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2017 Michelin Guide honors nine MV and Los Altos restaurants

Original post made by Max Hauser, Old Mountain View, on Oct 28, 2016

Newer local restaurants shine in the new edition of this venerable dining guide; Sumika and Chez TJ return from 2016.

Tuesday, the 2017 Bay-Area ("San Francisco") Michelin Guide was released. Its "South Bay" section singles out seven MV restaurants and two in Los Altos to recommend and review. All but two of the nine appear for the first time. This is a jump from last year's Guide, which featured just four restaurants in both towns combined. (In case the Michelin is an unfamiliar title, I put some general info about these guides and their methods in a "Background" paragraph below.)

I'm writing here about something rarely publicized today: the actual Guide, and its main content (reviews and recommendations). A kind of misperception about the Michelin has evolved in recent years. It's a print-based publication, but to create interest and sales, its publisher gives away (this time each year) a limited sub-set of the considerable information inside. That sub-set is what the general media then write about. An annual ritual ensues of online discussions (sometimes passionate) about the Michelin, almost entirely among people who didn't actually read it. Their buzz reflects just the tidbits that the publisher released initially online, as teasers.

In the Bay-Area editions, from tens of thousands of restaurants here, the Guide selects a small percentage from all price levels (about 500 places total, this time) to recommend as the region's "best" for overall experience So, to appear at all in the Guide is strong endorsement. But that point (and even the names of recommended restaurants) is missing from most publicity, which derives instead from the two "teaser" sub-lists. First, the Michelin inspectors' favorites below a certain price, dubbed "Bib Gourmand" (which is not the list of budget restaurants -- the Guide itself contains a separate "under $25" list). Secondly, the small list of recommended restaurants whose cooking is singled out as either excellent of its type, or "worth a detour," or among the nation's best, "worth a journey" -- the "star" awards (I've just given the standard international meanings Michelin uses for one, two, and three stars). While interesting, the teaser lists don't reveal the large majority of restaurants that the Michelin recommends, or any review details. Yet the full Guide is handy for independent advice on many restaurants throughout the Bay Area, including in our towns.

This year, seven Mountain-View restaurants are recommended: Chennai Kings, Chez TJ (one star, returning), Doppio Zero, Fu Lam Mum ("under $25"), Napoletana Pizzeria, The Voya, and Zareen's ("under $25"). In Los Altos, Urfa Bistro ("under $25") joins veteran Sumika Grill. 51 Santa Clara County restaurants appear overall, up from 43 last year. Dropped, after recent years' inclusion, are Cascal (which past years' Guides had inconsistently listed under Spanish or Latin-American Cuisine) and Sakoon.

Introductory pages to the South-Bay (i.e., Santa-Clara-County) chapter once again mention such gastronomic institutions as The Milk Pail Market, Dittmer's, and Esther's German Bakery -- even recommending the combination of Dittmer's sausages with Esther's pretzel rolls.

This is the eleventh Bay-Area Michelin, and shows sharply increased attention to this corner of the Bay Area. Some years back I was impressed when the Guide noticed and gave cuisine-knowledgeable tips about some of our good but low-key ethnic restaurants, but by the 2014 edition, the attention seemed to wander elsewhere. Some errors and local-knowledge lapses persist. For example, this Guide faithfully reproduces accented characters in European words, but is confusingly inconsistent with the corresponding marks in Vietnamese, whose cuisine is prominent here. And I tried, last year, to alert Michelin to fix an embarassing glib reference to California Ave. as "Palo Alto's main thoroughfare" (implying that no one involved in the writing knew Palo Alto much, or even looked at a map), but it's back (p. 280). I'll try harder this year.

Background: The Michelin Guides are independent hospitality-industry rating publications, since 1900, long popularly used by the European public, especially when traveling. A little over a decade ago, Michelin began US editions for metropolitan areas with large restaurant counts. Anonymous Michelin inspectors are rigorously selected from people with professional culinary credentials, further tested by the organization for skills such as identifying all ingredients that went into a dish, and recording accurate details without writing notes at the time. Each year's edition reflects a new set of inspection visits (for many restaurants, multiple visits by different inspectors); places previously recommended must requalify. Besides describing style, specialties, and ambience of each recommended restaurant via a review, the Guide rates overall "comfort" in five grades from "comfortable" to the extremely rare "luxury in the traditional style," stressing that Michelin Guides worldwide use the same comfort standards. Other symbols show price level, facilities, breakfast, "small plates", dim-sum, etc., and notable wine, beer, sake, or cocktail lists. Besides the comfort ratings, restaurants whose cooking is judged exceptional get the "star" awards described further above. Numerous indexes at the back show the recommended restaurants by name, cuisine, and neighborhood, also listing brunch places, under-$25, and the bib-gourmand and star lists that are annually publicized as teasers. Long ago in France, I learned that some of the best and best-value restaurants were hardworking, not-yet-famous establishments with high "comfort" ratings but no stars. (Some became starred restaurants later, and their prices went up.) This illustrates that some real value in the Michelin is in the details overlooked in talk of just "star" restaurants.

In downtown Mountain View, the 2017 SF Michelin Guide is currently stocked at Books Inc. (Castro at Dana).

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