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November 16, 2010

Michelin, Etc.

The Michelin finally came to Chicago this year, and today they announced the city's first-ever starred restaurants. Molecular gastro-Mecca Alinea won the coveted three stars--as did the exact opposite restaurant, the pristine seafood temple that is L2o. I've been fortunate enough to eat at both. Or, I guess the word is "dine." But at once-a-decade prices, Alinea and L2o are not exactly where I'd go to catch up with a few friends visiting from out of town. (Incidentally, former Alinea chef de cuisine Jeff Pikus and former L2o assistant sommelier Jean Tomaro came together to run River North's Gilt Bar, a Michelin Bib Gourmand winner, and are now collaborating on the soon-to-be-launched Maude's Liquor Bar). The Michelin was designed to be a travel guide, and the more of these swank, reverential restaurants I see on the list, the more I realize it was meant for people who generally travel alone. Or at least like to feel like they're alone, focused completely on the dish in front of them, expecting--at all costs--a new folded napkin at their plate every time they return from the bathroom. Or cough. To be honest with you, I had to look up where the Elysian Hotel was. And that's not to say I wouldn't want to eat at the quarters' two-star Ria--in fact, I've already made a reservation. I just can't normally think of a situation where I would want to visit a hotel--whether it's for Ria, The Peninsula's Avenues (**), Park Hyatt's (brilliant) NoMI (*), Seasons (*) at The Four Seasons, or The Trump's Sixteen (*)--to chow next to a bunch of rich people from New York, or London, and probably not Logan Square. What would we even talk about? Exchange rates? Hertz Gold Club Rewards? The first thing I do when I land in a new town is grab a good drink. Planes make me edgy. But, what's more, I like to know what a city's all about, and the worst spot to do that is in my hotel, a few floors down from my luggage. Cabbing into midtown Manhattan for the first time, I remember accosting some locals for recommendations and found the wonderfully simple Manchester Pub (on 2nd Ave and E. 49th, zero stars). I went there every day I was in town, always finding time in between visits to Apiary (zero stars) and Prune (zero stars), where I got made fun of constantly for my Cubs hat. Which is how it should be. I'm not sure what I would've done if they'd sent me to Per Se (***). If you're going to guide a tourist around Chicago, just coming off the plane into O'Hare or the terrifying black hole that is the street in front of Midway Airport, you might be apt to send them first for a casual housemade beer and bacon popcorn at Revolution Brewing or a calm, crafted cocktail at The Whistler, before whisking them off to some sous-vide trotters at Trotter's (**). Which is to say, the Michelin is by no means wrong. Who in their right mind would argue against restaurants like this? The question is, what is Michelin trying to do? And how exactly is this still a tourist's guide? On a website that tells me I "may also enjoy" a Tailgating Rolling Cooler, how is there not a greater push toward what slightly more common, typical "tourists" would be interested in? Which is where, for all its faults, the Bib Gourmand comes in. Much like Parker's 90-pointers are for wine, Michelin's Bib Gourmand list for me captures all the eloquence and excitement of this city's cuisine. I can only hope it won't be overlooked. The 46 restaurants cruise through our best neighborhoods, ensuring you'll not only get a taste of our food, but our culture as well. From Avondale's Urban Belly to West Lakeview's Mixteco Grill, these are the restaurants we actually eat at. These are the places we take our friends. Not "fine dining," but perfectly fine. Chicago from the outside, looking in.

And Avec rules.


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