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And the three Michelin stars go to ... Alinea.

Grant Achatz's Lincoln Park restaurant was the lone recipient of the travel guide's highest honor, the tire company announced Tuesday.

Charlie Trotter's and Ria in the Elysian Hotel were awarded two Michelin stars.

L2O, which earned three stars last year along with Alinea in the inaugural Chicago Michelin guide -- just as its chef, Laurent Gras, abruptly left the restaurant -- was downgraded to one star. Seventeen other Chicago area restaurants also earned one star.

Off the list entirely were Crofton on Wells and three swanky hotel restaurants -- Avenues, NoMI and Sixteen. Avenues in the Peninsula Hotel, earned two stars last year; chef Curtis Duffy left the restaurant in September to open his own restaurant, and Avenues is now closed as it regroups. Sixteen in the Trump International Hotel and Tower also saw its chef, Frank Brunacci, leave; he now runs an Australian truffle importing business with his wife. NoMI in the Park Hyatt underwent a makeover earlier this year, reopening as the slightly more casual NoMI Kitchen. Crofton on Wells, NoMI and Sixteen all earned one star last year.

New to the guide this year are moto, the taste bud-bending West Loop restaurant from chef Homaro Cantu, and Courtright's, a 16-year-old Willow Springs restaurant. Both earned one star.

"It's an incredible honor," said Bill Courtright, who runs Courtight's with his wife, Rebecca. "We built this restaurant out there in the middle of nowhere and built it because we loved the Michelin restaurants we visited in Europe. We thought you didn't necessarily have to be in the heart of the city, and if you paid attention to detail and did things right, you could make it happen anywere."

Courtright's was one of only two suburban restaurants to make the starry cut. The other is Vie in Western Springs.

The Michelin Guide got its start in 1900 as a hotel and restaurant guide for visitors to the World's Fair in Paris.

Three Michelin stars denote restaurants with "exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey." Two stars represents "excellent cuisine, worth a detour." One star: "a very good restaurant in its category."

In addition, there is a "Bib Gourmand" designation denoting good food and good value. Fifty-six area restaurants made that list.

Inclusion in the guide, whether with stars, a Bib Gourmand or simply as a listing, is viewed as an honor -- and a motivator. "We want two [stars]," Courtright said.

The guide goes on sale Nov. 16 for $18.99.

The full list after the jump.

The esteemed Michelin restaurant guide on Wednesday tapped 56 Chicago restaurants as offering the best bang for the buck.

Restaurants with the "Bib Gourmand" distinction -- which according to Michelin offer two courses and a glass of wine or dessert for $40 or less -- include the popular Avec and Belly Shack, from chefs Koren Grieveson and Bill Kim; Smak-Tak, a Northwest Side Polish restaurant known for its generous servings of stick-to-the-ribs food, and the Andersonville gastropub Hopleaf.

Michelin inspectors have been eating their way around Chicago for the past year. The first Michelin Chicago guide was released last year.

On Nov. 15, the tire company will release its list of the crème de la crème of Chicago's dining scene -- restaurants who have earned Michelin stars.

For the full list of this year's Bib Gourmand picks, click here.

Last call at Avenues Sept. 3

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5-28 Lachat duffy 1.jpg

Saturday is the last day of Avenues in the Peninsula, in its current incarnation.

Chef Curtis Duffy, who led the restaurant to two Michelin stars last year, announced in August he was leaving to open his own restaurant in the city. Sept. 3 will be his final dinner service, after which the hotel will close the restaurant to figure out "a concept change and re-branding process," a press release issued Friday said -- though the space will be made available for private events, and for a series of wine dinners hosted by wine director Michael Muser (which sounds like fun; Muser's a character whose title belies his general puckishness). The search for Duffy's replacement is under way.


[Duffy back in the day. | photo by Jean Lachat~Sun-Times]

brunobest-WKP-1231-18.jpg How 'bout that view? [photo by John J. Kim~Sun-Times]

The view seems to be the only thing left untouched at NoMI during its five-month renovation.

The 7th-floor restaurant at the swank Park Hyatt is on track to re-open on June 3 with a new name (just barely -- NoMI Kitchen), a new attitude (no more tablecloths, no more Dale Chihuly chandeliers -- in plain sight, anyway; they are Chihulys, after all), a new color scheme, a new, open kitchen with Molteni stove -- and a new culinary team.

Joining executive chef Ryan LaRoche, 32, will be pastry chef Meg Galus, 32, most recently of the Sofitel, and chef de cuisine Sean Pharr, 30, whose resume includes Fat Cat in Uptown, Osteria Via Stato and Fred's at Barney's.

It's a reunion of sorts for the three chefs, who all cut their teeth in the kitchen at Tru, LaRoche as sous chef, Pharr on the fish station and Galus in pastry.

"You get into a role like this, and there's so much change going on in the restaurant with the menus and my position that I felt I really needed to surround myself with people I knew and trusted," says LaRoche, who had been chef de cuisine at NoMI for the past two years.

The menu has been much expanded with a focus on "ingredients rather than technique," LaRoche says. "More about the food than what 50 things can I do with a carrot." The pricing will be "not as astronomical as before," he says. "Approachable," says Lynne Bredfeldt, Park Hyatt's public relations director.

The sushi bar will offer more shellfish and ceviche in addition to the pristine sushi diners came to expect of the old NoMI.

LaRoche is particularly excited about two new categories on the menu: "Simply Prepared," with plates such as a New York strip with roasted tomatoes, and "For the Table" -- as in, a whole lobe of Hudson Valley foie gras for the table.

"I'm not sure if anybody's doing that [whole foie preparation] in the city," he says. "We'll do a prime, bone-in, dry-aged beef for the table, poached whole chicken for the table. That's how people want to eat now. The fine-dining dollar has changed dramatically." (Note: You still can expect that foie to cost you a pretty penny.)

In November, when we first reported on the overhaul, NoMI was celebrating its one Michelin star. Going forward, LaRoche says, the restaurant still has stars in its sight -- but it's taking the longer view.

"We fully intend on keeping our Michelin star, however, we want a busy restaurant and happy customers," he says.

12-08-05 kim arun01.jpg [Arun Sampanthavivat | photo by John J. Kim~Sun-Times]

Seven Chicago restaurants have snagged the AAA Five Diamond rating this year, the most of any U.S. city, the travel organization said Friday.

In addition, four hotels made the Five Diamond list, including two newcomers -- the Trump International Hotel and Tower, on the site of the old Sun-Times, and the Elysian Hotel in the Gold Coast.

More subdued than the release of the inaugural Michelin Chicago guide, the AAA ratings still hold much weight in the white-tablecloth world. Charlie Trotter's, which was awarded two out of three Michelin stars, has had five diamonds for 17 years now. Arun's, a five-diamond winner for the ninth year and largely considered one of the best Thai restaurants in the country, didn't see any Michelin stars. The other five-diamond restaurants are Alinea, Avenues, Everest, Seasons and Tru.

The Peninsula (home to Avenues) and the Four Seasons round out the Chicago hotel list.

7-14 hale bruno23 7677.JPG

Still glowing from its Michelin star, NoMI is closing -- but only for a facelift.

The restaurant on the seventh floor of the swanky Park Hyatt, 800 N. Michigan, will close after Jan. 30 for a mostly cosmetic overhaul. The goal is to reopen in June, a spokeswoman says.

Clearly, NoMI ain't broke. But this renovation has been in the works for about five years.

Urbanbelly/Belly Shack owner (and Michelin Bib Gourmand pick) Bill Kim, meanwhile, says he's consulting with several other chefs on "new concepts for the city" for 2011. He's not talking about a new member of the Belly family just yet -- though Kim still is holding fast to "my dream to put all the Bellys in one place," namely in the humble strip mall on North California that now houses Urbanbelly.

At Wednesday's party to celebrate the release of the first Michelin Chicago guide, there was a lot of chatter, but not much talk.

Jean-Luc Naret, the guide's director, didn't want to talk about the leak on Yelp that forced him to move up by one day the announcement of which Chicago restaurants snagged the coveted stars.

Laurent Gras, recipient of three stars for his work at L2O, didn't want to talk about his departure from the restaurant that had previously been couched in vague "for personal reasons" terms.

"I think we're pretty done with that. We just want to celebrate why we're here," said the Gucci-wearing Gras, who had flown back to Chicago from his home in New York to attend the fete at the Cultural Center. With him was wife Jennifer Leuzzi.

On Tuesday, it appeared Gras was L2O limbo -- at least to his boss, Rich Melman, who said he'd already started tweaking the menu here and there in Gras' absence. Earlier Wednesday, the ground had shifted, with Gras telling the Food & Wine blog that he and Melman, his now former boss, "always had different points of view on L2O" and telling the Eater Chicago blog that he's working on a new project in New York.

Even at shoulder's length, Gras was a hot topic among other chefs and party attendees, who still were scratching their heads at possibly the weirdest Michelin guide launch in history.

"I had this whole plan for how Wednesday [the original announcement day] would go," said Frank Brunacci, chef at Sixteen, which won one star. "The first call was going to be to my wife. The second call was going to be to my sous chef. Instead, I'm getting calls from friends in London and wherever, telling me they saw [the leak] online."

Weird, not surprisingly, still felt good to Michael Carlson, chef at Schwa, which also garnered one star. "It's exciting. It's always good to be acknowledged for what we do," he said. Asked if the Michelin rating will prompt him to change the way he or the restaurant operates -- like, say, adding a phone line -- he said, "I know it's faulty, but we like our formula." As for feeling the pressure from now on, he said, "Nah. I obsess about weirder things, like washing my hands 1,000 times."

And what of the little red guide itself, finally in the chefs' hands? More than a few chefs wondered aloud why stalwarts like Les Nomades didn't get a star. The team from Avenues, a two-star winner, said their listing was "outdated" -- it described a dish from a good 18 months ago. And Sprout's spunky chef Dale Levitski called the guide "too short and too small."

"Not enough restaurants got the stars they deserve," Levitski said. "Only two three-stars is bullshit. I think they were short 20 restaurants and stars. And I promise that we will get one star next year."

Next year -- this much they're talking about.

Michelin director Jean-Luc Naret was able to talk by phone Tuesday with L2O chef Laurent Gras, now a three Michelin star chef, but Gras' (former?) boss wasn't so lucky.

"I called Laurent about an hour and a half ago and left a message on his answering machine, on his cell phone," said Rich Melman, Lettuce Entertain You honcho.

About three months ago, Gras told Melman he wanted out for personal reasons. Melman told him to take some time and think through things, and early this month, Gras left.

"I really, truly don't know [if Gras will return]," Melman said. "My feeling is we're going forward. I love the team we have in place. And we've already made many changes, so hey, if he comes back, I'm thrilled and if he doesn't, I'm going forward."

That team includes chef de cuisine Francis Brennan; Doug Psaltis, who trained under Alain Ducasse, and Jeff Mahin.

Those changes include -- well, Melman says it best:
"There were souffles I didn't love. I thought some of the sushi, the sashimi should be more understandable. Some of the sauce weren't punchy enough.

"There was a chicken dish that I absolutely loved with a foie gras sauce and you had the option of truffles with it, and Laurent would make it for me at Christmas and I'd say, You've gotta put this on the menu. And he'd laugh and wouldn't do it. . . We put it on the menu and it's been selling like crazy.

"There is a rosemary croissant, a little, tiny one that was the best roll. People would always comment to me about it. And Laurent liked changing it all the time, and we'd get all these complaints from people. So I put the croissant back. . . There's been many, many little things like that. But Laurent set the standard for what that restaurant is, was and will be, and in that respect, I won't change it."

Melman says he and Gras talked about Michelin's arrival in Chicago; Gras was certain he wouldn't get three stars. "He always thought one or two," Melman said.

Melman is pleased with all the stars -- the three for L2O, and one each for Everest and Tru -- but like any driven restaurateur or chef, it's not enough. "There's never a restaurant that I'm not working on. There is no such thing as a perfect restaurant, one that can't be better," he said.

Whether L2O gets better with or without Gras remains to be seen; Melman says he's giving Gras a "couple months" to figure it out. Gras is expected to be at tomorrow's reception in Chicago for the Michelin guide; Melman has other obligations.

"There's a good chance he won't come back," Melman said. "Let me put it this way -- it wouldn't surprise me if he didn't."

Michelin worldwide director Jean-Luc Naret said Tuesday he doesn't know how the poster on Yelp got his hands on the list of Michelin-starred Chicago restaurants, but damned if he's going to let "David 'Primo' R" get away with it.

"We don't know yet if the book was sold in advance or if the book disappeared from one of the booksellers, who have all signed confidentiality agreements," Naret said. "We'll find out, don't worry. We'll make sure our legal people know exactly what happened. . . Obviously, there will be some legal issues."

Still, Naret was hardly flustered that the announcement of the first-ever Michelin Chicago guide didn't go down as smoothly as planned, or that the leak did anything to damage the credibility of the vaunted guide.

"There was too much speculation, so it was time to call the chefs," Naret said. "It was really a relief for them, and for [the media]."

Naret called each of the 23 chefs earning a star, including L2O's Laurent Gras, the chef who abruptly left the restaurant earlier this month. Gras was in New York and will fly back to attend a reception thrown by Michelin on Wednesday, Naret said.

L2O earned three stars, the highest honor, as did Alinea.

"We didn't know [Gras] was going to leave," Naret says. "But obviously, we've been there before. You have chefs who leave all the time."

Now that the Chicago guide is out and the champagne corks are popping, the 10 U.S. Michelin inspectors will get one week off. But next week, they start inspecting anew for next year's guide, Naret says.

The hallowed Michelin Guide awarded stars to 23 Chicago restaurants Tuesday, with the highest honor -- the coveted three stars -- going to Alinea and L20, as many food lovers had speculated.

The announcement by Michelin came a day after a person posted on the online review site Yelp a purported list of the restaurants that had received stars. The poster, listed as David "Primo" R., said he had a copy of the guide, which was slated to be released Thursday. His list was identical to what Michelin released this morning.

Jean-Luc Naret, Michelin's worldwide director, called each chef who had earned a star.

Grant Achatz, Alinea's chef, acknowledged the announcement and Naret's call felt "a little bit" anticlimactic, but added, "In today's day and age, with the way the Internet is, it's gonna happen. It is what it is. And it really screwed up Michelin ... Whether I hear today or tomorrow, does it really matter? Not really."

Achatz still planned on attending the reception Wednesday evening and returning to his restaurant, shutting it down, "opening a lot of champagne" and toasting with his staff and diners.

"These things come in life very rarely, and I've done a poor job of this in the past, which is embracing and celebrating the moment," Achatz said. "I'm going to really try and embrace this one."

Among the first chefs to announce their good news on Twitter were Bonsoiree's Shin Thompson and Boka's Giuseppe Tentori. Tentori wrote, "Just got the call. Boka receives one star from Michelin, you are the first to know. And thanks to my team!"

Avec, a favorite among Chicago's food cognoscenti which recently re-opened after a fire this summer, did not earn a star. Its chef, Paul Kahan, had this to say on Twitter: "In the begining, they didn't understand the clash either. Avec rules." Kahan's other restaurant, Blackbird, earned one star, and his gastropub the Publican was named a Bib Gourmand (best value) pick last week.

Also earning stars: newcomer Ria in the Elysian Hotel; Schwa, the notoriously-hard-to-get-a-reservation-at restaurant whose chef Michael Carlson and kitchen crew double as waitstaff, and Longman & Eagle, a hipster whiskey-focused gastropub in Logan Square.

L20's chef, Laurent Gras, quietly and mysteriously left the Lincoln Park restaurant earlier this month, citing personal reasons.

This is the first Chicago edition of the hallowed Michelin restaurant guide, considered in Europe to be the authoritative source on the world's best restaurants and hotels. In 2005, Michelin introduced its first-ever North American guide; New York was the debut city.

The company prides itself on its rigorous review process and the fierce anonymity under which its "inspectors" operate.

Naret says Michelin inspectors ate their way around Chicago for two years before finalizing their decisions in September.

Last week, Michelin announced the Chicago recipients of the Bib Gourmand, which designates the best value restaurants. Forty-six restaurants earned that title.

About the blog

Janet Rausa Fuller

Sun-Times Food editor Janet Rausa Fuller is always thinking about her next meal.

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