Michelin Guides are Bullshit

Remember 2008? How proud we were that the Michelin Guide had come to Las Vegas to rate our restaurants?

Remember how much legitimacy it brought?

The respect?

Do you recall how disappointed everyone was when it decided not to return after the 2009 guide?

Do you know that, to this day, Las Vegas restaurants still trumpet their Michelin stars even though the accolades are a decade old?

Even today, does any guide in the world bestow more credibility on a city’s food scene? Even though it’s a worthless piece of public relations?

The answers are yes and yes.

The fact is, Michelin’s clout may have been real in the past (although we’ll argue some of the points below), but you can now toss its good name straight out the window.

Yes, the jig is up.

The cat is out of the bag.

The Michelin Guide is now in the business of promoting restaurants, not objectively rating them. Far from being a scrupulous, trustworthy consumer guide, it has now been exposed as nothing but an instrument of advertising.

(Because when we think “great restaurants,” we’re thinking Sacramento)

Here’s how it works: a tourist board (much like Las Vegas’s LVCVA) decides that it wants to promote/advertise its restaurants. (This works better for places like San Francisco than it does for Fresno.) As a taxpayer-funded promotional arm of the community, it is charged with bringing as many tourists as possible to town (or a state) to increase the coffers of the community and its local businesses — like restaurants.

And when you have the most famous guidebook selling its services, what better way to increase those businesses coffers than by applying the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval….er….uh….I mean Michelin stars to as many of your restaurants as possible?

Which is just what the state of California has done. It is paying for Michelin to come and “review” its restaurants, and include them in a published guidebook, so that more tourists will come to California and want to go to those restaurants. In California. The entire state. Which will now have its own guidebook, paid for by the state, “recommending” its restaurants to unsuspecting tourists who will think it was “professionally researched” by a company without any skin in the game.

In taking the money, Michelin has, in one fell swoop, defenestrated its credibility, and lifted its skirt faster than a forty buck hooker.

In coming to light, these meretricious machinations confirm what I have long suspected: the Michelin Guides in America are a farce. A bought-and-paid-for scam trading on an outdated reputation to make money by duping restaurant consumers.

Gerry Dawes — Spanish food expert, guide, raconteur, writer, etc., (and a fellow so curmudgeonly he makes me look like Dora the Explorer) —  had these insights that are worth considering the next time you hear someone brag about their Michelin stars:

Why do you think restaurants in Japan were suddenly given a surfeit of rosettes? Because Doughboy (aka Bibendum) wants to sell tires to Japanese car manufacturers! In Spain, France’s next door neighbor, who competes with them for gastro-tourism Euros, Michelin gives a miserable number of rosettes, about a fifth of what France has. I have proposed a boycott of Michelin tires in Spain unless the Guide gives out a significant number of rosettes to really reflect the quality of restaurants in Spain. Spain should make Michelin decide what they really want, to sell paper (the Guide) or rubber.

John Mariani (a man who knows a thing or two about restaurant criticism), was more succinct when I asked him about Michelin guides: “It’s a sham these days.”

And it probably was in 2008-2009 as well. I never bought for one second the Michelin claim that a “team of inspectors” descended on Las Vegas for a year visiting restaurants multiple times in order to objectively rate them. If you read the atrociously-written guide, you see that the prose comes straight from press releases, and the “top restaurants” are little more than a compendium of well-known addresses that were as easy to research in 2007 as they are today. More likely, Michelin sent a couple of people here to scout around for a few weeks, dine in a dozen or so heavy hitters (Robuchon, Restaurant Guy Savoy, Spago….) and then handed out stars based upon reputation.

Those food historians/nerds out there may recall that for decades (from the 1920s onward), Michelin standards, methodology and anonymity were legendary. Restaurants had to be visited multiple times by multiple inspectors, results were tabulated independently, and the scores were poured over meticulously before a coveted star (really a rosette) was awarded.

Does anyone believe that Michelin paid for multiple inspectors to go multiple times to Joël Robuchon (much less Yellowtail), before deciding how many stars to bestow upon it?

Now that the California tourism board is paying for the guide to “review” its restaurants (throughout the entire state, I might add), just how thorough do you think they’re going to be?

More likely, Michelin will do there what it did here: survey the landscape, find who the big players are, and “rate them” according to hearsay.

On the plus side, the scales can now fall from your eyes and you should see the whole Michelin star-thing as the advertising gimmick it is. Especially in America.

What’s going on in Europe is anyone’s guess, but there’s no doubt that in France, where the whole thing started, the stars remain coveted and more accurate. I’ve found the guide reliable in Germany, Switzerland and northern Italy as well, although as I’ve become a more experienced diner over the past 30 years, its failings are more noticeable, and the nuances between a 2 or 3-star rating are hardly discernible to anyone but a supercilious Frenchman.

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So, I respect Michelin (at least in Europe), even though I can recognize the monster it created, and how it ended up killing the thing it loved. As the late, great A. A. Gill put it:

The Michelin guide made kitchens as competitive as football teams, becoming the most successful and prestigious guidebook in the world, and along the way it killed the very thing it had set out to commend. It wasn’t the only assassin of the greatest national food ever conceived, but it’s not hyperbole to say Michelin was French haute cuisine’s Brutus.

The Michelin guide also created a new type of customer, the foodie trainspotter, people who aren’t out for a good meal with friends but want to tick a cultural box and have bragging rights on some rare effete spirit.* Michelin-starred restaurants began to look and taste the same: the service would be cloying and oleaginous, the menus vast and clotted with verbiage. The room would be hushed, the atmosphere religious. The food would be complicated beyond appetite. And it would all be ridiculously expensive. So, Michelin spawned restaurants that were based on no regional heritage or ingredient but grew out of cooks’ abused vanity, insecurity, and fawning hunger for compliments.

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Nothing I write can match the verbal gesticulations of a picky Brit, but Gill nails it. The “stars” are all about insecurity (the chef’s and the diner’s), and the whole enterprise has become bloated as month-old haggis (above)…and even less tasty.

Michelin is ridiculous. A joke. Unmitigated bullshit. Let’s face it: it always was. San Francisco had one 3-star destination in 2006 (French Laundry, not even in ‘Frisco), now it has eight. Tokyo has dozens of starred restaurants, even though some of them only have four seats. With grade inflation like this, Swan Oyster Depot (below) will be garnering les etoiles in no time.

(2 stars for food and 1 for ambiance!)
* No doubt referring to every “50 Best” fashion victim out there.

Tasting the Traube Tonbach

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ELV note: We know the title of this web site is “Eating Las Vegas,” but we also know that you know that we do not confine ourselves simply to the pleasures of dining in Sin City. Indeed, we travel the world, calibrating our palate to the cuisines of its greatest chefs, the better to give us (and you) a baseline from which to judge all great restaurants. Below is our love letter to the enchanting hotel we visited late last year in Germany’s Black Forest (“Schwarzwald” – pronounced SCHVARTZ-vald). We hope you get a chance to visit there someday, but even if you don’t, we hope you will take some pleasure in living vicariously through our travels, and through these words and pictures.

There’s a lot to do at the Traube Tonbach. Spas, swimming (indoors and out), skiing, hiking, exploring the picturesque valleys and towns of Baiersbronn, all await you, all while taking in some of the crispest, cleanest, pine-scented air in the world.  If you’re the shut-in type, you’ll find nothing to complain about either. The 153 rooms are enormous, the bathrooms even more so, and it seems everywhere you look (out of giant, wood-trimmed windows) you see one stunning, forest view after another.

Calling the Traube enchanting is an understatement. From the traditional Tyrolean garb of the crackerjack staff:

…..to the oversized, Black Forest decor, everything about it has a formal-yet-friendly precision that seduces you from the moment you sink into an overstuffed chair or start sipping a crisp glass of Riesling. You can be as laid back or active as you wish at the Traube Tonbach, but what you really ought to be doing is eating.

Harald Wohlfahrt’s Schwardwaldstube (pictured below) has held three Michelin stars since 1992. The name means “Black Forest Room” and the thickness of the wood, the chairs and the linens give not a clue as to the lightness and freshness of his cuisine.

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The room only seats 40 customers, but so precise is the food, you get the feeling that there are at least that many cooks in the kitchen. Wohlfahrt told me (through an interpreter) that his cuisine has become more international over the years, and like most chefs in this league, he now plays with flavors from around the globe. Some might fault him for letting these flights of foreign fancy overtake him, such as when he accompanies beautiful poached Gillardeau oysters with ponzu jelly, shredded beetroot and horseradish, plus a chives vinaigrette, but to my mind, everything harmonized the way it’s supposed to with highfalutin fusion food. What Wohlfahrt’s elemental, not-bashful cooking told me was that I was in a bigger, bolder, German version of a French restaurant, not a dainty Gallic one.

“Not bashful” would be my same description of the Swabia-meets-Bologna construct of  Wohlfahrt’s ravioli. Stuffed with a moist, dense, “confit” of calves head, and garnished with sweetbreads, and tongue — it was elegant and earthy, not an easy feat in any language. Festooned with truffles, it was part French, part Italian, and definitely Deutsch, and genuflected to all three cuisines without surrendering to the heaviness of its pedigree.

 From there, our meal proceeded seamlessly through meaty slices of wild turbot in an intense, sea urchin nage, through local “homegrown” venison in a juniper sauce that tasted of a hunter’s bounty, if he happened to be a Michelin-adorned superstar. This is cold weather, nip-in-the-air eating at its finest, I thought to myself — food that matched the evergreen forest surroundings as much as the heavy, carved wood upon which we sat.
 As wonderful, and of-its-place as our game and fish repast was, it was my wife’s vegetarian meal where the kitchen really proved its mettle. Six courses of jaw-dropping variety that were even more stunning than the proteins — variation of carrots in a black tea emulsion, grilled pineapple and confit of fennel in a Ricard Pernod/passion fruit stock, and a potato-mushroom ravioli with caper jus and chanterelles — any and all of which could make you forget about meat altogether. This sort of high-wire, multi-dimensional, vegetarian cooking proves how exciting vegetables can be when placed in the right hands. As with my meal, every course was a show-stopper, but the highlight was an egg white souffle encasing a reinserted yolk with a white truffle sauce so intense I had to check my pulse.

About the only clinkers in the meal were the desserts, that seemed terribly overwrought — almost as if the pastry chef was trying too hard to keep up with the pirouettes taking place on the savory plates — and a serious service lapse towards the last quarter of the meal, when everything seemed to slow to a crawl. To be fair, there were several large parties in the restaurant, all of whom were spending way more money on wine than we were, so that may have backed up the kitchen. By the way, this was the third Michelin 3-star meal I’ve had in the last year — the others being at Meadowood in Napa Valley and Auberge de L’Ill in Alsace — where the highly visible and solicitous maitre’d seemed to disappear from the dining room for the second half of the meal. Perhaps this is the 21st Century job description: show up, look good, kiss hands, and then vanish. Or perhaps these impeccably groomed face men have second jobs posing in department store windows. Either way, it strikes a small, discordant note where there should be none.

As for wine, the list is extensive (750+ labels, 36,000 bottles) and shoulder deep in great German and Alsatian Rieslings.  Markups were more than fair — especially compared to New York and Las Vegas — with dozens of great bottles for 100 euros or less. My rule of thumb when star-grazing in Europe is to look for bottles in the 50-100 euro range, and I’m consistently amazed by the quality at those prices. I took the wine pairing with my degustation, and it, along with our young sommelier (who didn’t disappear from the room) was superb.

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The Schwarzwaldstube would be a fitting crescendo to anyone’s visit to the Traube, but we worked in reverse order for our two day stay. Dinner number two found us again across the street from the main hotel (at the original, heavily timbered inn that now houses the “Black Forest Room,” an international restaurant (that we didn’t try), and a traditional restaurant (the Bauernstube) that we did. Those timbers, low ceilings, plaster walls and wooden benches give the Bauernstube (pictured above) a distinctly 18th Century feel, but this being the Traube, the linens are as thick and crisp, and the table ware every bit as formidable (if several clicks more casual) than at its starred sister restaurant down the hall. They share the same wine list, and the food is every bit as satisfying and rib-sticking as you would expect southwestern German food to be.

Being strangers to Swabian cuisine, we didn’t know what to expect, although we suspected that the six mile hike we took earlier in the day was probably a good idea. As with every German restaurant, the difficulties of the language are always looming to surprise you with a disconnect between what was described, what you thought you ordered, and what shows up. For example: three, fist-sized stuffed ravioli are described as a “snack” on the menu, but what appears could fill up a sumo wrestler.

(In a similar vein, a chef once told us he mistakenly ordered a plate of butter as an appetizer in a German restaurant.)

Undaunted by our “snack,” we sallied forth with the rest of our meal and found everything to be as enjoyable as a meal of golf ball-size sweetbreads (used to “garnish” a perfect blanquette de veau, no less), tennis-ball sized liver dumplings, football-sized noodles, and brook trout can be. The trout tasted as if it had jumped right from the stream onto our plate (because it almost did, we were told), and, filling or not, those dumplings, veal and sweetbreads are two dishes I’m still dreaming about.

 

My parents told me decades ago about the wonders of German breakfast buffets in upscale hotels, but it wasn’t until I forced myself into an early awakening on my second morning here that I saw what they were talking about.

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“Get here early,” one of the staff told me, and so I did, bleary-eyed and still wrestling with my weightlifter’s repast of the night before.

What I confronted was more temptation than any one man should face while he’s still digesting Swabian dumplings: Every bread and pastry imaginable, right out of the oven. Miles of meats, cheeses, fruits, jams, and jellies. Scores of butters and spreads. Eight kinds of milk. A dozen fresh-squeezed juices. Every kind of smoked fish you’ve ever heard of and more sausages than you can shake a stick at. Carved beef, cured ham (four kinds!), smoked ham, eggs out the wazoo and half a dozen local honeys. Aged fromage from all over Europe, and did I mention the pastries and meats?

 

 

And the wurst was yet to come!

 Forgive me, but I’ve waited twenty years to use that joke in a food article, so you’re stuck with it.

Everything from the coffee to the head cheese was exemplary, and the finest of its kind of any buffet I’ve ever been to. It was so good it restored my faith in overeating.

My parents were right: The Germans do breakfast better than anyone. Their hotels and 3-star restaurants concede nothing to the French, either, with everything correct down to the last detail. Michelin is right too: this magical place is definitely worth a special journey.

Our dinner for (two tasting menus + one wine pairing) at the Schwarzwaldstube came to 461 euros including a generous tip. (Yes, they tip in Germany, usually around 10%.) The Bauernstube dinner was 108 euros, and I don’t remember what the breakfast buffet cost, but it’s worth anything they want to charge for it.

 

HOTEL TRAUBE TONBACH since 1789 – Familie Finkbeiner KG
72270 Baiersbronn im Schwarzwald, Germany, Telephone +49 (0) 74 42/4 92-0, Reservations +49 (0) 74 42/4 92-6 22
Fax +49 (0) 74 42/4 92-6 92, reservations@traube-tonbach.de, info@traube-tonbach.de
Facebook Hotel Traube Tonbach – Baiersbronn

ELV Returns With Euro Trip Tips!

Yes, Horst Weinerschnitzel and Little Frenchie are baaaaaaack — with recharged batteries and re-calibrated palates.

We thank a series of great hotels for the former and France and Germany for the latter.

Unlike the crazy kids in this (raunchy, funny, underrated) movie:

<b>Eurotrip</b> Poster Artwork – Scott Mechlowicz, Jacob Pitts, Michelle ...

….ELV and The Food Gal® didn’t encounter any soccer hooligans,  gratuitous nudity or Dutch S&M brothels.

What we did encounter was a different Europe than the one we last visited seven years ago, with a much stronger dollar and 21st Century electronics making things both easier and more interesting.

Continue reading “ELV Returns With Euro Trip Tips!”