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January 11, 2009

The French Laundry: Solid but Imperfect

Other than Alice Waters, is there any single gifted American chef who has labored so hard to raise the bar when it comes to superlative cuisine, as Thomas Keller?  Probably not.  In my opinion Keller deserves his fame, and I can’t think of enough rewards to bestow upon him to pay off our debt. If there were an American equivalent of the French “legion d’honneur”, Thomas and Alice both deserve to be nominated for the highest honours as cultural ambassadors of America in a world which is no longer enamored by all things American.

I am fortunate to have lived in the Bay Area in the mid to late 90s, as my wife and I had plenty of opportunities to savor Keller’s cooking when he was in the kitchen. Not everything was perfect, but Thomas’ sole aim was the search for perfectionism in his search for superlative ingredients in the context of what was feasible in Northern California, and also in terms of optimum cooking methods. His passion for cooking and his curiosity of all things gastronomic distinguished him from his peers and, even though not all dishes were perfect, he came closest to perfection among chefs cooking in the States in the 90s (perhaps his only competition was Gary Kunz at Lespinasse).  We considered him the American equivalent of a Michelin three star restaurant.

Paradoxically, but perhaps understandably, now that Keller has two restaurants in the States which have garnered three star ratings, he is no longer tending his stoves. He has to run four different restaurants in three different cities and, in this sense, he is not different than say Alain Ducasse and Michael Mina and many other celebrity chefs who are the CEOs of non-public corporations rather than practicing chefs. But among these chef,s perhaps only Ducasse can tap on a higher quality labor pool, as at least two of his restaurants continue to operate at a level which we deem worthy of 18 points or higher at gastroville. Clearly this is the equivalent of three Michelin stars.

Unfortunately, if my recent lunch is representative, the same cannot be said of the French Laundry. The cuisine of Keller in lesser hands now displays an automatic, slightly assembly line quality, sacrificing greatness in favor for consistency and predictability. This is now a cuisine geared for the “once in a lifetime in a three star” type diner who should be awed by the luxury ingredients, such as white truffles, lobster, caviar and wagyu beef, plus an unrelenting pace set by numerous desserts. The problem is that the quality of the luxury ingredients is either poor (caviar, truffles) or merely adequate, and the preparations are hardly compelling.  All this said, this is still one of the best restaurants in California even though one can taste impeccably prepared and higher quality products in places such as Urasawa and Manresa.

Arguably though, one thing that sets apart Keller is his sense of progression in a multi-course meal. The tone is set by some superlative cornets with raw salmon and fine gougeres. These are perfect accompaniments for two glasses of champagne graciously offered as complimentary.

The feast begins with good soups:  the “pumpkin soup from their garden with apples and chopped truffles” and the ”celery root soup with preserved meyer lemon and chopped herbs”. Both are nice soups even if they lack the additional intensity which should elevate them to a higher status.

The next set of courses was also one of the most problematic. Keller is known for his “oysters and pearls” which is truly a great dish when good quality caviar is used. This time we got two different preparations for what turned out to be insipid, limp caviar. One was an “oyster glazed cauliflower panna cotta,” and this dish was certainly a good vehicle for caviar. The FL version of this dish is not as decadent and silky as the old Robuchon version at Jamin, but it still is very good.  The problem is that the California white sturgeon caviar which comes from farm raised sturgeons doesn’t have much taste. Clearly it would have been better to use high quality salmon roe, as Urasawa does, rather than insipid young sturgeon roe, misleadingly called black caviar.

But good quality caviar would have been wasted on the “avocado, crème fresh emulsion and caviar” dish. The coarsely chopped ripe avocado would have been a very odd vehicle to combine with the subtle, slightly fat and sweet taste of a good caviar. It is interesting that the success of Pascal Barbot’s avocado-crab ravioli combination led to multiple experimentations with avocado and a myriad of seafood in many haute cuisine establishments proving that “herd behavior” is not confined to market players only. At any rate, if avocado is going to marry with caviar, it would have been preferable to use it in mousse form, rather than whole.

The caviar was followed by two seafood dishes: incomparably sweet and fresh “sea urchin with yuzu coulis, radish emince and baby watercress”, and “Sautéed frog less with bacon in a coulis of Jerusalem artichokes and black truffles”. The former (pictured below) was one of the best dishes of the day, even though it would have been better to leave the radish emince out of the equation. The latter was a fine, albeit overly refined dish (no hint of garlic which is often a good companion to frog legs), but the black truffle puree displayed neither the pungent aroma, nor the earthy/smoky taste of black truffles.

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The next duo of dishes included old classics, and the only difference from old times was the restraint with which truffles were used. One dish, with “soft boiled hen egg with black truffle butter” was optimally cooked, but somehow it was too salty and did not display any truffle aroma. The other dish, “the white truffle custard with black truffle and a roasted potato chip” was arguably delicious and satisfactory, even with the restraint of the truffle. I call it one of the best “baby foods” one can find anywhere (pictured below).

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Our meal has continued with two salads: “baby beets with fennel and apple puree” and “heart of palm with oranges and black sesame vinaigrette”. Both were beautifully plated and presented nice dishes. They prepared the palate for the next set of eagerly anticipated pastas with the most expensive tuber in the world: tuber magnatum pico or white truffles.

It turned out that there was somebody in the kitchen who was certainly very competent with pastas. Both the fluffy “risotto from carnaroli rice, finished with the castelmagno cheese” and the “lasagna of white truffles with béchamel sauce and truffle glaze” turned out to be as technically excellent as the ones that are encounted in great trattorias of Italy. The brown butter that was gently poured on top was also a clever device to bring out the truffle aroma. The only problem was that the truffle itself was not ripe and aromatic and, considering the $60 price supplement for each plate, it was sliced rather conservatively on top. (See picture of the lasagna below.)

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Next came a fish dish for two: “monkish off the coast of Massachusetts roasted on the bone and served with wild broccoli, nicoise olive sauce, Jerusalem artichokes and red pepper”. Unfortunately the dish had some problems. The monkfish that I adore was dry, and this may have been due to overcooking or to starting with a frozen fish. The nicoise sauce was prepared with de-hydrated olives, and it turned out to be too strong, and hence the dish lacked harmony. It will be interesting to transport the chef to L’Ambroisie in Paris and have him taste the wild sea bass dish with olive sauce as an example of perfect harmony between a seafood and olive sauce.

The “lobster” dishes, which followed, did not disappoint, but fell short of expectations. The problem is that the restaurant is using baby Maine lobsters which are raised in a controlled environment. As a consequence, the lobsters do not display much resemblance in taste to either superlative Atlantic black lobsters (Galicia, Brittany) nor to lesser but also very good large green Maine lobsters. The baby ones, as used at the FL, taste “cottony,” and, as a consequence of poaching in butter, overly buttery. But the sauces which came with them were well thought out: “salsify and almond emulsion” and, “braised lettuce, bottarga emulsion and a parmesan chip” (pictured below). The salty-nutty bottarga, was a clever contrasting complement to a sweet lobster, and this preparation should have been a superlative one had the quality of the lobster been better.

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The disappointment when luxury ingredients were served continued with the next set of foie gras courses: “sautéed mallard duck with chestnut puree, cranberry and celery” and “torchon of foie gras with huckleberry and Japanese turnips”.  The little garnies with the duck livers were certainly well thought out, but the Hudson valley foie gras lacked the ‘uumphh” character of a higher grade liver that you find in quite a few restaurants in France. I later saw that a supplement of $60 was added to our bill for the duck liver dishes. On the other hand, the set of rock salts served alongside of this dish with super quality brioches (which were replaced by new ones when they got cold) made up for the disappointment in the foie gras. I would like to highlight especially three of the salts that were served: the Jurassic salt from Montana, the Japanese Amobito which had been dried in seaweed, and the Molaki from the volcanic soil of Hawaii.

The main course was “Wagyu beef” from Australia. In the past I had eaten various preparations of Wagyu from Japan (not necessarily from Kobe) at the FL, and Thomas had prepared them in a way worthy of any Japanese chef.  During the last six months I also had Japanese wagyu twice at Urasawa in Los Angeles. The first time the meat came from the village of Kobe, and its quality should warrant a perfect score. The second time was not from Kobe, but it was still very good.

In the FL I wanted to make sure that the wagyu was 100% wagyu breed and not a cross with Angus as they have in America. I was assured that this was the case, since they used the “gold label”. I also asked if they had Japanese wagyu.  They did.  I requested to be served whichever was more marbled. They chose to serve both of us the Australian wagyu pictured below. It was a nice sirloin piece served with “braised cabbage, pickled carrot and pain perdu”. Certainly the quality was above the American versions I had tried, but not on par with the Japanese versions and certainly not even close to a Kobe in terms of its depth and flavor profile. For the $100 supplement one would have expected more.

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We had two different cheeses served prior to the festival of desserts: a tomme de bergeres (combination of goat and sheep) from Corsica and a roquefort. I salute the FL for having served two good cheese in optimum condition, instead of a poor cheese tray with many. It is very difficult in the US to find good European cheese in prime condition due to the difficulties of transportation and senseless government regulation. It is much better to do what the FL is doing, instead of creating the illusion of wealth and abundance by serving many sub-par cheeses.

IMO it is a curse which afflicts many ultra famous and expensive restaurants on both sides of Atlantic that they choose to bombard the dinner with so much sugar and butter at the end of the meal. Worse still, this tactic often works in the sense that most diners fall pray to it against their better judgment.  Different sorbets, coffee and doughnuts (pictured below), various chocolate desserts, crème brulees, pot de crème, etc., etc.  As for the most popular dessert at the restaurant, Coffee and Doughnuts (pictured below), the deep fried doughnut and the cappuccino cup with the foam and coffee mousse is certainly a creative dessert.

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The chocolate desserts are among the best to be found, such as the one pictured below.  Yet this dessert is a hard one to fully enjoy after a robust meal when one is yearning less for chocolate and more for fruit driven sweets.

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We have brought our own wines for the meal: a 96 Coche Dury Corton Charlemagne and 99 E Rouget Vosne Romanee Cros Parentoux. The restaurant had the former wine on their list, but they kindly uncorked our bottle. It turned out to be stunningly intense with a leesy/truffly nose. It should peek in three to five years. The Rouget wine showed very well, and it was beginning to develop some complex secondary aromas, but had not lost its opulent texture and fruity flavor profile buffered by soft but lingering tannins.

I would like to make one note about the service. Over the years the service in the FL became more professional, but has not lost any trace of friendliness which is no mean accomplishment, Unfortunately, Laura Cunningham, the general manager, whose contribution to the development of the FL as a major culinary institution is undeniably significant, and who is a most gracious person, is no longer affiliated with the restaurant. This was quite sad news for us, although the competence of the new general manager Monsieur Nicolas Fanucci (which came from Le Bec Fin) and the staff is undeniable.  The only odd thing is that, upon sitting at the table, the diners are not given any written menu, and instead they are told that Thomas (who is not even on the premises) will cook a special menu for them if they want. In the past one had this option of the special tasting menu, but could also see prices for other options. We were also asked if we would like to have foie gras, white truffles, and wagyu beef included on the menu with the addendum that there was a special charge for the white truffles. Fair indeed. The odd thing is that we were not told that there was also special or extra charges for the other two items.

This omission is especially intriguing in case of the wagyu. In the past, Thomas used to serve two meat dishes as part of his special tasting menu: typically a game or fowl or a rustic cut like pork belly, and then usually lamb or beef. This time the only meat that was served following lobster and foie gras (which in the past came much earlier in the procession of the courses) was the wagyu beef. This means that, had we not ordered the two specials, the meal would have ended with the lobster, without any meat course. This is especially bizarre in the middle of the game season where one can eat very good duck, pigeon, red partridge, etc., preparations in the leading Bay Area restaurants. Overall, the menu degustation costs $210 per head and with the extras and before the beverages, a couple is likely to spend about $900.  So with reasonably good wine (the markups in the wine list are among the highest of any three Michelin star restaurant of whichI am aware) the meal is likely to cost about $1500 for two.  Considering that one can eat for around 800 Euro with good wine in Parisian three star restaurants, and for about half of this amount in three star restaurants in Italy and Spain, the FL may no longer be considered  a good value in terms of price/quality among the leading Haute Cuisine restaurants. Had this increase in price coincided with a determination to serve the highest quality luxury ingredients, such as one can find at L’Ambroisie, Les Ambassadeurs, Arpege, ADPA and Louis XV etc., it could have been justified. But unfortunately this was not the case. Dommage!

The ranking below also takes into account the great meals we have had in the past.

Gastroville ranking: 16/20 (Vedat Milor)

Nov. 9, 2006

 

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