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Michelin -- will it see the stars in L.A.?

March 28, 2007|Russ Parsons | Times Staff Writer

THE restaurant world's most famous little red book -- the Michelin Guide -- will be coming to Southern California this fall. In fact, inspectors are already hard at work here, touring the area's best restaurants and filling out score sheets.

In addition to the Southern California guide, Michelin will also be introducing a separate guide for Las Vegas this October as well as one for Tokyo that was announced two weeks ago.

These books continue Michelin's push into international publishing. In 2006 it entered the American market with a guide to New York City, and last year it introduced one for San Francisco (published in the fall but titled "2007").

Los Angeles has a full-time team of six inspectors and Las Vegas four, says Christian Delhaye, the Paris-based president of Michelin Maps & Guides. Each local inspector averages more than 300 restaurant meals per year, he says. Their reports are supplemented by visits from inspectors from outside the area -- from not only the United States, but Europe as well.

"I think that all the restaurants in the world need to have a scale," Delhaye says. "We have been publishing this guide for 107 years and what we bring is an international selection of good quality. We are very proud of that. But we are also coming with a lot of humility, discovering the diversity of the area every day with all of our inspectors there."

A rare distinction

SO far, only four restaurants in the United States have earned the guide's coveted three stars, and only one on the West Coast -- Thomas Keller's French Laundry in Napa Valley. In New York the honor has gone to Keller's Per Se, Jean-George Vongerichten's Jean-George and Eric Ripert's Le Bernardin. Alain Ducasse at the Essex House had won three stars in 2006, but was dropped this year because it is moving.

That compares with 10 three-star restaurants in Paris alone and 26 in France.

American restaurants receiving two stars include four restaurants in each area: Aqua, Michael Mina, Manresa and Cyrus in the Bay Area; and Bouley, Daniel, Del Posto and Masa in New York.

Even at home, Michelin's judgments often come with a generous side helping of controversy. But that is particularly true when the guide ventures beyond its French-based comfort zone.

That is unlikely to change in Southern California. Piero Selvaggio, owner of Valentino, Santa Monica's grande dame of fine dining, says the area's casual culture just isn't geared to the kind of restaurant Michelin tends to honor.

"Let's be honest, I cannot think of one single restaurant here that will get three stars," he says. "I can think of only maybe a couple that could get two stars. We are a much looser community. Quality is important but as for the other requirements of Michelin, I don't think so.

"In San Francisco, they had the French Laundry, but we don't have a French Laundry. In New York, they had Per Se and a couple of French temples that are probably not doing so much business anymore.

"Look, the great temples of ecstasy are becoming rarer and rarer. Even in Europe, they are the ones who are having a hard time doing business. Here in Los Angeles, we have a perfect example of how restaurants will be in the future."

Delhaye argues that formality is not necessarily a requirement of high Michelin ranking. "For us, the stars are for the quality of the gastronomy in the place. The fact that the customers are coming in jeans, that's not a problem."

He points out that in Paris, L'Astrance won three stars this year despite being relatively informal.

Other local restaurateurs seem to be reacting to the announcement with a mixture of glee and trepidation, like NBA players selected for their first all-star team only to be told they will be guarding Kobe Bryant one-on-one.

"This is huge," says Michael Cimarusti, chef at Providence, one of Los Angeles' top-rated restaurants.

"It's exciting, it's scary, it's a little bit of everything. As a young cook, you always dream of working in a Michelin-starred restaurant. This may be overly flattering, but to think that one day Providence might earn one ... gosh, wouldn't that be something?"

Josiah Citrin, chef at Santa Monica's plush Melisse, echoed the sentiment. "I'm excited because, of course, that's what all chefs dream of, getting stars. Another part of me is nervous because this is a different city than other places they're used to and regardless of what the guide wants, we have to do what we have to do to keep customers coming in."

Casual may not cut it

CITRIN does worry that Southern California's casual nature -- where even the finest restaurants have diners in blue jeans and T-shirts -- might count against local restaurants.

"This is a very informal city," he says. "We're constantly fighting the perception of what being a high-end restaurant means. Especially with first-time diners, I hear all the time that they weren't sure they wanted to come because they thought we'd be stuffy and uncomfortable.

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