If you were a Frenchman entrusted with the task of assembling an ideal Los Angeles dining guide, you might fly in experienced, disinterested inspectors to scour the mainstream restaurant scene, supplemented perhaps by a team of locals familiar with the byways of the velvet-rope sector and the cocktail-lounge circuit that no visitor could be expected to master. You could hire an expert or two to ferret out the mini-mall Escoffiers among the city’s vast and confusing array of non-Anglophone chefs, and you would reassess with a fresh eye the old dining rooms that most of us take for granted. If you were particularly ambitious, you might evaluate some restaurants from outlying areas that make diverting day trips for both tourists and residents — Santa Barbara, say, or Palm Springs, San Diego, coastal Orange County. If you felt compelled to include ratings, you would do so in a clear, consistent way that left no doubt as to what visitors might expect from a restaurant.
Such a book finally appeared. Angelenos rejoiced, happy to be part of the mainstream of world restaurant culture for the first time. I am referring, of course, to the original edition of the Gault Millau Los Angeles guide, written and collated by the French journalists and published in 1984, just in time for the Olympics. The Gallic slant was unmistakable: Almost all of the top-rated restaurants were French, and John Sedlar, who was in the process of shifting his French-based St. Estephe over to what would be called New Southwest Cuisine, was spanked. But the unorthodox, un-French kitchens at Spago, Chinois and Trumps were praised for their innovation. Nobody quite got out to Monterey Park, but at least one of the reviewers — the Herald-Examiner’s Merrill Schindler, I assume — surveyed many of the important Cantonese, Thai and Central American restaurants that were just then becoming popular. For the first time in memory, there were reliable assessments of places in Catalina, Big Bear and Laguna Beach. My own copy of the guide, bought the day it came out, is so worn that it would probably take two rolls of duct tape to keep the pages from falling out, and there isn’t a month that I don’t refer to it.
I suspect, on the other hand, that I may never open Michelin’s new Los Angeles guide again.
Michelin, of course, is the tire company whose annual guide to French restaurants and hotels has been dominant since it was first released in 1903, an advertising gimmick meant to stimulate automotive tourism that assumed the importance of holy writ in the world’s restaurant community. Even if you have never been to France, you probably know that a restaurant rated two stars by Michelin is “worth a detour,” one rated three stars “worth a journey.” Even if you disagree with Michelin’s taste for stuffiness and grandeur, you know instantly that the guide’s five-fork/one-star rating for l’Espadon, the dining room at the Ritz Paris, indicates unspeakable luxury but unambitious cooking. If what you seek is the third-best restaurant in the Lot-Garonne, or a place to eat your next 150-euro dinner in Lyon, the meager but well-chosen symbols may tell you everything you need to know.
But even when you master the nuances of the Michelin ratings, supplemented by short lists of each starred restaurant’s specialties and the largely irrelevant two-line descriptions that have started appearing recently, the French guide is of limited utility. The rosettes may accurately place a fancy restaurant within the continuum of cuisine that begins at your grandmother’s kitchen table and peaks at Le Grand Véfour, but they are useless when you are looking for a bistro with delicious rillettes or a brasserie that is not operated like a Denny’s that happens to serve oysters.
Michelin is usually one of the guidebooks I take with me when I visit France, although I tend not to use it much. In Paris, Patricia Wells and the Pudlo guide are better at pointing me to the kind of restaurants I like best; in the rest of the country, I prefer Gault Millau. Outside France, Michelin is all but useless — in most of Italy, you could probably find better restaurants by sticking a pin into a map than you could by following the guide, and while Gordon Ramsay’s supremely boring London flagship gets three stars, Fergus Henderson’s splendid St. John, a restaurant that visiting chefs head off to the second they land at Heathrow, has none.
Which brings us back, I suppose, to Michelin’s new guide to Los Angeles restaurants, the third title, after New York and San Francisco, in the company’s effort to extend its brand into the United States. The copy I bought at Vroman’s in Pasadena came autographed, by whom I have no idea.
The ratings you know already: Spago, Urasawa and Mélisse earned two stars apiece; 15 others — including Valentino, Water Grill, Cut, Patina, Joe’s, Saddle Peak Lodge and the Dining Room at the Pasadena Ritz-Carlton — earned one. Michelin apparently likes sushi — Matsuhisa, Asanebo and Mori all got stars — and dislikes ingredient-driven California-Mediterranean cuisine: Campanile, Jar, Lucques, Michael’s, Josie, Table 8 and Fraîche, among others, were shut out. The stars given to Italian restaurants seemed almost random: La Botte and Tre Venezie have good dishes, but the food energy in town at the moment is clearly at Vincenti, La Terza, all’Angelo and Mozza. The guide might have jumped Sona or Providence to two stars instead of one — the restaurants are clearly working at the appropriate level of luxury and ambition — or rewarded the vaguely experimental Ortolan and proprietor Christophe Émé, who may be the only Los Angeles French chef who matters at the moment.
I’m not dismissing the Michelin guide because so much of it reads as if it were translated badly — from the French, I would say, except that whoever wrote the thing seems to be as ignorant on the subject of French cooking as he is about the Indian or Italian kitchen. And as somebody who has put restaurant guides together himself, I can forgive some of the errors; it is hard work pulling these things together, and something inevitably gets misplaced along the way. I even have to admit that I agree with most of the guide’s assessments: I would snatch stars away from only a couple of the establishments so honored (though I would certainly sprinkle stars more generously throughout), and with l’Orangerie gone and Bastide in flux, there probably is no obvious three-star restaurant in town.
What bothers me is that the guide was so evidently put together as a fly-by-night project showing neither knowledge of nor much respect for Los Angeles, that the usual Hollywood banalities are recycled like so much fryer sludge at the biodiesel plant, and that there is so little imagination at work. In France, at the moment, the main cultural importance of Michelin is as an institution to rebel against, a homogenizing force whose lavish preferences, either real or imagined, jack up prices and fill dining rooms with rich tourists. In Los Angeles, it is merely irrelevant.