Not wanting to be left out of what appears to have become the Chowhound Unofficial French Laundry Month, I treated my girlfriend to dinner at that most talked about restaurant on Saturday night. The topic has been discussed at length on this board already (is it blasphemous to write "Dead Horse" and "French Laundry" in the same post, I wonder) so I had not planned on writing much, if anything. But I was compelled by several hounds at the picnic planning potluck on Sunday to post my thoughts. Apparently, in our late 20s, we are the latest vintage hounds to have dined there recently, so I'm supposed to offer the young perspective. I'm not about to pretend that my views would represent the tail of Gen-X, so I offer instead the opinions of me: Nick, chowhound.
We arrived 20 minutes late for our 6pm reservation. To those of you who have experienced the torture that is the sound of a busy signal when trying to get a reservation: it sounds like a lullaby compared to the panic-inducing busy tone heard when you're trying to contact the hostess so she won't give away the table you've been promising to the birthday girl for two months. But the hostess' welcoming reception ("we're so sorry about the traffic, and we are so glad you are able to join us this evening") set the tone for the outstanding service that was to follow for the entire evening.
The two of us were seated at a table large enough for four just inside the main dining room, in front of the not-in-use fireplace, with views of the rest of the dining room, stairs, hostess stand, and doorway to the kitchen. A smaller table against a wall might have been a bit more cozy and romantic, but this table allowed us to watch the restaurant like theater--and it is most certainly theater.
The service: flat out extraordinary. The service at the French Laundry blows away anything that I have ever witnessed before in my life. The staff here is light years ahead of those at restaurants that I have dined at and admired for service (Jardineire, Boulevard, Aqua, Oliveto's, Valentino's). The basics (refilling glasses, getting orders correct, explaining menu items, etc.) are not worth discussing, they were executed flawlessly. But there's a whole other level here. At the table of four in front of us, we watched as two servers, course after course, synchronize the delivery of plates--for the two ladies first, then the two men. Any sauce that was to be added to a dish at the table was carried by its own server. When a diner got up, their napkin was removed and replaced with another, crisply folded in that famous French Laundry style.
At one point we witnessed two waiters carrying dirty dishes surprise two other servers coming out of the narrow kitchen doorway with new dishes. In any other restaurant they would have collided. But here, a fifth server appeared out of nowhere and a bucket brigade of plate juggling occurred in which no server was ever holding more than two plates at once. In the end, the two servers who started with clean plates returned to the kitchen with the dirty plates, the two that started with dirty dishes delivered the new dishes to the correct diners, and the fifth carried on plate-less to whatever task he had previously been attending. No word was ever spoken during the five second ballet.
When Erika asked our waiter for directions to the bathroom (a bathroom with its own mezzanine, I might add), our server offered to escort her. She followed him to the top of the stairs, where they were joined by a second server who opened the bathroom door for her. When I went to the bathroom, I climbed two steps before noticing that a server was coming down, and was nearly upon me at the bottom of the stairs. He immediately turned around, hustled all the way back up the stairs, and stepped out onto the patio to let me walk past him.
These people are razor sharp, courteous, confident professionals who have clearly drilled for hours and hoursthey all know exactly what to do in every situation with having to speak. They operate like a perfectly tuned machine built with interchangeable cogs that can be rearranged without the slightest disruption. They are therefore, in a sense, inhuman, and ultimately make for an impersonal dining experience. I'm sure they're all warm and fascinating people outside of the French Laundry--but while they're working they're machines. They're Schwarzenegger in T2 -- awesome, flawless robots with infinite patience, programmed to serve you that are mostly, but not quite, human.
The food at the French Laundry carries the same personality of the service: steely perfectionism. Vegetables are perfectly diced, ingredients perfectly arranged, everything cooked to perfect doneness. Several of our dishes were extremely good with layers of flavors (though, surprisingly, some seem severely lacking in flavor), but few possessed any soul.
We opted for the prix fixe, each selecting five different dishes which we shared. We were also given the customary amuses and assorted desserts. Overall the dishes were good, a few had flavor elements that were exceptionally delicious, but I was surprised that several dishes had very little interesting tastes. Diced summer squash made a frequent appearance, and never once did have much flavor. A few other dishes stressed subtlety of many ingredients over showcasing one or two strong flavors, but were overly subtle and ultimately uninteresting. I've heard that Keller's objective is to leave the diner wanting just one more bite, but except for a few rare exceptions I was happy to be finished with each dish. That sounds too harsh--not a single dish or element of any dish was unpleasant--it's just that I often found myself saying "there should be more flavor here," so I was anxious to move onto the next course to find it.
With those overall thoughts said, I'm not going to deconstruct every ingredient of every dish. That's already been done, and besides, this post is already far too long. I'll field questions if anyone wants to hear more specifics. But the following is what I remember most after four days have passed. Here goes...
Salmon Tartar Cone - Fun to eat, top notch salmon, tangy crème fraîche, but muted flavors.
Japanese Mackerel with Celery and Wasabi Extra Virgin Olive Oil (as an amuse) - should celery be the most dominant flavor over mackerel and wasabi?
Chilled Ruby Red Shrimp with Honeydew, Cantaloupe, Watermelon, Persian Lime Sauce -- Now we're getting somewhere, surprising layers of seafood and spice flavors in cold, boiled shrimp. I had juicier, sweeter cantaloupe and honeydew from Real Foods earlier in the week.
Chilled "pave" of Australian Big Eye Tuna, Celery Branch, Marinated Sweet Cherry Tomatoes, Chornichon "aigre-doux" and caraway seed melba -- Perhaps the best piece of tuna I have ever eaten. A bite of the fish with the sweet, tangy, vibrant cornichons was like tuna salad fit for a god.
Sautéed Medallion of Atlantic Cod, Yellow Squash, Zucchini, San Marzano Tomato "Marmalade" and Roasted Summer Squash "Coulis" -- Perfectly crunchy, butter-browned crust on moist fish. Marmalade felt like the hot Italian sun was tickling my tongue with melting tomato sorbetto.
Crispy Skin Filet of Wild Striped Bass, Caramelized Belgian Endive, Roasted baby shitake mushrooms, mustard seed vinaigrette -- All elements lacked potency. Perfectly arranged and cooked, but all ingredients were holding back.
Applewood Smoked Bacon Wrapped Sirloin of Cloverdale Farms Rabbit, Summer Vegetable "Vierge," Baby Cilantro Salad, and 30 Year Old Balsamic Vinegar -- Diced turnips overwhelmed all other elements in the dish; bacon and rabbit kidney ought to have more flavor.
"Gateau de Carnaroli Risotto Biologique Avec des Champignons des Bois et Veloute de Mais" -- Wish the baby shitakes earlier had half the strength of the morels and other wild mushrooms on this plate.
"Cabri Ariegeois" with Jacobsen's Farm Peaches and Shaved Almonds -- Steep conical bowl funneled toward my face a plume of entrancing stinky, aged goat cheese, peach, and almond odors. Incredibly luxurious and rich cheese, gently sweet peaches. The first complete dish that made me crave for more.
"Brin D'Amour" with Sweet Pepper "Crostini" and Basil Infused Extra Virgin Olive Oil -- Peppers and basil harmonized well with herbs de provence on the cheese.
Yuzu Pudding with Fresh Mango and Spearmint "Granite" -- Explosive mint in the granite, so much so that Erika found it inedible after having chocolate first. Slice of mango could be seen but not tasted.
"Declinaison au Chocolat" Hazelnut and Chocolate "Mille-Feuille" With "Mousse au Chocolat Tiende" and Chocolate Sorbet -- Surprisingly good combination of coarse salt and chocolate on the Mousse
Vanilla Crème Brulee -- Hmmm, it appears the pastry chef can more reliably develop intense flavors that the rest of the kitchen can do with the savory dishes.
Kaffir Lime Pot de Crème -- Superb concentration of two sensations: taste of citrus leaf plus texture of dairy fat.
Cookies, candies, tarts, etc. -- All well done, but at this point I was overload on sweets. I'd have preferred more savories dishes earlier and to end with the brulee and crème brulee, or even before those.
Ordered a two half bottles of wine...
Hirsch "Kammerner Heiligenstein", Kamptal 2001, which was much softer and less fragrant that what I've come to expect from GV.
Roumier 'Clos de la Bussiere', Morey St. Denis 2000 possessed a beautiful aroma of red pinot fruit with subtle earthiness; soft and welcoming in the mouth, this wine is immediately enjoyable.
Our waiter also asked if we wanted glasses of champagne while reading the menu and later, glasses of dessert wine. We said yes and ended up with...
Two glasses of Schramsberg Blanc de Noir
A glass of Banyuls (cannot remember the details, but it was a spectacular match with the "Declinaison," a fountain of youth to the chocolate, reawaking its earlier days as simple roasted cacao beans)
A glass of Château Climens, Premier Cru Classé 1989 Sauternes.
We were not charged for any of the wines by the glass--which would have summed to more than the two half bottles we paid for--nor we were told why. An error is out of the question. One chowhound has speculated that the staff simply wanted to show their appreciation to a young couple that were obviously interested in food and wine. Another theory is that the staff monitors chowhound and figured out that I was "nja," a frequent chowhound poster (given the date of my post about getting the table via opentable, it would have been very easy for them to figure out who I was). Being seated at what I thought was the best table in the house adds to that suspicion. I think chowhound is awesome and all, but given the endless praise heaped upon them by every medium, I can't imagine that the French Laundry would see a post from me as either harmful or helpful to their success. But I wonder...
I absolutely enjoyed our meal at the French Laundry. The birthday girl couldnt stop smiling the whole night and declared it one of the most special occasions of her life. The spectacle of precise service made for a dinner theater experience.
While I was impressed by a few courses and single ingredients in a few other, I was surprised at how many dishes failed to impress. My two all time favorite restaurant meals for food quality (tasting menus at both Aqua and Valentinos about four years ago) consisted of a steadily procession of increasingly impressive tastes and textures. The French Laundry was more of a roller coaster ride with extraordinary peaks and overly subtle valleys. One might conclude that my impressions are due to my expectation for huge flavors and that the subtle dishes were great but lost on me. But I would disagree. I enjoy and treasure subtlety--I prefer a delicate pinot noir over a monstrous cabernet sauvignon, I use the slightest dabs of wasabi and soy so I can savor the delicate flavors of good raw fish. It's not that I failed to appreciate the subtlety of the salmon, mackerel, bass, and rabbit dishes, but rather the kitchen overshot the mark failed to produce impressive, yet subtle, dishes.
I was fascinated and blown away by the professional service. But if I had to choose but one server to wait on me for the rest of my life, Id pass on the French Laundry staff and take instead one of the warm, funny, friendly, smiling, fallible persons that Ive met over the years.
I doubt I shall ever splurge on another meal at the French Laundry. I do not regret in the least the $427 I have already spent there--it was a wonderful, memorable, sometimes stunning, though imperfect, experience. But there are already so many other restaurants and foods to try, and so few days and dollars in ones life, that a return trip on my dime is not likely to ever occur.