France- Auberge de L'Ill- ✪✪✪

Perched on a Spring-flooded riverbank with massive willows and a gorgeous lighting scheme, it doesn't get more classically French or classically beautiful than this restaurant in this particular Alsace village. The location itself seems pulled from a fairy tale novel about French restaurants.

 The Haeberlins

The Haeberlins

This restaurant in particular is one of two or three that I had been most looking forward to out of the entire tranche of global 3-star restaurants, alongside Osteria Francescana in Italy and Sukiyabashi Jiro in Japan. The Haeberlin clan, Alsatian culinary masters, have run a restaurant on this site for over 150 years. For most of that history, it was called L'Arbre Vert (the Green Tree), but after it was destroyed near the end of World War 2, the family renamed it Auberge de L'Ill, short for Illhausern. It won its first Michelin star in 1952, its second in 1957, and its third in 1967. So, long story short, it has held 3 stars for almost 50 years. Reasonably, I expected a lot. 

For many reasons, this place didn't live up to my high expectations, but foremost among them was the clueless, cold, and often incompetent service. For example, to celebrate my joy at attending this most prized restaurant I ordered two glasses of wine. They brought the wrong selection not once, but twice in a row. I've never had that happen at any restaurant I've ever been to, to say nothing of a 3-star restaurant. They recognized their mistake and gave me the initial glass on the house, but the sommelier made a comment in French that implied I had maybe somehow purposefully bamboozled them out of a glass of wine ("Et très heureusement on peut maintenant les comparer." Wasn't quite sure what to say to that one. Ha, I hypnotized you into fucking up your one job? 

 Auberge de L'Ill Exterior

Auberge de L'Ill Exterior

ILLHAUSERN (ALSACE WINE COUNTRY), FRANCE

SERVICE: 6.5/10

FOOD: 7.0/10

PRICE PAID: $259PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 6.5/10

FINAL SCORE: 6.5/10

 Illhausern, France

Illhausern, France

Illhausern itself, perched at the Northern end of Alsace wine country, is a gorgeous ancient gem of a town. I only had a few hours to explore both this and nearby Ribeauville, but I could have spent a week. 

 Auberge de L'Ill Lobby

Auberge de L'Ill Lobby

Walking into the main entryway, they had trotted out their Springtime panorama complete with lambs, eggs, and a whole bunch of other nonsense. I got the feeling the place was trying to convey that it didn't take itself too seriously, but upon later reflection it does indeed take itself way too seriously, so this decorating choice is strange and inconsistent.

 Auberge de L'Ill Dining Room Entryway

Auberge de L'Ill Dining Room Entryway

See what I mean? This is a dead-serious dining room, complete with gorgeous hand-cut flower centerpieces, strong lighting, and a whisper-quiet romantic noise level. 

 Table Setting

Table Setting

 Centerpiece

Centerpiece

 First Bites: Rice Cracker + Butter/Balsamic + Just Butter Cracker, 8/10

First Bites: Rice Cracker + Butter/Balsamic + Just Butter Cracker, 8/10

First, a few bites to start. From left to right, Asian herbs on a rice cracker. The middle one was oilier and had a balsamic middle. The one on the right was a butter cracker filled with butter and a butter glaze with roasted nuts. Decadent but delicious. 8/10.

 Bread + Butter, 6/10

Bread + Butter, 6/10

Right around when this bread and butter landed 10 minutes had already gone by, my order had been taken, but I had't been offered water. Odd but not entirely out of bounds.

The puck of salted butter was from St. Malo, a part of Bretagne famous for its awesome buttermakers. The bread had a hard and extremely crunchy outer shell- I felt like I was deafening my co-diners around me by biting into it. 6/10. 

 Course 1: Lobster + Almonds + Pistachios, 7/10

Course 1: Lobster + Almonds + Pistachios, 7/10

An interesting dish- a unique combination of almonds, pistachios, and langoustine all in one plate. The langoustine was incredibly fresh and well-cooked but extremely soft; the nuts were thrown into the dish at the last second and so they were still very crunchy. I understood the objective of playing off the textures and creating a neat flavor interplay, but it felt pretty disjointed- the crunchiness of the tree nuts overwhelmed the experience. 7/10. 

20 mins, still no water. Getting thirsty.

 Course 2: Foie Gras "with Japanese Inspiration," + Sake, 8/10

Course 2: Foie Gras "with Japanese Inspiration," + Sake, 8/10

 Junmai Sake

Junmai Sake

This next dish was a really cool idea- a foie gras presented to look like a piece of sushi together with a Junmai sake. Ten minutes before the foie arrives, the server pours the sake to give it a chance to breathe. From a sake house founded in 1505 and famous for samurais' preference for this brand on the eve of battles, this Kenbishi Junmai exhibits an extremely interesting nose- very expressive- with notes of fresh chocolate. Appropriately, the foie is plated "with Japanese inspiration," including a border of seaweed, making the foie look like sushi. Some pineapple on the right for a nice tropical fruit kick. The foie itself just melts, and pairs fantastically with sake. 8/10. 

 Course 3: Sea Bass + Rice + Coriander Emulsion, 8/10

Course 3: Sea Bass + Rice + Coriander Emulsion, 8/10

Sea bass served on a bed of coriander and dashi. The fish itself flakes apart easily, and is fresh and totally excellent. The triangular dumpling is made of rice noodles; another subtle Asian reference. It tastes almost exactly like fish sticks, and has a bizarre texture that makes your teeth click. Carrots and cucumbers inside the dumpling are a nice touch. 8/10.

 Course 4: Lobster + Morels + Asparagus

Course 4: Lobster + Morels + Asparagus

I can't think of a more classically French combo than lobster, morel mushrooms, and asparagus. The lobster is perfectly cooked and not too buttery. Morels add a bit- another dish that can describe as buttery, fatty, and overly rich but good. 8/10.

 Course 5: Pigeon + Tortellini + Truffles, 7/10

Course 5: Pigeon + Tortellini + Truffles, 7/10

Check out the color on that pigeon flank. The bird itself is is earthy and rich as hell, you can taste the farm it comes from. Surprisingly, the lentils that accompany are cooked unevenly- some are soft and overdone, some are firm and just right. The tortellini is bread-y and mushroom-y. 7/10.

 Course 6: Cheese Cart, 9/10

Course 6: Cheese Cart, 9/10

If I was expecting any restaurant to knock the cheese cart concept out of the park, it would have been these guys. And, I'll say they mostly nailed it. A wonderful and diverse collection of soft, hard, goat's, and blue cheeses from across France but with a focus on Alsace-regional producers. I selected a handful of Monk's and Pont L'Eveque-style cheeses, and regretted 0% of said choices. 9/10.

 Course 7: Mignardises, 8/10

Course 7: Mignardises, 8/10

A delightful small tray of mignadises- lemon marshmallow, Kiwi tart, madeline, and a rose-flavored macaron. Awesome. 8/10.

 Course 8: "Crispy" of Red Fruits, 9/10

Course 8: "Crispy" of Red Fruits, 9/10

This dish is, quite charmingly, titled a "crispy" of red fruits. It's actually a zabaglione (an Italian-style dessert of whipped egg yolks, sugar, and Marsala wine) with some insanely awesome rhubarb and raspberry flavors. 9/10. 

 Course 9: Banana Sorbet, 10/10

Course 9: Banana Sorbet, 10/10

A truly incredibly banana sorbet with citrus and kalamansi. The two fruit flavors paired off perfectly. Definitely the high point of the meal. 10/10.

 Course 10: Petit Fours, 8/10

Course 10: Petit Fours, 8/10

A variety of small final dessert set to finish things out- pâte de fruits, noisettes, and chocolate. 8/10.

As I reflect on my final thoughts about these restaurants, I'm trying to consider why my service experiences in these French 3-stars have been so uneven. Some restaurants, like Guy Savoy or Pavilion Ledoyen, the service was warm and approachable, friendly and thoughtful even. It's not the US-Style chef-handshakes and kitchen tours, but the attitude was at a minimum kind and courteous. Both this place and L'Ambroisie were both rude disasters- self-important, careless, cold. Others who have visited at least one of those restaurants point to a high-end restaurant culture in France that is made to cater to regulars, not visitors, but I doubt that actually captures the full extent of it. Nor would I fall back to ugly stereotypes about high French culture being conceited or arrogant. It felt more like a rational response to incentives- their three stars are unlikely to ever get taken away (and in any case, I obviously wasn't a Michelin inspector), they're always going to have a backlog of people willing to cough up to try their restaurant. To them, perhaps, providing a high-end service experience is simply not something they invest in or train for because it has no impact on their ability to create their art or get customers. I'd love to hear what others think on this topic. 

Japan- Taian- ✪✪✪

Right off one of the main shopping districts in Osaka is the smallish, strip-mall-restaurant feeling Taian. I'll say right off the bat that although I enjoyed my time here and thought this was a pretty good restaurant, I was very confused about what made this worthy of the elite 3-star ranking. The dishes made sense together, were well-prepared with fresh ingredients, but many parts of the experience were totally uninspiring. The chefs rotely went about their tasks without much talk or interaction, servers dropped things off but didn't say much, diners stared at their phones or carried on in loud conversations with each other... The place felt plain, casual, and utterly underwhelming. It's been a 3-star since 2010, too, so it's not like this is some simple error on Michelin's part. 

 Taian Interior

Taian Interior

OSAKA, JAPAN

SERVICE: 5.0/10

FOOD: 7.0/10

PRICE PAID: $127 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 7.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 6.5/10

 Opening Smorgasbord Plate

Opening Smorgasbord Plate

We begin with a grab bag plate of extremely different appetizers. Clockwise from upper left- a clear-broth soup served medium-hot, a bit thin but strong seafood flavors, 8/10.

Leafy greens with beans and vegetables, along with mushroom- every element is firm and delicious, 9/10. 

Karasumi egg roe, still totally Not My Favorite As A Thing In General. 5/10. 

Condensed seaweed with strong ginger flavors but so slimy and stringy that I can barely eat it. Also Not My Thing. 4/10. 

Japanese tofu with Uni and wasabi: I'm told to mix the two constituents together, and the result is a delicious and creamy texture like melted cream cheese. It has some slight heat from the wasabi; this dish is totally excellent. 9/10. 

 Course 1: Miso + Mustard + Oyster Soup, 9/10

Course 1: Miso + Mustard + Oyster Soup, 9/10

This miso soup dish is served with oyster and extremely strong flavors of mustard, which heightens the dish considerably. The oyster is huge- it doesn't show up well on the photo, but it was the size of a man's wallet- and the richness of the soup offsets the lean zestiness of the shellfish perfectly. 9/10. 

 Course 2: Blowfish, 7/10

Course 2: Blowfish, 7/10

Next out were two fairly delicious courses of sashimi- blowfish and squid. The blowfish isn't quite as good as Yamadaya- it's a neutral-tasting fish to start with, and even with strong soy there isn't much flavor here. 7/10.

 Course 3: Squid, 8/10

Course 3: Squid, 8/10

The squid has that extremely pleasant firm-yet-yielding texture, with subtle flavor notes of tropical fruits like papaya and mango. 8/10. 

 Course 4: Chicken, 9/10

Course 4: Chicken, 9/10

Next came the real high point of the meal, and in a visit to Japan that included almost 20 three-star restaurants, this was my only encounter with chicken. "Native" chicken was soft and tender; it came with some salt to taste, along with pretty slices of vegetables. The grilling is perfectly done. 9/10. 

 Course 5: Blowfish liver, 8/10

Course 5: Blowfish liver, 8/10

Imagine the world's richest, creamiest chicken nugget. Then, add a bunch of salt and lemon to taste. Then, serve it nuclear-hot. You've more or less got the notion behind this blowfish liver, which was deep fried and served solo. Fried foie gras of the deep, with a neat take on the presentation. 8/10.

 Course 6: Crab Soup, 7/10

Course 6: Crab Soup, 7/10

Next, some crab soup with ginger and some lily bulbs thrown in for texture. Hot, and flavors that most resembled a fancy sweet and sour soup broth. A simple dish, but tasty. 7/10.

 Course 7: Rice + Blowfish, 7/10

Course 7: Rice + Blowfish, 7/10

As we get to the never-ending dish, rice with blowfish along with some chives that really stand out. A pretty and filling dish, but once again there wasn't a ton going on here worth noting. 7/10. 

 Course 8: Soup. 6/10

Course 8: Soup. 6/10

Next, another simple soup with some clear, crunchy vegetables for texture. I hate to sound like a dick, but I could have probably made this with a few minutes' instruction. 6/10.

 Course 9: Stawberry + Black Bean + White Bean Jelly Dessert, 7/10

Course 9: Stawberry + Black Bean + White Bean Jelly Dessert, 7/10

Lastly, dessert served in a wine glass- strawberry with black bean, white bean, and a sugary jelly. A semi-satisfying end to the meal, but I must admit that the whole experience here left me wanting a bit. 7/10.

Hong Kong- T'ang Court- ✪✪✪

Hong Kong's most recent arrival to the Three Star ranking, T'ang Court is in the Langham Hotel in what is affectionately known as TST (Tsim Sha Tsui, a main business district on the Peninsula side of Hong Kong). The name refers to the Tang Dynasty, and the restaurant's two rotating head chefs (Kwong Wei Keung and Tony Su) try to dutifully replicate the culinary achievements thereof. 

This is also the least-expensive Three Star I've been to yet. and that lower price seems to translate directly into lower quality, based on my experience here. 

It's one of only three Cantonese-style restaurants in the world with Three Star status (for now...), so I was very excited to try this place out. That excitement was misplaced. 

 T'ang Court Main Entrance

T'ang Court Main Entrance

HONG KONG, CHINA

SERVICE: 6.0/10

FOOD: 5.5/10

PRICE PAID: $45 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 8.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 6.5/10

 $320 HKD? Yes please. That's about $41.

$320 HKD? Yes please. That's about $41.

I must mention here that the set lunch is an unbelievable deal- $320 HKD is about $41, so even with the Hong Kong-required 10% service fee it's less than $50 for a 3-star experience. Oddly. a very similar set lunch is offered toward the back of the menu that had, to my imperfect judgment, 2-3 extra courses for a mere $3,000 HKD, about 10x the regular set lunch. Though I'm sure those extra courses were great, I opted to see what $41 can buy you in a world-class restaurant. 

 T'ang Court Interior

T'ang Court Interior

To transport you as fully as I can to the vibe this restaurant generates, try to imagine a halfway house between Arabian Nights and a Midwestern Conference Room, complete with large-scale art prints and dramatic lighting. Exuberant & Awkward would be the kindest label one might apply. 

 First (Bites?) Guava Juice, 6/10

First (Bites?) Guava Juice, 6/10

The first question the waiter asks is whether I'd prefer Mango, Guava, or Orange juice. Guava felt pretty exotic, so that's where I landed. 6/10. Sugary, but clearly made by hand from actual guavas. A refreshing but, honestly, minimalist kickoff. 

 Course 1: Sauces

Course 1: Sauces

 Course 1: Rolls, 6/10 

Course 1: Rolls, 6/10 

Next out marched a very small procession of pork, shrimp, and spring rolls. All are quite good, but not a ton better than you'd get at a decent tea house or dim sum place, of which Hong Kong has thousands and even Chicago has dozens. Also, not to be a prick, but the presentation was a bit oily and splashy; could have been plated more neatly. 6/10.

 Course 2: Goose + Pork + Jellyfish, 7/10

Course 2: Goose + Pork + Jellyfish, 7/10

A really interesting combo of jellyfish, goose with plum sauce, and pork. The jellyfish tastes like bland, undercooked rice noodles, with the small slices of bell peppers adding a lot to the plain flavor profile. The pork is really good- perfectly cooked, and beautiful. The goose is rich and quite dense. 7/10 overall.

 Course 3: Chicken + Fish + Black Mushroom Soup, 5/10

Course 3: Chicken + Fish + Black Mushroom Soup, 5/10

Some really interesting flavors in an otherwise bland soup. The broth has strong notes of, I kid you not, Coca Cola. The mushrooms themselves taste a lot like Budweiser beer- hoppy and barley-like. 5/10. 

 Course 4: Garoupa + Broccoli, 3/10

Course 4: Garoupa + Broccoli, 3/10

This main course- Garoupa fish in soy sauce with Chinese broccoli- was, at best, pretty plain, and at worst badly cooked and carelessly plated. Once again, a landing strip of soy sauce greased the fish's path as it was tossed on by someone who did not give a shit how it ends up looking. Unevenly cooked and with a halfhearted attempt at steamed veggies that doesn't really even things out. 3/10.

 Course 5: Rice + Shrimp + Scallop + Crab, 8/10

Course 5: Rice + Shrimp + Scallop + Crab, 8/10

This dish nearly saved things. The shrimp in this dish pops with delightful freshness- feels like crunching a million small air bubbles in your mouth. 8/10.

 Final Bites: "T'ang Court Delight," 3/10

Final Bites: "T'ang Court Delight," 3/10

Cheekily titled the "T'ang Court Delight," I'm unclear on what exactly could be delightful an egg custard with the rock-solidness of a goddamned billiard ball such that one almost chips one's tooth upon at the first bite. The heart shape was weird- it was November, nowhere near Valentine's, and I was a bit stunned that this was their idea of dessert. 3/10.

 The Bill

The Bill

The check, charmingly, is presented in a chromed-up metal box that makes JUST THE MILDEST POINT EVER that you have dined in a fancy place and everyone who isn't grabbing said check needs to be impressed with you. Hilarious to me that this is, by far, the least-expensive Three Star I have yet been to, putting it on track to be the cheapest Three Star in the world. Just sayin'.