I often bemoan the dearth of objectivity in the world, but when you visit a storied establishment such as French Laundry, one cannot help but have some preconceptions. The website shows a bright farmhouse wonderland of white linens, fresh produce, and creations that changed the history of the culinary industry.
I really enjoyed Per Se at first, but found it a little overwhelming in retrospect, especially through the endless parade of desserts. Unsure about how I felt, I asked for the French Laundry cookbook for my birthday this year. I was glad, as the duck roulade and creamed corn recipes rekindled my reverence for Thomas Keller.
This played a part in us spending our last 5 days of vacation driving around California. After calling French Laundry many times, and spending about an hour on hold, we drove into Napa Valley without a reservation in hand, and nothing planned but some wild bacchanals in wine caves. But as luck would have it, California got hit by the Pineapple Express, which people claimed to be the rain storm of the decade. We had to reorganize the entire trip. I am guessing that biking through mud was treacherous as is, but in wine country, it would be like trying to swim drunk to an island in across open sea.
I called French Laundry again and again and again as the impending storm shut down roadways and airports, and lo and behold, I was told that I was on the waiting list still… but wait there’s a reservation open. They just apparently don’t call people about it. The date and time wasn’t ideal. But I called again 3 hours later, and there was a perfect last second cancellation. I couldn’t quite comprehend what the wait list was for since I had to call both times to check in, but that was the least of our worries. My boyfriend had no jacket given that we were planning on dragging ourselves through mud from Big Sur to the Redwoods, so we had to go make some last second purchases.
In my mind, based on the website, the restaurant was in the back yard of a vineyard, but in actuality it’s in the middle of a street full of restaurants and shops in the most commercial part of town. It is, however, as the voicemail told me some 33 times, a stone cottage. There, in a nook in front of a small courtyard, I was greater by a familiar blue door. This time, it was the actual door, as opposed to the frustrating reproduction that’s cemented shut at Per Se.
The hostess greeted us, and we waited 10 minutes for our seats. It was fun people watching. The couples who left before us got autographed menus! We were quite excited despite the drinkless inexplicable wait.
We had driven for four hours in quite a hurry from Big Sur, had to pick up a suit for my date in a hurry, ate only half a sandwich each, went to the spa for 2 hours, and then quickly got dressed and made it in time for our reservation. So when the iPad came with the wine menu, we were not too inclined to drink. They did have some delicious nonalcoholic drinks. How ironic that we never drank at French Laundry, which was in the middle of Napa Valley!
Gougeres 10/10: these started our meal at Per Se as well, but I did not remember the little puffs filled with cheese nearly as amazing. As you popped one into your mouth, it envelopes your tongue with perfectly warm, sharp, cheesy cream… and then it’s gone.
Salmon cornets with creme fraiche 9/10: This little “ice cream” morsel put Thomas Keller on the map. It was as good and small as ever. Barely the size of a finger, it looks like the tiny dessert, but packs all the punch of a perfect salmon and lox on a summer day.
Oysters and pearls 6.5/10: At Per Se, this was by far my favorite dish. I was salivating just thinking about it being next. It looked exactly the same except that the cream was a little thicker. But I don’t know if my palate has changed or that Thomas Keller was worried about a famous critic sitting right behind us and spilled the salt, but the cream was salted as if it were a dish on its own… which means with the caviar, it was salty to the point of being inedible. The thickness of the cream was also too much for the oyster – I remember savoring every tiny-mother-of-pearl-spoonful last time, but this time, I was disappointed with every bite.
Bread 10/10: To clean the palate, they had a soft buttery brioche. I could have had a whole meal of these.
Carrots from the garden 2/10: This was our first local dish of the night. I was shocked that more food was not from California. But more shockingly, that orange crescent was not a vegetable, but some kind of cream-gelee they they called a pickled ginger and coconut pudding that was unseasoned and did not taste much like anything. It had the consistency of the pudding that I had at the luau buffet in Hawaii. The various blocks of vegetables around the dish seem to have been blanched in water and unsalted. This whole dish was an abomination to vegetables. I felt afraid for the vegetarians who had to go for the tasting of vegetables!
Yellowtail 3/10: It was dry and fishy. Chef – Did you not know how to cook yellowtail? Did you not have time to pay attention? Why did you pick a fish that’s fishy when cooked? Why not serve the yellowtail raw, or cook a different fish like cod? Better yet, since we paid $300 per person, how about some sea bass?
Lobster with wilted arrow leaf spinach 6.5/10: Also known as slightly overcooked lobster from across the country (Maine), and spinach ball that’s impossible to pull apart. It is curious how they made the outside of the lobster look so perfect, but it was definitely gummy.
White quail with quince paste 10/10: Delicious, well seasoned, tender! The beets and Sicilian pistachio jus went so well with the quail. The skin was crisp and smokey, and right underneath the skin was a layer of delicious herbs and veggies.
Thomas Keller seems to prepare all white meat this way with a layer of vegetables around the meat. Sure it’s worked for over 15 years, but you don’t care about innovation if you’re sitting at French Laundry. Somehow most other places (except Batard) are afraid to bring attention to their roulades, so this is still worth having.
As this point, the sauce was sticking to my tongue and I was craving for a drink refill, but we were out of luck. My stares and eye batting was not able to catch the attention of our waiter. I also felt like I shouldn’t have to ask in a classy high end establishment as this one. Well I guess I’m saving myself from some calories tonight.
However I was able to distract myself from my sparkling juice thirst by listening to the 5 wasted dudes at the table next to us. I have no idea what they were saying, but they found it all uproariously funny. Perhaps the 100% markup at Per Se to have your own isolated table and a view of Columbus Circle was worth it.
24 hour veal cheek with black truffle 7/10: Once again, we decided that we wanted to experience French Laundry as it was and not by dishing out $100 bills like Halloween candy to get the supplements. Here, I found it odd that we would need to pay another $100 on top of our $300 per person to quality for the wagyu dish. I think most places that have wagyu beef would give it to you for the cost of a $300 prix fix? Actually why am I asking. I’ve been to those places. Of course people would give you some wagyu beef when you pay $300. Last I checked, we didn’t have any inflation. Even chefs that have been accused of not serving certain ethinicities equally serve all his guests wagyu for less than this.
So about the dish. the veal was impossibly tender and melted off my fork. My boyfriend did not enjoy the strong taste of the red wine in the braise, which is a personal preference and understandable. I’m more wondering why they cooked the brussels sprouts underneath into baby food, because soft on soft on really salty sauce is completely disgusting. I pushed the baby food aside and quite enjoyed the beef on its own.
Morbier with persimmons and walnuts 1/10: If you’re going to have 1 cheese dish and not give your customers a choice, morbier doesn’t seem like a great choice. This is like playing Russian roulette with your customers’ palates. This is a stinky cheese that doesn’t have a sharpness of stilton so it sticks to the back of your tongue like a bad fart in a warm room. As a well known critic said behind us, “I’ve never had this before, but I really didn’t like it.”
Also the ever class-ist French Laundry served the critic the same cheese course but with black truffle and chicories. I noticed on my menu that is not even an option available for upgrade.
Somewhere in the middle of all this, they brought us the second round of bread, which my boyfriend pointed out tasted like “brick, brick, and brick” But even brick could not scrape the cheese out of my mouth. Where did the brioche go?! Where is the drink menu? I’ll take some liquid fun now please.
Tangerine vanilla custard with hazelnuts 5/10: Too much gelatin, tangerine tasted like it came candied out of a can, and tasted like cheese. Still no offer to refresh our drinks.
My notes say that at some point I had a rum ice cream with banana chantilly cream. I don’t even remember this and didn’t take a photo.
Chocolate mousse 6/10: Too much gelatin in the mousse. At least it didn’t taste like cheese anymore. What is this floating disk of chocolate around the mousse? Is this a spaceship?
Truffles 7/10: I remember in NYC there were something like 32 different kinds of truffles. For some reason here, there were 4 different kinds of truffles offered 8 times each. That’s quite all right. One of these was yuzu, I believe. It was quite enjoyable.
Assortment of desserts: Decaf semifreddo on the bottom left was a delicious ice cream dish. Absolutely delightful and brightened the palate with chocolatey goodness. It also didn’t have much if any gelatin. Dried dates were really bad. The chocolate covered nuts were too generic, so I skipped it. I was too full at this point. I had a bite of the donut, which was good.
The macarons were beautiful. Someone sifted the almond flour! Yes! And they were sparkly. I don’t know why. Maybe it was because of the frustration was making me see stars.
It was a copy cat of the Pierre Hermes ispahan recipe with lychee cream and a raspberry jelly in the middle. I loved that this reminded me of Paris. This was cheaper than the airfare… yuuummmm 9/10.
In the end, I have to deduct another 10 points at the end because there was no valet parking so I had to walk around in heels in the cold rain storm, we didn’t get our menus signed, and I went home overstuffed and under-satisfied.
New York friends – If you really want to get your Thomas Keller fix, go to Per Se. Everyone else… just forget it. It’s not worth it to try so hard to get the reservation and pay this kind of money for a small town non-farm-to-table setting that’s at once stuffy and poorly managed. Almost every course can be experienced just as well or better somewhere else. In the end, it’s only worth it to experience the gougeres, salmon cornets, and the oysters and pearls on a good day. That amounted to less than 2 bites total.
Also, starting in 2015, they will start pre-charging you for your food like a game ticket. This is not an “experience” as they claim. Alinea is an experience. This is a just a really old movie theater.
So you have to ask yourself. Is this a FOMO moment that you’re willing to pay up for? Or should you make better use of your time and money elsewhere, where the chefs and staff respect customers and innovation?