counting the stars… part i

I must apologize and account for my long absence from posting. If I have any readers left out there, thanks for hangin’ in there and spread the word that I’m back!

I’ve been eating my way around Europe… and “chasing the (Michelin) stars.” I’ve spent quite a lot of time (and money) scoping out the high and low-end dining scenes. I’ve met joys and disappointments. I’ve still got a few more on my radar before I must leave, but I thought that the advent of the Michelin Guide for the City of New York (hitting the streets on Friday (read about it here)) would make a good segue into some initial observations about the Guide Rouge.

Personally, not having experience eating at high-end establishments outside the United States, the entire Michelin phenomenon had always been of passing amusement to me. I had always been much more concerned with, and followed Zagat (though skeptically) and trustworthy restaurant savvy friends. As well, I made good use of restaurant critics whom I had come to know and agree with.

Getting acquainted with the marshmallowy white “gourmand” of Europe has been great fun. I purchased the “Main European Cities” (2005) edition and have made very good use of it (in English – unlike the guides for individual countries, which are printed in the local language). The dog-eared and margin-marked book has been my companion throughout my travels. Although it lacks a lot insight into the more provencial and out-of-the-way places, I’ve found it immensely practical for my purposes – providing a thorough run down of the usual, and unusual, suspects in the cities I’ve visited: Stockholm, Barcelona, Salzburg, Luxembourg, Warsaw, Dublin, Paris, just to name a few.

Now, having eaten at a host of both starred, and non-starred restaurants, I have a few personal observations I’d like to note.

1. 3 stars are not necessarily better than 2. At least, this has been my observation from the two 3-starred restaurants I’ve visited vis-a-vis the 2-starred places I’ve eaten at. Why? I suspect it has something to do with the fact that 2-starred places are usually striving for a third star, and thus are more conscious about service, value and presentation. The two 3-starred restaurants I’ve visited (teaser for upcoming reviews) seem to fit this mode and attitude…

2. 2 stars are not necessarily, but usually are, better than 1. The advantage of one star seems to be value. Although this isn’t always the case, it seems to hold true for the majority of my experiences.

3. France, the British Isles (including the Republic of Ireland), and especially the Scandanavian countries are a cut above in prices, but not in quality or value in France and Britain. The Scandanavians are a little more reasonable in value – for them, it’s more a factor of sheer economics. I get the feeling that the French, Irish, and British food industries are just wantonly obnoxious.

4. Germanic speaking countries have better value and service.

5. “Bib Gourmand” establishments tend to be good finds at good value.

6. Do not confuse the “couverts” index with the food index… though difficult, I have learned (personally), to ignore the couverts… as comfort isn’t most important thing to me.

7. Stars go with the chef, not with the establishment… so losing a star, doesn’t necessarily mean service/food is worse, it could mean that the lauded chef has left. It could very well be that whoever fills their toque could have similar aspirations, and perhaps improve, upon their predecessor’s work. (see # 1 above).

8. Eating in hotels is often just as good, if not better, than at independent restaurants. This isn’t usually the case in the U.S. (other than Hawaii, New York City, and perhaps Frisco and Chicago).

Stay in tune for more observations… and Part II of this string, where I’ll give my personal reflections on the “stellar” results of the Guide Michelin in New York…

~ by ulterior epicure on November 2, 2005.

4 Responses to “counting the stars… part i”

  1. Why is a tire company telling me where the good restaurants are? Well, I guess the Michelin man is pretty overweight, so maybe he has eaten in all of these places :)

  2. That’s an impressively extensive trip. Let me also suggest you consider a trip to the countryside of at least one of those countries. My choices would be France and Spain. Over a series of less extensive trips over a long period of time, I’ve reached some of the same conclusions you have about two and three star restaurants.

    In fact, I was discussing this with a chef in NY who’s cooked and eaten in two and three star restaurants in France. Two star restaurants are often trying harder and it shows. Three stars are often worried about losing the star and get uptight. Three star restaurants are also the most sought after reservations and the staff is overworked. The trick is in spotting the two star restaurants on their way up.

    One star in the city and one star in country may have different meaning. In either case, the value is relative. A one star restaurant near other starred restaurants is likely to be a lot better than a one star restaurant in an impoverished area.

    While the stars are associated with the chef, not the restaurant, it’s curious that Michelin chose to award three stars to ADNY in it’s first NY guide when the chef there had changed a couple of times in one year.

  3. …good catch on adny – indeed… perhaps michelin is recognizing a difference in the m.o. in american kitchens?

    as for my extensive trip – it’s not over yet… i’m still on “the continent.” so, please do forward your suggestions in the french countryside to me. as well – any in the german/northern regions.

    currently, i am based in the netherlands.

    cheers.
    u.e.

  4. It’s been a long while since I’ve been in that neck of the woods, but Alsace has a great reputation for excellent food and country restaurants. In my estimation, the full joys of the countryside require a car and we usually make it a point to rent a car for at least part of our visits to Europe. Note that I don’t own a car in NY, but find it essential to reach out of the way places when abroad. Without a car, I’d suggest Strasbourg would be a rewarding trip with a one, two and tree star restaurant within the city limits and enough sightseeing to justify the trip for the gastronomically impaired.

    Our most recent trip to the NE of France was in October of 2001. Reports of four year old restaurant visits are too old to be very reliable, although restaurants in small towns may change more slowly than those in cities. I enjoyed l’Huitière in Lillle very much, but as much, or more, for the service and atmosphere than for the cooking. I’d stick with raw oysters and simple food. That’s hardly a recommendation for a special trip and while I believe it may have offered Lille’s best in 2001, there may be better choices today.

    I assume Béthune has a railyway station. All that I remember about the town is the small town hall with an oddly monumental facade. That and a very comfortable bed with down comforter in a room with a tiny bathroom upstairs from the dining room in the Meurin where I had a eel dish that will live long in my memory. Here’s what I posted about Marc Meurin several years ago on a web site.

    We ate well here, although perhaps a bit less well than we had expected for a two star meal. It’s also worth noting that this is a region of few stars. There were some minor service glitches. I recall that the hostess took forever to bring our red wine. As I recall we ordered a half bottle each of white and red.

    The one dish that was truly outstanding was my eel with herbs and a reduction of Kriek beer. It came on some sort of canapé that was most useful for sopping up what was left of a very intense and surprisingly winey sauce. It was one of dishes whose flavor is so addictive, you don’t realize how rich it is. My only regret was that I had ordered a white for my wife’s langoutines and the eel, but it would have much better with a big red or maybe a Kriek beer. Anyway it was a dish worthy of multiple stars. The rest of our meal was good, but not outstanding.

    While nothing we had at the one star L’Huitière in Lille the next evening matched my eel, my wife thought her langoustine dish at L’Huitière was better than the one at Meurin. Of course it’s hard to judge a restaurant on one meal. Nor could I guaranty you’d love the eel as much as I did, but I’d recommend it anyway. Even if I didn’t like it, I would have appreciated it’s unique character. You can use that as a guide to my attitude towards food.

    The place is most pleasant, if over decorated with too many elements. We also stayed the night in a small but charming room, upstairs from the dining room, with a large bed and comforter and lots of central heating. I had to figure out how to open the double windows and shutters to let in a bit of cold air. The bathroom (shower only) was tiny, but brand new and very shipshape.

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