Parisians and visitors who spend a small fortune on a dining experience of a lifetime are mostly wasting their money – and cheating their taste buds – if they opt for a three-star Michelin restaurant in Paris, according to one of the fiercest attacks on the legendary red guide.
“The real action in Paris, the kind of cooking that excites diners who have been tasting their way through other dining capitals (San Sebastien, New York, London, Tokyo), is happening a world away from what Michelin deigns to include in its guide,” Meg Zimbeck of the respected Paris By Mouth food blog told The Local.
The Michelin guide, whose keenly awaited annual edition for France was released on Thursday, comes under fire every year for its choices. The guide can make or break a restaurant, and has prompted at least one chef to commit suicide when he suspected he might be about to lose a star.
(The Epicure au Bristol, one of Paris's nine three star Michelin restaurants)
But the research by Zimbeck – whose website was recently praised by the Wall Street Journal as “the definitive blog on the city’s food and wine scene” – appears to be the most comprehensive critique of the guide so far for Paris restaurants.
She claims to be the first food critic to have tested all the Paris eateries given the top three-star rating by Michelin while paying for the meals herself and published the details of her findings.
In her first article entitled: Behind the curtain: Examining Haute Cuisine in Paris, she writes: “There’s an obvious barrier to understanding these [two and three star] restaurants: the staggering, outrageous, almost immoral price of a meal.”
“No-one, I mean really no-one, who writes about restaurants actually pays for meals at three-star restaurants. With the cheapest lunch options for two ranging between €450 to €1,100, no writer would pay for themselves and no editor would pay,” the American critic tells The Local.
“So we decided to take a look, so that we could better answer the question ‘If I do one blow-out meal in Paris, where would it be?’ But free from the strings that come from accepting an €800 lunch for free,” she said.
Over a four-month period in 2014, she dined in all nine three-star restaurants in Paris, and in six two-star ones, with her company – which also runs food tours in Paris – forking out a total of €7,150 for the gastronomic experiment.
“To my knowledge, we are the first to do this – book anonymously, pay in full, etc,” she said. The Michelin critics are supposed to carry out anonymous checks every year on the restaurants listed in the legendary red guide.
The surprising result of Zimbeck’s quest was that, unless you have so much money that a €1,000 lunch is a mere trifle, demanding diners should largely shun the Michelin system.
Detailed reviews of each of the restaurants were published on Paris By Mouth website.
Le Cinq (a mere two-star restaurant) and Pierre Gagnaire were the critic’s favourites, with Le Pré Catalan and Alain Ducasse’s restaurant at the Plaza Athénée among the worst.
Zimbeck said her lunch at Ducasse's Plaza Athénée, which cost a mere €1,100 for two, was “absolutely horrid”. When she returned one evening for one of the free meals the chef offers to food writers, “it was of course more lavish and there was free flowing champagne and all that but it was still really bad.”
Overall, Zimbeck concluded that while there are some “truly enjoyable” meals to experience at the three star level, very few of the dishes were markedly better than what she had experienced at Paris restaurants that cost a fifth or a tenth of the price.
The Michelin guide “directs people to some of the least exciting and overblown dining in the city. A three star designation indicates extravagant prices, plush surroundings, and a surfeit of staff. It does not, unfortunately, always lead you to the best food in Paris.”
After spending five years happily reviewing the “lower tier” of the French capital’s bistros, wine bars and modestly priced modern restaurants, she said she had “always assumed that the rung above – the three star restaurants where lunch costs more than my rent – would be exponentially, life-changingly better.”
Many of her readers and colleagues who work in the food and wine industry had assumed the same, she said, and because the cost is so prohibitive, “few were ever able to peek behind the curtains.” And when she finally did so, the outcome was major disappointment.
(Greg Marchand's restaurant Frenchie is as good if not better than a three-star Michelin)
Zimbeck believes that Paris is one of the most exciting places to eat in the world, but says that the Michelin guide is largely oblivious to what the current generation of gastronomic explorers are looking for.
Chefs like David Toutain at his restaurant of the same name, Greg Marchand at Frenchie, Bertrand Grébaut at Septime, or Iñaki Aizpitarte at Le Chateaubriand “are routinely putting out food that rivals or surpasses what I tasted at the three star level, for a fraction of the price,” she said.
“The Michelin Guide is looking backward and is out of touch with what's truly exciting about cooking in Paris today,” she said.
by Rory Mulholland
This article was first published in 2015.