Messing With The Michelin Man

I was trying to avoid commenting on the Michelin flap in San Francisco, where stars were recently bestowed on a precious few restaurants there. Since I no longer live in San Francisco, I can’t really comment on their recommendation (except for Manresa, which I did manage to eat at, and was excellent, stars or no stars.)

I’ve eaten at several two- and three-star restaurants here in Paris, and while they’re always interesting, frankly, I’m much happier eating in a neighborhood bistro or wine bar. The food is generally good, and I don’t have to analyze how the chef managed to dry an oyster into a crispy sheet, pulverize it into a powder, then re-liquidifed it with some chemical and form it into a gel to slide up my nose.

(Or since this is France, maybe slide it elsewhere.)

I never really could put my finger on why I felt uncomfortable in those kinds of places, but then read a terrific essay by Charles Shere, which pretty much summarized how I feel: Most of these places aren’t really places for eating, but are showcases for culinary techniques and artistry.
And I like to eat.

So I decided to add my deux centimes worth.
I don’t care much for guidebooks to begin with, since eating a meal, to me, is about sitting with friends, enjoying good food, and having a nice glass of wine or two. Just because some “expert” says that a place is “worthy of a visit” doesn’t really mean much to me. Take Manresa, for example. Normally, I’m the last person to go to a fancy restaurant like that. And if a guidebook told me I had to go there, I most likely wouldn’t. But I had met the chef, David Kinch, and really liked him a lot, and the way he talked about food was not reverential or pretentious, but calm and sensible. He had a great spirit and humor about what he does and I really anticipated eating his food.
Then I went, and had a truly outstanding meal. I was blown away.

I worked at Chez Panisse for many years, widely considered one of the top restaurants in America, which was given one-star. It’s known for simple, honest fare, prepared rather sparsely. Alice always encouraged us to take things off the plate, rather than adding thing onto the plate, which a great lesson; what’s on the plate really has to shine and at Chez Panisse, the quality of the ingredients are supposed to be the star. The food at Manresa (two-stars), while more complex, was designed to highlight the ingredient, not obliterate it, which was why I enjoyed the food so much. Both places are so different; comparing them would do neither one justice.

And I can’t help recalling a meal I had at Arpege (three-stars), here in Paris a few years back. It’s was alarmingly expensive (my bowl of Tomato Soup was 55€, or $70) and frankly, not the transcendental experience I’d read about. I don’t remember much else I had, except for the Burnt Eggplant Puree, which is what they called actually it (which unfortunately, it was). But spending that kind of money, it’s difficult for me to enjoy the experience anyways. And I was with a very-seasoned New York diner, a cookbook editor, who’s used to expensive restaurants and she was shocked too. But price aside, the experience was rather empty to me. In addition, the dining room was hideously ugly, reminiscent of a business-class airport lounge. I just didn’t get it.

Then Michael Bauer of the San Francisco Chronicle chimed in, noting some curious errors in the new guide. While mistakes do happen (with the notable exception of on this blog), guidebooks go through many editors and revisions, and some of the errors were not just sloppy, but really makes one suspicious of the quality and thoroughness of the research they did. I assume they have teams of people working on those guides, followed up by copyeditors and fact-checkers.

There is some talk of a ‘French bias’ against American restaurants, and I can’t tell you how many French people have said to me, “Don’t all Americans eat at McDonald’s?”
To which I reply, “Don’t all French people pick their nose on the métro?”

There is a misconception that American food is bad. But one visit to the Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market in San Francisco would blow most of the greenmarkets away anywhere else in the world. There is some great food here in France, but the food in the Bay Area is extraordinary as well. I don’t compare the two and neither should anyone else. They’re 6000 miles (or 9656.064 kilometers) apart.

I tend to think this is a clever marketing ploy by the Michelin man, designed to twist everyone’s culottes in a knot, and get people talking about the guide (like I’m doing here). Maybe it’s just a case of sour grapes. Or it could just be a bias against American food. I don’t know. And frankly, I don’t care.

As for me, I’m looking forward to returning to the Bay Area next June for a visit. While I’ll miss my morning pain aux cerials from the bakery next door, the sublime chocolate macarons from Ladurée I treat myself to every week, and the delicious grilled sardines dusted with fleur de sel with charred skin and buttery, soft interior that I had for lunch sunday at Chez Paul…I’ll be enjoying those stupendous short ribs at Delfina, tender slices of abalone in nutty brown butter at Manresa, a few icy Cosmopolitans with perfect Caesar salad sitting in the window at Zuni, and a scoop of pan forte ice cream at Ici.

And, of course, whatever Brett’s making at Olallie…starred or not.

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Whining

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20 comments

  • PRECISELY!!!!

  • hey David,
    Thanks first for the plug, hoped you liked the interview, a little hack and chop job, must of been the skype!
    I think this whole food scene is sort of overboard and like most things that become important/or self important were just admired by a few people and like any fad they become “the star!” I am in accord with you regarding the whole guide thing, most of the time while I visited Paris;August is notoriously an awful time, I happend on the local places and just picked it blindly and bit the bullet and went in!As far as food in America and food in France, well we are not going to make comparisons, taste is individual and you aren’t analyzing your eating, and food was meant to be enjoyed as you said! I used to fall starry eyed into the grasp of the starred kitchens and marvel at the flash in the pan, but who wants to see the ballet of waiters with giant cloches and the whole ritual of changing the service or just being totally uncomfortable in tie and jacket?

    Enough of me whining, this is your show and we love it!

    Jeremy

  • the best meal …….a warm loaf …….a dark chocolate …. a great friend.

  • Great to see you keeping up with the SF Bay Area! You’re right — this has caused plenty of bruhaha. Hard to argue with the places that got stars, but yes, there do seem to be some discrepencies. Whatever… locals know where to go. ;-)

  • David,
    you’re not leaving France for good next June, are you? As much as I would enjoy your SF based blog, I would be heartbroken to miss my doses of Paris. And of course your decision of where to live should be based on your blog readers. :)

  • David said “I had met the chef, David Kinch, and really liked him a lot, and the way he talked about food”

    Sam says: “but you fail to mention he is really cute. I have personally awarded him four stars for that.”

  • you are f*#!ing funny!!!
    The cat was giving me strange looks as I laughed out loud, mostly to the first three paragraphs, and then “Don’t all French people pick their nose on the métro?”

    And beyond the fab humor, I say amen!! to all the rest.
    bisous

  • From what I have noticed here in Italy, there is a prejudice toward whatever is currently in fashion among the French. Our local starred restaurant is very nice, but it is an Italianized version of French modern cookery. It could not be otherwise since the Italian chef spent 17 years working in top French restaurants before opening here in his hometown.
    I eat there. I like it very much, although it costs 2-3 times what a great Italian-style restaurant costs locally. It has a stupendous wine list, but so so a couple of others– although they are strictly vino italiano and the starred restaurant is not.
    So what is a guide for? To me it is to help out when I go to a place I know not at all. I will probably not pick from the top but from among the mentioned. It seems usually to pay better to explain what you are looking for to a local and ask for a couple of recommendations. In a place where everybody loves food, they love even better to tell you where to eat and why. It’s after all a different thing to have one single meal in a town than to sample around the restaurants for a long period.
    If one uses a guide like Michelin, one is never going to have a meal of fried clams from a shack on the Maine coast, and one will miss the kitchens of little places where mamma serves up what was good at the market that day using her own family recipes. How many Michelin researchers drive from crab shack to crab shack and comment on the quality of the wooden hammers along the Chesapeake Bay? And yet, these are food experiences more important than foams and amuse bouche.

  • Judith: Such a great point. In many European cities, just asking someone where to eat is generally the way to go. I always, always ask at seafood markets where to get good seafood, since fish people know fresh and refuse to eat otherwise.

  • David, such a great posting as usual, and you hit the nail on the head. And that bit about a few icy cosmos and the Caesar at Zuni? I’ll join you next time!

    Like how I invited myself like that? I’m good at that.

  • You said it. I think there is so much good food in SF and the Bay Area. The Guide Michelin is actually very “off” even in France. I’ve tried three places they recommend in Paris with the “gourmand” and “forchette” ratings and have been disappointed all three times. Apart from the Michelin star restos, the rest are really bad… actually, food bloggers are the better and fairer judgers. Don’t you agree?

  • Couldn’t agree with you more. I live to eat, and when my food comes in a shot glass, foam nest, or dehydrated then reconstituted-only to be dehydrated again, I am a little lost.

    I will admit that the first few experiences at restaurants like these did put me in a state of awe, and I wouldn’t pass up a chance to eat at el Bulli, but I am far more at home with the plate de jour.

  • I love this post. Thanks for reminding me of what I value most in the experience of restaurant dining. And I couldn’t agree more with you about food in the Bay Area. My favorite meal of my trip there this summer was at Zuni Cafe (although I’m also pretty fond of El Farolito tacos and Vik’s chaat, even if they’ll never be Michelin-starred). I managed to go to the Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market three times in one week, smuggling Blossom Bluff peaches and Fatted Calf charcuterie back to NY on the plane as well as not-enough-bags of Michael Recchiuti’s delectable dark-chocolate-covered, cocoa-dusted, crunchy pecans…

  • I couldn’t agree with you more. I think too many chefs hide their talents (or lack of) with fussy food.

  • I find the same thing here in Argentina, where it is “known” that all norteamericanos spend their days eating McDonald’s hamburgers (or for breakfast, McMuffins), KFC chicken, potato chips, and Coca-Cola. I’ve had conversations with restaurant people here who are absolutely certain that except on the occasion when we eat at a fancy French or Italian restaurant, that’s literally all we eat, lunch and dinner; and they’re often truly surprised to find out that I, or we, have any other real food experience.

    Of course, Argentines eat nothing but steaks and french fries, three meals a day, right?

  • David,

    I hope that, if you visit Patricia here in Santa Cruz, I might meet you and give you some Sharpies and other little treats, in appreciation for all the pleasure your blog has afforded me.

    You always make me laugh and you usually make me think.

  • David….
    loving* the Lost Posts….
    You always make me smile (*)?(*) and laugh out loud…
    with your permission I am using all these ramblings….and I thought I was funny*…lol..
    “Thanks” for The Great Book Of chocolate..
    I read it and read it and I use it**lol.no kidding….keep writing……and following your passion*…..
    OH!!! I have to thank-you for my sweet feet* little gadget micro whateva actually WORKS and it beats using my real one that I use for lemons,oranges,etc…..YUCK..the thought of it.hahah……this one fits my lil ol hand…
    smiles,
    Andi*

  • Hi, Davey: Just got back from 12 days in Paris and tho I didn’t get in touch — too shy I guess –I wanted to thank you for steering me towards so many great experiences: You’re absolutely right about the dark chocolate and caramel au beurre sale double-cone at Berthillon! I was staying just down the rue St-Louis-en-L’Ile and it became a daily ritual. Yes, I’m on a diet now. Also had a great club sandwich and chocolate gateau at delicabar in Au Bon Marche; an American couple next to me starting fighting with each other, almost a brawl till the very cool maitress ‘d came over and said literally “Shut the f**k up, s’il vous plait!”. Finally made it to Angelina for hot chocolate–I’d gone there about 20 years ago with Tom and thought the place was a little tired, but it’s super now with great energy and nice staff. La Maison du Chocolate was rather stuffy, but once I’d spent over $250 on gifts they were quite friendly. Even got to sit at the little bar and test-drive some of your suggestions. Will end this now, hope to connect with you either there or Berkeley soon. xxTim

  • Howdy

    Just a sweet nothing to let you know that I’ve included this post on a posting on the ThisNext blog — check it out!

    http://blog.thisnext.com/blog/san-francisco-foodie-heaven.html

    Cheers
    Sean