The French Taste New York

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Is a Greenwich Village pub that serves $13 burgers worthy of a Michelin star? A few years ago, the answer probably would have been Mais Non! Michelin—the legendary French restaurant guide whose ratings make or break the great chefs of Europe—is, after all, famously stingy in doling out stars. It has granted its single star to only 1,500 out of the 45,000 eateries and hotels it has scrutinized, and its coveted three stars grace only 50 restaurants in all of the EU. Michelin claims the stars are based on "what's on the plate," but most chefs don't buy that. "There had to be so many inches between the tables to go a step up," says leading New York chef David Bouley, who apprenticed at Michelin-starred restaurants in France. "You had to have certain kinds of china, glassware, linens." In the '80s, in fact, Michelin sent an "inspector" to assess New York's restaurants. His verdicts were never released, but the fact that no guidebook came of the exercise suggests that back then, at least, New York establishments couldn't pass the Michelin sniff test.

Now, it appears, that the guide, launched in 1900 as the eponymous tire maker's handbook for pioneering automotive travelers, has concluded that some of the city's restaurants are "worth a special journey," after all. Michelin this week unveiled its first New York City guide, rating 507 restaurants and 50 hotels, and sparking one of the more intriguing Franco-American rivalries in years. It pits the tastes of the Michelin Inspecteur, dining alone and pronouncing his verdict in secret, against the democratic verdict in Zagat, the everyman guide whose ratings are based on survey responses from thousands of diners. "We're not going to replace Zagat," says Jean-Luc Naret, director of the Michelin guides. "We came here with a lot of humility."

French on Top

The New York book ($16.95) is Michelin's first guide to restaurants outside Europe. It's more colorful and comprehensive than Euro editions; all starred restaurants receive a two-page spread, including a recipe, which will become the new format for all Michelin guides. Its classy feel is marred only by the occasional ad for tires and other Michelin products.

Three of New York's four winners of the coveted three-star status turned out to be French: Alain Ducasse, Eric Ripert and Jean-Georges Vongerichten. (American Thomas Keller, who trained in France, also won three stars for Per Se.). In the two-star category, there's Frenchman Daniel Boulud and French-trained David Bouley. The only non-Frenchie with a pair of stars: Masayishi Takayama, whose Japanese restaurant Masa may also win the award for priciest menu in America ($350, prix fixe, not including drinks).

Too late for relevance?

While none of this surprised New York foodies, Michelin's inspectors seemed oddly enamored with a Greenwich Village "gastro-pub," the Spotted Pig, which won a precious star for its hearty burgers, Irish Stout and liver with onions. How so? The guide lauds fancier dishes such as octopus salad with celery hearts and praises the restaurant's "friendly staff" and ambience that "just oozes character." Naret says inspectors grant stars according to five criteria, including the quality of the food, consistency across the menu and the "creativity of the chef." He adds, "To have a star means it's really incredible cuisine." Yet some chefs privately say they're miffed that the Pig now sits in the same league as highly inventive (and acclaimed) restaurants like WD-50 and Craft, whose chefs (Wylie Dufresne and Tom Colicchio) are considered virtuosos of progressive, inventive fare.

The question for Michelin, of course, is whether its star system and fork-and-spoon ratings for "comfort" are coming to America too late to be relevant. In France, Michelin has traditionally lionized places in villages and towns in the countryside, inspiring foodies in Paris and Lyon to hop in Le Car (and wear out the tires). Yet it's hard to imagine New Yorkers really needing to be informed, via another guide, that Le Bernardin serves three-star-caliber seafood or that the best porterhouse in town is at Peter Luger (recipient of a star). And tourists can pick up those tips from any decent hotel concierge. So where's the sense of discovery? Michelin's inspectors did venture beyond Manhattan to the city's outer boroughs and highlighted some locally beloved gems, such as the Korean restaurant KumGangSan in Flushing, Queens. Unfortunately for the tire company, most Manhattanites, if they go, will probably hop on the subway.

Tourist market

For their part, chefs and restaurateurs love the publicity. But they also recognize that even a four-star rating in the New York Times doesn't carry the same weight it did before the Internet and online message boards like democratized the review process. "It used to drive a lot more business," says Bouley. "The younger generation may not be so attracted to a four-star restaurant." In other words, it's doubtful Michelin will make or break a restaurant in New York like it can in France.

Over at Zagat, co-publisher Nina Zagat says she's not worried about Michelin muscling in on her turf. She maintains that her guide, now in its 27th year and selling more than 650,000 copies annually, is geared to everyday New Yorkers, while Michelin's seems oriented to tourists "looking for that one blowout meal. They're telling people what places fit their criteria. It's a totally different approach to ours." Michelin won't divulge its publication plans other than to say guides to other U.S. cities are forthcoming. Let the food fight begin.