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The Michelin Betting Line

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Sep 28, 2006 11:43am ET

Michelin releases its Red Guide to the restaurants of San Francisco and environs next week. Having just published my take on the state of S.F. dining in the current issue of Wine Spectator (Oct 15, 2006), I have more than a casual interest in seeing what the Michelin inspectors come up with.

In our criteria, how the restaurant handles wine counts for 30 percent of the rating. That differs from Michelin's approach. The official line is that what's on the plate determines how many "stars" (actually puffs if you look real close) a restaurant gets, but it's pretty clear that the surroundings and the service play a role. At least that's the way it seems from looking at Michelin's guides to France and other European countries.

Three-star restaurants are in short supply. There are 26 in all of France. New York got four (Per Se, Le Bernardin, Alain Ducasse and Jean-Georges) when Michelin did its first U.S. guidebook last year.

There was plenty of chatter about the results when the New York book came out, but it seems to have died down. I don't hear anyone in New York talking about going to Le Bernardin because it's a Michelin three-star. They go because they already knew it was that good.

No doubt the same thing will happen in San Francisco. I expect that the only people to decide where to eat based on the Red Guide will be tourists. But for a few weeks we will all huff and puff over the choices.

If the French-centric places that earned the top ratings in New York are any indication, San Francisco is not going to fare nearly as well. Our best restaurants are Californian, not French. Although the practitioners of California cuisine know their way around a French kitchen, they casually incorporate Italian, Asian and Latin-American ingredients and ideas into what they do.

Given that, the only Bay Area restaurant I would consider a mortal lock for three Michelin stars is The French Laundry, Thomas Keller's Napa Valley headquarters. After that, the field is wide open. If I were setting the betting line, the top contenders would be The French Laundry (Yountville) at 3-5, then Gary Danko and Michael Mina at even money. After that, it's pick 'em among Fleur de Lys (because it's so French), Aqua (ditto), Cyrus (in Healdsburg) and possibly Manresa (in Silicon Valley).

For my money, Quince deserves two stars, but it will probably get one. I doubt it is lavish enough for Michelin. Same with Boulevard, Chez Panisse (in Berkeley), and, now that its new chef is doing so well, Rubicon.

The only Asian restaurants that got stars in New York were the ultra-exclusive Masa, Jewel Bako and the still-trendy (and famous) Nobu, all Japanese. No San Francisco Japanese restaurants show that kind of ambition, but the city has many large Asian communities. How will Michelin deal with these cuisines?

The big Hong Kong-style seafood restaurants, such as Koi Palace in Colma, serve sensational food, but they're loud and bustling. Service is not exactly genteel. It will be a telltale sign to see how these restaurants fare with Michelin, not to mention upscale Vietnamese restaurants like Slanted Door and Ana Mandara.

So let me ask those of you who know San Francisco dining: How many three- and two-stars do you think will be anointed Monday?

Glenn S Lucash
September 28, 2006 1:16pm ET

I had the pleasure of dining on August 26 at the fabulous Michael Mina restaurant in SF. From the moment we walked up the steps from the hotel lobby, we knew we were in one fantastic restaurant. The restaurant is a showplace, not unlike the "old" Bouley used to be in NYC. We were warmly greeted by Brian Fallon, the general manager. He gave us a couple of minutes of his time which is so nice and unheard of in many of the top tier establishments. He introduced us to Michael, our dining "general" for the evening. He was by far the most cordial, understanding, funny and knowledgeable of ANY captain or maitre d' I have had in the many famous and great eating spots around the world. He asked us a question at the start of the meal which i think should be asked by all restaurant staff. He asked if anyone was allergic to any kind of food.

We are never asked that question anyplace but here and it is a extremely important query. It just so happens my wife is allergic to scallops and Michael made sure not only did she not receive anything that was prepared with scallops in the sauce. He also made sure nothing in the kitchen was used on her dish that could have come into contact with the scallops on the menu. BRAVO!!!!If Michael Mina does not receive 3 stars from Michelin, the publication is wasting their time reviewing American restaurants, not that I ever use it anyway.
William Newell
Buffalo, NY —  September 28, 2006 2:33pm ET
Who knows how Michelin will rank any, but I would say Gary Danko, Jardiniere, Chez Panisse, and Masa's deserve at least two stars.
Sao Anash
Santa Barbara —  September 28, 2006 3:04pm ET
What Glen said.
Charles Ehm
Mill Valley, CA —  September 28, 2006 6:56pm ET
While talking SF restaurants, I think you guys missed a great opportunity to highlight some of the solid neighborhood mainstays. Zuni, Clementine, Geribaldi's, and Sociale all come to mind when seeking out great food, good wine lists, good wait staffs, and at reasonable prices. Also missed were Quince, Myth, and Town Hall? Maybe a follow-up article opportuinty?
Colin Haggerty
La Jolla, California —  September 28, 2006 7:11pm ET
What Glenn and Sao said (tenfold!).
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  September 29, 2006 12:31am ET
If you just saw the "grand dining" story (linked in the first paragraph) you missed the "Less Lavish" and "S.F. Originals" stories, which included Quince (a personal favorite). I had a very disappointing meal at Clementine when I went to review it. The problem with some of the others is that wine counts for 30 percent of the score. That makes it very difficult for restaurants with smaller wine lists, which must have sensational food to compensate for it.

I started out with a list of 80 restaurants that I had to cut down to 30-35 to review for this issue. I had recently reviewed Myth and Town Hall in the magazine, and included Zuni the last time I did an SF cover story. I chose to highlight a few places that hadn't recently been featured.

Unfortunately, there's no way to be complete without writing a book.
Mark Owens
Cincinnati, Oh. —  September 29, 2006 9:49am ET
What about Julius Castle in SF? Best charm, setting and view for an upscale I have experienced. Good wine list with multiple vintages.
Jason Thompson
Foster City, CA —  September 29, 2006 7:45pm ET
Harvey,What issue did you cover Myth in? Have you tryed Scott Howard yet? Both are great restaurants with very good service and wonderful atmosphere.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  September 29, 2006 8:24pm ET
Myth was in the June 15, 2005 issue (in the same story as the Fifth Floor review). I tried Scott Howard about a month after it opened and found it wildly uneven. I loved the sous-vide short rib, but a lot of the other dishes were underwhelming.
Alan J Kamen
Altamonte Springs, FL —  September 29, 2006 9:43pm ET
Harvey, You briefly mentioned Quince as one of the "up and comers". The Chef, his wife, and Sous Chef are doing an incredible job to give some credence to the San Fransisco restaurant scene without the pretentiosness of the the "famous/big Guys". He/they are representing Italy in a non prentious manner. Kudos to them!
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  September 29, 2006 9:52pm ET
Actually, I mentioned Quince as a personal favorite and I said it deserved two stars but predicted that Michelin will probably give it one. I reviewed it first in the June 15, 2004, issue, and rated it 93 points for food in the current issue. It's in the "less lavish" story.
Norman Loewenstern
Houston, Texas —  January 5, 2007 11:25am ET
You went to a different Aqua then I did. Went in September. Had a mediocre meal at best. Wait staff was understaffed and overworked. I expected better from a restaurant that charges for better food and service. I felt they were resting on their laurals. Aqua should be at the bottom of your list.

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