FAMOUS BEFORE ITS TIME

FAMOUS BEFORE ITS TIME

In Europe, nothing boosts your restaurant's reputation, visibility and profitability like a favorable write-up in the Michelin Guide. Relatively few restaurants achieve the coveted one-, two- or three-star rankings American are familiar with, and Michelin is pretty stingy with its "Bib Gourmand" designations, too. Bib Gourmand signifies that a restaurant has excellent food and moderate pricing. A restaurant that gets one of these is set for years.

Michelin bases the integrity of its ranking on its methodology: On-site visits by its inspectors. Here's how the company puts it:

"One of the keys to the success of the Michelin Guide is its independence. Michelin's inspectors visit the establishments in complete anonymity and settle every bill. In this way, they are in the same situation as any other ordinary client. They make their judgements in all objectivity, without any favors in return. This method is unique in Europe, and represents an irreplaceable guarantee of reliability."

Which doesn't quite jibe with how the Ostend Queen "inspection" was conducted. "They (Michelin) came to see us at Ostend in Nov. 1, 2004, while the restaurant was still just a large building site," Ostend Queen owner Fernand David told Belgium's Le Soir newspaper, claiming he had "good relations" with Michelin executives. "We concluded an agreement to feature in the 2005 edition of the Red Guide and not to have to wait a year unnecessarily." Pierre Wynants, shown at right, chef of three-star restaurant Comme Chez Soi in Brussels, is the culinary overseer of the Ostend Queen project.

Looks like they'll have to wait for 2006 now. When this news surfaced, Michelin recalled and shredded all 50,000 copies of the Red Guide Benelux. The Michelin people said the guide was "withdrawn from sale because it contains an error concerning the attribution of a Bib Gourmand." Cost to recall the guide and print new ones: $550,000.

Michelin is a big business. It sells roughly 500,000 guides to France each year and another 1.2 million covering the restaurants and hotels of other European countries. Last year, a 16-year Michelin inspector, Pascal Remy, broke ranks by releasing his book, The Inspector Sits at the Table. He was fired after revealing that Michelin employed only five restaurant inspectors for all of France. "There's a myth that the inspector comes each year," Remy told the media then. "In fact, it used to be every two years, and now it's every 3-1/2 years." His other charges included sloppiness, favoritism and dishonesty on the part of Michelin.

"We meant well," Fabrice Lenica, a Michelin spokeswoman, told the Times of London. "We did not want to deprive our readers of this interesting address. But it is true that the usual quality procedure was not observed . . .

"This is the first time in 105 years that such an incident has taken place," Lenica added. "We do not fear for the reputation of the guide." Her sentiment may not be universally shared elsewhere in the restaurant world.