It’s amateur hour chez Michelin

Times Staff Writer

EARTH to Michelin: Wolfgang Puck is not the guy making your Wiener schnitzel at Spago, there are better Chinese restaurants in town than Yang Chow, and Agoura Hills isn’t exactly a hotbed of culinary excellence.

The famous red guides for restaurants in Europe published by the French tire company may have lost their luster in recent years, even as the company embarked on a plan to expand to cover the world, but nothing could have prepared this food-loving Angelena for what’s in the pages of the just-published Michelin Guide Los Angeles 2008. In short, it’s amateurish, confusing and barely credible.

Yes, this is a debut guide, but if it’s the best Michelin can do after learning from its mistakes with New York and San Francisco launches in the last couple of years, the future doesn’t look very bright for its publishing arm.

Trouble for the red guide started back in 2004, when a former inspector wrote an expose claiming that a third of France’s three-star restaurants could never lose a star because they’re “untouchable.” The next year, the Benelux Michelin edition featured a restaurant that hadn’t yet opened. And later in 2005, Alain Senderens, whose Lucas Carton restaurant in Paris had three stars for 28 years, became the third French chef to “renounce” his stars.


Michelin-watchers posited that the company’s first U.S. guidebook -- Michelin Guide New York City 2006 -- might rescue its reputation, but it turned out to be filled with mistakes and was skewered by New York magazine and others. By the time Bibendum (Michelin’s roly-poly mascot) got to San Francisco last fall, it felt as if a good deal of the air had been let out of his radials.

So I knew better, but somehow found myself swept up in the buzz about the first L.A. guide the week before it was published. Maybe it was all the commotion over the star rankings being leaked (I got wind of it when the assistant to an L.A. chef suggested that Food do a story about her boss, since, as she wrote, he would receive a Michelin star in the coming week). Then there was all the excitement of tracking down where the leak came from, and whether it was real.

It seemed, for a moment, as if it mattered.

And then I read the book.

What shocked me wasn’t who did and did not get stars; rather, it was that the book that purports to be the bible of fine dining is so poorly researched and lamely written that the ratings have no credibility.

Embarrassing errors

Eric GREENSPAN, chef-owner of the Foundry, “learned from El Bulli disciplines in Spain.” At Chameau, you can “end your Moroccan respite with a Spanish Muscatel.” (Why would you want to end a respite? And why did we need one?) At Water Grill, diners “can drop anchor” and “the chef’s busy brigade creates swells of satisfaction.” The writing makes the Zagat guide look like “Ulysses.”

If the anonymous “inspectors” who bestowed the stars had actual criteria for anointing some chefs and dissing others (they’re not spelled out), it’s not apparent in the restaurant descriptions. The terse European guides simply provide symbols and list signature dishes, but the L.A. edition’s entries read like little puff pieces. At Giorgio Baldi, the chef “pulls out all the stops. . . . A whole roasted lobster . . . is a case study in rustic perfection.” Here’s Royale: “This fancy setting raises expectations that are not disappointed.”


The entries, from A to Z, leave the impression that the writers don’t know ponzu from pesto. At Wilshire, “There’s no mistaking the components of diver scallops seared in clarified butter and served with creamy roasted fingerlings and spicy chorizo.” (Bravo!) The chef there, we’re told, is Warren Schwartz. (Whoops! He’s chef at Whist; Christopher Blobaum is Wilshire’s chef-owner.) Why does Tre Venezie deserve a star? Because the dishes “are not based on thick tomato sauces, olive oil and basil as they are elsewhere.”

And Asian cooking? It seems to be beyond the comprehension of Michelin.

Japanese food gets respect but little understanding. Here’s an excerpt from the listing for Mori Sushi, which gets one star: “This, as chef/owner Morihiro Onodera asserts, is a sushi restaurant, serving only fish and vegetables.” (On Mori Sushi’s website, you’ll read this: “Mori Sushi is a sushi restaurant. We do not buy any ingredients besides fish and vegetables.”)

Regarding Urasawa, which gets two stars, we’re told: “Sushi placed atop warm rice mixed with grated wasabi must be eaten within ten seconds.”


Meanwhile, just four Chinese restaurants -- Empress Pavilion, Mr. Chow, Yang Chow and Yujean Kang’s -- are included. As for Thai, Michelin includes three: Cholada, Saladang Song and Talesai. It’s enough to make you cry.

The book is filled with errors (La Cachette is not open Sundays; Yabu does not serve California cuisine; the Lobster is not new, it’s more than 8 years old), omissions (if you’re going to give Spago two stars, it might be worth mentioning that the chef is Lee Hefter) and weirdnesses (inclusion of the Stinking Rose).

The seven geographic areas the guide covers are weird in themselves -- Beverly Hills (which includes Bel-Air); “Greater Downtown” (including Chinatown and Koreatown); Hollywood (which picks up “Midtown” and West Hollywood); Pasadena; Santa Monica Bay; Ventura Boulevard (which includes Agoura Hills, Calabasas and Westlake Village) and “Westside.” Weirder still, the areas are color-coded, but in only two colors -- green and different green.

American inspectors


Weirdest of all is that nowhere does the book explain that inclusion in the guide is, in itself, a recommendation. I learned that last Wednesday evening, when I participated in a panel discussion about the guide at Barnes & Noble at the Grove. Jean-Luc Naret, director of Michelin guides, was also a panelist, as was Barbara Fairchild, editor in chief of Bon Appetit; it was moderated by Evan Kleiman, chef-owner of Angeli Caffe and host of “Good Food” on KCRW-FM (89.9).

Fairchild and I pressed Naret to explain as much as he would about the inspectors and how decisions were made. There are five inspectors, he said, all Americans, employed full-time by Michelin to cover Los Angeles and Las Vegas (the Las Vegas guide was published Friday). Before being hired, each was invited to dine in a restaurant with Michelin brass, and after the meal the prospective inspector was given a questionnaire to fill out that was used to determine whether his or her expertise was adequate.

The inspectors, Naret said, “are people in the industry” -- former restaurant managers or sommeliers, but not chefs, who might be recognized.

He clarified that not all of L.A. is covered in this first guide -- only the seven areas outlined above. That explains why the marvelous Chinese restaurants of the San Gabriel Valley were ignored, but raises the question: Why Agoura Hills over Alhambra? The decision seems clueless.


To choose the restaurants that would be included, a “pre-selection” of 900 restaurants was assembled. How did they do that? “We choose the pre-selection by looking at newspapers and magazines,” Naret said, gesturing in my direction. For L.A., 263 made it into the guide.

To whittle them down, an inspector dined at each of the 900 restaurants, eliminating some along the way. Then another inspector dined at any that were considered to be included in the guide. “If we find a potential star,” Naret said, “we visit two, three, four, five times.” A potential three-star restaurant is visited 12 times by 12 different inspectors. (There are only 10 inspectors in the U.S., so presumably that means inspectors come from Europe.) A restaurant given two stars is visited six to eight times, Naret said.

The criterion for inclusion or a star ranking is simple, according to Naret: “It’s what’s on the plate.” It’s not about the service, the scene, the ambience, just the cooking.

How curious, then, is the entry for Il Sole, one of the 263 distinguished restaurants that made the cut from the preselected 900 to be featured in the guide: “Il Sole teems with buzz, so if a sauce lacks pizazz, or a pastry is dry, no one seems to care.”


As for the abysmal quality of the prose, Naret defended the book this way: “We are in the business of rating. We’re just getting into the business of writing.”

He wouldn’t say anything further about who the inspectors were. I strongly suspect, though, that one of them lives in Brentwood. Otherwise, it’s just too odd that a whopping 17 restaurants there are listed.

Conejo Valley is also a mini gastronomic wonderland, according to Michelin; listed restaurants include Cafe 14, Hampton’s, Mandevilla, Onyx and Suki 7.

For whatever it’s worth, Michelin Guide Los Angeles 2008 gives its one-star rating to 15 restaurants: Asanebo; Cut; the Dining Room at Ritz-Carlton, Huntington Hotel & Spa; Joe’s; La Botte; Matsuhisa; Mori Sushi; Ortolan; Patina; Providence; Saddle Peak Lodge; Sona; Tre Venezie; Valentino; and Water Grill. Three restaurants get two stars each: Melisse, Spago and Urasawa. No restaurant received the three-star rating.


I’m betting that Angelenos are too smart to care.


Times staff writer Betty Hallock contributed to this report.