From a Japanese city where sustainability reigns supreme to a little-known European capital, these are the most surprising cities where restaurants have been awarded Michelin stars.
When a restaurant receives a Michelin star, a strange thing happens. It’s a privilege, of course, but the best way for an eatery to keep creating the magic that earned it the star is to forget that it has one.
The stakes haven’t always been so high. Back in 1900, the Michelin tyre company’s first guide promoted driving by including maps and a list of restaurants along popular routes in France. Today its inspectors visit restaurants in 39 destinations. Receiving one or more coveted stars can rocket the restaurant and its chef to fame. But chefs can’t receive stars themselves – the award is about the team, which is fine by Jorg Zupan, head chef at Atelje in Ljubljana, Slovenia. “Without them I couldn’t do anything; the team gives fruition to our ideas. And I’m especially proud of them because we’re the only Michelin-starred restaurant in Ljubljana.”
It’s expensive to produce the world’s most celebrated food so Michelin-starred restaurants usually aren’t low-cost. The guide’s Bib Gourmand award for the best-value dishes addresses this and its Green Star is given to restaurants dedicated to sustainability.
And while Tokyo, with its 203 starred venues, and Paris, with its 118, may have the most in the world, restaurants such as Atelje and KOKS have worked hard to earn their places in the Michelin universe.
Located less than an hour south of Kyoto by train, this city is enchanting.
What’s so special about Nara?
The Seven Great Temples for one thing, each housing ancient relics, including an 8th-century painting of female deity Kichijōten and the Yakushi Triad sculpture.
All this sightseeing is making me hungry
Great! Nara is famous for kakinoha-zushi, a fermented sushi of salmon, red snapper or mackerel wrapped in persimmon leaves, a natural preservative. If fish isn’t your thing, snack on chewy kuzu mochi cakes dipped in dark molasses or slurp fine somen noodles in broth made from the soft water of Mount Miwa.
Don’t forget the sake, which many say was originally made in Nara’s temples. None of the by-products from a sacred temple can be wasted so the sake lees (sediment) is used to make narazuke pickles.
Plenty of good food must mean lots of Michelin stars
Nara’s 22 starred restaurants have nothing on Tokyo’s 203 but it’s the five restaurants awarded a Green Star that make it so special.
What’s a Green Star, again?
It’s awarded for sustainability: locally sourced, seasonal ingredients, waste-reduction practices and a minimal environmental footprint.
Give me a sample of these sustainability champions
Chugokusai Naramachi Kuko (913-2 Kideracho; +81 74 630 8306) harvests produce from its organic farm for its Sichuan- Cantonese menu that includes house-fermented tofu and yamato yasai (native vegetables). At Kiyosuminosato AWA (861 Takahicho; +81 74 250 1o55), preserving centuries-old local vegetables earned the eatery a Green Star. On its 360 squaremetre plot, 19 certified varieties of yamato vegetables are grown, such as fushimi sweet pepper and Japanese mountain yam.
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Brazil may be the only South American country listed in the guide but its secondlargest city, Rio de Janeiro, holds its own with a pair of two-starred and a trio of one-starred restaurants.
Are they just Brazilian food?
No, Rio’s starred restaurants celebrate international cuisines. At one-starred pan-Asian eatery Mee inside the Copacabana Palace hotel, there’s nigiri of bluefin tuna, red snapper and Kobe A5 beef, dim sum bulgogi and pho with fillet mignon. In the same hotel is Cipriani, a one-starred Italian fine-diner, where you’ll find pizza fritta of Wagyu carpaccio and ravioli with game meat and goat’s cheese. The dining room has a front-row view of the swimming pool but to see chef Nello Cassese’s team in action, book the chef’s table.
Who’s cooking local fare?
Two-starred Oro fuses Brazilian food with cutting-edge gastronomy. Oysters come with Caipirinha sorbet and pork crackling, while abará, a snack of mashed beans steamed in a banana leaf, accompanies sea urchin. Cashew nut praliné finishes off the pão de queijo (cheese bread).
If the official mascot of Chengdu, Sichuan’s capital city, is the giant panda, its unofficial mascot should be the Sichuan peppercorn, that ubiquitous mouth-numbing dried berry from the prickly ash tree. It’s the tingling base of familiar dishes: hot pot, kung pao chicken, mapo tofu and dan dan noodles.
What’s the deal with the peppercorn?
Chengdu chefs are proud of it and almost all the Michelin-starred restaurants in the city serve Sichuan food.
Who are the stars?
Eight eateries have one Michelin star and the legendary Yu Zhi Lan (1/24 Changfa Street; +86 28 6249 1966) has two. A favourite of the late Anthony Bourdain, its menu elevates local classics to haute cuisine. Golden thread noodles made from dough moistened with duck egg yolk come in a delicate broth. Rice porridge with lotus seeds and lily petals is formed into cakes, fried and served with la rou, an aromatic, air-cured meat. Steamed Iberian pork neck is cooked with soy sauce and bean curd alongside housemade fermented glutinous rice.
Any love for vegetarians?
One-starred Mi Xun Teahouse in The Temple House hotel focuses on Chinese teas and vegetarian fare inspired by the food once served at the nearby 1000-yearold Daci Temple. Fried wild Yunnan mushrooms are teamed with black dry beans and Sichuan seasoning. A hot pot of noodles, mushrooms and tofu is cooked in broth at the table and finished with herbs from the garden.
For a country of only 20,000 square kilometres (Australia is almost 7.7 million square kilometres), Slovenia packs a gastronomic punch. In the two years since it joined the Michelin Guide, seven of the Slavic nation’s eateries have earned stars. The capital, Ljubljana, is a city built around a 900-year-old castle; architect Jože Plečnik’s Art Nouveau buildings and bridges define the city’s aesthetic, while farmer-run stalls at food markets give its residents access to fresh local produce.
How’s the local fare?
With its direct connection to foraged and farm produce – apples, mushrooms, wild strawberries, cabbage and turnips, honey from Carniolan bees and salt harvested from Adriatic pans – Slovenia was doing locavorism long before it was fashionable.
Tell me about the dining scene
Ljubljana is one of the smallest capitals in Europe and Atelje is its only Michelin-starred restaurant. The youngest chef in the country to have helmed a starred venue, Jorg Zupan’s unpretentious creativity is mostly unhampered by the pressures of being in the guide. “It’s an honour but everyone who has a star, deep down inside, is a bit worried about losing it,” he says. “It’s as much a recognition as it is a little bit of a burden. Before, we did our thing and we didn’t know the inspectors were present. But now that we have a star, we have to keep it.”
That shouldn’t be a problem...
Not with 80 per cent of the produce used in Atelje’s kitchen grown in the garden. Dishes such as Adriatic shrimp with hermelika (a local herb), green strawberries and smoked buttermilk, cabbage with spring onions, mushrooms, XO sauce and lacto-fermented cabbage sauce or stingray with salad greens and vin jaune sauce prove Zupan and his team are on the cutting edge. “We try not to follow any rules. We do a lot of fermenting, pickling and experimentation.”
Image credit: Suzan Gabrijan (Atelje), Simon Bajada (KOKS), Zheng Fang (Mi Xun Teahouse)