A Guide to Michelin Stars and a Culinary Sweep of Paris
Writer Larry Olmsted visits France, the birthplace of the world’s most prestigious culinary ratings, for a taste of the some of the world’s best dining experiences.
The world’s most prestigious culinary ratings, the Michelin Red Guides, now cover a wide variety of countries around the globe, but they were born in France, and their expertise is still most respected here. To earn even a single Michelin star is a tremendous feat, and there are actually five fork-and-spoon ratings below one star, the highest of which denotes a “luxurious restaurant.” Once you enter the realm of stars, it is world-class, and the highest three-star rating means “Exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey.”
But the scale is not exactly cut and dried, and many food-lovers prefer some one-stars over twos, some two-stars over threes, and so. For an overview of what these ratings mean, I embarked on a culinary sweep of Paris, visiting one eatery of each caliber.
One-Star: Formal presentation with top-quality plates, silverware and crystal, changed frequently. You will usually be offered a glass of champagne to start. Most offer both a la carte and multi-course set menus, and regardless of which you choose, expect an extra amuse bouche from the chef. Service is first-rate and attentive, but not overbearing.
La Tour d’Argent: Perhaps the most famous one-star on earth, this venerable eatery has graced the Left Bank for centuries. It is famous for pressed duck, owns its own duck farm and uses an ancient press—they have served more than 1 million ducks. Though far from casual, the food is heartier, more straightforward and less delicate, with non-duck choices such as rib of Spanish pork with red cabbage or Black Angus filet with potatoes and truffles purée—an excellent job with simple dishes.
Two-Star: Everything goes up a notch—a champagne cart rather than an offered glass, and more ornate china, with different shapes and styles for every course. Service becomes a team effort and is extremely attentive. Two rounds of amuse bouche are common, and dessert rarely ends with dessert, but is followed by a selection of fine chocolates or other sweets. A groaning cheese board is always offered. There are usually multiple set menu options, which may include a “grand” selection showcasing rare and precious ingredients. A wine pairing by the course option is often offered. For many, the two-star is the best choice, with all of the pageantry and food quality, but less dramatic theatre.
Le Cinq: The food, traditional fine French with an Asian accent, is exquisite, and the room is ornate, from the chandeliers to the heavy draperies, but what makes Le Cinq stand out is its welcoming and warm feel, as the hotel restaurant at Four Seasons Hotel George V Paris is used to guests from all over the world. Absent is the stuffy pretense that accompanies many of the world’s great restaurants. The wine list is encyclopedic and the menu emphasises the best geographically designated ingredients from Europe, such as Basque pig from the Aldudes Region and Brittany lobster, while a signature highlight is the decadent post-dessert confectionery cart, served tableside.
Three-Star: The jump from two to three stars is smaller than from one to two, but includes an opulence of setting to the point where you feel you are dining in a museum or palace. Staff usually outnumbers guests. Plates, presentations, and multiple extras, from amuse bouche to post-desserts to intermezzos, are expected and elaborate. But one distinguishing factor (also found at some two-stars) is that main dishes are often served as “flights” representing the key ingredient. For instance, order langoustines as your main, and you might get a plate of delicate langoustine ravioli, another of grilled langoustines with a distinctive sauce, and a third presentation as a soup, all served simultaneously. Creativity and elaborateness are the rule, and increasingly, so is alchemy, with foams, purees and essences.
Le Pré Catelan: Set in a palace-like structure within a city park, this is one of the most beautiful restaurants in the world, and presentation is everything. Multiple servers arrive simultaneously, one for every diner, removing silver domed lids to unveil each creation. One memorable dessert was a sphere of pear encased in a hard chocolate shell, a perfect globe, set in a bowl. Piping hot chocolate was slowly drizzled over it from a silver coffeepot, melting the shell away to reveal the fruit, which was left in a soup of rich, thick cocoa. However, though the food and dining room were gorgeous, the excessive staff hovering everywhere made the experience almost oppressive.