Michelin gives, takes away

Reactions, rants and general observations regarding the Chicago Michelin guide star ratings, which were announced Tuesday.

Considering that the number of Michelin-starred Chicago restaurants has been declining (down to 19 restaurants last year), this year's rebound to 25 starred restaurants (an all-time high in the four years Michelin has been publishing a Chicago guide) has to be considered encouraging.

"Chicago had a great year," said Michael Ellis, international director of the Michelin Guides.

There are more starred restaurants in New York (62, including 7 three-star restaurants) and San Francisco (38, including 2 three-stars), the only other North American cities that receive Michelin scrutiny. But we're at least trending upward.

What does a Michelin star mean? Its effect on local diners is uncertain, but, clearly, Michelin ratings matter a great deal to international visitors, and deep-pocketed foodies like to keep track of how many Michelin-starred restaurants they've visited. And in a hypercompetitive restaurant market such as Chicago, any positive recognition is received gratefully, even joyfully. Even a single Michelin star carries considerable prestige.

"I'm thrilled, stunned and amazed," said one-star recipient Bruce Sherman, whose fine work at North Pond had eluded the attention of Michelin inspectors in the previous three guides. "It's certainly nice to know that persistence pays off; I've been doing this for however many years, and it's gratifying to get this notice."

Iliana Regan, on the other hand, received a star for her Elizabeth restaurant in its first year of eligibility. (Elizabeth opened at the end of September 2012, weeks after Michelin's Chicago evaluations had been completed.)

"We thought 'maybe,' but we weren't sure," she said. "I felt everything from hope to anxiety to some moments, based on what others had said, of feeling confident. But you never know. But upon confirmation, I felt very proud."

For all its influence or lack thereof, Michelin is clearly the most prestigious restaurant guide in the world, and the publication of its 2014 Chicago Guide will elate some chefs and food fans and bitterly disappoint others. Here's a quick breakdown.

Winner: Curtis Duffy, Grace restaurant. Duffy was the chef when Avenues received two stars in 2011, and he really hoped his 9-month-old restaurant would be equally well-received. It was. "With us being less than a year open, this is truly remarkable," he said. "When I left Avenues, we set extremely high goals, and the entire staff is excited about what we achieved."

Winner: Thomas Lents, Sixteen. Sixteen received a star three years ago, lost it two years ago when then-chef Frank Brunacci left, had the star restored last year, and this year got upgraded to two stars. Lents and the Sixteen team have not only restored the restaurant's reputation, they have enhanced it.

First-time winners: Every restaurant that received star recognition is worthy of praise. But 19 of Chicago's 25 starred restaurants had stars last year (happily, Michelin didn't take any stars away this year). A special welcome-to-the-club to EL Ideas, Elizabeth, Grace, The Lobby, North Pond and Senza.

Losers: Losing one's Bib Gourmand award (given to restaurants that represent "good value") isn't always a bad thing. Just ask Carlos Gaytan, whose Mexique restaurant lost its Bib last year, only to receive a star instead (a starred restaurant cannot be a Bib Gourmand and vice versa). That gave some hope to Bistronomic, The Bristol and Storefront Company, which found out last week that they'd lost their Bib Gourmand distinction, but it was not to be. Sixteen's deserving upgrade aside, there were no promotions among previously recognized restaurants.

Overlooked: It was nice to see North Pond receive star recognition, however long overdue. But I'm still waiting for the Michelin Man to send a little love to mk, Les Nomades, Perennial Virant and Trenchermen. And I thought for sure that Brindille, the French sibling to one-star Naha restaurant, would grab a star in its first year. To say nothing of Avec, Frontera Grill, Girl & the Goat, Green Zebra, GT Fish & Oyster and Nightwood, which seem doomed to permanent Bib Gourmand status.

Baby steps: Michelin still doesn't quite know what to do with Next, the style-switching restaurant that defies categorization. But, at least this year, Next is include among the 380 nonstarred restaurants in the book. That's better than the last two years. Hard to imagine that Next is hurting its star chances by not being predictable enough.

Overlooked: Apparently, Chicago has no star-worthy sushi restaurants; Michelin inspectors awarded Bib Gourmands to a handful of sushi restaurants, but no stars. Sorry, but Juno is underrated as a BG. And Katsu and Masaki didn't get a thing.

Loser: The suburbs. For the second straight year, the Michelin inspectors didn't deem a single suburban restaurant worthy of a star. Michelin did award single stars to Courtright's and Vie two years ago but took them back last year. Are there really no Michelin-worthy restaurants beyond the city limits, or do Inovasi, Quince, Oceanique, Restaurant Michael and Tallgrass — as well as Courtright's and Vie — have a legitimate gripe? On the plus side, Michelin awarded Bib Gourmands to restaurants in Berwyn, Evanston, Hinsdale, La Grange, Oak Park and Skokie.

Twitter @philvettel

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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