The French Laundry...Just Shy of Perfect.
Having thought about going and tried for 2 years to obtain a reservation, I was finally rewarded with my long coveted ticket to what some call the best fine dining experience in America.
After my 3 hour meal, I reflected on the experience and would probably put it on par with my previous Jean Georges experiences. I also realized that I was looking forward to a repeat visit to Redd much more than I was looking forward to a repeat visit to TFL. There is also no doubt in my mind that, for me, I would rather dine at Sushi Yasuda or Babbo 4 times out of 5 over TFL.
The food was excellent. Not all of it was breathtaking but there were definitely a few memorable ones. I couldn’t help but compare them to Jean Georges or Redd in answering the “was it worth it?” question.
Amuse 1: gougers, still slightly warm.
Amuse 2: the infamous salmon cones. It was every bit as delicious as reported. The luxurious, rich salmon top contrasted well with the cripy cone and the slightly sour crème fraiche.
Was it better than the amuse of peekytoe crab on brioche, white asparagus puree layered with raspberry vinegar, and grilled fava beans at Jean Georges? Maybe just a little.
Course 3: I had the oysters and pearls while my GF had an enlightening black truffle infused egg custard. The oysters were sweet and perfectly poached and the tapioca pearls were cute. However, the truffle egg custard served in the egg shell was amazing in texture, smell, and taste.
This dish was in contrast to the 1 hour coddled egg with brioche and caviar at Jean Georges which rendered the yolk cheese-like in taste and texture. A marvelous transmutation. Both were equal in the level of amazingness.
Course 4: smoked wheat flour pasta with tiny grape tomatoes and artichoke hearts. A nice rustic dish worthy of Incanto. The tomatoes were intensely sweet.
Course 5: Fluke sashimi with cucumbers and salmon roe. One of the least impressive dishes of the night. The dish was soundly trumped by the savory hamachi sashimi at Redd. The enlightening hamachi sashimi at Jean Georges with yuzu cream and a hint of jalapeno was also superior since the jalapeno was just spicy enough to tickle the back of the throat. The effect was one that forced you to concentrate and deliberate on each bite of the hamachi.
Course 6: Sturgeon with spaetzle, cabbage, and Russian dressing. The thick, meaty sturgeon for some reason combined perfectly with the spaetzle and cabbage. It was an instant classic. I also had a seared scallop with corn puree that was pretty *yawn*.
Course 7: poached breast of squab. Served very rare. The full, gaminess and texture of the squab was on display. An interesting dish, but not one that I particularly cared for.
Course 8: rack of lamb with salsify, trumpet mushrooms, and truffle sauce. Well executed, but not particularly unique.
The wolf ranch quail (pan fried so it tasted pretty much like fried chicken) and the caramelized pork belly at Redd were superior to both the meat dishes at TFL as was the veal with black olive oil at Jean-Georges.
Course 9: pear sorbet with white truffle oil. A fascinating dish. The sweetness of the pear and the muskiness of the truffle oil were such great contrasts, that I’m still not sure they meshed. It did make you focus on each flavor though.
Course 10: chocolate ice cream sandwich with mint wafer. An excellent and decadent version of a peppermint patty ice cream
Course 11: crème brulee and plum pot du crème. Good but nothing special.
To end, there was a procession of chocolate truffles, milk-chocolate with pistachio, etc. As impressive as it as, we both felt that the desserts at Jean-Georges were superior. The desserts at Jean-Georges were grouped into chocolate, citrus, tropical fruit, etc. You order within a group and get a platter of 4 individual dessert variations on each theme (like Mina’s 3 but with 4).
As for service, it was very attentive, but in all honesty a little awkward...in the exact same manner I found the service at The Dining Room awkward. My GF broached the topic independent of my own observations. For example, the captain would come by, after every other course, and ask how we were doing. We said fine, and the captain would linger 1-2 seconds afterwards. In contrast, the service at Jean-Georges was seamless. Our dinner was at a 4.5 hour pace and sped up when the lady came down with an unexpected allergy attack. The captain was friendly, engaging, but not overbearing. Definitely a little more polished.
All in all, food was probably be a tie between TFL and Jean-Georges in terms of creativity and flavors. Amuses go to TFL, the egg dish goes to TFL, the appetizer fish to Jean-Georges and Redd, the second fish dish goes to TFL, the meat dishes go to Redd and Jean-Georges, and desserts barely go to Jean-Georges. Service goes to Jean-Georges hands down. Décor and ambiance, hands down TFL.
Was it worth it? Well, TFL was $210 pp without wine (which btw, they don’t even offer pairings by the glass anymore). Jean-Georges was $215 with wine pairing (9 glasses), and Redd’s 9 course with wine pairing is $160. I’m planning my next trip to Redd already.
Were you there for dinner or lunch? Your service sounds much like our lunch service; good but strangely not quite seamless. I have a theory that dinner might have better staff.
My other theory on The French Laundry is that it is probably the best on an absolute basis because Keller spares no expense. Compared to a wonderful meal we had a few months before TFL at Fleur de Lys I thought TFL was 5-10% better on an absolute quality basis for food, but TFL was much more expensive. Fleur de Lys also offers a wine pairing, while TFL does not. We had to order a bottle and a couple glasses, which were astronomically expensive at TFL, while we had plenty of nice wine at Fleur de Lys in the standard pairing without the headache of navigating a 1" thick list.
I'm definitely glad we went, but I don't really have an urge to return soon when there are so many other places nearly as good at 2/3 or less price-wise.