PARIS (AFP) - An American food critic has put France's famed Michelin restaurant guide to the test - and found most of its top Paris listings not worth their exorbitant prices, with lesser-known upstart eateries offering far better value.
Meg Zimbeck, who runs Paris By Mouth, a respected online review site that also provides foodie tours to English-speaking visitors, backed up her argument with research: four months of anonymous dining in all Paris restaurants boasting two or three Michelin stars.
Her findings, published on her site, are coming out just ahead of the latest edition of the Michelin guide which will be launched on Monday to great fanfare at the French foreign ministry.
"My aim wasn't to take a swipe at the Michelin guide. My aim was to follow their recommendations" and to judge its listings independently, said Zimbeck, who has been living in Paris for a decade and writing about food for most of that time.
Food writers are no longer reimbursed by publications for the restaurant bills they incur, she told AFP, so her project was financed from profits from her company's tours.
What she found, after booking into 16 restaurants under false names and paying a total €7,150 (S$10,945) for the meals, was that Michelin's recommendations didn't always deliver.
"To spend up to €1,100 on a lunch (for two people) implies that you're going to have something really life-changing, something that is apart from anything you could experience at a more modest price point.
"And that is just not the case."
Usually Michelin-led customers find a sumptuous service laid out for them in extravagant dining rooms in the centre of the city. But the keynote dishes are no better - and sometimes worse - than those found in far-cheaper little restaurants in less-chic eastern Paris, Zimbeck said.
She rated the Alain Ducasse au Plaza Athenee restaurant in the five-star Plaza Athenee Hotel near the Champs-Elysees as the worst of all the top-tier listings she tried. Reopened last year after major renovations to the hotel, it is hoping to win back its Michelin stars.
However a couple of rival haute cuisine joints - Le Cinq at the nearby George V Hotel and the Pierre Gagnaire restaurant - did live up to their Michelin billing, she said.
Zimbeck's favourites for "really exceptional, modern French cooking" do not figure on the Michelin's elite list, though. Their lunch menus are priced at just 10 per cent of the three-star places, starting around €30 to €50.
Among them are Restaurant David Toutain, a wood-themed place on the Left Bank, and Septime, an inventive spot hidden away in Paris's east.
"If you want to know what's happening in Paris right now you don't look to the Michelin guide," said Zimbeck. "It's backwards looking, it's not looking around at what's happening in the lower tiers."