Phil Vettel’s review in the Tribune yesterday had everyone buzzing. We knew it was going to be a four-star thanks to Vettel’s henchman Kevin Pang twittering hints. And then it turned out to be for … Les Nomades. Not a bad restaurant, mind you, certainly one of the city’s most formal and expensive. But the Tribune’s scale only goes up to four, which means Les Nomades is tops in Chicago. Really? Skeptical (but willing to be persuaded), we decided to look into what makes a four-star review.
The Tribune doesn’t have official criteria for its star designations, so we asked Vettel what it is he looks for when he hands out one of his four-star reviews. “When I slap the four-star sticker on a restaurant, I’m declaring to be one of the very best restaurants of its kind, a place that’s maintaining a standard to which every restaurant should aspire,” he told us. Well, that’s what the four-star designation means, but it still doesn’t tell us what about Les Nomades special. It’s reviewed in favorable but not rapturous terms — the restaurant “requires respect,” the food is “comforting” and “richly satisfying” — but nothing obviously sets it above, say, NoMI, to which Vettel awarded only three stars, despite calling the food “dazzling” and swooning over the service.
It’s not that he’s stingy with the stars: In his tenure as restaurant critic, Vettel has awarded ten four-star reviews that still stand, three of which (L2O, Avenues, and Les Nomades) ran in the last twelve months. (Compare that to, for example, the New York Times: Frank Bruni’s recently awarded rave for Eleven Madison Park, his first four-star review in five years, which brings New York’s total number of standing four-stars up to just six.)
According to Vettel, his four star restaurants are Chicago’s must-visits: “In a way, I’m designating the restaurant as one of the area’s leading lights. I’m saying, ‘If you want to know Chicago dining, if you want to lay claim to any expertise, you have to have dined here. This place is required reading.’” We buy that argument for places like Tru and Alinea — four-star holders who have also made indelible contributions to global cuisine, and are essential parts of Chicago’s culinary identity. But Les Nomades doesn’t carry that importance. Yes, in a restaurant world that increasingly applauds high-low pork platings and beer flights, their emphasis on elegance and formal service is an anomaly — but elegance alone does not “required reading” make.
After bestowing his four-star review on Eleven Madison Park, the Times’s Frank Bruni reflected on the fourth star, ultimately chalking up its assignment to a “gut feeling.” Vettel may well have experienced something like that at Les Nomades, but it doesn’t come through in this review. We’re left not knowing what it is — the food? The service? The mood? — that qualifies it for this highest echelon. And that might just be because there isn’t, actually, something there. That fourth star is something to be striven for and hard-won, not commended by virtue of a restaurant having survived a quarter-century with a jackets-required policy and a tasting menu.