Does the demotion of Chez Panisse to no stars in the new 2011 Michelin Guide for San Francisco and environs mean that an era is over, or is it simply an acknowledgment that the restaurant ain't what it used to be?
The elevation of the Restaurant at Meadowood and its chef Christopher Kostow to three-star status finally gives French Laundry some company at the top. Both three-star restaurants in the San Francisco guide now are serious wine-country destinations, which could be read as a repudiation of Chez Panisse's passion for celebrating ingredients and the restaurant's resistance to complex cooking and presentations.
Before we get ahead of ourselves, let's remember that Kostow, like his predecessor at Meadowood Joseph Humphrey (and winner of two Michelin stars there), is very much in the farm-to-table mode that Chez Panisse championed early. And Humphrey retains his Michelin star at his current restaurant, Murray Circle in Sausalito.
To me the big difference between these restaurants and Chez Panisse is in the sophistication of the experience. And it's not just the elegance on the plate. Meadowood and French Laundry make their wine lists a centerpiece. Chez Panisse always had a good, if somewhat quirky, wine program, even if the focus was always on the farmers and foragers for the kitchen.
From the beginning, in the 1970s, Chez Panisse offered a radically different experience from other restaurants. Owner and chef Alice Waters made a fetish of getting the very best raw materials, cultivating relationships with growers, foragers, fishermen and ranchers. She then produced what is basically humble home cooking, doing one menu each night for everyone. What made it special was the vibrancy and exciting deliciousness of those ingredients, carefully, if not lavishly, prepared.
Today, developing personal relationships with food suppliers is no longer unique. It is virtually a requirement for a restaurant to be taken seriously. All of the restaurants on Michelin's current list do it. And they cook better than Chez Panisse does. In interviews, Michelin director Jean-Luc Naret has made a point of saying that Chez Panisse's demotion was not the same as a star chef losing a star. The inspectors simply could not find the consistency they once did. I would have to agree.
The three remaining two-star restaurants, Coi, Cyrus and Manresa, retained their rankings. The other demotions from one star to none were for Range and Fifth Floor; both underwent chef changes. El Paseo lost its star because it closed (soon to reopen as a steak house under Tyler Florence) and Michael Mina's relocation just happened, too late for the guide.
There are now 39 one-star restaurants, including 11 new to the list, most of them outside the city. Spruce and Frances, which I reviewed favorably in Wine Spectator when they opened relatively recently, are among them.
The list of 74 Bib Gourmand restaurants, up from last year's total of 62, honors restaurants that deliver value, by definition a full meal without wine for $40 or less. Among my favorites among the 29 newcomers are the new iteration of SPQR and the new Sons & Daughters in San Francisco, Oenotri in Napa and Michael Chiarello's Bottega in Yountville. Wine country restaurants deleted from this year's Bib Gourmand list include Angele and Zazu, both in Napa.
Paul Gordon — Santa Clara, CA — October 29, 2010 1:16pm ET
Jordan Horoschak — Houston, TX — October 29, 2010 4:18pm ET
Terrance Rooney — San Francisco, CA — November 1, 2010 4:23am ET
Jamie Sherman — Sacramento — November 1, 2010 4:24pm ET
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