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Michelin Guide awards stars to 24 L.A. restaurants; city shut out of three-stars

HUNTINGTON BEACH, CALIF. -- MONDAY, JUNE 3, 2019: n/naka, Culver City chef Niki Nakayama, center, ce
Chef Niki Nakayama, center, celebrates after her restaurant, n/naka, was awarded two Michelin stars during a live reveal of the 2019 California Michelin Guide in Huntington Beach.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

The Michelin guessing game is over.

Two months after announcing that it would once again evaluate the dining scene in Los Angeles, the prestigious but unpredictable Michelin Guide awarded stars to 90 California restaurants on Monday, including 24 in L.A.

The reveal event, held in Huntington Beach and attended by hundreds of chefs and food journalists, marked the debut of the California edition of the Michelin Guide. It is the first time the French tire company and its team of anonymous inspectors have rated restaurants across an entire state in the U.S. rather than a specific city.

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As was the case when Michelin published L.A. guides in 2008 and 2009, the city was shut out of the three-star category, its highest rating.

Two-star winners in Los Angeles were n/naka, Providence, Somni, Sushi Ginza Onodera, Urasawa and Vespertine.

“I just want to say: We’re a team of 20, with 13 girls and seven men,” a tearful Niki Nakayama said onstage of her Palms kaiseki restaurant, n/naka. “California is a state of dreams, and our restaurant could only exist in California.”

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This year’s Michelin-starred California chefs. Two dozen L.A. restaurants were awarded stars in the inaugural issue of the statewide guide.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Eighteen L.A. restaurants received one star: Hayato, Cut, Dialogue, Kali, Kato, Bistro Na’s, Le Comptoir, Maude, Mori Sushi, Nozawa Bar, Orsa & Winston, Osteria Mozza, Rustic Canyon, Q Sushi, Shibumi, Shin Sushi, Shunji and Trois Mec. Taco Maria in Costa Mesa also received a star. All told, there were 69 one-star restaurants in California.

How Michelin’s team of anonymous inspectors would evaluate Los Angeles in its first year back was a hotly debated topic within the city’s restaurant community. In particular, would the guide — which has been criticized for giving too much weight to fancy European food, luxury trappings and formal service over stellar food — find a way to capture L.A.’s complex and wide-ranging dining scene?

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For the most part, Michelin’s Los Angeles picks were predictable, with some notable omissions — such as Wolfgang Puck’s Spago, which received two stars in the 2009 Los Angeles guide; Ori Menashe and Genevieve Gergis’ Bestia and Bavel; Scratch Bar & Kitchen in Encino; and Republique.

Last week, Michelin gave its first indication of how it had judged Los Angeles when it revealed its 151 California Bib Gourmand winners; restaurants on that list, according to the company, provide “high-quality meals which include two courses and a glass of wine or dessert for $40 or less.”

In L.A., five dozen restaurants were named to the Bib Gourmand list, Pizzeria Mozza, Langer’s, Sqirl, Meals by Genet and Mariscos Jalisco among them. Five in Orange County were included.

This unprecedented expansion of the Michelin Guide gives full credit to California and its leading role as a culinary powerhouse.
Gwendal Poullennec, international director of the Michelin Guides
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Michelin’s star ratings are considered among the most coveted honors a restaurant can earn, along with the annual World’s 50 Best Restaurants list and the James Beard awards.

The release of a statewide guide is a nod to California’s strength as a premier food destination, guide officials said.

“Our inspectors have been very impressed by the world-class level of California gastronomy,” Gwendal Poullennec, the international director of the Michelin Guides, said in his opening remarks. “This unprecedented expansion of the Michelin Guide gives full credit to California and its leading role as a culinary powerhouse.”

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First published by Michelin in 1900, the guide has become an indispensable resource for high-end diners; for restaurants, earning even one star is typically accompanied by a surge in business and prestige.

“I feel relieved,” said chef Kevin Meehan after his Hancock Park restaurant, Kali, was awarded a star. “I’ve worked with mostly Michelin restaurants my whole career, so I’m glad to be part of the club. It’s a huge honor.”

Michelin released just two L.A. guides before pulling out a decade ago due to mixed reception, poor sales and economic challenges. Since then, the dining scene has changed dramatically, leading to heightened speculation in recent years that it would make a comeback.

Michelin publishes 32 guides annually in more than two dozen countries, including four in the U.S.: New York, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and now, California.

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As expected, the San Francisco Bay Area — which previously had its own guide but, starting this year, was folded into the statewide edition — dominated the highest rung of the rankings, with seven restaurants (the French Laundry, Atelier Crenn, Benu, Quince, the Restaurant at Meadowood, Manresa and SingleThread) holding onto their three-star ratings.

L.A. needs to work harder to have a three-star Michelin restaurant.
Ludo Lefebvre, chef of one-Michelin-starred Trois Mec

After the event, Poullennec acknowledged the lack of any new three-star restaurants in the state, and none in Los Angeles. He noted that in its first year of publication, in 2007, the San Francisco Michelin Guide only awarded three stars to one restaurant, Thomas Keller’s the French Laundry.

“We really feel California has potential for more starred restaurants, and more three-star restaurants,” Poullennec said. “We’re optimistic for the coming years.”

That’s giving chefs, especially those around Los Angeles, something to aim for.

“L.A. needs to work harder to have a three-star Michelin restaurant,” said Ludo Lefebvre, whose French tasting menu restaurant Trois Mec was awarded one star.

HUNTINGTON BEACH, CALIF. -- MONDAY, JUNE 3, 2019: Executive Chef Yohei Matsuki, right, celebrates he
Executive Chef Yohei Matsuki celebrates after his West Hollywood restaurant, Sushi Ginza Onodera, was awarded two Michelin stars.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Michelin’s introduction of a California guide was not without controversy. Shortly after the company announced in March that it would debut a statewide guide, restaurant industry blog Family Meal reported that the state’s tourism board paid $600,000 for Michelin to launch it.

Poullennec briefly touched on that arrangement on stage Monday, saying Michelin inspectors were “fully independent and committed to seeking out the finest establishments.”

In an interview afterward, he reiterated that releasing a California guide was a “purely editorial decision based on culinary potential” and called it a “transparent partnership.”

What rings true and false for Los Angeles in Michelin’s new California guide »

In recent weeks, chefs around the city anxiously compared notes on who received invitations to the live reveal, who was left out and what it all meant.

“My dad told me if I got two stars, he’d never bug me about grad school again,” Kato chef Jon Yao said ahead of the event.

The 27-year-old didn’t get two — his West L.A. Taiwanese tasting menu restaurant received one star — but he took it in stride.

“It’s a good ladder,” Yao said. “I do want two or three, but this is a good step toward getting that.”

“And no more grad school,” he continued. “I just checked with my dad. He was stoked.”

Times staff writer Jenn Harris contributed to this report.

andrea.chang@latimes.com

Twitter: @byandreachang

Instagram: @byandreachang


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