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San Francisco Restaurants in the Red

Thomas Keller's French Laundry sole recipient of three stars in new Michelin Guide

Daniel Sogg
Posted: October 2, 2006

San Francisco Bay-area foodies just swallowed a bitter pill. Michelin, considered by many the definitive word on French gastronomy, yesterday released its Michelin Guide: San Francisco, Bay Area & Wine Country 2007, which reviews the region's restaurants and hotels. It awarded the coveted three-star rating to just one restaurant, the French Laundry, in Yountville, Calif.

The rankings place French Laundry chef and owner Thomas Keller in elite company. His New York restaurant, Per Se, also won three stars when the New York Michelin Guide was released last November, making Keller and French chef Alain Ducasse the world's only chefs with at least two three-star rankings (Ducasse has three stars for his New York, Paris and Monaco restaurants). In an e-mail to Wine Spectator, Keller wrote, "It's a very special day. We're all basking in the beauty of it. It's an extraordinary day for the staff. These young people, and a lot of them are still in their twenties, they work 10, 12, 14 hours a day. They see the results when something like this happens. To get this kind of recognition is some of what we work for."

Four other restaurants--Aqua and Michael Mina in San Francisco, Manresa in Los Gatos and Cyrus in Healdsburg--received two stars, while 23 received one star. By contrast, the New York Red Guide had four three-star restaurants.

According to Jean-Luc Naret, director of the Guides, five anonymous Michelin inspectors--three Americans and two Europeans--visited more than 1,000 restaurants since last November. Restaurants that receive stars are visited anywhere from two to eight times, said Naret, who noted that inspectors dined eight times at the French Laundry.

When Michelin announced plans in April for a San Francisco guide, its second in North America, local restaurateurs wondered if Michelin inspectors could adjust to the Bay-area dining scene, which is less formal than that of New York or France. The ratings will only renew those questions. "It's very interesting to see what the French think about American restaurants," said Gary Danko, chef and owner of Restaurant Gary Danko, which received one star. "We're very happy to be in the Michelin galaxy. It tells everyone the French are interested in what's happening here."

Still, Danko, one of San Francisco's most esteemed chefs, also added, "If Michelin wants to embrace the world, it needs to look at cultural differences."

Along those lines, the San Francisco guide has a relative absence of Asian restaurants. Of the 28 restaurants to receive stars, only two--Bushi-Tei in Japantown in San Francisco and Sushi-Ran in Sausalito, are Asian. Similarly, in the New York guide, only two Asian restaurants received stars: one for Nobu and two stars for Masa.

Chef Michael Mina considers the two-star ranking an honor and a carrot. "I'm very happy for what we received," he said. "I feel French Laundry deserved three stars. It gives us something to strive for trying to get three."

Chef Laurent Manrique of Aqua, which also received two stars, took the ranking in stride. "I won't change anything about the structure of my restaurant. I'll push the staff in the kitchen to do better. I think what [Michelin] is looking for is consistency," he said.

The New York guide's four three-star restaurants were Alain Ducasse at the Essex House (which is soon to relocate), Le Bernardin, Jean Georges and Per Se. Four other restaurants were given two stars, and 31 received one star. Critics of those ratings suggested the judging criteria were too Francocentric for a city as cosmopolitan as New York. Of the four three-star restaurants, three have French chefs, and California native Keller's food reflects a strong French influence.

In its debut 2007 guide to San Francisco, Michelin listed 356 restaurants and 60 hotels. Of the restaurants, 28 earned ratings of one star or more. According to Michelin, stars are awarded based solely on the quality of the food, not the decor or service. Five criteria are considered: the quality of the ingredients, the mastering of flavors and cooking, the "personality" of the cuisine, the value for money and the consistency.

Michelin considers a listed establishment that did not receive stars to be "a quality restaurant that stands out from others." The "comfort" of the restaurants, based on criteria such as atmosphere, value and upkeep, are rated using one to five fork-and-spoon symbols.

Three Stars
Indicates "exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey." According to Michelin, one always eats extremely well here, often superbly. Distinctive dishes are precisely executed, using superlative ingredients.

•The French Laundry (Yountville)

Two Stars
Indicates "excellent cuisine, worth a detour." According to Michelin, these restaurants offer skillfully and carefully crafted dishes of outstanding quality.

•Aqua (San Francisco)
•Michael Mina (San Francisco)
•Manresa (Los Gatos)
•Cyrus (Healdsburg)

One Star
Indicates "a very good restaurant in its category." According to Michelin, it is a place offering cuisine prepared to a consistently high standard.

•Fleur de Lys (San Francisco)
•Rubicon (San Francisco)
•Bushi-Tei (San Francisco)
•Quince (San Francisco)
•Range (San Francisco)
•Acquerello (San Francisco)
•La Folie (San Francisco)
•Masa (San Francisco)
•Ritz-Carlton Dining Room (San Francisco)
•Gary Danko (San Francisco)
•Boulevard (San Francisco)
•Fifth Floor (San Francisco)
•Chez Panisse (Berkeley)
•Sushi-Ran (Sausalito)
•Chez TJ (Mountain View)
•Auberge du Soleil (Rutherford)
•Bistro Jeanty (Yountville)
•Bouchon (Yountville)
•La Toque (Rutherford)
•Terra (St. Helena)
•Dry Creek Kitchen (Healdsburg)
•Farmhouse Inn & Restaurant (Forestville)
•K & L Bistro (Sebastopol)

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