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What am I missing at the French Laundry?

Had lunch with my husband at the French Laundry a while back. A nice meal, great service, but didn't rock my world and it is still bugging me. I keep hearing other chefs rave about what a visionary Thomas Keller is, but I'm not sure why. I've read some of the threads about whether people have enjoyed the restaurant or not, but I'm still trying to understand why people who like Thomas Keller's cooking think it is so amazing. (I am really on quest to understand what this is about and not being facetious.)

Some of it may just not being able to live up to the hype, but I was still really surprised. I've eaten at some other hyped places, but haven't had this type of experience. I had my first really good meal at Taillevent and I think I could still remember just about every course and finally getting what French technique was about. When I eat at Chez Panisse, I get what unfussy technique and ingredients that could stand up and sing arias is about. At Gary Danko, I get the best relationship between food and wine that I've experienced anywhere. Etc, etc, etc. What I am supposed to be getting at the French Laundry that I'm not? I know his cooking is incredibly labor intensive, but to what end?

Can anyone enlighten me?

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  1. Not sure if this helps or not, but in Keller's own words, "it's all about finesse."

    1 Reply
    1. re: Melanie Wong

      Interesting - thank you! I'm not sure I understand what that means but it explains why I may have missed a suble point.

    2. I can't enlighten you, only agree with you. My visit a few years back.
      http://www.chowhound.com/topics/24828...

      To me FL is about technique and perfection. For me that didn't translate into flavor, but I like more rustic cooking where the flavor pops. If you want outstanding food/wine pairing go to The Dining Room at The Ritz ... not rustic, of course but intense flavor.

      6 Replies
      1. re: rworange

        I totally agree with the experience you had -- elegant, but lacking in soul and passion. I'm glad I went, but clearly missed the point.

        1. re: ravioli

          That was my problem, too - I thought everything was technically perfect, but it was just that - technical. It didn't make me get on the phone immediately after and call friends to talk about the meal I just had (which is what I did after an unbelievable meal at Alinea in Chicago, where the food is arguably even more technical) It was also so much more expensive than the second most expensive meal I'd ever had (again, Alinea) that I was expecting it to be proportionately better.

          I thought about it a lot afterwards - I think part of the disappointment is that I had heard so much and read so much about TFL beforehand that a) expectations were sky-high and b) nothing seemed "new" or innovative (even though I recognized that many things were innovative when they were first developed, TK's influence is broad enough that I'd seen adaptations of many dishes elsewhere). The other major contributor was the wine - none of us were especially wine-savvy and put all of our trust in the sommelier to come up with something within our budget (admittedly on the low side, at $60 pp - but again, I'll draw a comparison to Alinea, where I'd had a fantastic pairing for $55). The red he chose was a fruit bomb of a Californian syrah (at $60 for a half bottle, which I thought was absurd) that really didn't do anything for the food. Service was lovely and friendly, and the food was perfectly done, and yet I left feeling just a little bit disappointed.

          1. re: daveena

            The one thing that surprises me is that over three years later the reports I read about FL are almost identical to what I ate. I'm not that into innovative, but still. It is the thing that makes Gary Danko not so interesting to me. Other than the changes to seasonal veggies, the menu seems static. I only ate there once, so maybe things change more than I know, but IIRC, the most recent report had a lot of what I had for my lunch.

            1. re: daveena

              I have to agree that my experience at FL was a little, um, underwhelming.

              My sticking point echoes daveena's experience re the sommelier. Our experience with him (March 2007) was unimpressive and points to a major flaw in their format, in my opinion: when you have a set menu, why can't the sommelier (or the menu) suggest a pairing based on your order? Instead, we were given the old "what do you like in a wine" routine, which I consider poor form. That he was being unctous about it left a bad taste to the evening.

              I contrast this with an excellent experience at Union Square (in NYC). The sommelier (who was on is day off, we found out later) walks by us as we are looking at our selections and offers to help us with any pairing. He was totally friendly, did not "push" anything at us, and made excellent choices.

              Maybe I am mistaken, but I feel I should be able to rely on a sommellier for help instead of feeling like I am part of the up-sell. Granted, the atmosphere is very efficient at FL, and just as TK monitors his kitchens with live video feeds (I'm sure his setup is technically top-notch), the experience felt very chilly and lacking in "soul."

              1. re: teebodo

                I guess I have to disagree by virtue of the fact that the sommelier will create a very personalized wine pairing based on the "routine" "what do you like in a wine" -- at a recent dinner at The Ritz in Pasadena, I was given the standard wine pairing which included a number of California wines which I am generally less impressed with. Had they asked beforehand, I could have told them I much prefer Rhone whites to Chardonnay which would have avoided the mediocre pairing I was subjected to.

                At TFL, by being able to tell the sommelier that I tend to shun California wines, he actually thanked me as he was considering a California white but instead substituted a German one which was much preferred. The sommelier was helpful and gracious and I subsequently got an extremely thoughtful -- if not soulful! -- meal with pairing.

                1. re: Carrie 218

                  I agree that a sommelier can be very helpful, so I do not disagree at all with the importance of relying on an expert for assistance. As for my experience at TFL (mentioned above), I wonder if you and I had the same sommelier and when you were there?

                  You describe your experience stating that you told your sommelier you did not like California wines; we told him we did not like certain varietals and asked for advice on what would pair well with our meal (minus the varietals we mentioned). So -- our situation was similar in that we stated what we did not really care for, and different in that your approach was regional.

                  My point in the original post was that a sommelier should a) be helpful (the one a TFL was trying) and b) when faced with a fixed menu, how can he not know the best pairings beforehand? Yes, there are hundreds of wines at TFL, but surely the options can be narrowed down based upon the menu.

                  TFL had been faulted in the past for lackluster sommeliers; god knows we were not looking for flaws at TFL, but I remain of the opinion that ours performed poorly. Should I get a chance to go there again, I would be happy to be convinced otherwise.

        2. Your experience is exactly what I fear will happen to me too! I haven't been and am hestitant to try. I have been to Chez Panisse (downstairs) more than a handful of times and my last two times I just felt the flavor was too "finessed." For instance I ordred a glass of fine white wine and the color was so pale and the flavor was too! Might as well been drinking water, and the fish on the menu that night was so "pale" it too was almost tasteless. I don't want to pay tons of money for such an experince. I've been to Campton Place, Fleur de Lys etc. and they have been quite memorable!

          4 Replies
          1. re: walkoffdinner

            My hubby is an anti-foodie (doesn't care about trends nor high-powered chefs), and his only comment about both CP and FL was: "Why are we eating here?" (because the flavors were so finessed that everything was pretty bland). I didn't dare tell him how much it costed. OTOH, we've had memorable meals at Cyrus, The Dining Room, and other places.

            1. re: Claudette

              Keller's philospohy has always been to let the ingredients shine through the preparation. He also has a strong emphasis on the visual appeal of a dish. the other element is perfect preparation of each item. I've had far more exotic dishes, and much more elaborate preps, but from the start of the meal to the end, I always leave with a grin on my face. If you enjoyed Taiilevent, It's a similar philosophy( not surprising as he apprenticed there a ways back

              1. re: Claudette

                No offense, but it sounds like your husband has it right. You can't enjoy the flavor of a trend.

                Of course, I tend to oppose trends by nature. Things that are simply good for their own merits are rarely trendy.

                1. re: belgand

                  Yes, indeed. Trendy. Trends are bad.

                  The French Laundry has been going in its current incarnation since 1994 and Chez Pannise has been open since 1971.

                  Calling either restaurant or the food they make "trendy" is like saying that Shakespeare only wrote cliches.

            2. Wow, I feel so much less crazy reading all of these posts! We ate there in February, and I was left with a big feeling of "huh?" I've been meaning to post about it, but was a little abashed. Yes, each course was beautifully presented and flawlessly prepared, and the service was perfection. But not one of the courses made me drop my fork or ask for a moment of silence at the table. In fact, 9 months later I'd have trouble describing even one of them in detail for you.

              Interestingly, my other really top-end fine dining experience was also at Taillevant. And while there was one dish there that I actively disliked (involving some pretty intense kidneys), my memories of that meal are much fonder. The first course, in particular, was foie gras creme brulee that truly blew my mind and palate. I can still taste it. Really, angels sang when I ate it. Also, the service at Taillevent was beyond perfection--it was warm and friendly in just the right way, even though we were three underdressed American women with only a few phrases of French between us. We all felt like the servers and sommelier were excited by our excitement and appreciation for the food and wine. At FL, I felt like just another $500 lunch tab.

              My final grouse with FL is quite specific. My partner got the vegetarian menu (not because she's vegetarian but because she doesn't eat shellfish or "parts" including foie). Again, each of her courses was beautiful, but she literally did not get enough to eat. There was almost no protein or carbohydrates--it was all vegetables all the time. That was a inexcusable lapse in my mind.

              1. The times when I have had dinner have been pretty wonderful and I always found something to blow me away. But I had lunch once and I have to say it was cooked well but not wow, and I thought the lamb dish I had essentially tasted like pizza (weird, I know). The whole meal (service, food, etc.) was kind of blah!

                About the only fun I had that lunch was to make up a conversation for the benefit of our snooping neighbors at the next table. I launched into how my friend was really going to have to quit heroin and his pimping to support his habit. Without even blinking he carried the conversation on. I thought the eavesdropping lady was going to have a heart attack! She was visibly edging away, worried she was going to contract something. Ah, good times!

                3 Replies
                1. re: chaddict

                  I haven't been to FL, so your story raises a question for me: are the tables that close together,or was your neighbor unusually snoopy? (well, I suppose it could be both :-)). I have to admit, I'd hate the idea of paying that much, not being blown away by the food, and being in close quarters.....

                  and that would go triple if anything tasted like pizza, not being a pizza fan.....

                  1. re: susancinsf

                    We were in a small side room with maybe 2-3 other tables and it was deathly quiet. I suppose that aided in any eavesdropping. The tables are not real close, especially upstairs. I think the neighbor was just especially snoopy because my friend was dressed rather shabbily, making him look like a possible rock star given how expensive the place is.

                    The lamb, IIRC, came with olives, bell peppers, tomato something or other...all coming together to taste like, well, pizza!

                  2. My feeling is, if you can afford and manage it, it's worth going to see what it's about. You can't really tell what you're missing without trying it...although you can certainly get a sense if it's for you or not.

                    I do agree about expectations and hype...just don't think about it. I'm not sure I'd call it soulless. I think the words I'd use are hyper refinement, along with finesse and execution. They rarely miss on those three things and they use exceptional ingredients.

                    1. Maybe it's a classic case of over-heightened expectations.

                      All your friends tell you that a movie is the best flick of the decade. You pay your money, and it's really pretty good, but nowhere near what you've been led to believe. You feel let down, even though you would have raved about it in the absence of prior expectations.

                      With food it's worse. Admission to a great movie is the same as for a bad one, but Mr. Keller certainly doesn't work for the same scale as the brilliant unknown chef who is honing his/her chops a local eatery. If a $25 entree from somebody you've never heard of is good but not great, it's still a decent value. You set aside a big chunk of change and weeks of anticipation for dinner at FL (or wherever), and it had better be perfect. Anything less is a disappointment.

                      Even the best chef isn't going to blow away every diner with every meal. Keller makes great food. Does it live up to its reviews? Only you can make that call.

                      7 Replies
                      1. re: alanbarnes

                        I agree, the one time I went to FL, I encouraged everyone in the car to not expect to be blown away, but instead to pay attention to the details and the effort the kitchen puts into the food. We knew we also had to be patient as the 4 hour experience would seem slowly paced.

                        With those metered expectations, we were all thoroughly impressed and very much enjoyed our meal.

                        1. re: Benny Choi

                          If I'm paying that much money for lunch, you're darned right I want to be blown away. I expect more from the FL than living up to lowered expectations.

                          1. re: Pistou

                            I think BC was suggestng the best way to enjoy FL is *not* to expect anything and you'll have a great time. I can speak from experience, I was sort of jumping off the walls in expectation of FL..and it didn't serve me well. Everything was as good as advertised but it couldn't meet heightened expectations.

                            1. re: ML8000

                              I guess my issue with this line of thought is that for $300 plus per person....the expectations ought to be higher than virtually any other restaurant in the world. Getting my head around paying that amount and investing the amount of time _and_ tempering expectations doesn't really work.

                              1. re: ccbweb

                                I totally agree. Given the price you should expect the best, and yet the more you pay out, the more positive feedback you read, the greater the expectation and possible disappointment "might" be.. It's a tricky proposition to be sure. It sort of defies logic. The best I can say is "try and allow yourself to be surprised". Expecting too much is like expecting that the purchase of an expensive sports car to solve your dating problems.

                          2. re: Benny Choi

                            >but instead to pay attention to the details and the effort the kitchen puts into the food<

                            I'm sorry, it's the result that counts, not how much effort the kitchen puts out.

                        2. There are generally two types of food-loving people who don't care about the French Laundry mystique: 1) talented chefs and restaurant people who don't play the ego game, and 2) people who want to enjoy their company as well as their food. That's not to say that TK isn't talented - he very much is. But cooking's not really that difficult. And when I dine out, I like to have fun, to share my food, to try others,, and in general, to enjoy myself.

                          55 Replies
                          1. re: almansa

                            So the people who do care about the FL are untalented, play the ego game and/or don't like to enjoy their company? Interesting viewpoint. I certainly had no difficulty enjoying myself or sharing tastes with my friends when I ate there.

                            1. re: almansa

                              No.

                              It is not just hype or ego.

                              Many of the people who appreciate French Laundry ... really appreciate it and are not just bliinded by the hype ... have sophisticated tastes and as Benny Choi mentioned can appreciate the nuances.

                              I personally don't have that level of taste. While I think Thomas Keller is a master of PR ... it's not just that. There is a sincerity behind everything, I believe.

                              Maybe it is they hype part that puts me off. If the reservation system wasn't so absurd and the prices not so out of line, I might be more of a fan. Yet it probably still wouldn't be the first place I'd go to eat when in that area.

                              1. re: rworange

                                " personally don't have that level of taste"

                                Oh come on - you are going to let a restauranteur (or anyone) tell you his food is too good for you to realize how good it is?

                                1. re: FrankJBN

                                  No, I'm the last person to let anyone tell me what is good or not. However, it is like wine. I can recognize others have better palates and more knowledge in that area than I do and while I might enjoy a pricy bottle of wine, I won't get the same level of enjoyment as someone who is zoned into wine will get.

                                  Which goes back to the question in the OP. For those that are fans of FL, what is it that some miss?

                                  1. re: rworange

                                    I might take back my comment on sincerity.

                                    Thomas Keller's TV Dinners ... for those who can't go to FL
                                    http://www.chow.com/grinder/3821

                                    1. re: rworange

                                      From an article linked there:

                                      [Keller] said the main reason he changed his mind about pursuing additional opportunities was his staff. By providing advancement possibilities within his organization, he can retain and motivate his employees.

                                      ``To maintain the consistency and quality of the staff, you have to give them opportunities,'' Keller said in an interview.

                                      http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pi...

                                      1. re: MorganSF

                                        Interesting link in that article about what may be the decline and fall of what (of all people) Gary Danko called the "Laundromat" ...
                                        http://sfcovers.com/2007/07/thomas-ke...

                                        One previous fan wrote that FL "displays an automatic, slightly assembly line quality," with predictable food, weak examples of luxury ingredients like truffles and caviar and undisclosed add-on prices."

                                        Hmmm ... I might have been ahead of times with my post. One blogger wrote that FL critics said FL was " "a perfection without blemish or character, sanitized, safe, and soulless."

                                        1. re: rworange

                                          In my opinion, the best post I've read here on Chowhound was written by Heidie Pie (sp) a couple of years ago. It had everything going for it, great descriptions of the food, wonderful humor and lots of specific info.

                                          I can't find it now because it's too old to search for (searching being limited to the past year as far as I can detect).

                                          If anybody knows where to find it, or if HP is around and can repost, it's worth its weight in gold!!

                                          1. re: oakjoan

                                            Is this it?
                                            http://www.chowhound.com/topics/35624

                                            Click on the show options link when searching and you can search back to the beginning of Chowhound. Or bookmark this link
                                            http://www.chow.com/search?search%5Bq...

                                            1. re: rworange

                                              Re: rwo's posting of the link to Heidiepie's article on the F.L.

                                              Yes! Yes! My precious lambie pie of god! Thank you.

                                              1. re: rworange

                                                That review beautifully articulates so much of the reason I'm not jonesing to return to the FL. I agree with almost all of HP's observations, except for this:
                                                " I don't feel ripped off because I will take away a lasting
                                                memory of quite a few very specific miraculous flavors. I don't think I've ever had so many in one meal."

                                                I'm not sure I feel ripped off, but that is precisely why I felt let down by the experience. I don't remember one single "very specific miraculous flavor," though certainly everything was very good and even delicious. I wanted at least one very specific miraculous flavor (like the foie gras creme brulee at Taillevant that I mentioned above) but I never got it.

                                                1. re: Pistou

                                                  Boy, I can still clearly taste a number of thinks from the different times we were there. As Heidipie said inher review from back when, The Calotte de Bouef was simply the best piece of beef I have ever put in my mouth. The rack of rabbit was absolutely the most exquisitely appearing dish I've ever been served, and the flavors in the dish were perfect. The garlic custard with oesetra caviar was another perfect combo. Ditto the butter poached lobster. The cornets of salmon still ranks as one of the top amuse bouches I've had. I could go on, but you get my point. Just the fact that these dishes have stuck with me for 6,7,or even 12 years in perfect clarity says a lot about them. Ther have been a few misses( maye not really misses, but dishes that didn't hold to the same level) over the years. It has been 2 years since I've been there. They were closed for their vacation when we were out there this past summer, and we had to make do with Ad Hoc for dinner, which was quite different, but still excellent. I will be interested to see if the quality has suffered at all from Keller's many other projects But I will be going back again.

                                  2. re: rworange

                                    I think people like Anthony Bourdain are impressed by the level of craft and execution. There are few restaurants in the world that can afford to do anything so ambitious, since it takes a normally prohibitively large ratio of staff to customers.

                                    1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                      It was actually seeing the restaurant on Anthony Bourdain's show that made me want to go--I wasn't interested before because I thought the reservations thing was too ridiculous. I'm glad I went--truly a memorable meal. I look forward to doing it again. (Just wish I could get into Per Se when I go to NYC a couple of times a year!)

                                      1. re: MorganSF

                                        Bourdain's show made me not want to go. Just watching made me queasy. I'm a big eater and have no problem spending all afternoon or evening at table, but four hours of canapes?

                                        1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                          Well, since it's not four hours of "canapes," I'm sure you could regain your appetite.

                                          1. re: jrhsfcm

                                            Little servings of several items at a time. To me it looked like an endless succession of appetizers.

                                            1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                              I thought it looked agonzing. How can you relax and have dinner conversation if you're always being given some new tidbit to ooh and ahh over? That, along with the hushed atmosphere, doesn't seem like much fun. Though I guess fun isn't the point. (I do respect him as a chef, but wouldn't eat there even if I could afford to.)

                                              1. re: Glencora

                                                How can one relax and enjoy? The same way one would in any tasting menu situation - we're still talking food, not gifts from the apostles. All these comments sound more like aversions to fine dining/tasting menus than specifically to TFL. Perhaps one should actually TRY the restaurant before criticizing it.

                                                For what it's worth, while the food was not as good as TFL, our party's visit to Per Se was by far the most relaxed and enjoyable fine dining meal we'd ever had. We joked and laughed... and the sommelier, in particular, added to it. TFL was not quite as relaxed; however, we had a fantastic time... food, laughs, and all (including a humbling moment for one of the servers who accidentally knocked over a water glass and murmured "Oh shit" loud enough for us all to hear it. What do you know - humans after all. ;) ).

                                                1. re: jrhsfcm

                                                  Yes, maybe I shouldn't judge a place I haven't tried. Fair enough. But I'm guessing that every time a new dish comes out you stop, look, smell, taste and discuss. It just doesn't appeal to me. I guess I'm not the tasting menu type.

                                                  1. re: Glencora

                                                    Boy, did I miss this? You're criticizing a place you haven't been to? Any way, I think you and RL are afraid you might like FL and be hooked.

                                                    1. re: ML8000

                                                      Friends who mostly like the same places I do went to FL and were not very impressed. I'm not curious enough to spend the cost of four meals at any of my favorite restaurants to find out if I agree.

                                                      1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                        Well, in that case, I don't think you're in any position to talk poorly about TFL - if you've never tried it, you don't have a frame of reference. I'm sorry, but your friend's experiences don't make you an expert on the place.

                                                        For that matter, I have friends who quite dislike Incanto, Robert: does that mean I should never go... just because it's not their cup of tea?

                                                        1. re: jrhsfcm

                                                          I think, generally speaking, the more the investment in a meal (money and time, in this case) the more reasonable it is to take the advice/likes/dislikes of close friends whose tastes you know and trust into account. The local pizza joint and less than $30 for two? Sure, take a flier on it. The French Laundry and $700 for two? I'm going to be more likely to listen to cautionary stories from my friends.

                                                          Also, to be fair, Robert didn't say anything negative about The French Laundry (at least on this thread), he just noted that he didn't find it appealing based on Bourdain's show and that some of his friends reported they weren't impressed. He didn't say it was bad or that anything was wrong with it.

                                                          1. re: ccbweb

                                                            "Bourdain's show made me not want to go. Just watching made me queasy." - RL

                                                            And that should be considered a positive?

                                                            I do not question that one should potentially heed the advice of friends, etc. when deciding whether or not to go to a restaurant. I do, however, take exception with people who feel as though they can form a legitimate opinion about a restaurant (or anything else, for that matter) without having any first-hand experience. You don't want to go to TFL? Fine - don't go. But don't proclaim that you really understand anything about the restaurant until you've been there, tasted the food, experienced the service, etc.

                                                            1. re: jrhsfcm

                                                              He wrote about his own reaction to what he saw on the show. He didn't say that the restaurant was therefore bad, only that the show made him not want to go.

                                                          2. re: jrhsfcm

                                                            re: jrhsfcm and ML8000's posts saying one cannot criticize a restaurant without having eaten there....

                                                            In that case only people who can afford to spend $600+ for a meal are allowed to make snippy comments.

                                                            I feel that it's perfectly acceptable to criticize the IDEA of the place. What Robert L. said about small bites of various items, no matter how delightful to the palate, not being his idea of a good meal. Or his statement that he'd rather have 4 meals at one of his favorite places than one at the FL....why should he not be allowed to voice that opinion even without eating at the place.

                                                            Makes no sense to me.

                                                            Btw, I'm in that same camp (with Heidie-Pie and Robert L.). I'd rather have several meals at less pretentious and pricey places than one at the FL.
                                                            It's just not my style. And I don't have to go there to find that out.

                                                      2. re: Glencora

                                                        I haven't been to TFL... but my recent dinner at Cyrus was kind of like that... after every description the staff just hung there waiting for some emphatic reaction, questions etc., Except for one question on the provenance of their Wagyu... we didn't play that game... but you can tell that is what the whole experience is set up for.... and most diners around us played along.... trying to sound smart (and feel special) with their comments & analysis.

                                                        Its tough.... otoh you are spending a crap load of money... and you want to trick yourself into savoring every moment... but otoh sometimes you just want to tell them... look I can go down the street, hunt down a roach coach & buy a $1.50 taco that surpasses this particular dish in every dimension of flavor!

                                                        1. re: Eat_Nopal

                                                          Frankly that's poor service and annoying. A quick explanation of what it is ("goofy farms free range pork loin with Persian parsnips in a Thunderbird and pine needle reduction sauce, etc") okay but hovering for a reaction isn't good.

                                                          1. re: ML8000

                                                            Agreed... but I think that is the expectation (both from the consumer & the famous chef) at the famous places that cater to us wannabe class (I am sure when Keller is hired to go cook at someones Wine Country mansion the service is a lot more professional and less theme park-ish than it was at Cyrus... and how I imagine it might be at TFL).

                                                            However... I will say that I personally don't mind interacting with the restaurant staff at small, intimate places. In Venice we had this tiny, 4 table restaurant 5 Dudley (RIP) where the chef/owner would always come out to chat... get feedback on the food, answer questions... he got such a kick out of cooking up something great and everything else about the place was unpretentious such that the whole experience felt authentic. My one lunch at Cafe St. Rose in my new town... was similar. At Cyrus - however - it felt completely fake.

                                                            1. re: Eat_Nopal

                                                              Good service should be tailored to the information expectations of the customer. Some customers are full of questions, others need far less and the server should gauge and adjust.

                                                              1. re: Melanie Wong

                                                                And to Cyrus' credit they did adjust after the 2nd course or so... still it seemed to throuw their rhythm off a little bit. Now I understand the whole experience is trying to imitate restaurants in France... what I do think is that it doesn't necessarily match most of our California sensibilities.

                                                                I remember having a dinner with some Mexico City & Paris natives at Les Moustache in Mexico City.... and we literally had 2 servers just standing beside our table... everybody else was extremely comfortable carrying on a conversation, and acting as the servers didn't exists... and then having lengthy conversations about each item as food was being plated (most courses were served "Russian Style").... except for me. I noted it as being a huge difference in the more egalitarian culture of California versus the more hierarchical cultures of Mexico & France.

                                                                1. re: Eat_Nopal

                                                                  I haven't been to the FL yet, but I'm dying to go, specifically because, aside from really wanting to taste the food, it's my impression that it will match the experience you mention above. I've had those kinds of meals in a few 3 and 2 star restaurants in France, absolutely loved the whole experience, and don't understand why it isn't enjoyed more here.

                                                                  Does the FL turn tables?

                                                                  1. re: Debbie M

                                                                    I don't know what other people's take might be... but here are MY reasons for not finding it so appealing:

                                                                    > Its denigrating to the servers to be at my beckon... and then to have their existence denied in those lapses when I don't need anything. I am not royalty nor do I want to be. The age of servitude was vanquished (at least in the minds & actions of Progressives) in the 20th century. Maybe I still have enough of my college day Communist sympathies to not be a completely lost soul.

                                                                    > I like the challenge of understanding the food myself without too many expectations. Once I have tasted it... if I have questions I will. If the coulis has an interesting green flavor... then yeah I will pull a "whats that interesting herb" or these is lettuce is impressive can you tell me more about it etc., I do a lot of relatively serious cooking & creating at home... I believe this approach helps me learn more than being spoon fed information. This is another difference between California and places like Mexico & Europe. Here there are relatively wealthy people that actually cook.... in those countries... well that is what the help is for.

                                                                    > In my dining fantasy... the dishes have strong identity & continuity... its taken for granted and there is no reason to stop & embellish.... I can just sit there and engage in the conversation & overall experience of the food without stoping to micro analyze every single point. I like flow & space.

                                                                    With that said... I would go back to Cyrus again... quite conscious that the $600 for two... is quite wasteful and that I've had better tasting, better visual meals in the same general caliber for 1/3 of that (and yes that is in California not in Mexico City were it would be slightly cheaper)... and I can still turn around and make a nice contribution to Heifer International and feel much better about myself. We live in the age of excess and even though we can recognize it... sometimes we just can't help ourselves.

                                                                    1. re: Eat_Nopal

                                                                      Yeah, the service isn't like that at FL. If there is one thing that truly impressed me at FL was the perfection of the service. I can't remember whether or not the servers remained in the room or if they just put the dishes on the table and left, answering any questions and not intruding themselves on the diners.

                                                                      Don't get me wrong, I'm a fan of the chummy California style of service. Often I initiate the chat. Some of my best friends are servers ... heh ... and my mom was a waitress for quite a few years.

                                                                      However, I'm starting to feel that your view on servers comes from a opinion that people in that profession are inferior.

                                                                      A freind I went to acting school with has been a server at a major East Coast restaurant for a couple of decades. He is proud of what he does. He is a professional. I fully expect when he retires the local paper may do an article about him. He feels that it is his job to be at your call .. that is his job and he does it well and actually gets paid quite well, he makes over 100, 000 a year with tips.

                                                                      And, trust me, unless it is true royalty ... a few of which he has served ... he doesn't consider the customers that.

                                                                      Actually he was treated worse at the beginning of his career working in fast food joints or places like 'Steak and Brew' and having to chase after customers who skipped out on a tab he'd have to make up.

                                                                      There's a level where it becomes a career rather than a job.

                                                                2. re: Melanie Wong

                                                                  MW and EN -- if the guests initiate the conversation the staff certainly should respond. If the guests want to be left alone...well then they should be. I guess the trick is figuring that out and at what level. At FL, I thought the staff was very personable despite the formalities. They didn't hover.

                                                                  One time someone at our table asked about the butter. The lead waiter mentioned that the butter came from one farm in New England, from 3 specific cows with a quick explanation of the owner, etc. The follow-up question was if he knew the cow's names. I can't recall for sure -- but I think he did! -The main thing is he knew the whole thing was a bit silly and obsessive.

                                                              2. re: ML8000

                                                                ML800! Where did you have that dish!? I MUST know immediately. I've been searching a lifetime for parsnips and Thunderbird married in one dish. Heaven.

                                                        2. re: Glencora

                                                          Hushed atmosphere? It's not boisterous but during my one visit a few years ago, there were a few tables enjoying themselves audibly, with no resistance from staff. In fact the staff seemed to encourage it. Was much more relaxed than I expected and added to the unpretention.

                                                        3. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                          We had a somewhat extended tasting menu, bringing the total to 12 courses. They are, in all sense of the concept, parts of a degustation menu: some courses are larger than others. But in no way is the meal an endless succession of appetizers. We were certainly full, and very happy, at the end.

                                                          However, perhaps you simply don't care for tasting menus.

                                                          1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                            I am surprised that as a critic, you haven't felt any interest/need/desire to try TFL. From a merely professional/intellectual standpoint, it would seem an important experience,since you live relatively nearby.

                                                            1. re: chazzerking

                                                              That's a pretty compelling point. Even as just a serious to semi-serious foodster, FL is a reference point.

                                                              1. re: chazzerking

                                                                I've had my share of 10- and 12-course menus of elaborate French- and French-influenced food. It's not my favorite way to eat.

                                                                I don't feel I need to spend $1000 to find out if Thomas Keller's take on the tasting menu form is more appealing than Masataka Kobayashi's, Dania Lucherini's, or Daniel Patterson's.

                                                                1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                                  I don't mean to take a contrarian approach, but that argument would apply to all restaurant criticism. Why go to a second Thai restaurant after you've been to one, after all, it's just another take on the same cuisine. what's the point? I'm not suggesting that anyone"has " to eat there. I was just suggesting that as a restaurant critic, or for that matter, a critic of any sort, there aare some references that are adviseable to have experienced. a movie critic who hadn't seen "Ran" would be less likely to be able to explain the point or shortcomings of "Crash" to me..

                                                                  1. re: chazzerking

                                                                    Because a second Thai reastaurant isn't at minimum, $300 a person.

                                                                    1. re: JasmineG

                                                                      But you're also not getting 14 different dishes to try.

                                                                      1. re: chazzerking

                                                                        I can safely say that I don't care for that STYLE of dining, without having tried it at that particular place. I don't doubt that some, or even all, of the dishes at FL are great. If I could get a reservation, try three or so, and pay less, I might just do it.

                                                                        Your movie reference threw me for a minute. I was trying to figure out what Kurosawa's take on Lear has to do with Crash. Then I realized that you mean a critic has to have seen all great films in order to judge any other great film. (And have eaten in all great restaurants in order to judge any other great restaurant.) All I can say to that is, wow.

                                                                        1. re: Glencora

                                                                          See actually that kind of supports my point since I was actually thinking about Rashomon, not Ran. If I was a film critic, I would have had that reference, and my point would have been clearer.

                                                                        2. re: chazzerking

                                                                          I can get 14 different dishes at the Thai place near my house for probably $100 total, and share the feast with 5 people with leftovers. If spending $300 on a meal is that easy for you, then that's great, but that's a lot of money for others to spend (especially since with any wine, the bill will be driven much much higher). I think it's kind of outrageous to say that someone needs to spend that much money on one meal in order to effectively criticize any other meal.

                                                                          1. re: chazzerking

                                                                            You can try 14 dishes at Thai House Express for half that. And it's enough food for at least six people.

                                                                            1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                                              you can get 50 or 60 dishes at McDonalds for even less. I never thought that was the point.sometimes you need to spend a little more for a particular kind of experience. Last I was there, Gary Danko didn't give his food away, nor did Adria Feran nor Alain Ducasse, yet they seem to have something to say about restaurant food

                                                                              1. re: chazzerking

                                                                                I've had perfectly executed, amazing, expensive meals of the general sort served at The French Laundry. For me, the local bar was set by Masa's in 1982.

                                                                                That sort of experience is so far beyond normal meals that it's irrelevant to evaluating anything except other highest-end places. If I were going to review, say, Manresa, I might feel like it was necessary to eat at TFL for comparison.

                                                                2. re: jrhsfcm

                                                                  Bourdain's "A Cook's Tour" episode on FL definitely motivated me and at least one of my friends for that visit. However, that TV show was a special experience for Bourdain and his guests, as they were treated to nearly 40 different dishes by Chef Keller and crew. Regular guests get 9 courses from the popular tasting menu. Everyone gets mostly the same food throughout the meal and not the wildly varied selection of dishes passed around by Bourdain and entourage.

                                                                  From my one FL experience, I must say, by course 6, we were getting quite full. One of us at the table couldn't eat any more past course 6. I barely finished the 9th course (the last 3 courses are dessert). I don't recall regaining any appetite through the marathon meal.

                                                                  1. re: Benny Choi

                                                                    I was absolutely charmed by Keller's sly wit in serving Bourdain (a chain-smoker) a coffee-and-Marlboro dish.

                                                                    All of us were more than full by the end of dinner. We took the last little chocolate things with us because we were out of room and couldn't manage them.

                                                                    1. re: Benny Choi

                                                                      Frankly I wasn't convinced of FL the first try. The portions do seem small but the quality, crafting, taste combos and pacing fills that void almost absurdly. About half through (tasting menu) you hit sensor overload. It's not about quantity but taste. It's sort of a taste/sensor eating game.

                                                                  2. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                                    Imagine my struggle as an insulin dependent type 1 diabetic!!! I had lunch at Per Se last March. 3 hours, 3 insulin shots and 3 blood glucose tests. And afterwards I was having to monitor my BS throughout the remainder of the day. I have to say, though, that it was well worth it. A truly amazing experience and it exceded my expectations. 'Course, I could say the same about Momofuku in NYC (opposite end of the spectrum but equally phenomenal).

                                                          2. I'm a New Yorker who had dinner there about three years ago. It was good, but not wow. Didn't live up to my expectations, and for $650 for two, and there wasn't a very big wine bill, it wasn't worth it.

                                                            Honestly, I've had better food, a better time, and a better value at a large number of NY French restaurants. I'd take a dinner at Jean-Georges at 1/2 the price of FL any time.

                                                            But I do think Keller is a very talented man and I admire what he does and has accomplished. And he seems like a pleasant and passionate man as well.

                                                            1. I haven't eaten at FL, but plan to. The problem I sometimes have with iconic restaurants is that the food looks very pretty, has an impeccable pedigree, but tastes blah. My favorite example is Chez Panisse. (Apologies to Robert and all other fans). I can get my hands on great ingredients and produce something as good, or better, in my home kitchen. If I'm eating out and spending huge amounts on a meal, it had better be spectacular. Some restaurants do it, but most don't. The stand-out blah dish that I have in my mind is a mixed green salad at CP. Very nice, fresh greens, but no flavor in the dressing. My kids can do better. The lamb I had on that visit was no better.

                                                              2 Replies
                                                              1. re: pikawicca

                                                                Hmmm, have to disagree on the Chez Panisse comparison.

                                                                Maybe its the personal definition of "spending huge amounts," but there's a lot less pressure when you're spending $65 for Thursday dinner than when you're dropping $240. The former certainly ain't cheap, but at least it's not galaxies removed from my range of normal prices for a meal. Very good (as opposed to spectacular) is a slight let-down at CP. It feels like a ripoff at the FL.

                                                                Take the CP salad as an example. You got no joy from it, but others have had an epiphany when they figured out that salad can actually taste like greens instead of dressing. These folks can take this realization and (if they can get truly great greens) translate it to a fantastic salad in their home kitchens. Dressed however they want. So the meal keeps on giving long after the customer has left the restaurant.

                                                                It would be disappointing to eat a meal at CP where the ingredients in any dish were less than very good, or where the preparation was not very well executed. But "merely wonderful" is plenty good enough for me at this price point. I don't expect a religious experience.

                                                                There are those who can spend FL prices without blinking. I'm not one of them. Having eaten there once, I'd be happy to do so again, but only if somebody else is paying. Otherwise, I'll eat Alice's downmarket grub three times as often.

                                                                1. re: pikawicca

                                                                  If you can do better than this Chez Panisse meal at home, I'm impressed:

                                                                  http://www.chowhound.com/topics/32133...

                                                                2. All I can say is that I've eaten there 7 times including my 50th birhtday dinner for 14 people (which was executed and carried off with flair and skill). I have never been less than joyful athe the meal that I had. Iv'e spent signifcantly more for dinner in Paris and would compare TFL at least equally with them. Probably the thing that sets Keller apart for me is that he approaches his menu with a sense of humor(witness the Bourdain dessert) a trait lacking in most top chefs I have encountered. although the courese are small, they are waay more than canapes. You definitely don't leave hungry but it's not a gluttonfest either. I'm not sure why everyone seems intent on suggesting lowering expectations when going. just eat and enjoy. I don't think a course by course deconstruction of the menu is necessary to enjoy it either. It can be fun in moderation , though. I think the reservation game is a little bit of a problem, but there aren't many seats and a lot of demand. anyway that's what I think.

                                                                  3 Replies
                                                                  1. re: chazzerking

                                                                    I think I need to clarify my story about encouraging my friends to adjust expectations before we arrived at FL. I really do think people go with hyped up expectations and have unreasonable expectations that the food will blow them away and then they are easily disappointed.

                                                                    I don't think I asked my friends to "lower" their expectations. Just make them more realistic.

                                                                    The thought recently came to mind that you would tell your friends to adjust, not lower, expectations, if they were thinking they would experience being "blown away" at a Metallica concert when in fact you're all attending a Yo Yo Ma concert.

                                                                    1. re: Benny Choi

                                                                      I don't think that I'd be likely to be blown away at a Metallica concert unless you mean actually physically blown away by the volume. But that aside, I get the point and I was trying to say the same thing. It seems to me that people are going to TFL with expectaions that the food and experience will somehow be actually transcendant. It is after all, a restaurant not a cathedral or the grand canyon.That being said, I have had one of the top 3 if not the best meal of my life there. Lowered expectations or not.

                                                                      1. re: Benny Choi

                                                                        Before my DH and I took our two teen-agers to our favorite 3 star in France, we assured them that they would be "blown away" by the food. They were, and we never doubted that they would be. I haven't dined at FL, but at the prices they charge, every dish should be an examplar of its type. Perfection, in other words. As should the ambience and service. I've been to a few restaurants that do this consistently, year after year.

                                                                    2. Completely agree with the OP, Had dinner there March of this year and while it was pleasent, it was by no means spectacular. Me and my wife went through the whole meal without expressing our disapointment as not wanting to ruin the other ones experience, then after realized we both felt the same way about it, good but nowhere near the best meal we've ever had. I have no problem paying that much for food when it's spectacular, as I've had several experiences at other restaurants that I felt were worth every penny. We ended up going to Cyrus the next night because we were so disappointed, by a stroke of luck, and the fact it was a week day we were able to get a reservation with no notice there (Cyrus we thought was AMAZING!) However, I felt like something was just missing from the FL. Perhaps becasue Keller isn't there every night anymore, or maybe because being open 7 days a week they cannot just have one staff as most places of this caliber do. I read in Michael Ruhlman book, the soul of the chef, a quote from Keller, which I don't rember the exact words but basically saying that when they first got away from the one staff five nights a week, the place lost some of the camaraderie. So maybe they have been slowly slipping for a long time. All I know is I had wanted to eat there for close to a decade and was very disappointed. In fact that was the first meal I did not enjoy that I've had at this caliber of restaurant. Nothing was wrong, per se, it just wasn't that good!

                                                                      3 Replies
                                                                      1. re: mapep

                                                                        See now you just ruined any possibility of TFL experience for me. On my night... Cyrus was good but no where near Amazing.... so I guess I should expect TFL to be mediocre?

                                                                        1. re: Eat_Nopal

                                                                          An example of the danger of restaurant reccomendations from people you don't know or know about their taste.

                                                                      2. A case of the Emperor's new clothes......

                                                                        After beating impossible odds at snagging a reservation, I was ready for an exciting culinary experience. I had been stunned by Keller’s food at Per Se in NYC several times and wondered how it could be surpassed (or equaled) at the French Laundry. After all, the Laundry is a legend and generally considered the best restaurant in the US. Unfortunately, The French Laundry was in many ways no better than any top restaurant in any major city. If the tab had been $100 person, I would certainly have returned for a second visit. At $500 per person (including $175 for wine pairing), my meal was a huge disappointment. First the highlights – a veal chateaubriand and a butter-poached lobster tail were transcendent. Veal has never tasted as interesting and lobster never as sweet. The rabbit loin, Atlantic cod, and Spanish mackerel were good but nothing special. The Wagyu tartare was tasty and interesting but the $40 supplement on a $240 prixe fixe was insulting. The hearts of palm salad and foie gras terrine (a $30 supplement, also insulting, especially for a terrine) were ordinary at best. Montrachet with spring onions as the cheese course was totally boring. The desserts, however, made me furious. A chocolate pave was pedestrian and the Peach Melba was one of the worst desserts in recent memory. It tasted and looked like foam rubber studded with fruit. A “surprise” off-menu dessert, “donuts and coffee”, was overwhelmingly sweet and misplaced on this menu. Indeed, I’ve been served better desserts at weddings and fundraisers. The service was generally excellent except in two ways. First of all, the reception was not gracious. We arrived early and were basically abandoned after checking in. At Per Se, the receptionist took us to a waiting area and offered champagne until our table was ready. Secondly, our headwaiter had horrible breath that sent us reeling every time he spoke. On top of all this, there were patrons dressed in blue jeans despite a stated dress code banning such garb. Maybe this isn’t a problem for some people, but I was hoping and expecting for a higher standard. The maitre d’, seeing plates of unfinished food leaving our table, showed genuine concern and immediately deducted the $140 in surcharges from our bill. Generous enough, I guess, but after all the effort put into the visit – getting the reservation and planning the trip to Yountville – I was still upset. At this level, a restaurant is not allowed an off night. I can only believe that the Laundry is coasting on its reputation, pumping out decent food that is grossly overpriced and void of inspiration. Very sad, but now the word is out.

                                                                        1. Is TFL offering wine pairing again? They had stopped wine pairings for a while and it was not available when I visited last year.

                                                                          I realize now that we never received the lobster course which seems to be on everyone else's rundown. I think they just plain forgot.

                                                                          I agree that TFL is overrated and overhyped. Manresa does more interesting flavors for half the price. Pierre Gagnaire's lunch service in Paris, even with the exchange rate, was overwhelmingly superior in every way at half the price.

                                                                          1. I'm intrigued by Thomas Keller and the FL, especially because I've been reading "The Soul of a Chef" lately and then one of my favorite food bloggers in Germany recently came to the States and reported on her meal there. She has stunning pictures and blogs in English: www.deliciousdays.com (check her out- she's an amazing photographer), so suddenly I'm seeing Thomas Keller everywhere. Here's my concluding thought based on everything I've read so far:

                                                                            Dinner at the FL is more like going to an art exhibit where you get to put the art in your mouth, and where, if money is no object and you don't mind wearing a jacket throughout dinner, you can enjoy yourself and allow yourself to be surprised. If you want to have a fun dinner out with friends, this probably isn't your best bet.

                                                                            2 Replies
                                                                            1. re: suse

                                                                              When I read Soul of a Chef about ten years ago was when I first heard of the French Laundry and had wanted to go there ever since, however after eating there in march of this year Im going to have to disagree with your final comment, I don't mind wearing a jacket and money was no object (on that night at least!) But I have to say our meal was at best mediocore, nothing stood out and some things were just plain bad, even the foie gras, of which Im a huge fan was just not that good. I really don't get the hype about this place, I've been to many restaurant which I thought were far superior in both food quality and service to the French Laundry. And a note about wine pairings, they did not offer them the night we were there and when we inquired about pairings they said that they weren't offered because the menu changes every night....come on....Every restaurant of this caliber changes the menu every night and all the other's I've been too still manage to offer wine pairings! Either this place really knows how to cook for the critics or it has slipped tremedouly and is now going on reputation alone.

                                                                              1. re: mapep

                                                                                Here is my report from a week or two ago: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/462291

                                                                                Being as there were three of us, we were able to advise the sommelier to prepare a pairing for us and we went through a number of half-bottles that comprised a perfect pairing. My meal was amazing and our pairings were stunning.

                                                                            2. If you read The Gospel of Food, by Barry Glasner, he does reference the FL and he notes that the common schlub off the street does not usually get the same food or treatment that a professional reviewer or celebrity receives at very high profile restaurants. I've eaten there twice, the first experience was utterly sublime and worth every penny. The second experience was remarkable for being so surprisingly forgettable and disappointing. Despite the fact that the food was well-prepared and lovely to look at, the mix of flavors and textures didn't rate more than a shrug. Maybe it's Like Water for Chocolate - someone in the kitchen was having a bad night and it translated to the food. Sounds like your experience was similar to my second visit. If my first visit had been like that, I wouldn't have returned.

                                                                              1. y'know i've been to FL twice and Per Se once...my very first meal at FL back in 2001 was awesome and my most recent meal was last weekend. It was good, but I don't know, i think they have lost some of its glamor for me. i'll be going again in late january with a friend who wants to experience it for herself, so we'll see how they do. i think TK might be spreading himself a bit too thin...i read in sept. that he will have a line of frozen foods out. a part of me wonders if he'll just turn into wolfgang puck. it's getting harder and harder to find restaurants where the chef is in the kitchen. i mean when i am spending 300 and up for my meal, i'd like the chef to be there. it's nice and dandy that all these chefs have well trained kitchen staff, but i think it's still not quite the same exactly.

                                                                                3 Replies
                                                                                1. re: apocalyptical

                                                                                  It has been fairly well known that Keller hasn't worked his own kitchen consistently for several years. Not sure why you would think he being in the kitchen would make a difference when Corey Lee is the one who has been going all the work and getting all the accolades.

                                                                                  1. re: Carrie 218

                                                                                    yes i know of corey lee...wishful thinking on my part i suppose about wanting the chef to be in the kitchen. perhaps i should finally try wd-50. i hear he's there almost every night. same goes for eric ripert -- at least that's what i heard recently. but perhaps he's now getting to be too famous to be in the kitchen, as well.

                                                                                  2. re: apocalyptical

                                                                                    The line of very high end frozen food has been out since before Per Se opened.

                                                                                  3. i just ate at bouchon and found it to be very disappointing-all 6 entrees were mediocre at best-i guess complacency has set in

                                                                                    1. While my first dining experience at the French Laundry last Monday was not a big disappointment, I was not really impressed either. I felt the same when I dined at Per Se three years ago. Service at both places were undeniable the best I've ever had in the US; however, I felt I could have the same, if not better, food and cooking technique elsewhere in SF, NY or LA without having to pay the kind of money Thomas Keller charges. Only memorable dishes were the "Oysters and Pearls", and Moulard Duck " Foie Gras au Torchon"--I want more! I'm glad I had the experience to try out both TFL and Per Se, but for the same amount of money, I feel that I would rather have 2 or 3 dinners at Chez Panisse which still mesmorizes me after my visit last summer.

                                                                                      2 Replies
                                                                                      1. re: fdb

                                                                                        Was per se similar to FL in terms of food? Did you prefer one over another? Sometimes people from NY who have been to Per Se are interested in going to FL? Is it different enought that they should?

                                                                                        1. re: rworange

                                                                                          While the food is similar at both places, the dining experience is totally different. TFL is very homey and charming, but I prefer Per Se for its gorgeous space and chic decor....and its killer view of Central Park.

                                                                                      2. I think it's all about his french fries. =P

                                                                                        I don't know that I would ever go to French Laundry or Per Se, even if I had the money to do so.

                                                                                        I would however go to El Bulli if I could somehow finagle a res and wanted to inflict the pain of the dollar to euro ratio on myself.