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more about my French Laundry lunch

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more about my French Laundry lunch

heidipie | Apr 12, 2005 01:34 AM

There was a lively debate on Not About Food last week about whether a meal at the French Laundry could possibly be "worth" the cost--whether it was fundamentally a different experience from a meal at a restaurant that was merely expensive. So within that context, here are some impressions I took away from the lunch we had there.

To those who aren't familiar with this restaurant: the price is
the same for lunch and dinner. Dan and I each chose a nine-course
tasting menu ($175 prix fixe): his was called "Celebration of Spring"
and featured spring ingredients, and mine was the "Chef's Tasting
Menu". There was also a seven-course lunch menu and a nine-course
"Tasting of Vegetables" on offer. Understand that with the exception
of the foie gras option that you could choose for $25 extra, not a
single course is repeated among these four menus. Then there are the
extra tidbits they bring you before your first course, and the extra desserts
that seem to keep coming for quite a while after the meal. It becomes
something like fourteen courses, each of which has three or four or
five elements of sauce, garnish, glaze, and so on. In short, there is
a hell of a lot of cooking going on in that kitchen. I wouldn't doubt
that the sheer labor involved in producing, chopping, cooking,
plating these meals costs a ton because there seem to be no economies
of scale whatsoever.

I think Keller is trying to combine the haut-classical French
tradition of every ingredient being tortured within an inch of its
life to insert maximum richness, and the California cuisine mode of
every ingredient having its family tree elaborated on the menu. These
are almost contradictory sensibilities, and he takes each to an
extreme that could easily be regarded as comic if the result wasn't
consistently orgasmic deliciousness. (Does he achieve that? I'll decide in a few paragraphs.) Example of the extreme in
technique: his lobster "cuit sous vide," where he puts the lobster into kind
of
a boil-in-bag with a bunch of butter so the butter gets driven into
the flesh of the meat. It did taste great, but even more amazing was
the vibrant flavor of his vegetable purees. And I don't know how he
got the rabbit to acquire the flavor and smoothness of sauteed calves'liver--it was as though the meat weren't made of muscle at all, though it was still on the bone. Examples of the extreme ingredient
fetishism: one of our desserts contained poppy seeds that were
harvested from poppies grown in their kitchen garden. How necessary is that?
Then again, I'm sure my
platonic-ideal steak morsel had a lot to do with the source of the
beef.

So what was the deliciousness level of our meal? Here's what we had,
with my taste ratings. (I've removed the pretentious over-punctuation
on the written menu.)

* = yummy
** = very delicious
*** = very very delicious.

My meal:

--amuse bouche of a cheese puff *

--amuse bouche of a sesame seed tuile the size of my pinky, filled
with creme fraiche and topped with salmon tartare, like a little ice
cream cone *** (a perfect jewel bite)

--Cauliflower panna cotta with Malpeque oyster glaze and sevruga
caviar *** (a demitasse portion of concentrated wonderfulness of
cauliflower sweetness, and how did there manage to be a tiny glaze of
oysterness that complemented it so well?)

--Sauteed foie gras "au Choucroute Garni," with Granny Smith apples,
roasted brussels sprouts, dijon cream and "sauce Choucroute" ** (the
foie gras itself was of the highest quality, a decent portion, and
cooked perfectly, but the accompaniments did nothing for me. The apples were carved into pea-sized spheres, and I only got three. Kind of silly.)

--Grilled loin of South Florida Cobia, glazed baby fennel, roasted
artichokes and spanish caper emulsion * (amazing-tasting veggies, rather uninteresting piece of fish)

--Maine lobster tail "cuit sous vide" with wilted arrowleaf spinach
and a saffron-vanilla sauce *** (amazing sauce, and topped with one
spinach leaf fried to a translucent crisp that melted in the mouth)

--Braised rabbit shoulder "Farci aux Ris de Veau" (I don't know what
that means), melted Belgian endive, slow-poached Royal Blenheim
apricots and a foie gras-balsamic vinaigrette *** (I've never had
rabbit taste like that--it had a richness and a wonderful texture,
nothing at all like chicken! and what an apricot)

--Snake River Farms "Calotte de Boeuf Grillee", Yukon Gold potato
puree, crispy Hen of the Woods mushrooms, Brocollini and sauce
Bordelaise *** (as I said, best steak I've ever had)

--Chaource (a cheese), California green asparagus, black truffle
coulis and arugula greens *

--banana sorbet, Muscovado genoise, braised Maui pineapple, mango pate
de fruit and a yogurt caramel "croustillant" (feh--the pineapple and
the caramel were good)

--"Tentation au chocolat noisette et lait" which was a chocolate
mousse, vanilla ice cream, some chocolate sauce and salted nuts *

--four different kinds of cookies *

--six different kinds of chocolates **

Dan's lunch:

--the same two amuse-bouches

--monkfish-liver mousse with salmon roe and julienned radishes **

--chilled Sacramento Delta green asparagus soup, grilled Holland white
asparagus and Perigord truffle blinis *** (the soup was the best
asparagus preparation I've ever tasted, and a stunning shade of chartreuse)

--brown butter roasted filet of Dover sole, sauteed new crop potato
mille-feuille, glazed spring onions and spring onion vinaigrette **

--fricassee of Maine lobster tail and claw, young English peas, king
trumpet mushrooms, English pea puree, garden tarragon, lobster glace
and clear butter ** (amazing pea puree, but my lobster was better)

--confit of Liberty Valley duck hash with poached "Jidori" hen egg
and
maple syrup gastrique ** (ingredient fetishism: apparently the
"Jidori" hen egg was flown in from Japan. Now that's ridiculous.
Tommy boy, get
a local egg, it'll have to be fresher.)

--Bellweather Farm baby spring lamb, Jacobsen's Farm green garlic
hearts, fava beans, pinenuts and young garden mint ***

--St. Marcellin (cheese), sour strawberry relish, young cilantro
sprouts and coriander syrup **

--Wildflower honey genoise, mascarpone sorbet, honey gelee and Napa
Valley "aigre-doux" *** (dig that honey jello!)

--tart of spring field rhubarb, creme fraiche ice cream, toasted
almond streusel and slow-poached rhubarb *

--cookies, chocolates

The bread made infamous by its scarcity was

--in-house baked mini-epis, each leaf the size of a pretzel nugget ***

--crusty rolls **

--sliced levain **

and two butters, one a local unsalted from Strauss Dairy and the other
from a Vermont establishment called the Animal Farm, into which they
mixed their own fleur de sel. This Animal Farm stuff was astonishing
butter. The best butter ever. I had expected to want to try to
preserve my appetite, but we couldn't stop eating that butter!

So, there was indeed a lot of deliciousness. But I don't think I can capture
the experience with a scorecard. This was a four-hour lunch made of
dozens of itty-bitty beautiful portions of carefully-sculpted food
items. It is a meta-meal, where you are supposed to slow way down and
let a half-teaspoon of transcendent pea puree get inside your mouth
and your head. But it isn't ungenerous, because the courses keep
coming and coming. Dan said he'd never had a meal cooked with such
"precision."

The meal had a dramatic ebb and flow, and a bunch of low-key
theatrics that were designed to give you a feeling of ultimate
refinement. The only other meal I've had that was as showy was at Paul
Bocuse in Lyon (also very expensive, but oh so classical, everything drowning in butter and cream; this one tasted much better).
Lots of special cutlery for the fish courses, for example; you never
see that kind of thing in ultra-casual northern California. Those
salmon tartare ice cream cones were served in a special steel holder
they must have had custom-made for the restaurant.

But even aside from the extreme problems we had with the bread and my
tea, the service experience was not nearly as strong as the food. A
whole pecking order of
order-takers, servers, bussers, glass-fillers and others bustled
about, each doing their part (or
failing to) to meet your every need, but not being at all
unobstrusive. It was as if they threw a lot of manpower at the
customers, instead of allowing a few of them to really tune in to the
needs of each table. A lot of breathy references were made by the
staff
to "Thomas" and "the chef" and his dazzling genius, which
got old real
fast. And many of the servers were less than convincing when they
announced each course with great pomp. The funniest example was at a
neighboring table where a waiter poured a young girl her drink, give
a little bow, and in a gentle
voice murmured "ginger ale. From Boylan's." LOL!

The reason the service inadequacy is so much more deadly here
than at my local diner is not merely the price of the meal. There's
just so much more at stake when the whole meal is supposed to be
theater, or art, and all about stringing together a series of perfect
moments. The service problems took us out of being
bought-in to the experience, and made us analyze it until it fell
apart somewhat. But perhaps that would have had to be part of the
experience for
my husband and me. We aren't the kind of people who could sit unselfconsciously at the French Laundry, or on the Concorde or the Queen Mary, and not roll our
eyes and kick each other under the table
eventually. Maybe it was inevitable that we would deconstruct the validity of what we were doing, what we were buying. I don't know.

I think the price is
part of the point, too; the whole thing went beyond food into some
kind of ultimate experience, that could not be appreciated by the
average person, and so why make it within the average person's means
to experience it? Part of our table talk was about how it takes a
certain kind of mad genius to pull off this sort of stunt, to make the
decision to create and offer this experience for sale. It doesn't
seem to be the same enterprise at all as simply being a chef. I don't
think
Mr. Keller is laughing all the way to the bank, because it's clear he
completely buys into the game he's playing, and takes it totally
seriously.

I think there is a kind of person who would indeed find at the French
Laundry the best meal of his/her life, who has the right temperament,
palate, and level of attentiveness to detail. It's true that
I am no stranger to fine dining. I especially did a lot of it as a kid
in New York because my mom and dad were into it. But even if they
hadn't loused up our service and our experience was as perfect as it
could have been, I still think I prefer a really nice regular meal,
where I get all the bread I want and a healthy portion of starch
(preferably pasta), to even the best tasting menu. I liked the
continual surprises and the insane abundance. But I found myself
wanting more of the stuff I liked best, and my attention flagged by
the end. (Upon further reflection--the desserts were much weaker than
the savories, which prevented the afternoon from ending with a bang).
I even prefer a
Chinese banquet, which is so much more of a communal experience (the
gorgeous lacquered duck is brought out whole and everyone oohs and ahs
in unison, then you demolish it). And I prefer a restaurant with a
more magnanimous, democratic spirit, like the Gotham Bar and Grill in
New York or
Zuni Cafe in San Francisco (though that might start a whole new
dispute...), which admittedly can get pretty expensive but where you
can also get an affordable prix fixe lunch or just some oysters and
dessert at the bar.

Was it worth $650? No, I don't think so. I thought it was a great deal of fun,
but not worth the money, neither on an absolute scale of luxury
experiences nor in comparison to the many "expensive" restaurant
meals
I've had at 10-25% of the price. I think four $150 meals or (6 1/2
$100 meals) would be a better deal for me, if in the future I were
offered the choice.

Compared to other luxuries: not that I've ever done it, but I'd bet
that if I spent $650 on an item of clothing or a handbag, I could get
something that would be very solidly constructed that I could keep for
many years. That would feel like a better value. $650 would probably
buy Dan and me a weekend trip to
Vancouver with some excellent dim sum. Boy, I'd love to spend a
weekend at Mohonk Mountain House. I'd love tickets to thirty movies
at the SF International Film Festival, with money to pay the
babysitter and to park the car.

Then again, I don't feel ripped off. Not at all. One reason for that
is that going to the French Laundry in the first place was sort of a
lark, as we "won" the reservation by submitting the funniest
food-related story to a chowhound who couldn't make it there that
day. And it happened to be Dan's birthday weekend. And it was one of
Dan's own favorite travel stories. So we kind of wrapped our own
story around the story of the lunch itself. It's not as if we'd been
dreaming of this lunch for years. It was an unexpected adventure (an
unexpected budget-blowing adventure...), and it might have been more of a let-down if it was something I had been looking forward to for a long time, because ultimately it really was (to me) just another (very very long) lunch.

But also, I don't feel ripped off because I will take away a lasting
memory of quite a few very specific
miraculous flavors. I don't think I've ever had so many in one meal.
And I do think Keller and company work damn hard for their
money.

Link: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/...

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