Michelin released its second guide guide for the States on Monday (the first was for New York) and Bay Area foodies are up in arms. Not since Daniel Patterson issued his manifesto, “To the Moon, Alice?” in New York Times Magazine last year has the local restaurant scene been in such an uproar. Only French Laundry received Michelin’s highest accolade, three stars. Frankly, I’m not surprised that only French Laundry received three stars. No one will dispute that FL deserves them. In fact, Michael Bauer goes on to wonder if “our restaurants are being handicapped because it’s much better than any of the other restaurants here and the three stars in New York, including Per Se [Thomas Keller’s other haute cuisine restaurant]”. A three star restaurant is something of an entirely different caliber than what we usually get here in the Bay Area. If you every have the opportunity to dine at the French Laundry, you’ll see what I mean. But people are getting mightily offended over the lack of recognition for restaurants like Slanted Door, Zuni Cafe and Delfina. Besides the food itself, service, decor, the wine list and ambience are considered in the Michelin rating systems. While I love the food that these three places serve, I’m afraid that all three of them are LOUD and the service is wildly inconsistent. Because I’m a big Alice-phile, I do believe that Chez Panisse deserved two stars, but I can sort of understand why it received one. I think that Waters deserves all the praise she gets, but when you break it down, her food is very simple and rustic. And that’s okay – I like simple and rustic, but serving a plain, unadorned (unsliced and unpeeled) but perfect peach as dessert doesn’t require much skill. “That’s shopping,” someone once said. I do not understand why Aqua and Michael Mina each received two, while Gary Danko received one. I ate at Aqua when Mina was still the head chef. The food was excellent, but the restaurant itself was LOUD. I don’t think the noise level has changed since Laurent Manrique took the helm. I like an energetic and celebratory atmosphere, but not while dining on haute cuisine – that’s why we go to Zuni and Slanted Door. I have not yet eaten at Michael Mina, but by all accounts, the service is cold and the food uninspiring. I loved Gary Danko – the service was warm and hospitable, and the food was excellent. The only downside to my experience was that we were seated next to an obnoxious family, but I can’t place fault with the restaurant for that.
In the article I previously mentioned, Daniel Patterson began “To the Moon, Alice?” by lauding Alice Waters for starting a sustainable revolution. He goes on to criticize Bay Area restaurants for getting stuck in the Chez Panisse rut (calling it the “tyranny of Alice Waters,”) – the dogma of excellent and locally produced ingredients prepared in a simple or tradional manner. That revolution began in the sixties, and by now, according to him, is antiquated. He asserted that Waters’ hegemony stifled creativity and promoted a certain homogeneity. To some extent, it’s true. How many Cal/Med French-Italian places (sometimes with a fusion/Spanish/Latin twist) emphasizing locally produced organic ingredients have you eaten at? You also have to consider that many food establishments, from Acme Bread to Zuni are run by Chez Panisse alumni. But honestly, after a tough day at work, I’d rather have a “rustic” dish of braised short ribs over polenta (permutations of this dish can be found at any CalMed place) than cucumber mint gelee with candied raspberries and miniature marshmallows (which I was served at Pierre Gagnaire).
I think there is more at play here, and that has to do with our critic at large, Michael Bauer. Though I don’t agree with everything he has to say, I don’t think he’s a bad critic. But after I read Garlic and Sapphires, I got the impression that new blood on the critic’s circuit fuels the restaurant scene. Bauer has been with the Chronicle for almost twenty years. I know there’s plenty of other good critics in town, but Bauer is by far the most influential. So just imagine – twenty years of accomodating the tastes of one person. What kind of impact will that have on the dining scene?