I was listening to an episode of the LA-based podcast Good Food, and one question in a segment on wine with the San Francisco Chronicle's Jon Bonné was whether Robert Parker and his 100-point scale mattered to consumers any more. The gist of his answer was both that wine drinkers want different things than the high-alcohol wines that Parker popularized (to the point of inducing wineries to change their own styles to meet his preferences), and that a scale in which all the action happens within a tiny range (basically 94 points and up) is too blunt an instrument. Today people get their information from all over the place, not just one guide . . .
. . . which is why chefs and foodies are all hanging out by Twitter today to see what the Michelin Guide Gallicly deigns to approve of about our dining scene this year.
By now the criticisms of Michelin are familiar—they prize what our food scene is actively about getting away from (formality in all its forms), they persistently underrate Chicago (we have by far the fewest stars of any of the U.S. guides), and they're the only people left who can't seem to get tickets to Next. (Certainly, every time I've been there, I've never seen a Michelin inspector.) Nevertheless, as arbitrary as it is that we should give the obscure, unvetted representatives of a tire company so much weight for their food opinions, it's a holiday for the food scene and, God knows, it beats thinking about this kind of Chicago rating. So I'm going to keep an eye on the announcements as they come out, and update this post throughout the day, beginning now with the leaked three- and two-star winners.
Somehow, in the middle of the night, a story went up on a Sun-Times blog site called Voices, which apparently had the three- and two-star winners and linked to the complete list. The link to the complete list never worked, and the story is gone now, but the report is exactly what you would expect if you assume that Michelin is going to be as stingy as possible, and so far it seems confirmed by Michelin.
Assuming the report is accurate, Alinea remains the only three-star restaurant in town, which has been true since the second year (this is the fourth). As widely expected, Grace, from former Alinea number two Curtis Duffy, debuted at two stars, and Sixteen, which regained a star under new chef Thomas Lents last year, has risen to two. The only other two-star restaurants are L2O, which regained its second star last year, and Graham Elliot, which is now planning to close at the end of the year.
This is the part of the list that shows how much it's aimed toward outsiders, not Chicagoans. Alinea and to a certain extent Grace get talked about by locals, but on the whole, these are destination restaurants for well-heeled visitors, a one-shot-and-done trade for restaurants. Winning two stars is a double-edged sword— it puts you on the consideration list with Alinea; it also makes you vulnerable to falling down to one star and thus off the consideration list, and if you're dependent on Michelin-clutching visitors, that can be a deadly blow. (In Charlie Trotter's case, winning only two stars, not three, surely had a lot to do with his decision to close his restaurant last year.) In the last week I heard both a one-star chef (Paul Kahan of Blackbird) and a publicist for a one-star restaurant (which will go unnamed) suggest that their restaurants would be better off with one star than two—both saying basically that "Two stars makes people think your restaurant is too expensive to go to, and that's not good for staying in business."
UPDATE 1: Iliana Regan's foraging-based restaurant Elizabeth debuts at one star. I was talking to Phillip Foss last night and he predicted that Elizabeth would and his EL Ideas would not; as similar as they are in setup (tasting menu, small number of tables within earshot of the kitchen), he predicted that Elizabeth's tightly personal concept would appeal to Michelin in a way his more screw-the-trappings-of-fine-dining outlook apparently does not.
UPDATE 2: Senza, the gluten-free Lakeview restaurant, has won one star, a real tribute to the artistry of chef Noah Sandoval who is, incidentally, one of the few ever to appear in two Key Ingredient challenges (he assisted Schwa's Michael Carlson earlier in the series). His own Key Ingredient shows in detail how he works with gluten-free ingredients to make meals that don't seem to be missing anything:
@MichelinGuideCH Nice job this year. You deserve a Michelin star for yourself.
— Michael Nagrant (@MichaelNagrant) November 12, 2013
@jesteinf I had some awesome predictions this year. maybe im the inspector and i just dont know it.
— Scott Malloy (@Shiroi_Ondori) November 12, 2013
UPDATE 3: The Lobby at the Peninsula wins a star just as chef Lee Wolen leaves (most likely to take over Boka, which also kept theirs, but that's still to be announced). So that's a win for David Tamarkin, former Time Out food editor, who made Wolen's chicken a must-try item with his extravagant praise. Here's Wolen in Key Ingredient—working with durian.
"The first year with Michelin I was just dumbfounded—this is awesome! And then October started to roll around, and I got nervous—the food's better than last year, I know the food's better than last year—you're fine, it's going to be okay— because I can't imagine, it would just be such a bummer to lose it.
"And the double-edged sword of getting the Michelin star, or this Beard nomination, one of the things that comes with that is, the guests show up, rightly so, with the heightened expectation of their experience. What you were doing last week is no longer good enough. They're going to be more critical, their expectations are going to be higher. And you have to be able to deliver."
UPDATE 5: And the Trib spills the rest, though refrains from spelling it out in list form. Here's the list; changes are indicated with a asterisk for a new entry (the only upgrade is Sixteen, from one to two):
Sixteen (up from one star)
Longman & Eagle
As with last year, it's nice that Michelin honored a few new folks doing fine, sincere work, and it's nice to have made some gains (though 25 restaurants total and only one three-star is far behind the other U.S. guides), but the list still has obvious omissions that leave it far from reflecting our dining scene. Longman & Eagle is still there as the lone and apparently permanent representative of our hugely popular, more casual gastropub style, shutting out the likes of the Bristol, Nightwood, or Yusho, any of which would probably rank ahead of it in 2013 among Chicagoans dining out regularly, to name three. And the fact that Michelin seems completely incapable of comprehending Next continues to make them just seem, well, hidebound—if you can't figure out how to evaluate a restaurant which has sold out every night for two years, you're apparently the only one with that problem.
So: once again, it's a weird way to look at our dining scene, which is why we mainly only think about it once a year. We remain a Bib Gourmand city to them, not a city for many stars. But congratulations, certainly, to Curtis Duffy of Grace, Iliana Regan of Elizabeth, Phillip Foss of El Ideas, Noah Sandoval of Senza, Lee Wolen of . . . wherever he winds up, and Bruce Sherman of North Pond. They all deserve to be on the list, even if they don't exhaust it.
FWIW, I don't think placing North Pond on a list corrects it. Michelin is still a too-short, patchwork list of bad-to-OK-to-good one stars.
— Wendy Aeschlimann (@aschie30) November 12, 2013