Nancy Nichols, D magazine's restaurant critic, despises the use of stars to rate restaurants.
"There's too much time between reviews, and it's too hard to keep consistency," she explains. "Not the restaurant's consistency, but the entity handing out the stars. "
The rest of us depend on a symbol of some sort: thumbs up or down, stars, rabbit heads...um, if someone were to use rabbit heads, that is. An icon or two provides all the information we care about in one quick glance. After all, no one reads anymore, do they? The New York Times presents sterling restaurants with four stars. The Dallas Morning News offers five as its top measure. Nichols' diabolical "no-stars" approach forces people to actually skim over all that text. Oh, yeah. The Dallas Observer forces you to plod through the articles, too. Bastards.
"We need something more standardized here," says Marc Cassel, chef at The Green Room. "Everybody's got their own little deal."
Two publications review restaurants nationwide according to established standards--Zagat and Mobil--but few people pay serious attention. "Zagat is nothing more than a reliable phone book," scoffs Jim White, voice of WRR's "Making Reservations" and critic for eatsanddrinks.com. "It's a bunch of opinions organized into an ambiguous rating system." Zagat relies on an uncertain group of diners to rate their favorites, almost like an American Idol vote. "You never know who's stuffing the ballot box and how reliable it is as a point of reference," says Gilbert Garza, chef-owner of Suze.
Case in point: Zagat sent a nightclub survey to the only person the Burning Question crew knows who doesn't visit bars or clubs.
Mobil's Guide, meanwhile, follows established criteria when reviewing restaurants. Unfortunately, only a handful of people outside of hard-core travelers know of the publication. Or perhaps that's a good thing, considering some of their stipulations: a well-stocked buffet (for one star); value and family-friendliness (for two stars); no "jug" wine (three stars); and so on.
"It's just a decal to put in the window," Nichols says.
So to answer this week's Burning Question, the crew took off for Europe--much to the dismay of our editor, who spent 20 minutes lecturing us on the value of being a tightwad (although in fairness, he used the phrase "being frugal") several weeks ago, after we blew our entire annual budget in one long drinking binge...we mean, in one long weekend of professional research.
Fine dining restaurants in Europe crave recognition in the Michelin Guide, a long-standing and often harsh arbiter of taste. Chefs have been known to kill themselves after hearing mere rumors they might lose a star--happened last year, in fact, when Bernard Loiseau of a three-star restaurant in Burgundy couldn't bear the thought of dropping to two stars.
Of course, only about 45 establishments across Europe earned three Michelin stars, and reaching that level often requires decades of work. Chef Antoine Westermann of Buerehiesel, in Strasbourg, France, picked up his first Michelin star back in 1975. No. 2 came nine years later. He finally received a third in 1994.
Michelin does not offer four stars.
"The Michelin Guide transcends Europe and carries huge weight," says David McMillan, chef at Nana. "People make a conscious decision to go after a star, and reviewers remain excruciatingly anonymous."
In other words, top European kitchens must perform flawlessly every single day. Indeed, despite some recent controversy over the actual extent of coverage, Michelin claims its reviewers may test a place up to 12 times to ensure accuracy--although they typically show up once every year or two.
Michelin's critics judge food at each restaurant according to "practical knowledge," whatever that means. Yet the results, particularly for three-star sites, are reliable. "The most sublime dining experience I've had in Europe was Les Crayeres in Reims--three stars," White recalls. The restaurant since lost a star after chef Gerard Boyer left the biz.
"A three-star restaurant is phenomenal, is flawless," echoes Tim Byres, chef-owner of Standard 2706.
Byres once served as chef at the American Embassy in Belgium and occasionally volunteered at Brussels' famous Comme Chez Soi, a three-star restaurant, so he might have warned us about the cost.
Would've been the decent thing to do, considering.
We checked out Bruneau, the city's other three-star establishment, and ordered things like jalousie de riz de veau croustillant and poitrine de coucou de Malines demi-deuil, which translates as "we foul our pantaloons at the sound of enemy tanks" or something. We don't speak French, and the menu didn't speak English--or hint at prices. The service was exquisite, the food brilliant, the cost...more than $600 for two people.
Our editor no longer returns our phone calls.
The closest comparison in Dallas to Michelin three-star dining would be Avner Samuel's Aurora on Oak Lawn Avenue. "I've been doing all my traveling to Michelin star restaurants, and we've tried to re-create that experience here," he says.
Samuel believes about 20 or 30 American restaurants might qualify for stars, were we able to duplicate the Michelin system, with five or six establishments earning the coveted three-star rating. In Dallas, chefs like Samuel, McMillan, Kent Rathbun, Christof Syre, Francois Fotre and William Koval would qualify for consideration--at least according to White.
But could we duplicate the system?
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Well, the people we spoke with doubt it, citing culinary expectations, respectability and other apparent cultural deficiencies. "There's a longer tradition of haute cuisine in Europe," Nichols points out. "You're more likely to find steak houses here getting accolades." Finding persons or entities of great integrity poses another problem. While the reviewers may separate themselves from subtle attempts at influencing their judgment, the publications sometimes cave in to pressure.
"Michelin is not hitting people up for advertising dollars," McMillan says wryly.
Or maybe we're not sophisticated enough to adopt such a system.
"The American public," Samuel says, "they would probably look at one, two or three stars as the amount of the bill."