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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!