Stargazing: Phil Vettel handicaps Michelin-star winners

As Michelin prepares to reveal its star awards, our critic predicts the happy, sad results

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As the second Michelin Guide for Chicago prepares to hit bookstores next week, one thing is for sure: There will be change.

There has to be. Among the 23 restaurants that received one or more stars, Sixteen (one star) saw chef Frank Brunacci depart, L2O (three stars) lost its namesake chef (Laurent Gras) before its rating had even been announced and Avenues (two stars), since the departure of Curtis Duffy, has shut down completely.

Those tidbits, along with the arrival of some important new restaurants and word that Michelin's inspectors traveled a bit farther from the city hub than they did last year, ensure that the 2012 guide will have a different set of winners and losers.

And, believe me, the results matter. Paul Virant was so thrilled when Vie received one star (the only suburban restaurant with any stars) that he jokingly contemplated running for mayor of Western Springs. "It gave us a solid level of credibility both nationally," he said, "and a steady increase in the number of foreign visitors and business overall."

"It really made an impact," Grant Achatz said of Alinea's three-star award. "Michelin gets picked up everywhere; I did a bunch of interviews on TV and radio; it got a lot of attention. And because of that, the phone rang and rang and rang. AT&T had to replace the server for our exchange; we crashed it. And, quite obviously, there was a very large influx of international clientele — French, Spaniards and Japanese."

Certainly there will be more star winners this year. In New York and San Francisco, the only other U.S. cities where there have been two or more guides, the number of overall star winners has increased each year; I expect no less in Chicago. Indeed, I imagine that most of last year's winners will repeat this year, with as many as 10 newcomers joining the party.

Before last year's guide, I recklessly played seer and predicted that 31 restaurants would receive stars. I got most of the names right, but Michelin wasn't quite as generous with stars as I thought it would be. I'll still defend the quality of the restaurants I named, but let's see if I can't be a little more accurate this time.

By the time you read this, the recipients of the Bib Gourmand (given to restaurants that provide good value, a worthy honor in itself) will be known, so I won't bother with those, except to point out that receiving a Bib Gourmand means a restaurant will not be getting any stars. Indeed, a few places I expected to receive stars — Frontera Grill and Girl & the Goat, for example — were BG winners instead.

Here is how I think the star designations will shake out.

Three stars: Alinea is almost certain to keep its rating. L2O, with the departure of its chef, might well drop a notch or two. But executive chef Matthew Kirkley (along with Francis Brennan, though Brennan is moving on to other projects for Lettuce Entertain You) is doing such terrific work — I like the place better now than when Gras was running things — that in a just world, L2O would hang on to its three-star rating. I'm betting it will.

Two stars: I expect Charlie Trotter's and Ria to hang on to their ratings, and for Avenues to be replaced with one other two-star winner. But who?

My guess is that it will be either Spiaggia or Blackbird, both of which got one star last year and deserve more. But Michelin's inspectors seem more fond of French and American restaurants than Italian; Spiaggia was the only Chicago Italian to get any stars last year, and only one Italian (Riccardo Trattoria) earned a Bib Gourmand (not counting Spacca Napoli, a BG recipient in the pizza category). So I think Blackbird will — and should — move up.

One star: Here's where it gets interesting. Of last year's 18 one-star winners, only two might be dropped off the list: NoMI, which morphed itself into the less-formal NoMI Kitchen, and Sixteen, because of Brunacci's departure. (I'm not saying these places should lose their star; I'm just guessing they will.) With Blackbird moving up a notch (fingers crossed), that leaves 15: Boka, Bonsoiree, Crofton on Wells, Everest, Graham Elliot, Longman & Eagle, Naha, Schwa, Seasons, Sepia, Spiaggia, Takashi, Topolobampo, Tru and Vie.

I think they'll be joined by nine more: Avec, which was closed when Michelin was in Chicago last year, should get on the list this year. Les Nomades and MK, two of the most curious omissions last year, get on this year. (Les Nomades chef Chris Nugent just departed, but word didn't get out until after Michelin's deliberations.) The inspectors ventured farther into the suburbs this year, and I expect that will be good news for Courtright's and Le Titi de Paris. Carlos' and Tallgrass could sneak in here.

I will be interested to see what the inspectors make of Next, Achatz's shape-shifting restaurant whose menu changes every three months. Did the inspectors get to try the Paris 1906 menu, in which case Next might be in for multiple stars, or did they only taste the Tour of Thailand? (Not even Arun's got a Michelin star last year.) And by now, neither menu is available. My guess is that Michelin will play it conservative and give Next one star.

Virant, who grabbed one star for Vie last year, now also runs Perennial Virant. Last year, when it was merely Perennial, the restaurant got a Bib Gourmand; the addition of Virant ought to promote it to one-star level. I also think GT Fish & Oyster will grab a star, and Girl & the Goat should be promoted out of Bib Gourmand status. Which, if I'm correct, would leave the Boka restaurant group with four Michelin-starred restaurants, a remarkable coup.

Others that might slip in: Michelin has yet to grant a star to a Chicago steakhouse. Gibsons or Chicago Cut would be the likeliest candidates in that category. I love Bistronomic, but I suspect they're celebrating their Bib Gourmand designation as you read this. Michelin could grant a star to Aria, Arun's, Cafe des Architectes, Owen & Engine or Sprout and get no complaint from me.

Am I right? Probably not. But that's the fun part.

Phil's predictions

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