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March 6, 2011

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Fine food trumps trimmings

THE arbiter of fine cuisine, the Michelin Red Guide, has added more than 50 restaurants to its annual listing of premier eateries in France but none got its top grade.

For the first time in nearly a generation, the anonymous inspectors couldn't find any newcomers for its ultra-elite list of three-star restaurants in France, whose ranks actually shrank by one to 25.

Michelin said that reflected diners' ongoing shift to favoring more value-oriented and casual bistro-style eating over the white tablecloths that predominate in the three-star dining world.

The one chef who lost his perch at the top was Michel Trama, whose eponymous restaurant in southwest France features foie gras hamburger and foie gras lollipops, fell from three stars to two.

The 111-year-old guidebook elevated 51 restaurants to either one- or two-star rankings, including a second star for Japanese chef Shinichi Sato at Paris' Passage 53.

Overall, 46 restaurants joined the one-star category for a total of 470, and five got two stars for a total of 76.

One trend that emerged in this year's guide "is the proliferation in the Paris restaurant scene of good-value bistros, chefs who are trained in three-star restaurants that leave to open better-value bistros offering food that people can afford," said Meg Zimbeck, a Paris-based critic and editor of the Paris by Mouth website.

At these places, "It's really the food that's the stand-out, and that's true in a lot of the lower stars, you go for the food, not the valet parking and coat check," Zimbeck said.

Zimbeck pointed to Yam'Tcha, a Franco-Chinese one-star in Paris' Les Halles neighborhood, and Passage 53 as among the most representative of this trend.

Passage 53 is a sleek, tiny spot inside the Passage des Panoramas, a century-old covered shopping arcade not far from the Paris Opera. Its chef previously worked at Paris' three-star Pierre Gagnaire restaurant. "It's very much on the rise," Zimbeck said, "with some of the best beef and veal in the city." Chef Sato's plate of finely diced veal topped with a raw oyster is "provocative, inventive, but most importantly, delicious," Zimbeck said.

"It could be diners choosing quality of food over glitz, or a reflection of the end of the financial crisis," Zimbeck said.

Outside Paris, the guide promoted two new two-star restaurants: Chef Bruno Oger's Villa Archange near Cannes and Thierry Drapeau's self-named restaurant near Nantes.


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