(NOTE: If you're just joining me from Serious Eats or another blog, welcome. This is the post you wanted to read. But I've since posted other entries about The French Laundry and the issues raised by our visit there, plus the rest of my foodie vacation in San Francisco and vicinity. Click on "Main" at the top of this column to see it all.)
Quiet. Quiet, I said! And put down that flaming torch.
And no, I won't reconsider. I just didn't like it. I wouldn't go back again.
What's more, I'm not even going to get into understanding it from their point of views. I know how much hard work goes into creating a meal at The French Laundry. I know how much effort goes into sourcing, cooking, serving.
I also know how much effort went into me earning enough money so that I could afford to eat there, and I think we'll just call that a wash, shall we? Good.
The good things! It is a fairly charming setting, although, in August, a little brown and crusty as to landscape.
As to Company, it was great. Jenny and Joe, of whom I'll show you a photo when my camera gets recharged (long story) were about as charming a young couple as one could imagine; polite and pleasant as well as being interesting and fun. I was so glad to have met them and, because I'm beginning to think I really do value people over food, this was the heart of the evening, and a very nice one, incredibly nice. (Thank you, Robyn, for introducing us!)
Yes, I know these are not the Oysters and Pearls
Oh, yes, there were little bites of heaven. The Oysters and Pearls were worth every adjective you've ever read about them.
The Calotte de Boef grillee, a beautiful slab of marbled beef, was everything steak ever was or ought to be.
Joe was practically weeping over this. Snake River Farms "Calotte de Boeuf Grille" with Sweet Baby Corn, Hobbs' Bacon, Jacobsen's Farm Figs, Arugula and "Sauce Bordelaise"
And, look, of course nothing was overcooked, undercooked, spoiled, or even clumsily presented or garnished. I guess I'm taking that for granted, the way I would freshness in a sushi joint or selection in a good patisserie. Or coloring books at a family restaurant.
I'll even go further and say that the chef's tasting menu was admirably constructed to avoid repeating choices. Chef Keller's philosophy is to always leave you wanting more, to never quite satiate the taste. And every taste should leave you wanting more. The duck foie gras should prepare you for the sashimi of Pacific Kanpachi, which should get your tastebuds ready for the butter-poached lobster tail. It's thoughtful food.
"Sashimi" of Pacific Kanpachi with Marinated Beech Mushrooms, Compressed Cucumbers, Mizuna, Cucumber Blossoms and Black Sesame Seed Coulis
Now I've told you the positives and I hope I've been fair. And, okay, maybe I wouldn't be so jaded if I hadn't read Ruhlman's books and Phoebe Damrosch's book and Pim's stuff and Carol Blymire's blog. Nobody told me to go soak my head in Les Recherches du Thomas Keller, and I guess I can't blame anyone the fact that I am overly familiar with everything.
We arrived for our reservation at 5:20, rez for 5:30. then we stood and waited. And waited. And waited.
After ten minutes a lovely hostess came in and asked us our business. Uh, I don't know, we were wondering if you'd like to buy a vacuum cleaner? Oh, you have a reservation? Bien sur. We're not ready for you.
Okaaaaaaay....may we sit in the lovely albeit brown and crusty garden and wait, as did Pim and her friends, and Bourdain and Ripert, and and and?
But of course. Or rather, see if we care.
Fine, and we'd like something from the bar...hello? Helloo, lovely hostess? Oops, missed her. Okay, let's sit in the wind-scoured brown garden.
In a mere twenty minutes, after we have met Jen and Joe, we are brought to our table. Rather forcibly. Not encouraged to linger. Siddown. NOW! Madam, you may investigate le view apres diner, all right? We've got a goddamn tasting menu to get through.
When the gent comes around for drink orders, I ask for a virgin Mary. Oops, they don't have a bar because they're too close to a church. Okay...But I asked for a decoction of tomatoes in liquid form. Honestly, I thought the waiter (Captain?) might have suggested something else. Tomato consomme? Maybe they didn't have anything in the kitchen but...this is the French Laundry kitchen...I rather hoped they'd work with me on this.
And then we order. One of our group has food allergies, of which I apprised the kitchen three days ago. The Captain is a little upset about this. Just a little, but it shows. Our only entree tonight is the beef...but madame is allergic to the beef...well, possibly we have some duck in the kitchen...possibly. Oh good, mon garcon, and if we don't, let's just let the lady swell into anaphylactic shock, shall we?
Ah! We do have the duck. Oh good.
The vegetable tasting menu exists for the benefit of Our Vegetarian Friends, says the Captain, but the Chef's Menu is where we really shine. Oh? Somehow I didn't think there'd be any throw-aways here, did you? And what's with this heavy touting?
A few of the dishes on the veggie menu appeal to me. May I substitute, please? Captain is shocked, shocked. Of course, the customer is always right...but Chef thought these up specifically...no taste repeated...
All right then, all right then, I wouldn't second-guess Chef. And of course I do have a lovely meal ahead of me.
But...I've been firmly placed in the wrong twice in the first ten minutes. And this isn't Shopsin's.
Oh Lord, what can I say; the food was thoroughly right and, if there were no new or exciting tastes, nothing I hadn't been hearing of since 1998, is that the restaurant's fault? No, how could it be? But the troops of crumbers and commis and spielers and explainers march around as if they had been placed on autopilot shortly after Keller had his last new idea. They were stiff and angry and bored. They all but lit cigarettes and maligned the guests' jewelry (okay, they didn't do that. But the vibe was not pleasant).
When the sweets courses were reached, they sped up like mechanical men. Poof, le palate cleanser! Voila, le dessert! Maintenon, les mignardises, which I must say I've met better (and fresher) in a box of Bracht's! They whisked my dessert plate out of sight with my white chocolate "Happy Birthday" banner still lying there; my favorite part, and I was saving it for last.
Downstairs--they rushed us down the stairs so fast I practically lost a shoe--the lovely hostess offers us a copy of tonight's menu. I almost said, "Why, when I've got copies in Ruhlman's and Pheobe's books?" But I didn't. The French Laundry is not, ultimately, the kind of place where you can speak up.
I guess some people will say that I'm bitter because I didn't receive any special treatment. Maybe so. No particular reason why I should; I'm just a social work student from New York, unknown to anyone in the house.
Maybe all the publicity about the "special courses" offered to friends of the house should not have been so greatly publicized. Of course, Chef Keller didn't encourage anyone to do that. It's not part of his marketing plan. And this is a free country.
But I didn't want people to tell me how important I was. I wanted a somewhat-customized food adventure, with perfect service, which is what I had been led to believe I would receive.
And so, my friends: if you want that, go to Gary Danko's. (Where, in addition, you can come in and sit at the bar and eat just one course if you like. Nice idea, huh?) If you simply have to try the oysters and tapioca, get Carol Blymire to invite you over. La Laundry Francaise? Save your money. It's a pathetic waste.
Keller, Ruhlman, Damrosch and Bourdain forgive me. I have, pretty obviously, sinned.