November 8, 2012
Time once again for my annual exercise in humiliation, as I try to predict the star recipients in the 2013 Michelin Chicago Guide, which hits bookstores Wednesday.
This is the third year that Michelin has published a Chicago guide, and if there's one constant to these books, it's that Michelin never awards as many stars as I think the Chicago area deserves.
By the time you read this, the Bib Gourmands (which designate restaurants offering "good value") will have been announced, so I won't bother predicting those, except to point out that receiving a Bib Gourmand designation means that a restaurant will not be getting any stars.
Bib Gourmands are all over the place, embracing everything from Frontera Grill and Girl & the Goat to Ann Sather and Twin Anchors (all 2012 winners). Star ratings are more focused and harder to get; last year, Michelin bestowed stars on just 21 Chicago restaurants, down from 23 the year before.
Because the Michelin Guide is a book, the editorial copy has to be finalized long before its Nov. 14 publishing date. My assumption, unconfirmed by Michelin (which is close-mouthed about everything), is that everything was locked up shortly after Labor Day. That's bad news for Autre Monde, which spent the summer recovering from a late-June fire; BellyQ, which didn't open until Aug. 22; and Elizabeth, which opened mid-September. It's likely good news for one-star Graham Elliot — the departure of chef Andrew Brochu and pastry chef Bryce Caron might have cost the restaurant its Michelin star, but the duo left in mid-September, probably too late to affect the restaurant's rating.
So let's break out the crystal ball and guess which restaurants will be popping corks a week from now:
Three stars: Two years ago, Michelin gave its top rating to Alinea and L2O; after the departure of founding chef Laurent Gras, Michelin dropped L2O to a single star (losing your chef is the kiss of death to Michelin; most restaurants in that situation drop off the list completely).
Alinea continues to be Chicago's superstar restaurant and is a virtual lock for another three-star rating. The question is whether Chicago will have any other three-star winners. I can think of a couple that deserve it, but my hopes are not high.
Two stars: The only restaurants to receive two Michelin stars in the last two years (Avenues, Charlie Trotter's, Ria) are all closed, leaving the field wide open. I think Sixteen definitely belongs in this category, and I've argued for two years that Blackbird's one-star rating is too low; perhaps this will be the year Blackbird moves up. L2O, busted down to one star in the 2012 guide, has been doing great work and will, I predict, rebound to the two-star level.
One star: Michelin awarded 18 Chicago restaurants with a single star in its 2011 and 2012 guides, and there's no real reason to think that number will rise significantly, except that, in their third year in Chicago, the Michelin inspectors will have gotten around more. Of the 18 restaurants holding one-star ratings, two are certain to drop off: Seasons, which reconcepted into Allium some months ago, and Bonsoiree, which closed last month but changed chefs in late summer. That leaves at least two spots open, and I think the most logical candidates to fill them are Acadia, Ryan McCaskey's splendid South Loop fine-dining spot, and Goosefoot, the Lincoln Square BYO run by Chris Nugent.
If, as I predict, Blackbird and L2O grab an extra star, that would leave room for, say, El Ideas, which has the creativity and intense focus Michelin adores, and Balena, which is neither experimental nor challenging but excels in virtually everything it does.
And what, I wonder, will Michelin do with Next? The concept-shifting restaurant was left out of the 2012 guide, but that can't happen twice in a row, can it? But how does one rate a restaurant that's currently serving a kaiseki menu but could be dishing up, say, an all-vegan menu next summer? My guess is that Michelin will give too-good-to-ignore Next a single star this year, but I wouldn't be surprised if it nabbed two.
Others that could (and should) join the one-star list are twice-snubbed North Pond, MK and Les Nomades. I'd love to see Henri in this group; certainly Dirk Flanigan's food is good enough. Ditto for Dale Levitski's delightful Sprout. And though Paul Virant's Vie restaurant has a star, Perennial Virant does not, and that's where he's spending most of his time. I'd like to see Perennial Virant get its star, though not at Vie's expense.
That would give Chicago 25 one-star restaurants, an eminently fair number compared with those in New York (52) and San Francisco (34), the only other American cities that Michelin visits.
That's what I think. Let the second-guessing begin.
Three stars: Alinea
Two stars: Blackbird, L2O, Sixteen
One star: Acadia, Balena, Boka, Courtright's, El Ideas, Everest, Goosefoot, Graham Elliot, Henri, Les Nomades, Longman & Eagle, MK, Moto, Naha, Next, North Pond, Perennial Virant, Schwa, Sepia, Spiaggia, Sprout, Takashi, Topolobampo, Tru, Vie