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.
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).