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.