This is kind of about food. I didn't know whether to post on D.C., on San Fran, on General Topics, but I think it goes here because it's about perception.
A couple of months ago, I went to a restaurant here in D.C. called Le Paradou. It is a new restaurant headed, and owned, by a well-respected James Beard nominee, Yannick Cam. Yannick Cam has headed a few different restaurants in DC. Hes an old friend to the chow crowd here. And then, a couple of weeks ago, I went to The French Laundry, headed by Beard awardee Thomas Keller.
Heres the thing: I had a couple of complaints about the food at The French Laundry (e.g., I found the terrine of foie gras Not Good and annoyingly $40 additional; a couple of other missteps that I cant remember now, which is kind of the larger point). I had a few complaints about the food at Le Paradou (e.g., overcooked lamb chop and grainy rosemary ice cream). I had some things at Le Paradou that were better than some things at The French Laundry (e.g., foie gras in my preferred form, the whole liver, that smelled of a chocolate chip cookie but didnt taste sweet and was perfect; an amuse bouche of chopped scallops, corn, and savory custard in an eggshell with ossetra). I had some things at The French Laundry that were better (e.g., the little square of fish was fabulous with a crispy skin; the lamb was med. rare).
But I was angered by the service at Le Paradou, and charmed by the service at The French Laundry. I was deeply unhappy with the wine situation at Le Paradou, and very happy with the wine situation at French Laundry. A bad service and sommelier situation at Le Paradou left me feeling deflated and then angered that we had spent so much on some spotty food and a bunch of wines (in a tasting menu wine flight) from a small village in the Alsace. The French Laundry was more expensive (it was just two of us, but per-person, I mean), but I left happy, full, refreshed, and with a new favorite Chablis to go search out. The servers were nice, helpful, not too chatty, not too icy, just, you know, perfect. Towards the end we were nudging each other every time they talked about what they were celebrating that day (e.g., the white truffle, this particular wine, that particular bread), but that was sort of charming in its way, too.
To put it into Iron Chef terms, Im not sure that we will ever find out whose cuisine reigns supreme (and I dont mean necessarily between these two-just generally), because excellent service and skilled sommeliers really add a lot, and a bad experience can make you very critical in retrospect. I.e., if something goes wrong, it can sometimes be difficult to remember the good things, and if things go right, it is hard to remember that you didnt like the way something tasted, or that something was very good but somewhat forgettable. Im not saying that Thomas Keller isnt fabulous at what he does or is not indeed the better chef. And Ive had some supremely mediocre meals at some very pretty, well-staffed restaurants that I definitely do remember that way. But it was an interesting contrast of recent meals that were, in essence, very similar.
Both were several-course tasting menus (6 at Le Paradou; 7 or 9? at The French Laundry). We had a wine flight at Le Paradou (not great); we had three half bottles and two glasses at The French Laundry (perfect but we *chose* them--with help). The food items were very similar: tiny oysters, blobs of caviar, lamb chops, small squares of fish, foie gras, etc., and barring the overcooked lamb chop, approaching the same level of execution. So does this mean that if Yannick Cam can manage to cook a lamb chop medium rare, get a better sommelier, and train his waitstaff to be nicer, that he deserves the same press? Do the lovely little oysters that he makes get passed over because he has a snooty captain?
Whose cuisine reigns supreme?! Really, my point is: maybe nobody's does. At a certain level, what seems to put an experience over the top is something other than the food.