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Michelin Rates the Big Apple

The famous food-and-hotel guide's first American edition is met with cheers, jeers and confusion

Posted: November 4, 2005

For foodies, it was a fantasy come to life: New York's best chefs--along with several culinary superstars from Europe--all gathered in one room for a cocktail party. On Wednesday night, Thomas Keller rubbed elbows with Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Ferran Adrià, Eric Ripert, Alain Ducasse, Paul Bocuse and many, many more in the Guggenheim Museum on Manhattan's Upper East Side. Who could bring them all together? A chubby white man made out of tires--Bibendum--and Michelin, the French tire company and guidebook publisher, which hosted a party to introduce its first New York restaurant-and-hotel guide.

Michelin's Red Guides have long been the definitive source for European gastronomic ratings, but this is the company's first effort at an in-depth ranking of eateries in an American city. When its publishing division announced in February that anonymous inspectors had been visiting restaurants since fall 2004, it fueled endless speculation in culinary circles. The results were announced Nov. 1, the day before the Guggenheim party, sparking plenty of cheering, fuming and head-scratching.

Michelin awarded its highest mark, three stars, to four restaurants: Keller's Per Se, Ripert's Le Bernardin, Jean Georges and Alain Ducasse at the Essex House (which holds Wine Spectator's Grand Award for its wine list).

Another four won two stars: Daniel (also a Grand Award winner), Masa, Bouley and Danube. One-star ratings went to an eclectic mix of 31 restaurants, ranging from Mario Batali's Babbo to Grand Award winners Cru and Veritas to the humble gastropub The Spotted Pig. The guide lists another 468 establishments, across all five boroughs, without any stars. Their inclusion, which the guide says indicates "a quality restaurant that stands out from others" in its category, is still considered an honor since the Big Apple is home to an estimated 23,000 places to eat.

Many chefs were thrilled to be listed, no matter what their ranking. "It's great, it's just wonderful," said Keller, who was beaming. Ducasse's staff quickly sent out a press release trumpeting his status as the world's first chef to run three restaurants (in New York, Paris and Monaco) that hold three stars each. And Wayne Nish of one-starred March said, "I'm very happy. To be on the list their first time out is a tremendous accomplishment. Now what we'll do is try to move it up."

Three-star stars (L to R): Thomas Keller, Eric Ripert, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Alain Ducasse.
No one was shocked by the three-star winners, all of which offer both the stratospheric cuisine and impeccable decor and service Michelin has long hailed in its European guides. Some chefs were surprised that Daniel Boulud's Daniel only won two stars. Boulud told reporters he didn't plan to change a thing. Asked if the chef was attending the Guggenheim party, an industry insider quipped, "He's the guy wearing the Firestone tires T-shirt."

But for highly acclaimed chefs and restaurateurs who won just one or no stars, the Red Guide left a bitter taste in their mouths. Many of them are used to receiving top ratings from the Zagat guide (which is based on diner surveys), The New York Times and Wine Spectator. "I'm happy to get a star for Nobu, but I'm disappointed that Montrachet and Chanterelle did not," said Drew Nieporent, whose Myriad Restaurant Group owns 10 top restaurants, including three Grand Award winners. "They could have been more generous."

With such an eclectic group of one-star winners, some people wondered what Michelin was looking for. "If they've recognized a place like Vong, why not Tabla?" asked Danny Meyer, comparing Vongerichten's French-Thai restaurant, which won a star, to Meyer's upscale Indian eatery, which did not win any, despite receiving better scores from Zagat.

Many critics complained that Michelin's inspectors, all trained in France, couldn't understand New York dining. French chefs run three of the guide's top four restaurants. Four Seasons owner Julian Niccolini, who did not win any stars, called for the French to be thrown out of the United Nations. Nieporent complained that Michelin did not consider that, in New York, cuisine can be top-notch even if a restaurant's setting is more casual.

Michelin claims it awards stars based only on the food on the plate, and that comfort and service levels are denoted by the fork-and-spoon symbol, ranging from a rating of one fork-and-spoon to five. But one former inspector wrote a tell-all book in 2004 saying that things like place settings and tablecloths mattered quite a bit.

"I hope they understand what New York's about," said Todd English of Olives, which was listed but earned no stars. "Clearly the three stars all deserve three stars. The question is: Can you have a three-star pastrami sandwich? New Yorkers believe you can." He said that, for the future, he wants a better understanding of the judging criteria. "This is not a city where spending a lot of money on china makes you great. It's the food first and last."

Michelin's director of publications, Jean-Luc Naret, wasn't worried about the griping. "If they didn't care, they wouldn't be concerned about their ranking and ask what they can do to be included in next year's edition." As for inspectors having too European a perspective, Naret said that the five initial inspectors were from Europe, but he soon hired two Americans and hopes to have an entirely American team by 2008.

Aside from feeling joy or anger over the ratings, many New York foodies aren't sure that the Big Apple needs a Michelin guide. "It's great that Michelin is in New York," said Meyer. "But New Yorkers are already savvy. They don't need another guide. This is more about chefs' egos."

Even if New Yorkers want to ignore Michelin, the rest of the world is paying attention. Adrià, the culinary whiz behind El Bulli, outside Barcelona, remarked that the Spanish media is reporting on the results. The entire nation of Spain has only four three-star restaurants. London only has one.

Upon analysis, the guide, which retails for $16.95, appears targeted more toward tourists than New Yorkers, with pages describing each neighborhood. (New Yorkers, for example, do not need to be told that TriBeCa stands for Triangle Below Canal Street or that the Meatpacking District "has been transformed in recent years into an über-hip shopping, dining and clubbing destination.")

But Michelin has made some welcome innovations for the U.S. market (and these changes will be a model for future guides). The New York guide is slightly larger than Zagat, but is paperback and would easily fit in a larger coat pocket or purse. Rather than the usual format--a laundry list of restaurants with nothing more than various symbols denoting hours, credit cards accepted and facilities or services offered--Michelin has included maps, photographs and one- or two-paragraph descriptions of the restaurants that are generally informative. (However, Cru's entry refers to chef Shea Gallante and "her signature homemade pastas." Shea is a man.) After looking through a copy, Nieporent said, "It's not bad. The descriptions are good."

The guide is still clearly written from a European point of view, remarking in the introduction that New York "is a great city. It's also a young one. European settlement began in earnest in 1625."

However, Michelin's decision to publish a guide to New York is a recognition that the Big Apple is a culinary capital of the world, on par with those in Europe. Earning such acknowledgment from France is an achievement worthy of three stars.

--Additional reporting by Owen Dugan

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