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Sushi Masaki Saito is the first-ever Canadian restaurant to receive two Michelin stars.Supplied

Michelin, the influential but controversial guide to fine dining, has released its first-ever Canadian edition, awarding 13 Toronto restaurants with prestigious stars.

The Michelin guide, which operates in more than 30 countries around the world, announced its Toronto edition on Tuesday, which includes one two-starred restaurant and 12 one-starred ones.

Michelin, which has further expansion plans in Canada, rates restaurants based on a three-star system – a system that is shrouded in secrecy and has been criticized as elitist and out of touch. Still, it is widely considered the authority on fine dining around the world.

The full list of Michelin-approved restaurants in Toronto

Sushi Masaki Saito is the first-ever Canadian restaurant to receive two stars – little surprise, given that Mr. Saito, the chef, already held two Michelin stars at his previous restaurant in New York. His eponymous Toronto restaurant specializes in Edomae-style sushi, which uses cured or aged fish.

In their review, Michelin inspectors raved about the “melting slabs of chutoro buried under a blizzard of white truffles,” and “prized rice from Niigata prefecture, warm and tinged with his special blend of vinegars.”

The Toronto restaurants that received one star are Aburi Hana; Alo; Alobar Yorkville; Don Alfonso 1890; Edulis; Enigma Yorkville; FRILU; Kaiseki Yu-zen Hashimoto; Osteria Giulia; Quetzal; Shoushin and Yukashi.

The Michelin guides were first created by the French tire company in the late 19th century to spark an interest in travel, but have since evolved into arbiters of gourmet dining. The criteria for judging ranges, according to the Michelin website, from “harmony of flavour” to “the personality of the chef represented in the dining experience.”

Inspectors – many of whom have experience cooking in professional kitchens – visit restaurants anonymously. The rankings are finalized by teams of inspectors, based on repeated visits.

Many of the world’s most lauded chefs consider a one-star rating a high honour. Wealthy diners, meanwhile, are known to travel around the world guided by the star system. Only 137 restaurants around the world currently hold a three-star rating.

Opinion: The Michelin Guide is coming to Canada – and it exposes Toronto’s desperate hunger for outside praise

In Toronto, 17 restaurants were also awarded with Michelin’s Bib Gourmand designation, which recognizes “great food at a great value.” Among the selections (where two courses and a glass of wine cost less than $60) are Alma, Puerto Bravo, Favorites Thai BBQ, Grey Gardens and Bar Raval.

In the coming weeks, Michelin will expand on its Canadian offerings with a guide for Vancouver as well.

“Toronto already was a multicultural place where people meet to enjoy architecture, arts and nature,” said Gwendal Poullennec, international director for the Michelin guides. “And now it becomes a world-class destination for gourmets, too.”

Still, Michelin has been subject to a mounting chorus of criticism in recent years. Some of the newly published guides, including in Asia and South America, have been revealed to have been at least partly funded by local tourism boards.

Others have criticized Michelin as being Eurocentric and elitist. Historically, the guide has been focused on European fine dining: on white tablecloths, sparkling silverware and carefully curated wine lists. As such, many have questioned the relevance of a Michelin guide in Canada, given the relatively casual nature of our dining culture, and the extraordinary diversity offered by our cuisines.

Others too have questioned the timing of the announcement given the challenges facing restaurant workers amidst the pandemic, and notoriously poor working conditions in the industry. More than 800,000 food-service workers either lost their jobs or saw their hours cut in the first few months of the pandemic, according to Restaurants Canada. Nearly a year later, less than half of those jobs had been restored.

Still, the news comes at an opportune time for restaurant owners. The vast majority of restaurants – at least 86 per cent, according to Restaurants Canada – saw their revenue drop at the outset of the pandemic. And while casual restaurants were able to pivot to takeout and delivery, fine dining struggled.

For those restaurants, a Michelin star might help speed up the recovery. A 2018 study in the Stanford Economics Review found that, historically, a one-star Michelin rating at restaurants translated into a 15-per-cent price premium for restaurants.

“In addition,” the study noted, “earning a Michelin star is almost always accompanied by a significant boost in business.”

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