Three weeks ago, on a Thursday, shortly after lunch service at Oceana, the elegant seafood restaurant on East 54th Street, a short, slight man in a business suit presented himself to the receptionist and inquired, in an unmistakable French accent, if he could have a word with the manager.
Paul McLaughlin, the restaurant’s managing partner, promptly arrived and greeted him, presuming that he was a wine salesman or someone soliciting advertising for a magazine or newspaper. The man didn’t offer a business card and introduced himself by first name only: Jean Eric.
“I thought that was a little unusual,” recalled Mr. McLaughlin.
“I am from the Michelin Guide,” Jean Eric said, “and would like to interview you and your chef.”
Mr. McLaughlin was startled, to say the least. For one thing, he was aware that the first edition of the Michelin Guide to New York City hotels and restaurants-heretofore mainly published in Europe-was in the works (the publication date set for Nov. 15). And like all Michelin restaurant guides, this one presumably would adhere to the company’s decades-old policy of absolute, almost fanatical, anonymity for its inspectors. What’s more, Jean Eric informed Mr. McLaughlin that two different Michelin reviewers had already dined at Oceana, each separately. Today’s interview was just a routine follow-up.
It seemed harmless enough. The chef, Cornelius Gallagher, was called up from the kitchen to take part in the discussion, which lasted a full hour-a genial grilling that touched on everything from the philosophy of the restaurant to its history, its clientele and the résumés of every person of responsibility on staff, down to the line cooks.
“He was very ‘Frenchy,’ if you know what I mean,” said Mr. Gallagher. “He was sort of official, but nice.”
Jean Eric then asked if he could tour the premises. In the dining rooms, he took note of every little detail: the wallpaper, the tablecloths, the paintings, the flatware, the sconces, the plates-everything short of the colors of the electrical outlets. In the kitchen, he was equally assiduous.
“He went everywhere!” Mr. Gallagher said. “The fish storage, the butchering area, the walk-in coolers, the cooking stations.” He examined the wine selection, noting the commendable collection of Pacific Northwest pinot noirs. Mr. Gallagher was asked to provide him a recipe for one of his signature dishes, with photos (for the record, it was roasted Chatham halibut with spicy organic carrots and pork roasting juice).
He jotted down details about the ovens and burners, the kitchen design. (“He said he liked the flow of the work stations,” Mr. Gallagher pointed out. “Very French.”) With this astounding level of scrutiny, it would not have been a surprise if Jean Eric had pulled out a pipe wrench to check the water pressure under the sink.
Similar scenes are now playing out in top Manhattan restaurants like Alain Ducasse, Le Bernardin, Bouley, Cru, Aureole, Chanterelle, Daniel and other establishments that have made the cut for inclusion in the Michelin Guide to New York City (500 restaurants total). Some restaurants such as Le Bernardin and Aureole have had an easier time of it-that is to say, tidy sink drains and well-chilled halibuts are not part of the routine. But the arrival of Michelin has tongues wagging nonetheless.
To meet its November publication date, the guide’s five full-time restaurant inspectors are wrapping up their assessments and conducting interviews in the next two months. Such scrutiny is rare in the New York restaurant-reviewing game. Anonymity is one reason. As for poking around the kitchen, that’s considered the province of city inspectors. The majority of restaurateurs, while put off at first, actually welcome scrutiny and said customers should be reassured that the entire operation passes muster. Of course, it was no surprise that none of the chefs and restaurateurs had a critical word for the Michelin Guide.
“I was really spooked when he came in and started going through everything,” said Shea Gallante, chef of Cru on lower Fifth Avenue. “Overall, though, I like the system. It’s thorough.”
The Michelin Guide to New York City, which is expected to sell for $15.95, will critique restaurants in the five boroughs as well as the city’s top 50 hotels. Designed for both tourists and New Yorkers, it will carry many of the icons and abbreviations found in the familiar “red guide,” the book that awards the all-powerful stars (one to three).
The stars break down like this:
-One star: “A very good restaurant in its category.”
-Two stars: “Excellent cooking, worth a detour.”
-Three stars: “One of the best, worth a special journey.”
Michelin’s methodology for the New York publication is similar to that for its hotel and restaurant “red guides” in Europe and beyond, which includes anonymous visits by a revolving team of inspectors (to avert inspectors being recognized) and an incremental rating system, whereby restaurants earn stars gradually over several or more years. It is virtually impossible for a new restaurant to earn the top rating of three stars. So does that mean the debut edition of the New York guide will have no three-star restaurants?
“We have to treat New York differently,” said Jean-Luc Naret, director of all the Michelin Guides, in a telephone interview from Paris. “If a restaurant is two-star quality, we will give it two stars right away. And if it is three, we will give it three.”
Mr. Naret also pointed out that in Europe, Michelin stars are awarded on the basis of the “overall dining experience,” in which service and the setting carry as much or more weight than the food. As for the rigorous kitchen inspections, he said that they usually have little to do with the star ratings, unless there are big problems, which are rare.
Some in New York dining circles expressed concern about a French company with French inspectors and French dining traditions evaluating American restaurants.
“I think the Michelin is a great thing for New York,” assayed Mr. Gallagher. “But there is some of that feeling that it’s a French thing and they are going to play favorites, or that the French are so traditional that they won’t understand us.”
Michael Batterberry, editor in chief and publisher of Food Arts Magazine, is also reserving judgment. “It still concerns me a little that the French, by imposing their own criteria, could be creating their own cultural destiny,” he said.
Adds Bobby Flay, the TV chef and owner of Bolo, Mesa Grill and Bar Americain, “With our system in New York, you can get to know a critic’s palate, I guess-but this is different.”
But Mr. Naret bristles at such a suggestion. “We are not a French company; we are a European company, an international company,” he said. “Twenty years ago, it would have been different, but not now.”
He is also quick to point out that his New York inspectors comprise four men (French) and one woman, an American, who was dispatched to France for training. She was chosen in part because of her anonymity in New York. (If experiences with the rest of the print press are any indication, she has about six months to go before her wedding-announcement photo is gracing the walls of city kitchens.)
While it’s true that the roving French inspectors may encounter exotic, even zany, creations at the hands of young, experimental cooks, as well as genres of cooking unfamiliar to them-Southwestern, Floribbean, Cajun, Tex-Mex-they are not altogether swaddled in traditional Gallic fare. Take the mad professor Ferran Adria in Spain, whose gastronomic missionaries have planted flags in much of Europe and, increasingly, in the States.
The only other restaurant guides that inspect kitchens, dining rooms and perhaps restroom soap dispensers are the Mobil Travel Guide and the A.A.A. TourBooks Travel Guides. Both employ a five-point scale system-stars for Mobil and diamonds for A.A.A.-and attempt to employ anonymous experts, many of whom come from the hospitality industry. The 2005 Mobil book awarded five stars to three Manhattan restaurants: Alain Ducasse, Jean Georges and Masa. Top kudos from the A.A.A. book went to Alain Ducasse, Atelier, Aureole, Jean Georges, Le Cirque 2000 (since closed) and Daniel.
So while Michelin is an editorial dirigible that casts a shadow across Europe, its power in New York remains to be seen. For one, the book comes out annually, so the city’s fervid foodies-who make reservations at new places before the architectural drawings are completed-may find it of little utility on a day-to-day basis. Also, unlike 20 years ago, New York City is rich with sources of up-to-date restaurant information, both in print and on the Internet. (While the Zagat Survey is an annual book, it now offers information on openings and closings on its Web site.) To the uninitiated, some may find the Michelin Guide-which carries only 500 of the city’s top restaurants-incomplete, or elitist.
But despite all these possible hurdles, most chefs and restaurateurs said that the Michelin name would be a big success.
“I think they will do very well,” said Daniel Boulud, of Daniel and DB Bistro Moderne. “It’s the oldest form of classification, and the most honest. I think that for food and in every way, they are going to raise the bar.”
Eric Ripert, the chef and partner of Le Bernardin, who was reached by telephone in Barcelona, also has little doubt: “It will be a big success, especially if there are controversial ratings at the top. Everybody will be talking about it, and it will get lots of press.”
For restaurateurs, however, there’s another concern. In conventional restaurant reviews, critics analyze many dishes, both good and bad. They may offer a restaurant constructive criticism concerning its food, décor and service. With Michelin, there is no individual critic, so there is no feedback. It is like getting punched in the gut by a ghost.
“From a chef’s point of view, I think it’s always good to have specifics on dishes or tastes or presentation,” said Charlie Palmer of Aureole. “We have always looked very closely and, in some cases, have made adjustments because of critiques.”
Michael Lomonaco, chef at Guastavino’s, said he welcomed constructive criticism. “I make my sous chefs, the young cooks, everybody read every critique,” he said. “That’s how we keep up with the popular tastes.”
In New York, restaurant criticism is personality-driven: What did Gael say? What did Bruni say? Michelin is a bullet-proof machine. No major food critic in this city can get away with anonymity, at least in the top establishments, for more than a year-the gastronomic grapevine is too well-greased. Michelin appears to have worked that out. Or have they?
“In France, we sometimes know them because they come alone, usually for lunch, and are very curious,” said Yannis Stanisières, manager of restaurant Alain Ducasse. “He might order foie gras to start and then tournedos Rossini. Then he waits to see if the maître d’hotel says to him, ‘Sir, you have two dishes with foie gras.'”
Given the size of portions in this country, that old French double-foie-gras trick might not be as effective. A big eater in New York could knock off those livers with the bread sticks.
Michelin has a lot to learn.
“This is a pilot project,” said Mr. Naret. “We are not the French coming to conquer America. This will be done with much humility.”