Back in the 1980s, I visited a restaurant in Hong Kong with friends to eat Shanghai hairy crab, the much prized – and pricey – freshwater crustacean that appears briefly every year around October. A woman in our party, a self-confessed “foodie”, devoured the crab, gasping with delight.
We ate and ate: a succession of exquisitely prepared dishes. The foodie declared it one of the best meals she’d had, beaming broadly until the bill arrived and her face fell like a failed soufflé. The price, equivalent to about $50 each, was a humble sum for such a feast. “It’s only a Chinese restaurant”, she hissed. “Who do they think they are?”
Therein lies the image problem that has haunted not only Chinese food but the many other great and often labour-intensive cuisines of Asia: they are seen all too often in the west as the “cheap grub” option. While you can easily spend $1,000 on a Chinese feast of rarefied ingredients, not many westerners do (sushi – due to the expense of some ingredients – has helped spare Japanese cuisine the same gastronomic ignominy).
For these reasons alone, the arrival of Michelin guides and their star-rating system in Asia – beginning with Michelin’s inaugural 2008 Tokyo guide to restaurants and hotels, and gaining pace with the launch this month of its first guide to Hong Kong and Macao – can only propel Asian cuisine up the “food chain” in western eyes.
That their choices would prove controversial is not surprising: a food critic friend once observed that publishing a restaurant guide is the gastronomic equivalent of formulating a Middle East peace proposal. Not only will you fail to please even a quarter of the people, you will inevitably antagonise most others. Michelin, with more than a century in the guide business, seems to relish such controversy. And none more so than Jean-Luc Naret, the smooth-talking director of Michelin guides. From the choice of restaurants to the extraordinary move to award its supposedly elusive stars to every single one of the 180 or so listed, Michelin’s first Tokyo guide was widely lambasted in Japan and abroad.
Now, after the launch this month of its inaugural 2009 Hong Kong and Macao guide, Michelin is attracting similar criticisms from local critics, including accusations of “cultural imperialism” or, worse, ignorance. “Of course, we’re hearing the same kind of complaints in Hong Kong as when we launched in Japan ... but just take a look, people are buying it,” says Naret.
On this, Naret is right. The Tokyo guide broke sales records for a food guide in Japan by selling out all 300,000 copies of the inaugural edition within five weeks. Naret’s decision to keep Tokyo as Michelin’s only “all-star” city guide, even while branching out to new markets in America and Europe – and now farther afield in Asia – with the traditional system of awarding just 10 per cent or so of listed restaurants the coveted stars, was clearly based as much on sound business sense as on his claim that Tokyo is different because it is the “food capital of the world”.
In contrast to Tokyo restaurants that in the first 2008 guide gained more stars than any other city in Michelin’s history and in the 2009 guide have landed a record 227 stars, the Hong Kong/Macao guide lists 251 restaurants of which just 28 received stars – two of them three-star and eight two-stars. About 30 per cent of the listings are restaurants in hotels. Predictably, Hong Kong commentators have responded with outrage, in large part because Michelin’s team of 12 inspectors comprised just two Chinese versus 10 European inspectors. As with the Tokyo guide, which began with a team of three European and two Japanese inspectors but has now been “localised” to five Japanese and one or two Europeans, the aim is to have a Hong Kong-based team of mainly Chinese inspectors.
In the Hong Kong/Macao guide, local cuisine accounts for about half the listed restaurants, while in the Tokyo guide, Japanese cuisine accounts for about two-thirds. The remainder are mainly European with a smattering of other cuisines. It would seem reasonable, therefore, to have a mix of nationalities on an inspection team. But critics are not appeased. “I love the French but they don’t know beans about Chinese cuisine ... and I was shocked they left some of the best restaurants in Hong Kong out,” says the Asian cookery expert and author Ken Hom.
The Hong Kong guide, responds Naret, is a typical balance: “Starred restaurants should only be about 10 per cent or so of those listed. It’s the same for New York, London and elsewhere. We give Bibs Gourmands [inspectors’ favourite for good value] but critics only saw the stars and didn’t look at our selection.”
In Tokyo, meanwhile, the wait at some top-rated restaurants since they gained three Michelin stars is up to two or three months long. So was Michelin mostly right?
The seven-seat Tapas Molecular Bar’s Japanese-American chef Jeff Ramsey has just deservedly gained his first Michelin star. And chefs who scoffed at the guide last year are now keen to be included, including Toshiya Kadowaki, of the eponymous Kadowaki restaurant. “This year, it was suggested to me that this could be a good source of encouragement for my staff,” he told a local paper.
For its part, Michelin recognises that to survive, it must expand. Japan, with its vast restaurant industry (160,000 restaurants in Tokyo alone) and numerous foreign visitors, is a food-obsessed culture which promises even richer pickings for Michelin.
Just how big a priority Japan is for Michelin can also be seen in little signs. In its 2009 guide, Michelin has made another historic exception for Japan by adding to the small icons that accompany entries a symbol for good sake; one to let diners know the place has just a communal counter; and, finally, the most “Japanese” icon of all, a tiny crossed-out shoe symbol – to let diners know they will have to shed their footwear at the door. After all, says the impeccably attired Naret, businesssmen need to be warned in case they have holes in their socks. Naturellement.
Gwen Robinson is a Tokyo-based FT correspondent
Picks by Gwen Robinson and Ken Hom: Michelin misses
Maru (+81 (0)36418 5572) in Aoyama district is a cross between a traditional counter-style “izakaya” bistro and a modern Japanese restaurant.
Higashiyama (+81 (0)35720 1350), a restaurant and bar created by designer Shinichiro Ogata, strikes a near-perfect balance between contemporary and traditional Japan.
Shin Hinomoto (+81 (0)33214 8021) provides non-Japanese speakers a glimpse into the world of the working-class “izakaya”.
With its 10-seat counter and tiny tea room, Yamada Chikara (+81 (0)35942-5817) combines chef-proprietor Yamada’s experience working at Spain’s El Bulli restaurant.
Kinsai (+81 (0)35725-9025) offers a splendid array of grills, imaginative salads and good sake and wines.
A place which deserves at least one star is Kin’s Kitchen (+852 2571 0913), where Lau Kin Wai, a popular food critic, has created his fantasy restaurant.
Spring Moon (+852 2315 3160) at the Peninsula Hotel has some of the best dim sum anywhere, such as baked sea urchin and potato tarts. It deserved at least one star, if not more.
A restaurant you will probably never see in the Michelin guide is Mak’s Noodles Ltd (+852 2854 3810), a modest but classic restaurant serving superb wonton noodle soup.
Yan Toh Heen at the Intercontinental Hotel (+852 2313 2243) did not even get one star – it easily deserves three. Nobu’s chef Oyvind Naesheim has emerged from under his master’s wing to offer some of the most exciting cuisine in Hong Kong, also at the Intercontinental.