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Sunday, October 29, 2006

"Inside the Kitchen" At The Ritz: Four Star Grand Cru Wine Dinner

Last night was the marquee event at the "Inside the Kitchen" weekend, a Grand Cru Wine Dinner featuring a menu designed and prepared by four of the Bay Area's four-star chefs:   Ron Siegel from The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton, David Kinch from Manresa, Hubert Keller from Fleur de Lys, and Roland Passot from La Folie.   In my last several posts, I suggested that this dinner held the promise, at least, to be the event of the season.   I can now say with certainty that this was the event of the year, a spectacular evening with outstanding food, great company, and an opportunity to interact directly with some of our most talented chefs.   I cannot possibly do justice to the evening by trying to describe it in the limited time I have before heading out to attend today's activities, but I will try to give you at least a small flavor through a few pictures and quick summaries.   I will then post more fully about the dinner in a later post.

Shortly after our cooking class with Frederic Robert ended, Amy and I were given an opportunity to go "behind the scenes" to witness the preparations already underway for the evening's elaborate affair.   As we were about to head into the inner sanctum of the hotel's kitchens, we heard some conversation emanating from the room that would later serve as our dining area.   Our guide peaked into the room and then summoned us to follow her.   There before us stood the entire wait staff for the evening, the four four-star chefs, the entire cast of supporting chefs, and Xavier Salomon -- Executive Chef for the resort and the mastermind who served to orchestrate and coordinate the culinary aspects of the evening.   We watched Chef Salomon describe the courses to the servers, explain to them which four-star chef was behind each, and provide other details regarding food and wine service for the night.   I have to confess that I found the scene to be rather awe-inspiring, these four chefs who have individually provided me with some of the best dining experiences of my life standing there together talking about the menu on which they had collaborated.

A few hours later, the pre-dinner reception began in a narrow hallway just outside the dining room.   There, three hors d'oeuvres stations served up tasty appetizers as a jazz trio played in the background.   Remarkably, all of the four-star chefs came out and mingled in the crowd, chatting casually with a comfort that seemed remarkable in light of the six-course meal that they would be preparing and serving to 72 guests just a few minutes later.   As the doors to the large ballroom opened from time to time, we were able to catch a glimpse of the extra cooking area that had been set up inside, as well as the long tables on which the cheese and mignardise plates would later be assembled.

Once the meal itself began, the area in which the reception was held was converted into a staging area -- with a long table manned on either side by significant number of chefs, each taking a prepared ingredient or two from the center of the table and adding it to the plate before passing it down the line.   All four of the featured chefs were on this line, stirring pots, adding garnishes as needed, and saucing plates.   This was, again, a remarkable sight -- not only for the precision that was brought to bear on the completion of each plate, but also because it afforded a rare opportunity to watch the four star chefs in action.   (I would later ask Ron Siegel how long it had been since he last stood over a pot stirring a sauce on the line, and his response was that it had been a very long time!)

After six wonderful courses (more on that later), the meal came to a close.   Each of the chefs then came through the dining room and stopped at each table, giving us yet another opportunity to chat with them about the wonderful meal.   All in all, this was a spectacular evening -- worth every penny of the price of admission!

Note: For purposes of full disclosure, I attended certain events during the "Inside the Kitchen" weekend on a media pass that gave me free access.   With regard to the dinner referenced above, however, I paid full price for my ticket using my own funds.   Please see the end of this post for additional details.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

"Inside the Kitchen" At The Ritz: Cooking & Wine Classes

As I mentioned in my last post, I'm at The Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay this weekend to attend the second annual food and wine event known as "Inside the Kitchen."   On a sunny and absolutely gorgeous morning here in the Bay Area, I loaded up my car and took the leisurely drive down Highway 1 -- anxious to get started on the ambitious schedule of cooking and wine classes for which I had signed up.   I would be attending three back-to-back sessions spanning from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., followed by a one hour break and then another class from 3:00 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.   A full load, to be sure, but when the topics are haute French cuisine, wine tasting and pairing, and pastry techniques and the instructors are renowned chefs and master sommeliers, I certainly would not mind!

This is my first time at the "Inside the Kitchen" weekend, so I'll begin by sharing some general impressions.   For anybody who appreciates good food, follows the local dining scene, and/or enjoys cooking, the atmosphere here is bordering on electric.   After sitting down in the hotel lobby for a moment to organize my papers, I looked up and saw Laurent Manrique from Aqua -- clad in t-shirt and shorts -- standing in front of me and casually chatting to some long-lost acquaintance.   A bit later, I looked across a room and saw Fleur de Lys' Hubert Keller ambling about, followed by Rubicon Estate's Larry Stone.   As I entered the conference room wing that the resort has converted into classrooms, various chefs in their crisp whites scurrying about me, I was reminded of just how much I appreciate the well-developed food culture that we enjoy here in the Bay Area.   I also found myself wondering why no other event like this existed in the Bay Area before the Ritz started it last year, and thinking about how having an event like this makes all the sense in the world.
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There's more...
When I walked into the first class of the day, Haute French Cuisine with Damien Dulas of Restaurant Guy Savoy, I was impressed with the setup.   An ordinary conference room that likely hosts dry corporate meetings the rest of the year had been outfitted with a full panoply of portable Viking kitchen appliances.   An oven and microwave combination was housed in a large unit on wheels, a conventional refrigerator was positioned behind the instructor, and a six-burner range -- with a work table beside it -- sat front and center in the room.   A camera had been mounted on the ceiling directly above the range, and a large plasma television screen broadcast the proceedings to the audience in the room.   The class with Chef Dulas had about 25 attendees, with a gender imbalance -- 22 women and only 3 men -- that struck me as surprising.   Chef Dulas prepared two dishes in front of us:   Colors of Caviar (an appetizer consisting of caviar, sherry vinaigrette, cream, bean puree, and sabayon) and Crispy Sea Bass with Delicate Spices (a filet of flaky fish with a spice-filled crust).   As Chef Dulas' demonstration for each dish ended, the wait staff filed into the room with a generously portioned sample for each of us to enjoy.   Both dishes were tasty, and Chef Dulas' instruction provided some interesting and useful ideas and techniques.

Next up was Wine 101 With The Masters, a session devoted to wine tasting and the exploration of how certain wines do, or do not, work with certain foods and flavors.   Three tables were set up around the perimeter of a large room, each staffed by two Master Sommeliers.   Larry Stone and Brian Cronin were at one table discussing the pairing of wine with food, Richard Betts and William Sherer stood at a second table highlighting the difference between new world and old world reds, and Robert Bath and Luis de Santos manned the third table and guided us through a number of white wines.   This was one of the most informative sessions of the day, so packed with great information that I found myself wishing I had another hand to take detailed notes as I was tasting.

The third class I attended was Mixing It Up With Bruno Davaillon, taught by the Executive Chef of Alain Ducasse's Las Vegas restaurant Mix.   I unfortunately joined this class late because I lingered a bit too long at the Wine 101 session that preceded it, but I did get to watch Chef Davaillon prepare a fantastic Baked Cod with Grenobloise Sauce in a conference room that showcased the Pacific Ocean over his shoulder.   Samples were once again provided, and the flavors in the dish were absolutely wonderful.   The dish prepared and served before I arrived was a Spicy Crab Salad, Cucumber, Mango & Green Papaya -- which, from the recipe at least, sounds quite good.

I wrapped up the afternoon fittingly with dessert, attending Pastry with Frederic Robert.   Chef Robert, the Executive Pastry Chef at the Wynn Las Vegas Resort, demonstrated the preparation of three desserts:   Fried Chocolate Bombolones, Roasted Pineapple with Pineapple Sorbet and Green Apple, and Citrus Ravioli with Fresh Passionfruit and Lemongrass Juice.   The Roasted Pineapple was my favorite by far, but the other two were also tasty -- and the instruction once again provided some useful techniques and tips.   A particularly nice touch here was that Chef Robert handed out copies of the pertinent recipes from his cookbook.

I have more to say about the classes, but that will have to wait for a later post.   Right now, I'm running late for what promises to be the highlight of the weekend -- a six-course Grand Cru Wine Dinner prepared by four of the Bay Area's best chefs:   Ron Siegel, David Kinch, Hubert Keller, and Roland Passot.   Stay tuned for more posts from "Inside the Kitchen" throughout the weekend, and be sure to check out the play by play commentary of my good friend, outstanding food blogger, and fellow "Inside the Kitchen" attendee Amy from Cooking With Amy!

Note: For purposes of full disclosure, I attended the various classes referenced above on a media pass that gave me free access.   Please see the end of this post for additional details.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Second Annual "Inside the Kitchen" at the Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay

This coming weekend, the Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay will once again be hosting its three-day food and wine extravaganza known as "Inside the Kitchen."   Like last year, the event will consist of several lectures, demonstrations and meals spread out from Friday to Sunday, with a number of prominent chefs and sommeliers taking part.   Unlike the last time, however, the resort is not requiring those who wish to attend the headlining dinners on Friday and Saturday to stay at the hotel overnight -- a welcome change to a policy that probably discouraged several people from attending last year.   Ten percent of all ticket proceeds will be donated to Meals on Wheels of San Francisco, Inc.   This, too, represents a change from 2005, when the resort donated a portion of the proceeds from only one of the events (i.e., the Opening Night Dinner) to the same charity.

The absolute highlight of the weekend, if not the entire year, has to be the Four Star Grand Cru Wine Dinner to be held on Saturday, October 28.   Now, it's no secret how much I enjoy fine dining, and even a casual review of this site quickly reveals the high esteem in which I hold the Bay Area's four-star chefs.   Indeed, I've even planned an entire dinner party around their cuisines, putting together a multi-course tasting menu with contributions and inspiration from them all.   So, you can imagine my excitement upon learning that the menu for the Grand Cru Wine Dinner at this year's "Inside the Kitchen" will be a collaborative effort by four of our four-star chefs:   Ron Siegel from The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton, David Kinch from Manresa, Hubert Keller from Fleur de Lys, and Roland Passot from La Folie.   To put it simply, this is an all-star event like no other -- a rare opportunity to see four accomplished chefs, each at the pinnacle of his career, working together to combine their cuisines into a single cohesive menu.   Add in wine pairings consisting of Grand Crus from Burgundy and first growth wines from Bordeaux, and you can see why I view this dinner as the event of the season.

The per person cost for the Four Star Grand Cru Wine Dinner is $300 (inclusive of wine pairing, tax, and gratuity).   While this is certainly a significant amount by any standard, a closer inspection suggests that the price is not really out of line from what one might expect to pay at a four-star restaurant.   To begin with, $30 from the total price (i.e., 10%) goes straight to the charity, so it really ought not to be considered in evaluating the cost of the meal.   From the remaining $270, we can subtract out amounts for tax (8.25%) and gratuity (20%) to arrive at an effective cost of the food and wine, which comes out to approximately $210.   Couple a tasting menu and an average wine pairing at a typical four-star restaurant, and you can easily find yourself paying $190 before tax and tip.   Given that this dinner will include Grand Cru and first growth wines and four outstanding chefs in the kitchen, $210 per person strikes me as a relatively fair price -- at least in the grand scheme of things.
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There's more...
There are several other events during the "Inside the Kitchen" weekend as well, such as the Opening Night Gala featuring six Las Vegas chefs (including Julian Serrano, Bradley Ogden, and Sylvain Portay) and five Master Sommeliers (including Larry Stone).   A variety of cooking classes are offered during the daytime on both Saturday and Sunday, including sessions taught by Elizabeth Falkner, Laurent Manrique, Gerald Hirigoyen, Bradley Ogden, Damien Dulas, Bruno Davaillon, Frederic Robert, Laurent Pillard, Kent Torrey, and Norman Love.   And the five wine classes offered on Saturday afternoon are all led by one or more Master Sommeliers.   Each of the food and wine classes lasts from 1 to 1.5 hours and costs $100 per person.

Like last year, the weekend will close on Sunday with the Chef's Challenge and Grand Tasting ($100 per person).   The first portion of this is an Iron Chef-type competition, in which two teams of chefs will have one hour to prepare a three-course meal using a secret ingredient.   This year's theme is a "battle of the sexes," with Melissa Perello from Fifth Floor and Elizabeth Falkner from Citizen Cake going up against Laurent Manrique from Aqua and Gerald Hirigoyen from Piperade.   The competition will be hosted by Liam Mayclem and judged by "experts" who have not yet been named.   Immediately afterward, guests will get to sample tastings from a wide variety of Bay Area restaurants, wineries, and purveyors.

I want to add a few words here directed toward providing full disclosure.   When I first read the details about this year's "Inside the Kitchen" weekend, there was one event -- the Four Star Grand Cru Wine Dinner -- that jumped off the page and caught my attention.   Accordingly, after checking with some friends, I took out my credit card and immediately purchased four tickets.   Nothing in that transaction indicated my affiliation with this blog.   A few days later, a publicist from the Ritz-Carlton coincidentally sent a message to my blog email account asking if I might be interested in "covering" the weekend's festivities.   If so, I was told, I was welcome to submit an application for a "media pass" that would give me free access to up to five of the weekend's events.   After a bit of investigation, I determined that this is the same application procedure that must be followed by those in the traditional media who want to report on the weekend, and the pass that I would receive (if approved) would be identical in every respect to that given to other media outlets.

After giving it considerable thought, I decided to go ahead and submit an application -- under the rationale that a pass would enable me to attend and report back on more events than I would otherwise be able to if I had to pay for everything out of my own pocket.   At the same time, I could not deny the possibility of my objectivity being compromised by the free access, even if only unconsciously or subtly.   For that reason, I decided that I would have to provide full disclosure of the circumstances in all of my postings about the weekend, so that readers could decide for themselves whether my evaluations and comments ought to be discounted in some fashion.   Now, I want to make perfectly clear that I have every intention of observing the events I attend with a critical eye and describing them here accurately and objectively -- just as I would if I were paying for everything out of my own bank account.   But because I want to ensure complete transparency when it comes to anything that may bear upon my credibility as a reviewer, I wanted to disclose all of the salient facts right up front.

As of this posting, I am planning to use a media pass to attend four cooking/wine classes on Saturday (valued at $100 each) and the Chef's Challenge and Grand Tasting on Sunday (also valued at $100).   The resort may also be providing me with a complimentary room on Sunday night, to enable me to attend and write about Sunday's activities without having to worry about driving home late that evening.   On the other hand, I am paying out of my own pocket to attend the Four Star Grand Cru Wine Dinner on Saturday, and I am also using my own funds to cover the cost of a hotel room on Saturday night (at a slightly discounted "media rate").   So, take from all of that what you will.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Michelin Guide Results Announced

The results from the first ever Michelin Guide for San Francisco, Bay Area & Wine Country have been publicly announced, and here they are:

Michelin 2007 Ratings for San Francisco, Bay Area & Wine Country
Three StarThe French Laundry
Two StarAqua
Michael Mina
One StarFleur De Lys
La Folie
Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton
Gary Danko
Fifth Floor
Chez Panisse
Sushi Ran
Chez TJ
Auberge du Soleil
Bistro Jeanty
La Toque
Dry Creek Kitchen
Farmhouse Inn & Restaurant
K&L Bistro

As you might guess if you read my post from late last night, several of these ratings strike me as completely inexplicable, wholly unjustified and/or plainly wrong.   First, the fact that only one restaurant in the entire Bay Area earned a three star rating is disappointing, to say the least.   Perhaps this makes perfect sense when comparing our restaurants against Europe's three stars, but I will never be convinced that New York's four three star restaurants find no comparable peers here in the Bay Area other than The French Laundry.   Likewise, I do not agree that The French Laundry is so far ahead of its nearest competitors here in the Bay Area, that it alone deserves to occupy the top category.   Second, to put Michael Mina and especially Aqua in the two star category while pushing The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton, Fleur de Lys and Masa's down to one star is, to put it bluntly, patently absurd.   So much so, in fact, that I think the credibility of the Guide itself is now seriously called into question;   no other serious critic has ever suggested, to my knowledge, that Aqua and Michael Mina are presently soaring high above these Michelin one star awardees, and there's a very good reason for that.

At any rate, these are just a few of my preliminary reactions -- I'm quite certain that I'll have more to say as the week unfolds.   For now, I will simply offer my congratulations to all of the winners in all three of the categories.

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!