The Michelin guide has released its first Vancouver edition, awarding eight restaurants with the prestigious one-star rating in a list that fairly reflects the city’s three main culinary pillars: Asian cuisine, farm-to-table cooking and casual fine dining.
The full list, announced Thursday night, includes 12 Bib Gourmands (good food at a moderate price) and 40 “recommended” eateries, for a total of 60 restaurants covering 19 types of cuisines. No two- or three-star awards were given.
The Vancouver restaurants that received one star are: AnnaLena; Barbara; Burdock & Co; iDen & QuanJuDe Beijing Duck House; Kissa Tanto; Masayoshi; Published on Main; and St. Lawrence.
QuanJuDe, a franchise of a renowned Beijing restaurant founded in 1864, is now one of only two Chinese restaurants in North America that hold a Michelin star. (The other being San Francisco’s one-starred Mister Jiu.)
Barbara, a tiny 15-seat kitchen bar that opened quietly in Chinatown during the pandemic, will probably come as the biggest surprise – unless diners know the chef’s pedigree and have tasted his food.
“Chef Patrick Hennessy spent time at many top spots, including Eleven Madison Park in New York, but he is clearly at home at Barbara,” the Michelin inspectors note in the guide, which can be read in the website and mobile app. “The kitchen feels like a stage, with guests perched at the L-shaped bar watching with bated breath as he performs culinary magic.”
The chief inspector, speaking to The Globe and Mail by phone before the awards were announced, said Vancouver’s culinary scene “registers as impressive.”
“Aside from the global influences and flavours, we noticed a strong focus on product quality, from vegetables to seafood. And despite the city’s affluence, its dining scene is quite intimate and personable.”
The interview was arranged through the Michelin North American press office, but as is Michelin’s custom, his identity was not revealed. Anonymity is a cornerstone of the Michelin guide methodology, and a distinction that gives it authority despite the many criticisms levelled against its choices.
Michelin inspectors, most of whom hail from the restaurant industry, do not announce themselves and try to maintain a low profile while dining. Michelin also pays for the inspectors’ travel arrangements and meals.
The inspector, who was joined on the phone by Gwendal Poullennec, international director for the Michelin guides, appeared to understand the peculiarities of the Vancouver dining scene.
“You don’t see much preciousness,” he said. “This quality really is an outlier.”
The judging process is opaque. Nobody knows how many inspectors visit a restaurant or how the decisions are made. Rankings are based on five universal criteria: quality products; the harmony of flavours; the mastery of cooking techniques; the personality of the chef in the cuisine; and consistency. Service and décor apparently don’t factor in.
The Michelin guide was created in 1899 by the French tire company to fuel interest in car travel. Historically, one star is a restaurant worth stopping for, two stars is worth a detour and three stars is a destination in itself.
In 2006, Michelin crossed the pond, launching its first guide outside Europe in New York. It has since expanded internationally, and now operates in 39 countries.
But it took 16 years for the Michelin guide to come to Canada because, up until now, our destination-marketing agencies weren’t willing to pay for Michelin’s research. The Vancouver guide is being supported by a five-year sponsorship from Destination Vancouver and Destination Canada. It arrives one month after Toronto’s inaugural edition (which awarded 13 restaurants with stars, including a single two-starred designation for Sushi Masaki Saito).
This pay-for-play arrangement has come under some criticism, though Michelin does pay for meals to maintain inspectors’ independence. In recent years, the international guides have also come under fire for being Eurocentric and elitist and, in the case of Toronto, overly invested in high-end Japanese cuisine.
The Vancouver list chips away at some of these charges: aside from QuanJuDe, the one-starred restaurants are relatively casual; none use white tablecloths. And, in the full list of 60 restaurants, 21 are Asian, which is an accurate representation of the city’s population.
In the phone interview, Mr. Poullennec bristled at the suggestion that the inspectors might have been pressured to torque the list.
“We do not have any quota or set numbers for style of cuisine. Our global team of inspectors include many nationalities with mastery of different cooking styles to ensure we have no bias. The results are based on the quality of the food.”
The Vancouver guide also includes three special front-of-house awards: service (Kissa Tanto, GM Justin Isidro and team); sommelier (Published on Main, wine director Jayton Paul); and exceptional cocktails (Botanist, creative beverage director Grant Sceney and head bartender Jeff Savage).
As in Toronto, there were no green stars awarded for environmental sustainability.
“Sustainable gastronomy is a strong point for Vancouver, but we did not find any restaurants that were committed enough,” Mr. Poullennec said. “There weren’t any role models who are really changing the industry or transforming the habits of their guests.”
There were some notable omissions. In a city where many of the fanciest restaurants are located in hotels, the one-star list did not include any. Botanist, Hawksworth and Bacchus were relegated to the “recommended” list. Boulevard, one of Vancouver’s most locally lauded restaurants, was shut out.