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An elite set of Chicago restaurants granted Michelin’s top honors

Chef Grant Achatz kitchen his restaurant Alinea.

Chef Grant Achatz in the kitchen of his restaurant, Alinea.

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Three stars: Alinea

Two stars: Graham Elliot, L2O

One star: Acadia, Blackbird, Boka, Everest, Goosefoot, Longman & Eagle, Mexique, Moto, Naha, Schwa, Sepia, Sixteen, Spiaggia, Takashi, Topolobampo

Updated: December 15, 2012 6:22AM

Based on the buzz and protesting clamor of Twitter-crazy Chicagoans and buzzing foodies Tuesday, the list of Michelin 2013 starred Chicago restaurants may not be a “best” list.

It is a parsimonious list, awarding a total of 16 stars to the crowded Chicago restaurant universe. By comparison, Michelin has awarded 34 stars in San Francisco and 52 stars in New York City.

It is a diverse Chicago list nonetheless, including modern gastronomy temples like Grant Achatz’ three-star Alinea and the now two-star L20 (which regained a star after losing one last year). It also includes places that conservative old diners love like Spiaggia (maintaining its one star) and Sixteen (earning its first star). It includes hipster temples like Longman & Eagle (one star) and Schwa (one star), and forward-thinking regional Mexican places like Mexique — one of the list’s bigger surprises — garnering its first star, and Topolobampo (one star).

Tru maintains its single star (its chef, Anthony Martin has been serving up levitating plates of caviar and is one of the restaurant’s most thoughtful cooks in years), but probably deserves two. And though it’s deserved, with the departure of its recent chef de cuisine, Andre Brochu, no one saw restaurant Graham Elliot’s two stars coming, except maybe the visionary Elliot himself.

“I took a risk in taking the restaurant in a more refined direction,” Elliot said, “and we had some bumps along the way regarding the leadership in the kitchen. That said, the fact that they’ve [Michelin] been in since I returned to the kitchen, and found the restaurant performing at its greatest level yet, leaves me equally humbled and excited.”

While Boka garnered one star, it is not even the very best of the Boka restaurant group, which includes the Girl and the Goat, Balena (which should have earned a star) and GT Fish and Oyster. Avec, a place where I have never had a single bad dish and where 90 percent of them have been extraordinary, continues to be left off the list. One might attribute this to the fact that you might be asked mid-meal to stand to allow someone to enter or leave your communal table. But, if Schwa, which routinely cancels reservations without notice, gets a star, that slight inconvenience can’t be holding Avec back.

And then there is a surprising no-show list. Though he finally won a James Beard Best Chef Midwest award this year, Michelin accolades continue to elude Bruce Sherman at North Pond. Matthias Merges and his Asian-inspired gastro-temple Yusho is like a value-priced a la carte version of the very best pre-fixe restaurants in town, but they, too, are starless. El Ideas from Chef Philip Foss is fiercely original. Maybe its impromptu, edgy-underground supper-club vibe scared off the notoriously conservative Michelin Crew, but it, too, deserved a star.

The biggest liability resulting from Michelin’s conservatism and the most notorious oversight of the last two years continues to be Next, the other restaurant from the Alinea team. (Full disclosure: I worked on the Alinea cookbook.) My guess is that Michelin doesn’t feel it can in good conscience, or without risking its reputation, recommend a restaurant that changes so dramatically every three or four months. However, after almost two years of being one of the best Italian/Escoffier-imitating/childhood-nostalgia channeling/Thai street food-serving restaurants in the country, its track record demands attention. Sometimes, however, the Michelin list is also a perfect list. Both Goosefoot and Acadia, which garnered one star each (their first ever), are two of the best new restaurants I’ve eaten at this year. Acadia’s chef Ryan McCaskey, a humble dude by nature, has a killer culinary mind. After the official announcements were made, he said, “I’ve been doing this for 20 years, but Acadia is the first place that I’ve worked that has been the realization of what I wanted when I eventually opened my restaurant …”

Perfect, indeed.

Michael Nagrant is a local free-lance writer.

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