Friday, November 30, 2007

Michelin vs. the San Gabriel Valley

Michelin has recently begun expanding their restaurant guides to the U.S, so a few days ago I thumbed through the new Michelin Guide for Los Angeles. I immediately wanted to post about how lousy it is, but since I'm not exactly an expert on fine dining, I felt pretty unqualified to do so. Thankfully, though, I picked up the new L.A. Weekly and saw that Jonathan Gold - the only restaurant critic ever to win a Pulitzer Prize - found it just as worthless as I did.
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. [emphasis mine]
The first thing I noticed that bothered me was that not only did they only list four Chinese restaurants in the whole region, but the ones they did list were pricey, chic establishments catering to white people, and not a single one of them was in the large swath of Chinese suburbia in the San Gabriel Valley that stretches from Monterey Park to Arcadia (no, Pasadena doesn't count). Just to give you an idea of what an omission that is, all six of the Chinese restaurants on Gold's 2007 list of the 99 Essential Restaurants in L.A. are in the San Gabriel Valley.

It's not just Jonathan Gold, either. Last year Los Angeles magazine named six other restaurants in the SGV as the best Chinese food in town, noting that "Today Monterey Park and the surrounding area is recognized as the avant-garde Chinese food capital of the United States." Even the New York Times' Mark Bittman called Los Angeles the "best international eating city in the world" in an article touting the Chinese restaurants around Los Angeles. The Bittman article lists yet another five different places, one of which is - gasp - back in the historic Chinatown in L.A. proper, not the SGV.

Not a single one of these 17 places recommended by real foodies who know the city merited a mention in the Michelin guide. I can vouch for the quality of five of them myself, plus many others not listed. You may say that the Michelin guide is only for fine dining, whatever that is, not hole-in-the-wall ethnic restaurants, but Michelin themselves disagree. Their own FAQ (warning: that's an MS Word document) claims that restaurants are selected only on the quality of their cooking and that the guides cover a range of prices and cuisines.
Don't forget that stars are awarded for the establishment's cooking, and that alone.
That's what they say; I say the Guide is only for food snobs and not for people who appreciate good eating. They even attempt to be egalitarian by highlighting a handful of restaurants they recommend with meals supposedly under $25, but the list contains few restaurants where one can realistically expect to pay less than about $20. That can be two or even three times the cost of an entree at most of the Chinese restaurants recommended by the knowledgeable food writers.

Look, my car rides on Michelin tires, their Atlas of North America is one of my favorite books, and the one Green Guide of theirs that I've looked through (the California one) was an exemplar of well-organized, thoughtfully-considered, clearly-presented travel information. And who can deny the appeal of their iconic logo? But if you were to use their L.A. Red Guide, you'd miss out on a lot of good places to eat and you'd spend a ton of money doing so.

UPDATE: This Chowhound thread dating from last year, when the San Francisco Michelin Guide was first released, is relevant. I liked this exchange:
...The Michelin Guide is for tourists. It's for them to find things in your town that they can't get elsewhere...
Actually the Michelin star system steers French tourists to what's most like what they could find in France.


At Saturday, November 1, 2008 at 7:55:00 PM PDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is no doubt that the best Chinese food in the country is found in San Gabriel Valley. Maybe it's a testament to the strength of the region that the ones that made the guide could easily be replaced by tens of other SGV restaurants.


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