Counting stars, from Manhattan to San Francisco
Manny Gonzalez (The Philippine Star) - July 17, 2016 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines -  Michelin (mish-lanh) makes tires. In the early, early days of automobiles, tires didn’t last very many miles, so it was worthwhile for tire-makers to encourage people to drive more, to wear the tires out faster. Some bright person in Sales came up with the idea of the Michelin Guide, which would list the sights, hotels and restaurants around France worth driving to. (The farther the better, one imagines.)

Eventually Michelin settled into the current formula for grading restaurants in which One Star supposedly means “good in its class,” Two means “worth a detour” and Three means “worth a special journey.” (Note the motoring language.)

With these descriptions, you’d think there’d be tons of starred restaurants in virtually every city, but it’s actually a rather rare and much-coveted distinction, and a lot of people take their Michelin stars very seriously. Some years ago – and this is not a joke – a French chef committed suicide, reportedly because he feared a demotion from three to two stars.

So, are the stars a good guide to dining pleasure?

Let’s find out.

In the course of a visit to New York I managed to eat at nine Michelin-starred restaurants in New York and San Francisco, plus one formerly-starred.

Andanada (1 Star). Now this one was an out-and-out disappointment. On the Upper West Side, just a bit north of Columbus Circle, Andanada is billed as a tapas restaurant. Situated in the basement of a brownstone, it featured rather basic sort-of-Hispanic décor, including a garish wall painting. One or two of the tapas were tasty, but the rest, as well as the main-course paella, were ordinary in the extreme. Most of New York seemed to agree with me: on a Sunday evening, despite a superb upscale neighborhood location, it was about 20 percent full.

Gramercy Tavern (1 Star) has regularly been voted New York’s Most Popular Restaurant, despite being in a not-ideal part of Manhattan. Owned by famed restaurateur Danny Meyer, it wound up in this part of town because he couldn’t afford the rents elsewhere (as he himself recounts), but the overall restaurant experience was so good that people came anyway.

Dark and slightly clubby in appearance, the Tavern offers very competent food and warm service and is a great place to get together with friends, especially friends who are willing to treat you at about $120 a head. To get a reservation here, mark the date you want to go, and exactly 30 days before (Eastern Standard/Daylight Time), go to the Union Square Hospitality Group’s website; they don’t accept earlier bookings and you have about a 1-day window before a date sells out.

La Grenouille (luh-ghren-uy) (0 Stars). Some years ago, this was the top restaurant in New York City, perfectly located just off Fifth Avenue, and mere mortals like us could not get in. But times changed, the stars fell away. I wondered, How are the mighty fallen? So I went there for lunch.

The playful name means “The Frog,” from the love/hate British term for the French (“Frogs”), which in turn comes from “frogs,” as in, to eat. Now, I have had frog, and I have the same thing to say about it as for snake, lizard, quail, partridge, grouse, pigeon, and most birds, including chicken: Tastes like chicken.

So I did not have frog at La Grenouille, though they really serve it.

What I did have was excellent, including an inexpensively-priced Dover Sole meuniere and strawberry tarte. But as good as the food was, Michelin probably no longer considered it imaginative, one of the hypothesized cornerstone criteria (the others being terroir – use of local ingredients and influences, and technical skill), and hence the de-listing.

(Michelin will not in fact disclose exactly what its criteria are, except to recite generalities about quality and consistency. But what its criteria do not include are décor and service, which means that 50-90 percent of what most people react to in a restaurant simply do not figure in Michelin stars.)

If you are not bothered by the lack of Michelin acclaim, La Grenouille is still a great place to dine in. And the waiters (all French) have mellowed over the years. There was a guy beside me who was evidently from the Midwest, and ordered the “foy grass” for his young lady companion. All the servers kept perfectly straight faces.

Marea (2 Stars). On Central Park South, Marea serves modern Italian to a well-heeled Midtown crowd and rich Chinese tourists (so it looked when I went). For a relatively-modest $80++ for the businessman’s lunch ($55) and a glass of wine ($25), I had a kind of asparagus dish and a mushroom risotto that were both knockouts, and a dessert of some kind that didn’t impress.

What did impress was the service, by this guy in charge of the rear section, where they send all the marginal diners. This gentleman was the best server I have ever encountered; every word, every pause, every raise of the eyebrows was carefully calculated to make you feel that Jeeves himself was waiting on you.

Gabriel Kreuther (1 Star, rising fast). This chef used to work at another famed restaurant in Manhattan, then very recently opened his own place just around the corner from the New York Public Library and almost immediately was awarded a star. Kreuther has a bland, impersonal decorating scheme. However, as soon as you enter, a maitre d’ for your section (in my case, an African-American named Miguel) comes by to welcome you and put you at ease.

The restaurant has a fairly standard 4-course prix fixe for a starting price of about $125 (plus supplements, wine, tip and tax). My opener was very good – Compressed Hamachi, a sashimi tuna blended with foie gras and truffles and made into a stiff terrine. But it went downhill from there, to a caviar-and-sauerkraut tarte with the merest hint of caviar on it, then a competent but forgettable Nova Scotia halibut.

Dessert was not good at all. “Millefeuille” means “thousand leaves,” a filo-like pastry with very thin sheets piled high, with something in between for flavor. (The Filipino Napoleon is a millefeuille, for example.) But all over the world, lazy chefs are just constructing something like an Oreo and calling it millefeuille, and that’s what Gabriel Kreuther did. He and his French chef should know better.

Now for a quick hop to San Francisco, before returning to Manhattan.

The French Laundry (3 Stars), Napa Valley. This was the surprise of my culinary journey, because I never expected to even get in. For over a decade, The French Laundry has been regarded as the best restaurant in North America, so most people need to reserve a year in advance. However, if you have VIP connections as I do, maybe you can cut the line.

When I told an old friend I was passing through San Francisco, he asked which restaurant I’d like to go to. I said The French Laundry, fully expecting him to laugh at me. But, two days later, he said we were good to go. And we went. If you need a reservation at The French Laundry on short notice, you need to go to this man – not me.

As we motored up to Yountville, of course I insisted that I would pay the bill. Of course they said yes. When we arrived, the general manager, Michael Minillo, greeted us at the door and said “Mr. and Mrs. ____, it’s so nice to see you back” (I omit the name in case he is being watched by the FBI or the IRS). I have to admit I was impressed, but there was more to come.

At our table, the best in the house, there was an ornate card. It was a personal note from Thomas Keller, the celebrity chef-owner, wishing my hosts and “your guest” (that’s me) a wonderful evening. Whoa, I remarked to myself, this was heavy-duty Clout by any standard.

But things got out of control from there, when the sommelier appeared with a bottle of Dom Perignon ’08 and without asking permission just opened it. I felt a hole open up in my stomach, as this bottle costs over $200 in a wine store, and would certainly be marked up to at least $800 at a top restaurant.

Five minutes later, my host pushed his champagne glass away (and never touched it again), and said, “Bring us a good white Burgundy.” I thought he meant a Chablis – maybe $200 at the restaurant. But when the manager came back, it was with a Chevalier-Montrachet, which would no doubt cost over $2,000 at a place like this.

I was now contemplating a bill which might reach $5,000 for the three of us, and was having palpitations wondering if my $5,000-limit credit card would bounce. But in the end, I need not have worried. My friend apparently has so much Influence that, after he complained about one of the courses, the management shook in fear, and decided to comp the whole meal – everything! So, the truth is that I don’t remember what we ate, but I guess it was good. Except for the battered sea-slug, which tasted like slug.

Benu (3 Stars), Downtown San Francisco. In the dog-eat-dog world of Michelin stars, chefs are constantly on the make, looking for the Main Chance. Corey Lee used to work for Thomas Keller, then quit to open his own restaurant. The mystifying name Benu is an Egyptian word for phoenix, as apparently Corey considered himself re-born when he set up his own shop.

There is no a la carte menu, just the full 20-course tasting menu. The inspiration is decidedly Asian, and while some courses seem to be originals, others are “takes” on traditional dishes, like xiao long bao. The seemingly never-ending succession of plates was interesting, but in the end emotionally unengaging, nothing like a really good crispy pata (also Asian).

Benu recently remodeled its interior. The tables are bare, the walls are now a blank charcoal grey and half the diners (there are about 40 seats) are facing said blank wall. Personally I didn’t like this approach, but such is the draw of 3 Michelin stars that as of this writing, reservations need to be made about 1 ½ months in advance.

Back in New York –

Aquavit (2 Stars). By some people’s judgment, THE best restaurant in the world is one in Copenhagen. Called Noma (“Nordic food”), it has been #1 in four out of the past five years, though in 2015 it slipped to third place. I haven’t been there, but it has done wonders for people’s opinion of Scandinavian cooking, and Aquavit (East 55th St. and Madison Avenue, which is nowhere near Copenhagen) is undoubtedly one of the beneficiaries.

Now here, again, I am somewhat mystified by the workings of the Michelin mind. For a set lunch, what I got was shrimp salad with dill on brown bread, and a main course billed as “Scandinavian Bouillabaisse.” The shrimp salad was prettily-presented and tasty, but still just a shrimp salad. The bouillabaisse turned out to be seven bites of miscellaneous seafood and one tablespoon of foam, again lovely to look at, but nothing that made my heart sing.

(By the way, if you ever want a really good bouillabaisse, don’t go to Marseilles, where it is too authentic – a means of recycling fish caught by accident, which were too spiny and couldn’t be sold to the general public. My choice for a terrific un-authentic bouillabaisse is Chez Freddy, in Nice; they also have a great un-authentic paella.)

Anyway, New York City perhaps agrees with me on Aquavit. Despite its quite small size, as of this writing, it is possible to get reservations on the same day you want to go.

Le Bernardin (3 Stars). One of six restaurants in New York with 3 Michelin stars, Bernardin is playing its status for all it’s worth, squeezing three seatings per evening (compared with the usual one, or at a stretch two). This allows them (financially) to have a 4-course prix fixe dinner (with many choices) for only $150, instead of a compulsory tasting menu like Benu’s, which is almost $300.

The interior at Bernardin is very glitzy modern and looks like a million dollars.

I have to say that the food was pretty good, especially the complimentary opener, which was three kinds of raw shellfish, done in different ways. For the rest of the meal, suffice it to say that it was also mostly seafood, which is what the place is highly touted for. My dessert was Peruvian chocolate cake and caramel ice cream and it was just fine, but not as good as a thick strawberry milkshake.

Where Bernardin is a bit of a letdown is in the service. It is so efficient and impersonal, and the dishes arrive with such clockwork precision, that you soon come to feel that you are part of a conveyor belt, and have exactly two hours to order, eat and get going.

And now, the best for last

The Modern (2 Stars). Starting out some years back as the cafeteria of the Museum of Modern Art on West 53rd St., The Modern has morphed over the years into a high point of Manhattan cuisine. Like the Gramercy Tavern, it is owned/managed by Danny Meyer’s group, which is also responsible for Shake Shack.

Though the interior décor is a bit icy and monochromatic, this is a restaurant that’s firing on all cylinders. The food is very good, and there’s enough of it. No cuisine minceur here. Right off the bat, they serve you a knockout amuse-bouche that consists of a slow-shirred egg with minced vegetables (I know it doesn’t sound very exciting, but taking 45 minutes to bake an egg while still leaving it runny results in a dish of sublime character).

The dishes throughout the four courses ($128 for lunch, and no tipping!) are recognizable to the average palate – pasta, sea bass, lobster, chicken, beef – yet each has a distinctive, original treatment that makes your stomach stand up and take notice.

And the service is very Danny Meyer – warm, friendly, designed to make you feel at ease and at home, no matter how much of a yokel you are. During my two meals at The Modern (one was not enough), I got to meet Jason the headwaiter, Tony the assistant manager and Barbara the sommeliere. We talked a bit about food, a bit about wine, a bit about the fact that I didn’t live there and they might not see me again for some time. Still, I distinctly felt that I was among friends, and that they were interested in providing me with a superior dining experience without needing to count the dollars they might make off me.

If you can afford only one fancy restaurant in New York, this is the place I recommend.

The author is founder and CEO of Plantation Bay Resort in Mactan, Cebu.

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