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Monday, October 02, 2006

Forecasting Stars

In just a few days, one of the biggest events to hit the Bay Area food community in a long time will finally take place.   It comes after a seemingly interminable ten months, a period that has been filled with growing anticipation among local diners, increasing speculation among food world observers, and rising anxiety among Bay Area chefs.   I'm speaking, of course, about the release of the first-ever Michelin Guide San Francisco, Bay Area & Wine Country, scheduled for Wednesday, October 4, 2006.

A Brief History and Background

For the uninitiated, the Michelin Guide is widely considered to be among the most respected sources in the world when it comes to restaurant ratings.   Michelin has published the Guide in one incarnation or another since 1900, although the present practice of using anonymous reviewers to compile objective evaluations using a 3 star scale did not start until 1933.   For the first 105 years of the Guide's existence, Michelin focused on restaurants (and hotels) in Europe, providing no coverage of the United States market.   That changed in February 2005, when Michelin announced that it would be launching its first Guide for North America – covering New York City – later that same year.   For the ensuing nine months, the food world waited eagerly to find out just how well New York's best restaurants would fare when compared against the cream of the crop in Europe.

The Michelin ratings scale is unlike most used by American publications, in that stars are awarded out very sparingly and then, too, only to restaurants that are at least very good.   Thus, while a one-star rating from a U.S. newspaper typically means that the establishment is mediocre or downright bad, a one-star rating from Michelin is an honor worth celebrating.   A three-star rating from Michelin, meanwhile, is a highly-coveted rarity;   only the most exceptional of restaurants – and the most talented of chefs – have any chance of earning this prestigious accolade.   To get an idea of the stringency of Michelin's standards, consider this remarkable fact:   there are about 150,000 total restaurants listed across current Michelin Guides, but only 15,000 (i.e., 0.01 of the total) have any stars at all and a mere 59 (i.e., 0.0004 of the total) have earned three stars.

When the Michelin Guide for New York came out in November 2005, only four restaurants emerged with a three-star rating:   Thomas Keller's Per Se, Alain Ducasse's eponymous restaurant, Eric Ripert's Le Bernardin, and Jean-Georges Vongerichten's Jean Georges.   As you might imagine, food connoisseurs everywhere immediately began analyzing, deconstructing and critiquing the results – not only questioning whether some deserving restaurants had been denied three stars, but also drawing conclusions from the fact that New York ended up with less than half as many three-star restaurants as Paris (which has nine).   It was against this backdrop that Michelin disclosed, to great fanfare on April 5, 2006, the identity of the second U.S. city for which it would be releasing a Guide:   San Francisco.
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There's more...

Looking Forward

When news of the Michelin Guide coming to the Bay Area first broke, it triggered a number of questions in my mind.   Which local restaurants would end up being awarded three stars?   How would these results compare against my own views regarding the Bay Area's top establishments?   How would they measure up against The San Francisco Chronicle's ratings?   Would comparing the total number of three-star awardees in the Bay Area against New York's four yield any useful conclusions?   Would the Michelin Guide shed any light on the age-old question of how well San Francisco's restaurant scene – either at the top-tier or overall – compares with that of New York?   Will the prestige of any of the three-star winners actually increase, or will the Michelin Guide have little impact outside of food-obsessed circles?

The answers to some of these questions will become clear upon the release of the results.   Nevertheless, I thought that I would go ahead and record my thoughts now on how San Francisco's top-tier restaurants may do under the Michelin ratings scheme, to go on record, as it were, before the Guide actually comes out.   Now, I should make clear that – unlike some – I have not yet dined extensively across Europe's three-star establishments to gain a thorough benchmark against which to calibrate our restaurants, nor do I have any special insight into the minds of Michelin's reviewers.   Accordingly, what I offer below is less of an actual forecast of what will happen than an assertion of what I think should happen.

The Standard

One thing to keep in mind about Michelin's ratings is that they evaluate "only what is on the plate."   That is, service, décor, ambience and other intangibles play no role in determining the rating that a restaurant receives, and the food is really the sole concern.   As to how the food itself is assessed, the Michelin reviewers focus on five factors:
  • The Quality of the Products

  • The Mastery of Flavor and Cooking

  • The "Personality" of the Cuisine

  • The Value for the Money

  • The Consistency Between Visits
Michelin also offers the following guidance on how its ultimate star ratings should be interpreted:

Michelin Ratings
*A very good restaurant in its category
**Excellent cooking and worth a detour
***Exceptional cuisine and worth the journey

In short, Michelin three stars justify a special trip in and of themselves, two stars warrant a detour off of an existing route, and one stars are very good restaurants worth trying when you come across them.

The Analysis

So, let's take a look now at how the food served in Bay Area restaurants in, or near, the top-tier measures up against the five criteria that Michelin evaluates.   For the sake of completeness, I will include all of the following restaurants in my discussion:   The French Laundry, The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton, Manresa, Fleur de Lys, La Folie, Chez Panisse, Masa's, Cyrus, Gary Danko, Michael Mina, Aqua, Fifth Floor, Terra, Farallon, and Jardiniere.

Quality of the Products

This is a category in which all of our upper-tier restaurants should do relatively well.   Let's face it, the quality of the ingredients available in Northern California is second to none, and any restaurant interested in securing good products can do so without much difficulty.   That said, there are a few establishments that seem to go above and beyond in sourcing from only the best of the best.   These include Chez Panisse, The French Laundry, The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton, Manresa, Cyrus and Jardiniere.   Although the remaining restaurants all do a fine job with procuring quality items, they do not strike me as standing out from the rest of the pack.

Mastery of Flavor and Cooking

Although Michelin does not state publicly that its five factors are accorded differing weights when combined into an overall rating, I cannot help but suspect that Mastery of Flavor and Cooking is one of the most important considerations.   A few of our local chefs unquestionably score very high in this category, namely Thomas Keller at The French Laundry, Ron Siegel at The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton, and David Kinch at Manresa.   I would submit that Hubert Keller at Fleur de Lys also belongs in the same company, particularly since reopening his restaurant a few years ago with an entirely revamped menu.   And in a development that certainly caught me by surprise, Gregory Short at Masa's is also demonstrating some very impressive skills, putting him very near the others.

I believe the middle of the pack in this category to be populated by several stalwarts of the Bay Area restaurant scene, specifically Roland Passot at La Folie, Hiro Sone at Terra, and Michael Mina at his eponymous restaurant.   I would also include here Douglas Keane at Cyrus and Laurent Manrique at Aqua.   All of these gentlemen frequently demonstrate flashes of brilliance, but they occasionally fall short of what could be called true "mastery" of flavor and cooking.

Finally, there are a number of restaurants that finish somewhere below the overall average.   Note that none of the chefs at the establishments in this last group has a poor command of cooking or flavor concepts;   to the contrary, these individuals are all very talented, offering food that rises well above the vast majority of Bay Area restaurants.   Nevertheless, in the exclusive company being discussed here, the following establishments seem to me to be somewhere below average when it comes to demonstrating true mastery of flavor and cooking:   Chez Panisse, Gary Danko, Farallon, Fifth Floor and Jardiniere.

Although Gary Danko once would have fared quite well in this category, his recent experimentations with using Asian and Indian spices on his menu have frequently met with decidedly mixed results.   I should also explain my inclusion of Chez Panisse in the "below average" group, which I imagine that some readers might question.   To my mind, Chez Panisse has always been about obtaining the best ingredients, and then doing as little as possible to get in the way of letting their true flavors come through.   Indeed, Alice Waters herself has virtually dismissed the role of cooking skill in the ultimate success of a final dish, noting "There's a lot that goes into the creation of a dish, and it begins in the ground . . . Cooking is a very small part of it."   Thus, while Chez Panisse may be quite adept at allowing the flavor of quality ingredients to shine, I would not characterize the restaurant as having exhibited mastery of cooking.

Personality of Cuisine

Several of the restaurants being discussed here serve cuisine with very distinctive personalities, the type that would immediately reveal the provenance of a dish even if it were served "blind" to a diner in a completely neutral setting.   Chez Panisse offers the simplest of preparations, designed to allow pristine ingredients to shine.   The French Laundry provides frequently whimsical concepts executed with impossible precision.   The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton and Manresa both begin with classically grounded techniques, but the former offers the unexpected twist of a Japanese influence while the latter incorporates Catalan and Asian concepts.   Terra fuses Japanese, Californian and European sensibilities into a cohesive whole, while Michael Mina bases an entire menu around the concept of offering multiple presentations of a single ingredient in a single course.   Finally, Fleur de Lys offers French cuisine infused with a pronounced California accent.

Another group serves up cuisine that bears some mark of distinctiveness, but probably not enough to enable a diner to make an immediate association between the food and the pertinent chef.   These include Masa's, Cyrus, La Folie, Gary Danko and Aqua.   And finally, the group at the bottom seems to serve cuisine that – while frequently very good – does not appear to have a particularly well-defined point of view.   I would put Jardiniere, Fifth Floor and Farallon into this category.


Although I have long had my own opinions about which upper-tier restaurants offer the best value, I figured that I would do a bit of investigation here to arrive at a slightly more scientific conclusion.   Specifically, I examined the cost of the chef's tasting menu at each restaurant, determined the number of courses provided, and then adjusted for the quality of the food.

The restaurant that came out on top in this analysis is precisely the one that I would have guessed offers the best value – Manresa.   Others scoring quite high include The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton, Masa's, Cyrus, and Aqua.   The establishments that offer average value, meanwhile, include La Folie, Chez Panisse, Fleur de Lys, Terra, and The French Laundry, while Michael Mina, Gary Danko, Fifth Floor, Farallon and Jardiniere round out the bottom.


As was the case with ingredients, most of the restaurants in the upper tier perform quite well when it comes to consistency across visits.   That said, a few restaurants stand out as unwavering in their ability to hit the same general mark every time:   The French Laundry, The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton, Manresa, Fleur de Lys, La Folie, and Masa's.   The remainder of the establishments are not necessarily inconsistent, but they do not appear to stand apart from the group as a whole.


The above analysis is summarized in the chart below, in which the degree to which each restaurant satisfies the five Michelin criteria is identified as either high (H), medium (M), or low (L).

Evaluation of Upper-Tier Restaurants Against Michelin Criteria For Food
Mastery of
Flavor &
The French LaundryHHHMH
Fleur de LysMHHMH
Chez PanisseHLHMM
The Dining Room
at the Ritz-Carlton
Gary DankoMLMLM
Michael MinaMMHLM
Fifth FloorMLLLM

With that data in mind, here are my thoughts about what could -- or at least should -- happen.   First, The French Laundry -- notwithstanding its comparatively low showing on value -- is virtually guaranteed to earn three stars.   After all, its sister restaurant in New York, Per Se, has already received that honor, and it would be shocking if the original did not perform equally well.   The other two restaurants that I think deserve three star status are The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton and Manresa.   Ron Siegel and David Kinch have both been reaching incredible heights for some time now, and both deserve the highest accolades as far as I am concerned.

Beyond the three restaurants mentioned above, the competition becomes anyone's guess.   Fleur de Lys has a shot at receiving the highest honor, particularly in light of the fact that it's the best "French" restaurant in the top-tier and the reviewers are purported, not surprisingly, to have a European bias.   If the review team finds itself moved by the historical significance of Chez Panisse and the profound influence that it has had, there's at least a possibility that they could be swayed to give that restaurant a nod (although I think, and hope, that this is unlikely).   Finally, although both are real longshots, either Masa's or Cyrus could potentially pull off a surprise victory.   And as the above chart illustrates, the rest of the restaurants simply fall short on too many of the pertinent criteria to be considered serious contenders.

My suspicion is that Michelin will award only three Bay Area restaurants with the top honor, in which case I firmly believe that it ought to be The French Laundry, The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton, and Manresa.   If they do elect to give a fourth restaurant the three star rating, my choice would probably have to be Fleur de Lys, followed by Masa's.   I personally do not think that Chez Panisse or Cyrus deserve the top honor, at least not at this time.

So, there you have it -- my best attempt to prognosticate the unpredictable.   I will post the actual results here as soon as I learn them, so stay tuned!


Anonymous Rory said...

Well, if we're comparing ourselves to NYC, it looks like we got spanked. TFL is the only 3-star. Ratings were just released: http://www.michelinmedia.com/pressSingle/value=MCH2006100231547

October 02, 2006 10:22 AM  
Blogger NS said...

Rory: Very surprising results, and on multiple fronts. I always assumed that there was no chance of Michelin awarding more 3-star ratings in SF than in NY, and I in fact presumed that we would get one less. But receiving only one three-star is both surprising and disappointing.

October 02, 2006 1:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice analysis. I can tell you are a lawyer since I am one too. I agree with your conclusions, notwithstanding the Michelin announcement. Thanks!

October 02, 2006 5:00 PM  
Anonymous Jennifer Jeffrey said...

You are so detailed! I love this!

While I like Gary Danko more than you do, I wholly agree with your analysis of Fleur de Lys. I haven't been to Masa's in a long time, so I'm none the wiser about that, and I agree with you that Chez Panisse, while occupying a valued spot in the culinary elite, isn't necessarily there because of the quality of the cooking.

The stars were really stunning. Sadly so.

October 03, 2006 9:30 AM  
Blogger NS said...

Anonymous: Thanks for the kind words (well, at least to the extent that saying that I write like a lawyer can be deemed to be a compliment!). I don't know what the Michelin reviewers were thinking, but I obviously stand by my analysis. Maybe they will correct their grievous errors next year.

Jennifer: Thanks for your comments! I have no qualms about giving Chez Panisse all the praise in the world for having profoundly changed the culinary landscape, but I don't think that its historical significance should be used to give it a high rating that is otherwise undeserved. Michelin's rating for Chez Panisse is one of the few for which I think they deserve kudos; they, unlike so many others, did not give into the "historical importance" hype.

October 03, 2006 2:49 PM  

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