In France, the venerable Michelin Red Guide may be taken as gospel. But the French tire company's first guide to restaurants and hotels in New York City has been greeted by a chorus of Bronx cheers.
Michelin introduced the guide with a party at the Guggenheim Museum on Wednesday, Nov. 2. A throng of chefs, restaurateurs, journalists and fervent foodies grumbled at the scarcity of Champagne, canapés and free books. But mostly, they complained about the odd constellation of stars.
New Yorkers famously know it all, and they don't take kindly to outsiders passing judgment on their city. Andrea Strong, who writes a restaurant blog called "The Strong Buzz," wrote, "I feel like asking them this question: 'Excuse me, but who exactly invited you here? ... Leave our chefs alone! We give them enough of a hard time on our own.'"
On eGullet, a Web-based community of foodies, an extremely long thread analyzed the results. One poster summed up a common sentiment, saying, "I doubt this new guide will have any impact at all. In fact, its lack of clout in the States will probably hurt Michelin more than any restaurant that may have been snubbed."
In fact, it could be argued that Michelin has been both generous and deferential. Four New York restaurants earned three stars (the highest ranking); London has only one three-star, and the entire country of Spain has only four. And the top rankings pretty much agree with local critics such as the New York Times: the eight restaurants that earned either three or two Michelin stars all have either four (the top ranking) or three stars from the "paper of record."
There are, of course, some anomalies. I've eaten in 31 of the 39 starred restaurants, and I'm scratching my head over the placement of at least 10 of them.
The biggest puzzle is Restaurant Daniel. Why only two stars? In my opinion, compared with the four anointed three-stars, Daniel's wine list is the best, the service is only bettered by Alain Ducasse, the ambience matches Jean-Georges and Le Bernardin and the food holds its own with all but Per Se. It will be interesting to observe peoples' reactions. Will they simply decide Michelin got it wrong? Or will they start to wonder what flaws they've been overlooking at Daniel?
The distribution by cuisine type introduces another set of questions. About one-fourth of the restaurants serve French food. Fine; it's a French-based guide. But what criteria were used for Asian establishments? Though I have not been to two-star Masa, I don't doubt the cuisine is exquisite. Still, how can Michelin rate it so highly, yet include only three other Asian-inspired restaurants on the entire list?
The group of one-star restaurants (31 in all) is eclectic, to put it mildly. Some are among New York's most ambitious and respected restaurants (Cru and Veritas, for example, each of which holds a Wine Spectator Grand Award for its wine list and has been ranked three stars by the New York Times). Others are neighborhood standbys, but hardly international standouts.
Honestly—Peter Luger? Great beef, certainly. But famously grumpy service, sawdust on the floor and a joke for a wine list. As a steak house dining experience, Luger lags behind BLT Steak, Del Frisco's Double Eagle and Smith & Wollensky. Chez L'Ami Louis, its Parisian counterpart in the gritty trencherman division, is better in every way—and is not even listed in that city's Red Guide.
And what are true New Yorkers to make of the fact that some of the city's most distinctive and beloved establishments were left unstarred? I'm thinking of Alto, Bayard's, Blue Hill, Chanterelle, The Four Seasons, Montrachet, River Café, '21' Club and Union Square Café, among others.
The biggest difference between Michelin and Wine Spectator, though, is the Red Guide's lack of consideration for wine. If wine lists were given the weight I believe they deserve, then Daniel, Babbo, Cru and Veritas would all move up a step, and Montrachet, Felidia, Tribeca Grill and '21' Club would all have stars.
Michelin will have a chance to refine its rankings in next year's edition. But whether or not you agree with its judgments, at least this new Red Guide has New Yorkers talking. And talking—along with eating and drinking—is one of this city's favorite pastimes.