When Michelin announced that it would release its first guide in D.C., locals were worried that the city would be misunderstood. After all, Michelin’s inspectors travel around the world evaluating restaurants from Paris to Seoul. That’s what they say makes them objective — three stars indicate the same caliber of experience all over the world, and they don’t grade on a curve — but it also risks certain restaurants or local favorites being lost in translation.
We’re in the business of restaurant criticism, so we know it’s subjective and fallible. But there were several things in the Michelin Guide that left us scratching our heads.
They’re unimpressed by the facades of our buildings: Michelin frequently mentions unimpressive building facades throughout the guide, a dig at D.C.’s bland architecture, which admittedly isn’t the most avant-garde. But it does keep coming up. Del Campo’s “bland facade belies a refined-rustic interior.” Minibar is “set at the base of an antiseptic building.” Sushi Taro’s “odd location” unsurprisingly gets a mention, “adjacent to a large-chain pharmacy.” Tosca is “situated at the base of a nondescript office building.”
They’re kind of afraid to walk around our neighborhoods: Michelin is not the only guide that refers to once-dangerous neighborhoods in D.C. H Street is their most frequent target: it’s a “grungy stretch” in the Toki Underground review, “gritty” in the Maketto one. Of the Dabney in Shaw’s Blagden Alley, they write, “Your mother warned you about walking down dark alleys, but shush her voice in your head.”
They’re interested in . . . mating?: Michelin’s really into talking about the birds and the bees. “If the hip gods of food and shopping mated, Maketto would be their love child,” begins the description of the H Street restaurant. Mintwood Place is another improbable match: “Take a chic Parisian and a ten gallon-hat-wearing cowboy and blend for an improbable but oh-so-happy mix and you have Mintwood Place.”
They love puns: Every writer succumbs to a bad pun now and then, but boy, oh boy, do Michelin inspectors love them. They seem to be most prevalent in the D.C. guide, too, or at least we didn’t see nearly as many in a skim though the New York and San Francisco books. Here are some real groaners:
Anxo: “This Cider House rules.”
Bad Saint: “You’ll need the patience of a saint to secure a meal here.”
Bidwell: “You will indeed fare well at Bidwell.”
Hank’s Oyster Bar: “Prepare yourself for a sea, ahem, of dishes.”
Proof: “It may be said that the proof is in the pudding, but this particular restaurant proves its mettle with wine.”
They’re just sort of confused by Conosci: On Michael Schlow’s restaurant-within-a-restaurant, Michelin writes: “Safely ensconced inside big sister restaurant Alta Strada (there’s no other entrance), Conosci feels a bit like taking a girl on a date and having her older brother tag along.” Wait, but didn’t they just say Alta Strada was the big sister? Who’s the brother here? What kind of date is this? How did this simile go off the rails?
They’re into profiling dining rooms: Inspectors have an uncanny ability to know who dines at D.C. restaurants. The Bombay Club “functions as a club for politicians and Beltway insiders.” Convivial is “popular with young professionals, families and academics from nearby Howard.” DBGB Kitchen and Bar is “where local politicos and dealmakers come to dish, drink, and dine.” Fiola is the “go-to” spot for the “power crowd.” Kapnos “lures Capitol Hill staffers and couples on date night.” The Oval Room is the “restaurant of choice for a particular brand of Beltway insider.” (And, by the way, what brand would that be?)
They neglect to mention the chef at some starred restaurants: Many chefs dream of earning a Michelin star. They spend countless hours aiming for such a honor. So you’d think the guide would, you know, actually name the chef who earns a star. But you’d be wrong. The reviews of Fiola, Masseria, Blue Duck Tavern and Plume — all one-star restaurants — don’t mention the chefs involved, as if the food prepared itself. For the record, the chefs are Fabio Trabocchi (Fiola), Nicholas Stefanelli (Masseria), Franck Loquet (Blue Duck Tavern) and Ralf Schlegel (Plume).
They don’t like control freaks: Or at least they don’t like Johnny Monis’s “brand” of control-freakiness. The reviews of Komi and Little Serow — Monis’s pair of stellar Dupont Circle restaurants — read like the inspectors squirmed under the chef’s dictatorial boot. Komi “has a high-end approach to a rule familiar with all kindergartners: ‘You get what you get and you don’t get upset.'” Little Serow is a “stickler for rules. For starters, there’s no phone, so you can forget about reservations. The menu is fixed, and that means no changes (nope, not even for your lactose-free, gluten-free, pork-hating friend).” Meanwhile, inspectors have few to no problems with the prix fixe menu at Pineapple and Pearls or the no reservations policy at Rose’s Luxury.
They don’t know jack about barbecue: How on earth can you include a review of Old Glory in Georgetown (sample quote: “Old Glory doesn’t pick sides, so most regional styles are celebrated here with equal love and distinction”), but neglect the far superior Hill Country in Penn Quarter? Or even Fat Pete’s in Cleveland Park?
They basically ignored one of the D.C. area’s largest immigrant groups: The Red Guide features cuisines from Italy, Thailand, France, Japan, Peru, Laos, Spain, Mexico, Greece and countless other locales. But the only restaurant that marginally features Vietnamese fare is Doi Moi, the pan-Asian spot on 14th Street NW. This, despite the fact the metro area is one of the major destinations for Vietnamese immigrants. Sure, the best Vietnamese eateries reside in suburban Virginia, outside the scope of the debut guide, but couldn’t an inspector at least darken the door of a D.C. pho parlor, like Pho 14 or Pho Viet?