The night before the announcement of this year’s Michelin stars, I was at Chang’s Garden in Arcadia, an elegant Hangzhou-influenced restaurant headed by chef Henry Chang, whose restrained, earthy style became known to the local Chinese community at the old Juon Yuan in San Gabriel Square, and before that, oddly enough, at Tung Lai Shun, which introduced Muslim Chinese cuisine to California — his current restaurant is well known both for its pork dishes and for the cooking’s congeniality to wine.
Chang’s Garden is not obscure. I reviewed it ecstatically here when it opened a few years ago, paying special attention to a scholarly braised-pork-belly dish said to have been a favorite of poets, and it was highlighted in a big story on San Gabriel Chinese restaurants in The New York Times. Novelist Nicole Mones has practically made a cottage industry out of Chang: She wrote about him twice in Gourmet — once as himself, once fictionalized — and his dish of pork ribs steamed in lotus leaves figures so prominently in her novel The Last Chinese Chef that it is practically a character of its own.
As my friends and I mopped up the last bits of crisp rolled beef pancakes and candied lotus root stuffed with sticky rice, eel with yellow chives and whitefish fried in a seaweed-enhanced batter, I couldn’t help thinking that this was precisely the kind of restaurant that belonged in something like a Los Angeles Michelin Guide. It was intimate, chef-owned and a level or two fancier than its competition. When I am traveling through Europe, this is exactly the kind of restaurant I am hoping to find in a guidebook: happy, good and intensely local.
Michelin, of course, is the tire company whose annual guide to French restaurants and hotels has assumed the importance of holy writ among travelers since its first release in 1903. I’m not sure why so many of my colleagues and I get worked up about the boneheadedness of local Michelin ratings, but we seem to, every year.
When the first New York guide came out a few years ago, we were struck by its weird inconsistencies — this year highlighted by the mysterious absence of stars for the immensely pleasurable Italian restaurant Babbo and the molecular-gastronomy stronghold 11 Madison Park. In San Francisco, Chez Panisse, which is by some measures the best restaurant in the country, has but a single star while the game-changing Zuni Café has none.
Outside rural France, francophone Belgium and possibly a suburb or two in Spain, European Michelin stars can actually be warning signs of restaurants whose attentions are focused on luxury rather than food. As I’ve noted before, in most of Italy, you could probably find better restaurants by sticking a pin into a map.
Last year’s inaugural Michelin Guide to Los Angeles restaurants was appalling, ignorant of the way Angelenos eat, reading as if it was put together by a team too timid to venture further than a few minutes from their Beverly Hills hotel. This year’s guide, although it is more or less identical, is just boring.
Did Michael Cimarusti’s Providence deserve to be bumped up from one star to two, putting it on a level with Melisse, Spago and Urasawa? Yes, it did: champagne all around. Did Matsuhisa, whose influence reaches across oceans, and Joe’s deserve to have their stars taken away? Only if you believe they changed noticeably from last year to this one, which they clearly did not. Osteria Mozza deserves its new star, if not a second one. Quirky little Hatfield’s fits precisely the definition of a one-star restaurant. Vincenti, Campanile and La Terza are still mysteriously starless, as is, even more puzzlingly, Lucques. But Michelin has always been clueless about Mediterranean cooking, almost hostile to market-based cuisine. And the roster of the few Asian (and token Mexican) places they added reads less like a sincere exploration of L.A.’s communities than it does like a list of Chowhound consensus favorites. (I have no idea how else they chose the Cantonese standby Triumphal Palace or the newly starred Sushi Zo over dozens of their betters.) I’m happy Babita, Elite, Din Tai Fung and Vietnam made it at least onto the lesser Bib Gourmand list, as did the Beijing-duck specialist Lu Din Gee and the late Green Village.
But Chang’s? Nowhere to be seen. Nor any Korean, Middle Eastern or Central American restaurants, none of the terrific new regional Mexican restaurants, nothing of regional Thai cuisine. Unless you happen to be a French business traveler terrified of the teeming masses outside your hotel, I see no reason to pay attention to the Los Angeles guide at all.