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Stars in Our Eyes 

Our selections from the new and controversial Michelin restaurant guide garner mixed reviews

Wednesday, Oct 18 2006
It wasn't exactly stop-the-presses time anywhere but here, but the release of the San Francisco edition of the storied Michelin guide captured the above-the-fold headline of our local daily (relegating the Amish school shooting to below-the-fold status). Sensitive foodies all over the city, it seemed, were bemoaning the fact that of the 28 local restaurants that earned famed Michelin stars, only one, Thomas Keller's French Laundry, garnered the top three-star rating, while four received two stars and 23 got one. Adding insult to injury, last year's Michelin guide to New York City awarded three stars to four restaurants.

Bay Area restaurant mavens chimed in with their disbelief. Why did Sausalito's Sushi Ran garner a star when iconic, unique Zuni, the Slanted Door, and Oliveto were starless? Why list only 356 restaurants when Michelin's inspectors reportedly visited more than a thousand places?

I was eager to enter the debate, even though I have a rather laissez-faire attitude about guide books: I reflexively purchase any and all such tomes, and count myself pleased if I'm led to one good place that I wouldn't otherwise know about. So eager to get involved that I blew off a long-anticipated screening of A High Wind in Jamaica at the Pacific Film Archive when I learned at the last minute that there was to be a panel discussion about the guide featuring Jean-Luc Naret, the director of the guide, as well as four local food writers and editors. Seeing if the adolescent Martin Amis (in his only acting appearance) was as Mick Jagger-esque as I remembered would have to wait while I watched the Frenchie being thrown to the lions, however decorous the setting in the Williams-Sonoma store on Union Square.

But the encounter with representatives of San Francisco and 7x7 magazines, among others, proved to be more of a big wet kiss than a public flaying. Naret, natty in a striped blue-and-white shirt with immaculate white collar and cuffs and a matching snowy pocket square, disarmed his critics by showing humility, and positioning the guide merely as a "different alternative to what you have already," although also saying that "we think these 356 restaurants are the best in San Francisco."

He addresses the rating dispute by saying that the stars are an "international benchmark," and that if you receive one star, you're among the thousand best restaurants in the world; two stars, among the 300 best; and three stars, the 60 best restaurants, and thus "worth a special journey," presumably on Michelin tires. Only 60 restaurants in the world are deemed worthy? I sensed the audience getting the point.

In the commercial spirit of the evening (we are treated to free cheese puffs and mojitos, both available in the W-S catalog, bien sûr — and many are clutching our freshly purchased copies of the $16.95 guide), most of the panel is more interested in plugging their publications than attacking the dapper M. Naret. Only Patricia Unterman from the Examiner seems at all combative, pointing out that the guide, "a very peculiar publication," betrays a French viewpoint. She adds, "Even if your inspectors are American, your form is created by French civilization."

One audience questioner laments the exclusion of the Globe and Coco 500. I concur, but any guide, even the populist Zagat, is going to miss out on something. I'm perplexed by how five inspectors (we're told three American, two French) managed to visit a thousand Bay Area restaurants, some of them multiple times, starting in November 2005, when here we are with a book published in early October 2006.

None of the questioners has managed to unearth the "at least 10 significant errors" in the guide that merit the second above-the-fold story in the local daily a few days later. Most of the mistakes (belly dancers at Aziza no longer; Jamie Passot greeting diners at La Folie, ditto) seem to me to be the result of consulting out-of-date guidebooks and the Internet. I'm more interested in the proof of the pudding, so I use the guide to choose a couple of restaurants to eat at, irrespective of belly dancers or hostesses.

I was picking up my father in Oakland for our regular Friday lunch, and the nearest and likeliest spot turned out to be Soizic, on Broadway near Jack London Square. I was intrigued by its clean-lined art deco facade, but less taken with its two-level interior, a fussy accumulation of antiques both Asian and European, potted plants, statuary, paintings, and tschotkes. I thought the place would look considerably more charming at night, when the cruel light of day disappears, and such discordant touches as the low-rent cutlery, the industrial gray plastic container I can see across the room on the servers' station, and the thick cafeteria-grade cup my soup comes in would be less obvious. (I might not be so critical if the place hadn't received two crossed knives and forks for comfort and style.)

The soup in that cup, a corn chowder, was noticeably devoid of corn flavor. The salmon I tried to order had just run out, and the warm duck confit salad I chose instead, completely covered in slivered almonds, was dominated by its sharp chopped red cabbage. I couldn't detect any of the bacon flavor advertised in its vinaigrette, and the endive leaves under it were quite limp and tired and would have benefited from a frisking in iced water. My father was more pleased with his grilled lamb filet mignon, which I would call a lamb sirloin, though he found its Madeira sauce a bit overwhelming. When I tried to order the ginger custard for dessert, I was informed the kitchen was out of that, too. (Not announcing what is not available until you order, instead of when menus are delivered, is one of my pet peeves.)

Based on my one meal at Soizic, I would not hasten to return. I was saddened on my drive back to pass three Oakland restaurants where one eats considerably better — Luka's Tap Room, Garibaldi's, and Pearl Oyster Bar — none of which is listed in the Michelin guide.

Later, I have to take my friend Ruth out to dinner; she's come to town to see Fleet Week's air show, and is staying in Fisherman's Wharf, pretty much a culinary wasteland. I consult Michelin and make a reservation at A. Sabella's, the first alphabetical listing. Ruth and I are charmed by our vantage point over the bay to the Golden Gate Bridge; as the guide says, "the view is good from any table" in the third-floor spot, above the rather alarming honky-tonk. We dine on good creamy clam chowder (termed "San Francisco" on the menu, which turns out to mean white rather than red), a decent chilled shellfish assortment (wonderful oyster, OK clam, good mussels, excellent grilled scallop with a tart garlicky topping, slightly dull poached shrimp), and quite creditable renditions of Pacific king salmon, served rare as requested, with fresh French green beans and baby carrots, and even better local Petrale sole adorned with bay shrimp and capers in a lemony brown butter sauce.

Without a doubt this is the best seafood spot in an area otherwise filled with tourist traps. And it was easy to find both restaurants because of the very terseness of the Michelin guide (356 restaurants rather than the 1,082 of the 2007 Zagat), and its useful division into neighborhoods. As we share a slightly misnamed but tasty tarte tatin (here the apple slices were cooked separately from the crust), I decide the $16.95 for the guide was a good investment. I give it one star: a very good guide in its category.

About The Author

Meredith Brody

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