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
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
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
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
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).
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
Next came a fish dish for two: “monkish off the coast of Massachusetts
The “lobster” dishes, which followed, did not disappoint,
but fell short of expectations. The problem is that the restaurant is using
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
The main course was “Wagyu beef” from Australia
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
We had two different cheeses served prior to the festival of
desserts: a tomme de bergeres (combination of goat and sheep) from Corsica
IMO it is a curse which afflicts many ultra famous and expensive
restaurants on both sides of Atlantic
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.
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
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