October 20, 2009
New Michelin Guide published for Bay Area and Wine Country

With much fanfare, including personal calls to chefs awarded a coveted star, the Michelin Guide for the Bay Area and Wine Country announced the launch of its fourth edition Monday. The $17.99 annual guide goes on sale today.

39 restaurants were awarded stars for the 2010 guide, up from 32 last year. There were two high-profile demotions from the select list of two-star eateries - Aqua lost both of its stars and Michael Mina was demoted to one star.

Michelin is by far the most influential guide in the world. Shifts in its ratings are closely watched - and hotly debated - within the restaurant industry and by dining aficionados.

Falling out of favor with Michelin can be costly. The loss of a star, for instance, is said to translate to a loss of up to 25 percent of a restaurant's business.

The French Laundry won't have to worry. Super chef Thomas Keller's $240-per-person (before the wine) prix fixe restaurant in Yountville remains the only Bay Area/Wine Country establishment to receive the highest rating of three stars. Such a rating means it is considered one of the finest restaurants in the world.

Keller's more casual bistro, Bouchon, also in Yountville, earned one star. His New York restaurant, Per Se, also received three stars.

Chez Panisse, Alice Waters' much-admired restaurant in Berkeley, earned one star, the same as it did in 2009. That rating is also controversial, as some critics consider it to be among the best restaurants in the area and, more so, a longtime leader in the farm-to-table movement that now seems commonplace throughout America.

How did Sacramento fair? Who? Where? Huh? The state's capital isn't even on Michelin's radar, at least not yet. The Bay Area guide has expanded its territory, but the "famously anonymous" inspectors who taste and tally throughout the year have yet to make the trip to Sacramento to size up the city's best restaurants.

In Wednesday's Bee, we will take a look at why Michelin doesn't rate the food in Sacramento, the impact it would have on the city if it did, and which restaurants just might hold up to the scrutiny.

That day of reckoning may come. Michelin is looking to expand its reach, and Sacramento's dining scene has evolved considerably in recent years.

Possible local contenders for a Michelin star? The Kitchen Restaurant, Grange, Kru, Firehouse, Ella, Slocum House, Waterboy, Biba, Hawks, Ambience, Carpe Vino in Auburn and Taste in Plymouth. Your list may be different.

It may surprise some readers to learn that the Michelin stars are awarded solely for the food - the quality of ingredients and how the food is prepared. As Jean-Luc Naret, the worldwide director of the Michelin Guide, told me Monday, "the personality of the chef on the plate, not on TV or in the books."

Though service, ambience and other factors are considered in most ratings - and they're noted in the Michelin Guide - they do not have any bearing on the stars.

With a nod to the worldwide recession, Michelin has also expanded its emphasis on value. It has a separate category called "Bib Gourmand," or an "inspector's favorites for good value." To qualify in this category, a restaurant must offer two courses of superb food with wine or dessert for $40 or less. Another category lists fine meals for under $25.

During a long lunch at The Slanted Door, a popular Vietnamese restaurant in the Ferry Building with a view of the Bay Bridge, Naret provided some details into the secretive Michelin rating system that holds so much sway over the restaurant industry in 23 countries. Turns out, the job of Michelin inspector is not as glamorous as it may seem.

In the United States, Michelin has a staff of 10 inspectors. They remain anonymous and their dinners are strictly business, meaning they do not include friends and family when they dine out, as do most restaurant reviewers who publish in newspapers and magazines.

"I know some inspectors who don't even tell their wives what they are doing," Naret told me. "It's much like working for the witness protection program, except the food is better, of course."

To qualify for the job, candidates should have a background in the culinary arts, though that doesn't mean being a chef, Naret said. Once hired, inspectors go through standardized training in the Michelin system to learn how to gather detailed information and make judgments based on vast benchmarks of the very best restaurants.

One star is considered "a very good restaurant in its category;" two stars signifies "excellent cuisine, worth a detour;" and three stars means "exceptional cuisine worth a special journey."

Naret said the cheapest three-star restaurant is Jean Georges in New York, where patrons can enjoy world-class cuisine at lunch for $29.

In the Bay Area/Wine Country, Naret suggested an upgrade may soon be afoot for one of the two-star establishments.

Here is the official list for 2010 starred restaurants:

Three Michelin stars *** One always eats here extremely well, sometimes superbly. Distinctive dishes are precisely executed, using superlative ingredients.
The French Laundry

Two Michelin stars ** Skillfully and carefully crafted dishes of outstanding quality
Coi, Cyrus, Manresa, The Restaurant at Meadowood

One Michelin star* A place offering cuisine prepared to a consistently high standard
Acquerello, Luce, Ame, Madrona Manor, Auberge du Soleil, Masa's, Aziza, Michael Mina, Bouchon, Murray Circle, Boulevard, One Market, Chez Panisse, Plumed Horse, Chez TJ, Quince, Commis. Range, The Dining Room at the Ritz Carlton, Redd, El Paseo, Sante, etoile, Solbar, Farmhouse Inn & Restaurant, Terra, Fifth Floor, Trevese, Fleur de Lys, Ubuntu, Gary Danko, The Village Pub, La Folie, and La Toque.

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