California welcomes two new three-Michelin-star restaurants

Michelin_SF_coverMichelin last week announced its new star selections for Northern California and in an unprecedented move elevated two restaurants to its coveted three-star-status.

Benu and Saison in San Francisco have risen from two to three stars in the 2015 guide to San Francisco Bay Area & Wine Country, making them the only restaurants in the city to achieve Michelin’s top accolade. They join Thomas Keller’s world-famous French Laundry and the Restaurant at Meadowood, both in Napa Valley, in California’s three-star echelons.

Benu, which opened in 2010, is run by chef Corey Lee, a Keller alumnus, who was praised by Michelin for his “incredibly precise culinary technique”. His cooking combines classic French techniques with American and Asian, particularly Korean, flavours. Stand out dishes include his 1000-year-old quail’s egg (pictured) with potage and ginger, while his tasting menus showcase ingredients such as eel, sea cucumber, sweet shrimps and mock shark fin.

Fellow new three-star Saison’s success story has seen the restaurant grow from a weekly pop-up at the back of a café in the Mission District to one of the USA’s most celebrated restaurants, which was named the One to Watch on this year’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Chef Joshua Skenes offers thrilling tasting menus of exquisite and meticulously sourced ingredients with a nod to both French and Japanese cuisines and a “mastery of the northern California culinary philosophy”.

Meanwhile Italian restaurant Acquerello was the only new addition to the two-star list, making its chef, Suzette Gresham (pictured), San Francisco’s second female chef with two stars after Dominique Crenn at Atelier Crenn. Michelin commended Gresham’s cooking for its “refined and elegant dishes of superb Italian cuisine with a unique contemporary touch”.

There were two new entrants in the one-star category: Kusakabe and Maruya, which are San Francisco’s first and only Michelin-starred starred sushi restaurants.

Interestingly chef David Kinch retained his two Michelin stars at Manresa, despite being forced to close his restaurant after a devastating fire in July. Manresa is set to reopen towards the end of the year. Chez Panisse, Alice Waters’ famous restaurant in Berkeley has still not regained the star it lost in the 2011 Michelin guide.

Northern California now has four three-Michelin-starred restaurants – the same as the UK – as well as six two-star and 30 one-star establishments. The 2015 San Francisco Bay Area & Wine Country guide lists a total of 474 restaurants featuring 46 different cuisines.

Commenting on the results, Michael Ellis, international director of the Michelin Guides, said: “With two new three-star restaurants recognised, this 2015 edition reflects Northern California’s remarkable gastronomic energy. The San Francisco Bay area is among the most exciting culinary scenes in the world. Californian chefs are mixing their exacting cooking techniques with superb local ingredients and culinary influences from all parts of the globe. The result is a rich, dynamic and unique dining scene.”


Curtis StoneLos Angeles, meanwhile, remains off Michelin’s radar after it famously axed its guide after just two years in 2009, with former director Jean-Luc Naret claiming that there was no real appreciation of food in the city.

It’s sad to see that Michelin’s lack of recognition of LA’s thriving food scene continues despite many of its chefs and restaurants – including Nancy Silverton, Alma, and Bestia – having won national plaudits.

A number of LA chefs have expressed dismay at Michelin’s absence, including
Josiah Citrin, whose restaurant Mélisse in Santa Monica, held two stars in the LA guide. He said: “I wish Michelin would come back; I don’t understand why they left. We had more one- and two-star restaurants than Chicago. Instead of just doing the Bay Area, they should do a California guide – it would make sense.”

Curtis Stone (pictured), chef proprietor of Maude in Beverly Hills, added that it’s “a real shame” that the guide is no longer in LA. “Michelin is brilliant in its consistency, which is why they have the credibility that a lot of the other guides lack,” he said.

“A lot of young chefs spend their lives revolving around that guide. For me working at the Oak Room when it had three stars was the pinnacle of my life at the time. Maybe we chefs get too caught up in it so perhaps it’s a good thing not to have the pressure of having Michelin here. But I’d really love it if they came back.”

Here’s the full list of starred restaurants in San Francisco Bay Area & Wine County for 2015:

Benu (new)
The French Laundry
The Restaurant at Meadowood
Saison (new)

Acquerello (new)
Atelier Crenn

All Spice
Auberge du Soleil
Campton Place
Chez TJ
Farmhouse Inn & Restaurant
Gary Danko
Keiko à Nob Hill
Kusakabe (new)
La Folie
La Toque
Madrona Manor
Maruya (new)
Michael Mina
Plumed Horse
Sons & Daughters
State Bird Provisions
Terrapin Creek
The Village Pub

This article was first published by The Staff Canteen as part of my monthly series on LA-related food stories.

A chef’s tour of the Santa Monica Farmers Market

This is an extract from a posting in my monthly series of LA-focused food articles for The Staff Canteen website.

Two-Michelin-starred chef Josiah Citrin of Mélisse gives us a tour of the famous Santa Monica Farmers Market, where he and his team of chefs go each week to buy the fresh produce for his kitchen

Josiah Citrin_CharlesPark“It’s always the best time to come here,” enthuses Josiah Citrin as we peruse the aisles of the Santa Monica Farmers Market. “The seasons here are always great and we’re so lucky to live in this climate. Our produce is the best in the world.”

Citrin, the chef patron of acclaimed French restaurant Mélisse, is giving me a tour of the famous market, where he and his team (as well as countless other LA chefs) come to shop for their kitchen. As we wander along the colourful stalls, taking in the scents and tastes of their rich and diverse bounties of organic fruits and vegetables, herbs, baskets of flowers and freshly baked breads, the chef gets visibly excited by what he sees.

“You have to taste these figs,” he exclaims, practically shoving one in my mouth. The Violette de Bordeaux figs from J.J.’s Lone Daughter Ranch are incredible, with their rich pulp tasting just like strawberry jam. “They’re so good we serve them with duck, just like that. You don’t need to do anything with them.”

Josiah_CitrinNext I’m given a small black fruit to taste. “Take a bite out of it,” Citrin orders. It turns out to be an avocado – a Mexicola Grande avocado to be precise. Its black, soft, thin skin is edible while the pale green flesh underneath is unbelievably buttery and nutty. “They’re amazing, huh? You can eat them like an apple,” the chef smiles.

As the largest grower-only certified market in Southern California the Santa Monica Farmers Market is a true institution, which has attracted food enthusiasts and chefs alike for more than three decades. Citrin has been coming here for as long as he can remember as inspired by his mother, who was a caterer, he became interested in food from a young age. “The market hasn’t changed in 30 years, it’s always been the same. It’s just that a lot more chefs come to shop here now,” he says.

After graduating from Santa Monica High School, he moved to Paris to explore his French roots and learn about the art of French cuisine while working at Parisian restaurants Vivarois and La Poste. “It was a different time back then and I learned so much about produce, bread and French cooking, technique, dining and things that 25 years ago weren’t part of our culture over here,” he recalls. He returned to the USA in 1990 to work at some of Los Angeles’ finest restaurants, including Wolfgang Puck’s Chinois on Main, Patina and Pinot Bistro with chef-restaurateur Joachim Splichal and Jackson’s in West Hollywood, before launching his first restaurant JiRaffe in 1996 together with childhood friend and fellow chef Raphael Lunetta. Three years later he sold his interest in the restaurant to Lunetta to open Mélisse in the heart of Santa Monica in July 1999.

Over the years, Mélisse has developed into what is arguably Southern California’s most acclaimed French restaurant. It was one of just three establishments to debut with two stars in Michelin’s now discontinued guide to Los Angeles in 2008 and in the age of the casualification of the restaurant scene, it remains a bastion of fine dining in the city.

Citrin has made a name for himself with his contemporary American cuisine with French influences in style and technique. “My philosophy is finding the best possible ingredients and doing only what’s necessary to keep them great while still providing a dining experience that is interesting and fun,” he explains. “We use modern techniques and combine them with tradition. We try to hit a factor of deliciousness and craveability – food that you want to eat again and again.”

Lobster BologneseServing different tasting menus – ranging from a four- to a 10- and a 17-course menu as well as a five-course vegetarian tasting menu – signature dishes include the egg caviar, a delicately soft poached egg served with lemon-chive crème fraîche and Osetera caviar; and the iconic lobster bolognaise with fresh capellini pasta, a reduction of tomatoes, beef, veal and lobster stock finished with chopped lobster, truffle, three types of basil and finished off with a brown butter truffle froth.

There is also an entire section of the menu dedicated to tableside dishes such as a whole almond crusted Dover sole, rotisserie chicken stuffed with summer truffles, and a 35-day dry-aged côte de boeuf roti. “We’re not a classic French restaurant but we do things that are old school. I like to keep certain traditions in place – it’s important,” the chef says. However, Citrin’s tasting menus are a far cry from traditional French fare, using contemporary cooking methods and embracing the fantastic ingredients California’s larder is so renowned for. His food is market-driven, light and vegetable focused. “When you have produce like we have here, your cooking evolves,” he insists. “We’re not so reliant on sauces or proteins for instance because the vegetables are just as exciting.”

Melisse_Shopping_CartBack at the market we continue from stall to stall picking and tasting things as the Mélisse shopping cart gradually fills up with Jerusalem artichokes, fingerling potatoes, lettuces, herbs, finger limes, strawberries, carrots, beans and more. Citrin selects heirloom, pineapple and cherry tomatoes from Nunak Farm for a salad served with burata, basil, fennel, sweet onion and aged balsamic; and mandarin cross tomatoes from Carpenter Farms in Santa Paula. “The mandarin cross is an incredibly creamy tomato; we make a soup out of it with summer zucchini and squash, which we serve with a tomato sorbet,” he says.

From Weiser Family Farms, he buys trumpet squash and lavender-coloured Rosa Bianca aubergines, which he’ll transform into a sublime dish of tromboncini squash alla melanzane for his vegetarian tasting menu (see recipe); and we sample sweet Concord grapes, individually hand-picked at Murray Family Farm in Bakersfield, which he will serve simply as part of the the petit fours.

“All the farmers are my favourites,” Citrin concludes. “It’s all about their passion for me. If people bring their passion to you it makes your work so much more exciting. That’s what it’s all about.”