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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

French Say 'Bon Appetit' At Fewer Top Restaurants

PARIS -- The elite fraternity of top-rated restaurants in France has shrunk for a second straight year, according to the 1996 Michelin Guide, which also dumped the celebrated Tour d'Argent from its three-star category.

The 1996 Michelin France, which goes on sale Wednesday, awarded at least one of its coveted stars to just 532 restaurants, down from 541 last year and 554 in 1994, Michelin disclosed Monday.

But Bernard Naegellen, director-general of the Michelin Guides, denied this meant French cuisine was on the wane, blaming instead a weak economy.

"This lack of starred restaurants stems clearly from the growing shortage of young chefs who are just starting out," he said. "If tomorrow the financial picture improved, the number of starred restaurants would again resume growing."

The Tour d'Argent, whose specialty is duck and a magnificent view of Notre Dame cathedral and the river Seine, first won Michelin's three-star rating in 1933. Michelin offered no explanation for the demotion of the 400-year-old restaurant.

Dining at a three-star eatery means that "one will pay accordingly," Michelin cautions. At La Tour d'Argent, for example, dinner without wine typically costs about 1,300 francs ($260), while the fixed-price lunch is 395 francs ($80).

Chef Andr? Daguin, who runs a two-star restaurant, blamed some restaurants' financial difficulties on the huge investments required to earn Michelin stars. "The best-known guides crown the young chefs, who then must go out and invest billions to put little frills around their dishes, as the great gourmet critics advise them to do. They end up working for the banks," he said.

Chef Andre Daguin, who runs a two-star restaurant in the southwestern town of Auch and who also heads the restaurants section of the National Hotel Industry Federation, has blamed Gagnaire's problems on the huge investment required to earn Michelin stars.

A three-star rating -- awarded this year to just 19 establishments in France -- means a restaurant is "worth a special journey," offering "superb food, fine wines, faultless service, elegant surroundings," according to Michelin.

Newly elevated to three-star rank this year is Paris' L'Arpege and its 39-year-old chef Alain Passard, whose recipes include lobster with turnips in a sweet and sour sauce seasoned with rosemary, suckling pig with North African hot pepper sauce, endives and apples, and a dessert of stuffed candied tomatoes.

The exclusive three-star club fell to 19 from 20 the year before after financial problems forced chef Pierre Gagnaire to rethink his eponymous restaurant in Saint-Etienne near Lyon.

Gagnaire himself asked that his stars be withdrawn after declaring bankruptcy in January and blaming his plight on mounting debts due to Saint-Etienne's depressed economy.

But Naegellen said Michelin would have dropped him in any case, because of uncertainty about his future.

"We hope to see him once again in our guides because he is an excellent chef," Naegellen said.