Restaurant News & Reviews

How good is Sacramento’s restaurant scene? Michelin wasn’t that impressed

Executive chef for The Kitchen on what a Michelin star means for Sacramento

After winning Sacramento’s first and only Michelin star on Monday, executive chef Kelly McCown reflects on what The Kitchen’s award means for the Sacramento culinary scene on Wednesday, June 5, 2019.
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After winning Sacramento’s first and only Michelin star on Monday, executive chef Kelly McCown reflects on what The Kitchen’s award means for the Sacramento culinary scene on Wednesday, June 5, 2019.

For all the celebration surrounding Sacramento’s first Michelin star, the capital region received the short end of the fork from the prestigious restaurant guide. But does it really matter?

Michelin’s first California guide clearly didn’t think much of the dining scene in Sacramento – or, for that matter, any city outside the Bay Area and greater Los Angeles.

Stars are generally reserved for fine dining; the Bib Gourmand list is where Sacramento should have really shined. If Michelin’s critics could find the list’s requisite two entrees and dessert/glass of wine for $40 or less at Canon, nearly every other local restaurant should have qualified as well.

Yet the self-proclaimed farm-to-fork capital of the United States produced only three Bib Gourmands out of the 151 selected statewide: Frank Fat’s, Mother and the aforementioned Canon, a popular East Sacramento restaurant. Places such as Localis, Masullo and The Waterboy that are generally considered among the city’s best were shut out of all major honors.

Sure, 10 Sacramento restaurants out of 416 statewide got Plates, a new designation introduced last year to highlight very good but not great places to eat. Here’s what Michelin thinks of Plates: the company didn’t even bother mentioning the restaurants that earned them at Monday’s announcement ceremony or in any subsequent media releases.

“The real prizes are stars and Bibs, and then the Plates are kind of like they’re mentioning you because you’re good and you could be better. It shows that they went to your restaurant and reviewed you,” said Sacramento restaurateur Billy Ngo of Fish Face Poke Bar, Healthy Hounds Kitchen, Kru Contemporary Japanese Cuisine and the soon-to-open Kodaiko Ramen & Bar.

A similar story played out in most other newly-reviewed parts of the state, as greater San Diego, Santa Barbara and Monterey combined for two stars and 11 Bib Gourmands (eight of which went to San Diego). Just 2.6 percent of stars and 9.3 percent of the Bib Gourmands in California went to restaurants outside of the Bay Area or Los Angeles.

For all the kvetching coming out of Los Angeles over certain exclusions or about how no restaurants reached three-star status, there’s an argument to be made that the rest of California was snubbed – unless the two major metropolitan areas really contain more than 90 percent of the state’s best food.

Sacramento’s minimal Bib Gourmand recognition surprised former Bee food critic Carla Meyer, who previously wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle and has dined at one, two and three-star restaurants. Most Sacramento restaurants lack the aesthetic perfection Michelin looks for when doling out stars, Meyer said, and don’t have chefs on the inspectors’ radars. But when it comes to the food, Sacramento’s best are right up there, she said.

“I thought, honestly, there should be more (Bib Gourmands), even given all of their standards,” Meyer said. “There have been only maybe five times ever where I have just been knocked out by the taste of a single bite of food – where it has been a transcendent moment – and most of them have happened in the Sacramento region.”

As for the The Kitchen’s star, it reinforced something local gastronomes should have already known: the most expensive and hardest-to-book restaurant in town is indeed one of the top 90 fine dining destinations in California. That will now be more clear to people outside the region.

Chef Kelly McCown, who was Martini House’s chef de cuisine when the now-closed Napa Valley restaurant received its first Michelin star in 2008, estimated customers would soon have to wait five months for a reservation as more people from the Bay Area take notice.

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Executive chef Kelly McCown prepares squash blossoms for dinner service at The Kitchen on June 5, 2019. The blossoms will be filled with huitlacoche, also known as Mexican corn truffle, and will be served with smoke-roasted mole-spiced beef short ribs. Autumn Payne

“I don’t think (the star) changes the overall direction or mantra of The Kitchen, which is ‘it’s a big gregarious dinner party and our guests and guests’ needs are paramount,’” McCown said. “On the flip side ... it inherently changes the expectations of the people that are coming to your restaurant, especially the people who have never been there before.”

How much that new tourism will extend to other Sacramento restaurants is unclear. Michelin’s reputation as the main authority on high-end food has been questioned as competition such as The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list or, for a broader price range, Yelp and TripAdvisor have become more prevalent in the digital age. Food writers such as San Francisco Chronicle dining critic Soleil Ho, Helen Rosner of the New Yorker and Eater New York chief critic Ryan Sutton have also spoken out against the guide, with many arguing it favors certain regions’ cuisines at the expense of others.

Michelin doesn’t disclose how many physical guides are sold annually but is “increasingly focused on growing its digitally accessible platforms including social media channels and a recently refreshed website,” said spokeswoman Lauren McClure. Visit California ran no analyses or studies on the guide’s economic impact before funding the inspectors’ $600,000 statewide expansion.

This isn’t to bag on The Kitchen or any restaurant recognized with a Bib Gourmand or Plate; Sacramento’s dining scene is unequivocally better than it was 10 years ago, in part because of their work. And for all the critiques of Michelin in the modern era, it’s the most storied review system in the world, dating back to the early 1900s when two brothers wanted to encourage France’s 300 or so drivers to hit the road.

Though Visit Sacramento president/CEO Mike Testa said he hopes to see “a lot more” Sacramento restaurants in future guides, he called Michelin’s first statewide iteration a success. The 14 Sacramento restaurants honored – plus others such as Lalo’s, Ginger Elizabeth and Pushkin’s mentioned briefly in an introduction – share literary real estate with the three-star creations of Dominique Crenn and Thomas Keller, said Testa, who started the conversation with Michelin that eventually led to the company expanding its Bay Area guide statewide.

“For cities like Sacramento and Santa Barbara and Monterey, we weren’t really part of this statewide culinary conversation on a critical mass level before,” Testa said. “It’s a credibility thing. It’s aligning with cities that have international culinary reputations, and Sacramento’s now in that conversation.”

Michelin’s greatest longstanding influence on Sacramento may be in shaping the culinary scene, not directly driving culinary tourism. Stars matter more to chefs than most customers, said Ngo, who has long considered pseudo-retiring into the kind of 10- or 12-seat omakase restaurant that might merit a star.

Kru offers an omakase, or “chef’s choice,” menu at around $125 per person, but Ngo said he thinks his “baby” was discounted by Michelin inspectors because its main menu includes tempura and sushi rolls. With Michelin in town, slicing bluefin tuna and Wagyu beef in an omakase den has gone from a far-off idea to a concept Ngo wants to start formulating in the next year-and-a-half, he said.

“A rising tide lifts all ships, from not only an attention standpoint but probably from a production standpoint,” Testa said. “Some of these other kitchens and chefs that want to get a star are going to have to elevate even further than they’ve already been.”

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