself had previously earned 4 stars from Bauer – this 3.5-star conclusion seemed arbitrary.   Siegel was unhappy and spoke out, ultimately being quoted in the above-mentioned San Francisco Magazine article about Bauer.   I have wondered ever since whether Bauer would forever relegate Siegel to 3.5-star status, so I was pleased to see that this was not the case.   Siegel becomes only the second chef in the Bay Area to attain 4 stars from Bauer at two different restaurants, the first being George Morrone.

At A Glance
ChefDavid Kinch
Address320 Village Lane
Los Gatos, CA 95030
Restaurant Website
Manresa:   In many ways, this Los Gatos restaurant stands apart from the other establishments on Bauer's list.   Where some strive for formal opulence, Manresa goes for casual elegance.   While other chefs focus exclusively on constructing elaborate dishes with a myriad of ingredients, David Kinch is equally proficient at using fewer components to yield results that are just as outstanding.   And though all of the chefs acknowledge the influence of French cooking, only Kinch brings a Catalan influence to the table as well.   Whether it's in spite of these differences or because of them, there can be no doubt that Manresa deserves a place on Bauer's list, as Kinch is consistently turning out some of the most innovative and spectacular food in the region.   What's more, he is doing so at relatively affordable prices;   his 10-course tasting menu – typically preceded by as many as five amuse bouche selections – comes in at $98 per person.   The service at Manresa occasionally falls short of that offered elsewhere, and it seems incongruous with the quality of Kinch's creations.   Nevertheless, the restaurant clearly belongs on any list of the Bay Area's best.

Campton Place:
At A Glance
ChefDaniel Humm
Address340 Stockton St.
San Francisco, CA 94108
Restaurant Website

Campton Place:   Daniel Humm took the helm at Campton Place in 2003, and the string of accolades he has received ever since is remarkable.   Bauer awarded Humm 3.5 stars four months after he started, describing the chef as both "a miracle worker" and a "shoo-in" for an eventual 4-star rating.   The San Francisco Chronicle identified Humm as a 2004 Rising Star Chef, The James Beard Foundation nominated him for Rising Star Chef of the Year in 2004 and 2005, and Food & Wine Magazine named him one of its 10 Best New Chefs for 2005.   Humm's bold, innovative and excellent cuisine is served in an elegant room by a waitstaff that is professional, making the restaurant's promotion to 4 stars entirely logical.   Still, I will withhold further comment about Campton Place's new rating until after I have had a greater number of more recent meals there.   One final note – at 28, Humm is the youngest of Bauer's 4-star chefs, a full 11 years junior to the second youngest (Siegel).

So, there are my preliminary thoughts regarding Bauer's 2005 list of 4-star restaurants in the Bay Area.   While I have already reviewed two of the seven on this site, look for reviews on the remaining five in the coming months.


Blogger Joy said...

NS, the Chronicle's policy, I believe, is to only award up to 3.5 stars when a new chef has been at a restaurant for less than a year. When the restaurant is a year old, or the new chef has been in place for a year, they then become eligible for 4 stars. Weird, I know, but perhaps that's why the Masa's review (and Campton Place, too) was as it was at the time.

Now I REALLY have to go to the Dining Room!

September 09, 2005 6:41 AM  
Blogger NS said...

Joy: You are absolutely correct, and thank you for pointing out what I did not make clear in the text of this post. If I'm not mistaken, I believe that Siegel's beef was not necessarily with the initial 3.5-star rating that Bauer gave him, but rather with the fact that this rating remained in place all the way up through the time that Siegel left Masa's in 2004. The post above was unclear and probably even somewhat misleading on this point, so I have edited it accordingly. Thanks very much for drawing my attention to this - I appreciate it!

Regarding Campton Place, what I find interesting is that Bauer absolutely raved about Humm in his first review in August 2003 - even going so far as to point out that he was precluded from awarding 4 stars under the Chronicle's policy, and then predicting a 4-star rating down the road. Yet, Bauer did not get around to revisiting and reevaluating the restaurant until September 2005 - more than a year after it first became eligible for a 4-star rating. Maybe it's just me, but if I were a professional food critic and I believed that a new restaurant/chef deserves 4 stars - and especially if I published that belief - I would make every effort to revisit the restaurant at the earliest possible date, so that I could grant the 4th star. Instead, Bauer seemingly kept Chef Humm waiting on pins and needles for an entire year!

September 09, 2005 8:51 AM  

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