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La Folie--Way off the Mark

I went to La Folie with the BF for our anniversary last night. Unfortunately, it was a tremendous disappointment on every level: inconsistent (and sometimes outright bad) food, poor atmosphere, so-so service.

I had been to La Folie before the remodel, in the era of the unsettling puppetry and excellent food, and I was looking forward to a repeat. But things were off from the start. Our wait-at-the-bar-while-we-clear-the-table drinks were ill-prepared: too much ice, the wrong type, an insulting pour. This is a detail, of course, but the maniacal focus on detail is what makes restaurants in the French tradition – especially the more ambitious restaurants – so good. The sloppiness continued throughout the meal.

We were seated not in the photogenic front room, but in the second dining room, with all the louche splendor of a Romanoff toilet. Our table was directly adjacent to the swinging door to the kitchen and we shared a wall with the deep fryer, whose gurgling could be heard throughout the evening. Every time the door opened to the kitchen, a putrid whiff of unclean institutional dirty-floored dish washing area obliterated any scent of food or wine. When the deep fryer wasn’t gurgling, the dish washing station was clearly audible with high pressure water being sprayed at baking pans. Still, based on my memories, I was prepared for an excellent meal. On that basis, we each had the 5 course tasting menu and two bottles of wine:

- Amuse: eggplant caviar
- BBQ squab with foie gras sandwich/Escargot
- Pig trotter/Foie gras with huckleberry
- Sturgeon/Butter poached lobster
- Trio of Rabbit/Squab, quail, truffle
- Puree of cantaloupe
- Edam soufflé/Napoleon w/basil ice cream
- 2004 Ribaueville Riesling; 2000 Gevery-Chambertin

Let me focus on a positive for a moment. The sommelier knows his stuff. The wines, which we took on his recommendation after stating our preferences, were very good and quite reasonably priced. We’d been through Alsace and Burgundy last year and it’s a minefield; that the sommelier produced very good wines at a good price is a testament to his knowledge.

Now, for the food. The BBQ squab was good, succulent but with a nice caramelized exterior, but not great – the garnishes reeked of cumin, making them a wasted foil. The chilled foie gras sandwich was delicious; it’s not hard to whip up a good torchon, but this was very good. BF’s escargot were leaden, dry, earthy in a bad way, cold, shrunken. Devoid of the exuberance of the traditional Burgundian snail, with its lethal amounts of butter and appropriately cooked garlic. Nearly raw garlic in unevenly cut pieces didn’t help the balance of this dish.

The pig trotter was good, though the lobster and sweetbread mixed in it were swamped by the pork and thus felt like no more than the gilt on the lily. BF’s foie was delicious; perfectly seasoned, nicely caramelized exterior, and in a metric that only matters in truffles, caviar, and foie, very generously sized. The toast underlying the foie had unwieldy hard crusts that were a chore to cut through, and I was worried the BF’s knife would slip.

Sadly, this is where the meal falls apart. My sturgeon was a disaster – unacceptably muddy. I realize there’s always a risk of a hint of mud in sturgeon, but at La Folie’s purported level, a hint of mud should result in the removal of the dish from the menu.
Either the chef had not tasted the fish that day or he harbors profound doubts about his patrons’ palates. BF’s butter poached lobster was nothing approaching the sublimity of the same preparation at FL; it was a bit stringy and frankly unidimensional in flavor.

As for the trio of rabbit, I have little kind to say. The loin was dry, wrapped around an enormous carrot and undercooked chunk of garlic, an unevenly cut third of a clove, which overwhelmed the flesh. (Perhaps the rabbit would have enjoyed the carrot while alive, in all its chunky near-rawness). The saddle was fine, but the thigh was not memorable. Probably the only time I’ve ever left rabbit, my favorite protein, on the plate. Disrespectful to the animal slaughtered for the meal and laughable in comparison to, say, Chris Cosentino’s superb preparation of the same meat at Incanto.

BF’s Squab filled with quail, mushrooms, and truffle was exceptionally tasty, but the large chunk of sand he crunched between his molars was an unpleasant surprise and put him off from the rest of the dish. Presumably brushing dirt from mushrooms is another measure the kitchen is too lazy to take, like tasting their snails or sturgeon on a daily basis.

The palate cleanser was a puree of cantaloupe, but not a great cantaloupe. Again, like the sturgeon, this is something the chef should catch. A more unusual variety of melon, and an addition of acid would have made this an interesting palate cleanser; instead it was just slightly rotted cantaloupe puree and I needed to swish water and then wine around my mouth to cleanse my palate from the palate cleanser.

To close, my Edam soufflé was good – competently executed, but nothing special. Napoleon for the BF featured strawberries shot through with white, though offset by a quite nice basil ice cream.

As for the service, it was ok. There seemed to be a well-sized staff, but only a few people worked the room. Not what one would expect from a classically-inflected restaurant.

All in: $550.

All in all, I would label the dinner a fiasco. The chef is obviously technically competent (there were a few things that went right that you just can’t do by accident), but he doesn’t lavish care on the preparations nor does he seem to mind that his ingredients are off. Contrast this with Fleur de Lys or the better restaurants of France. The attention to detail in those restaurants borders on the pathological; the chefs are aching to make you happy.

This is where French friends would be inclined to make a dramatic pronouncement that La Folie is obviously cynical and totally contemptuous of its clients. And I would be inclined to agree with them.

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  1. wow...quite a contrast with the last report on the boards on La Folie:

    http://www.chowhound.com/topics/441578

    I do see that one of her dining companions didn't like the sturgeon either.

    Was the restaurant full? Out of curiousity, did you consider asking to have your table moved?

    thanks for the report back.

    -----
    La Folie
    2316 Polk St., San Francisco, CA 94109

    5 Replies
    1. re: susancinsf

      I guess after comparing notes with the other reviewer we just ordered really badly. I still think the point stands, that a restaurant trying for this level of luxury should not have some dishes that are bad or OK mixed with great dishes.

      The restaurant was completely full, so I don't think there's an excuse not to take one on the chin and throw out a bad batch of protein. We did consider asking to have the table moved but there was only one other table available briefly, which was the next one over. I figured the smell would be nearly as bad there.

      The smell was exactly the smell in the kitchen in my college coop when the cleanup crew was lazy mopping the floor and running the rubber floor mats through the sanitizer.

      1. re: SteveG

        well, I don't know if I would call it ordering badly at those prices: I suppose one could argue about the sturgeon, but I would think one should expect escargot and rabbit to be well-executed in a French restaurant...I do agree with your basic premise that one shouldn't have to order only certain dishes to get a good meal at a restaurant of that caliber, particularly where dishes are offered on a tasting menu!

        I asked how full the restaurant was not because I thought it should impact the cooking...(again, it shouldn't, they shouldn't book more covers than they can handle at a restaurant of that caliber) but because I was wondering if moving tables was an option. it sounds to me as though your table location had an impact on your enjoyment of the meal. Personally, I HATE cleaning smells while I am eating (indeed, smells of any type other than food while I am eating are a pet peave of mine), and if I smelled any in a top restaurant, I would ask to be moved and explain why. If they couldn't accomodate me, I'd probably ask to wait until they could, or leave and come back another night, after letting them know that I would only be back if I could be seated in a location that didn't smell of cleaning solvents. (assuming it wasn't a business dinner and I was the one picking up the tab). It has never happened to me at a restaurant of that caliber, but I have walked out of even cheap places because they were windex'ing tables or whatever right next to me.

        1. re: SteveG

          More likely you hit an off night. Or we had a great one.

          My lobster was exceptional. Doug didn't love his sturgeon, but he didn't hate it, and he was too busy comparing it to the best sturgeon he'd ever eaten.

          We did sit in the front room at a lovely table, with excellent service. And we spent less than half what you did, which probably helps.

          1. re: Windy

            so, just out of curiosity,where did he eat that best sturgeon? :-)

            I presume that the difference in cost was largely the wine, so while it could have been a subconcious factor, it probably shouldn't have been, especially since OP enjoyed the wine...

            1. re: susancinsf

              Best sturgeon I think was at wd~50 in New York.

              It's a huge difference in cost. $480 for 4 versus $550 for 2. (so nearly $300 for wine). Either Steve had a substitute in the kitchen or we were lucky the week before.

      2. Is sturgeon sometimes not muddy? I thought that was just part of the taste, like catfish. If I wasn't in the mood for earthy fish I wouldn't order it.

        10 Replies
        1. re: Robert Lauriston

          not sure I've had enough sturgeon to answer that question directly, but I have definitely had catfish that wasn't muddy....

          1. re: susancinsf

            perhaps you have had an aquacultured catfish

            1. re: socofoodie

              It's also a matter of prep--I think soaking catfish in milk removes some of the flavor if it's a particularly redolent batch. A restaurant that is 100% booked and offers 5 course mix and match menus loaded with luxury ingredients, amuse bouches, palate cleansers, etc. should not send out a bad example of a fish.

          2. re: Robert Lauriston

            We've cooked it twice at home and it has had a slight hint of mud, but this was muddier than the cheapest catfish with the laziest preparation I've ever had. I really think they're tasting and tuning sauces but maybe not tasting samples of the proteins they get delivered each day/week.

            We've also had sturgeon in other restaurants and never encountered something nearly as muddy as this. Olivetto's sturgeon didn't have a hint of mud, and was just a pure pleasure to eat.

            1. re: SteveG

              Weather and season can affect the taste of sturgeon and catfish. At least for Delta sturgeon, if the weather is hot, they can burrow in the muck like pigs, making them taste extra muddy.

              1. re: c112

                Thanks for that tip. When I had it at Olivetto it was in late December, which looks like the appropriate time of year to put it on a menu. Since water temperature in the bay area is hottest in September, I'm really at a loss as to why La Folie had it on the menu; it was disgusting.

            2. re: Robert Lauriston

              My ex used to catch sturgeon in the Bay during the winter. It was lovely, clean and sweet-tasting and not a hint of muddy flavor. I was actually surprised to hear that it could taste muddy. I miss that sturgeon, but not the ex! I also thought that sturgeon, at least wild-caught in No. Calif, couldn't be sold commercially. Maybe this sturgeon was farmed?

              1. re: meemster

                There is quite a lot of sturgeon in the Columbia River and it shows up commercially.

                1. re: meemster

                  There are some sturgeon farming / caviar operations in NorCal. All the sturgeon I've seen in Sacramento has been farm-raised.

                  1. re: meemster

                    The stuff I've bought from Bryan's has been farmed, and barely had a hint of muddy flavor. I think the farmed Sturgeon available at fish counters is a by-product of the pretty successful farmed caviar operations, and I'd expect if they had unclean operations the flavor of the caviar would suffer. When it's not a totally off batch like at La Folie, I really do enjoy this species and I like to support sound aquaculture practices over unsustainable fisheries. Between the sturgeon, the escargot, and the raw garlic-flavored dried out rabbit loin, I just don't think the people cooking meat at La Folie when we were there had tasted what they were putting out. The waitress offered to replace the sturgeon, but we declined since the technique was flawless and another attempt at the dish would still be made with a chunk of flesh from the same fish.

                2. Thanks for the report on La Folie. I am going there tomorrow night with a friend-I am the guest- and was looking over the online menu. I see they have a 3 course vegetarian menu for $65 -has anyone tried this selection? Butternut squash soup, goat cheese and fourme d'ambert with beets, potato leek mushroom canneloni,veg(polenta,eggplant,tomato lasagna,roasted onion with couscous seems to be the offerings along with dessert. I am thinking it may be a safe bet for me since I am not the most adventurous of eaters. Also since it is a bit pricey, I wasnt going to do the wine pairing.Thoughts on that also please. Has anyone tried the veg. options at La Folie-thanks for comments in advance.

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: foodseek

                    I ate at La Folie within the past few months, and me and my roommate had a really excellent time. I got the vegetarian tasting menu, and it was really nice. It was different from the one you're describing, although the onion with couscous matches up. I though the restaurant, food, and service were all great. However, I've never eaten at Gary Danko or many other restaurants this expensive and reputable, so I can't really compare.

                    1. re: tonyarose

                      Reporting back from dinner at La Folie and am happy to say I was impressed with the food,ambience, and service. First off we sat against the wall and although it was in the middle of the dining room and the restaurant was full-my host and I were able to converse and hear one another without raising our voices. (The noise level at even fine dining spots, I believe gets out of control at times.) I did enjoy the vegeterian tasting menu including amuse bouche-argula bite of heaven-and also enjoyed the palate cleansing pomegrante/apple cider like tea. The couscous was a stand out-creamy,buttery taste-and loved the grilled selection of vegetables with the little cigar cannelonis. I did not have wine (water only) but my host did enjoy a glass of white wine and commented on the help in choosing the glass-no talking down to guest as at some spots. After dinner I had a terrific cheese platter chosing only goat and sheep cheeses-loved it. My host had the cheese souffle which looked divine and tasted airy and light yet creamy. They also brought out a platter of chocolate candies which were small bites of dark chocolate perhaps one was laced with liquor -I am not sure. The service was paced well and I noticed some tables who wanted to linger a bit more than we did were served at their pace. I also appreciated being asked if we needed a cab and having our server escort us outside and place us inside the cab as the final touch of service. I hope to go back soon.

                  2. I ate once at La Folie about two years ago and was extremely disappointed. I generally go for wine pairings and with wine pairings my dinner at La Folie was more expensive than any of the meals I've enjoyed at Gary Danko (but GD is really outstanding in the wine pairing dept, so any comparison is not fair). I was also seated in the back room, which was dreary; your analogy is perfect. The food was not outstanding or memorable, I can't even tell you what either of us ate that evening. We still talk about what a disappointing experience it was. I will not go back. (but I am going back to GD in a few weeks, yay! maybe I'll post a report after the visit.)

                    1. Had a similar experience. Actually went there over 15 years ago and had the most amazing time. Went last August for anniversery and have to say I will never go back. Biggest issue was service. We asked two times to slow down the courses and did not get any response from the kitchen or server. Food would be dropped off just seconds after the previous dish was removed. And like above, the wine sommieler was the best part of the night, but could not save us from the overbearing food service.