Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Ultimate Arbiter

One of the great ironies of the culinary world is that the ultimate arbiter of excellence in restaurant dining is . . . . . a tire company.

In 1920, the French tire company Michelin began assigning stars to restaurants in its travel guides. In 1931, Michelin changed its blue-colored book to red. These days, gourmands regularly refer to Michelin's "red book."

Michelin's red books also provide information on hotels and brief maps of cities and towns, but the restaurant recommendations have always been the foremost lever for sales.

During my recent eight days in France, I ate at two Michelin-starred restaurants.

Michelin's red book assigns one to three stars to the most accomplished restaurants, as well as a "bib gourmand" designation to restaurants that haven't quite earned star status but serve excellent food at reasonable prices.

Michelin traditionally has focused on the Europe and North America, but earlier this year the company ventured into Asia to publish a Japanese-language red book guide. The reaction in Japan — literally: "How can a bunch of foreigners show up and tell us what is good or bad?” — demonstated that the Japanese are even more absurdly nationalistic and chauvinistic than the French.

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