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?