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Mar 3, 2008 06:15 PM

My Lunch at the French Laundry - Little Magic and Surprising Service Lapses - Long

I have already posted about my disappointing wine experience at the French Laundry.

Here's my review of the rest of the experience.

Let's start with the positive. The most fabulous part of the meal for me was the butter and cheese (although you will notice that these did not come from the FL kitchen). There was one salted butter from Vermont and one unsalted from Petaluma. Both were extraordinary, awakening a distant memory of what butter tasted like in the French countryside many moons ago when I studied in France. What butter should taste like. The cheese -- from Sweet Grass Dairy in Georgia -- was also excellent. Sweet Grass Dairy sells online -- -- and I definitely will be placing an order.

The other memorable part of the meal was the second course - Salad of Sacramento Delta Green Asparagus, with potato confit, frisee lettuce, crispy capers and Jidori Hen Egg Emulsion. This was really excellent, with the small crispy capers adding the perfect touch.

For me, the rest of the meal ranged from good, to okay to downright unappetizing.

The third course was a choice of Seared Pavé of Kindai Tuna (a Japanese farm-raised bluefin tuna) or Santa Barbara Sea Urchin. My friend ordered the tuna and I ordered the sea urchin. My friend took a few bites of the Kindai tuna and asked me to taste it because, well, she thought it was nasty. I agreed. I don't know if it was the quality of the tuna or the preparation, but it was just plain awful, with a greasy off taste. This one went back to the kitchen mostly uneaten.

The Santa Barbara sea urchin was just okay -- nowhere near the quality you would find in Japan (where most of the best Santa Barbara sea urchin goes) or as I have had at Masa Takayama's former restaurant in Los Angeles. Perhaps it was unrealistic to expect Masa quality at FL prices (FL is actually "cheap" compared to dining at a Masa restaurant), but I was disappointed.

Next course was Maine Lobster Tail, poached in butter with a tomato compote and Applewood-Smoked Bacon Vinaigrette. Nothing wrong with it, but not extraordinary.

Next up was Four Story Hill Farm Cuisee de Poularde Farcie Aux Truffe. I couldn't taste any truffles and I found the sauce oversalted (as did others at the table). The chicken was okay.

The chicken was followed by Elysian Fields Farm Lamb Ribeye with sauced vegetables, including chard (or for a $100 supplement, you could have ordered grilled beef sirloin). I love vegetables and the meal, except for asparagus course, had been light on vegetables, so I immediately dove into the vegetables that came with the lamb ribeye, but their taste was marred by another oversalted sauce. The lamb was fine, but not earth shattering.

Cheese course was up next. As previously mentioned, the cheese (just one small piece) was excellent.

Desserts. Ah, desserts. I have a huge sweet tooth. To me, one of the real joys in dining out in four-star restaurants is having extraordinary desserts. I hated the desserts at the French Laundry - I thought they were the worst desserts I had ever had at a four-star restaurant.

First up was a buttermilk sherbet with tiny pieces of poached rhubarb. One person at the table liked this, but two of us didn't. I didn't eat mine - perhaps I just don't like the taste of buttermilk.

The next dessert course was a choice of chocolate praliné with walnut ice cream or a cinnamon bavarois with Dijon mustard ice cream. I opted for the cinnamon bavarois and I would rate this as the single worst dessert I have ever had in any four-star restaurant. The mustard ice cream -- well, since I was at the "French" Laundry, the single most descriptive word that comes to mind is "degoulasse." The cinnamon bavarois was marred by an overly sweet greasy crust that reminded me of the graham cracker and margarine crusts for cheesecakes that I recall from my childhood (and I did not grow up eating good food).

I had a bite of the chocolate praliné and it was much better than my dessert, but I didn't think it was extraordinary.

Although not on the menu, they then brought to the table two crème brûlées and two lemon pot de crème. I didn’t like the pot de crème and I thought the crème brûlée was ordinary.

A choice of four different chocolates was then proffered. I took a piece of caramel chocolate, which was nothing special. But my friend opted for a white chocolate with a fruit filling. She took one bite and pronounced it bad. I then tried it and agreed. The filling was sickeningly sweet and there was some sort of unpleasant off flavor that I couldn't identify. This one was also not finished. Both chocolates tasted somewhat waxy.

During the dessert course, a waiter came by and announced the various coffee choices and then added, almost as an afterthought, that there was tea. "What kind of tea?" I asked the waiter. "Oh, we have black and we have green," he replied. We have black and we have green? This was reminiscent of the sommelier, when we asked for wine recommendations (see my wine post linked above) stating that we might want "to start with a white and then have a red." "What kind of black tea," I pressed. "Oh, um, we have let's see English Breakfast, Earl Grey and a blend." I was astonished. I'm in a supposed four-star restaurant and the black tea choices are a breakfast tea, a tea that almost no serious tea drinker will drink and a blend. Silly me expecting a single estate first flush or second flush Darjeeling (or a choice of either). We moved on to the green tea. "What kind of green tea do you have?" "Senka," he answered. I looked at him dumbly until I finally figured out that he must mean "sencha." I didn't have much confidence in ordering a "senka" since it seemed clear that the French Laundry knew nothing and cared little about tea, so I opted for the black blend, which was predictably mediocre. (If I could say something to Tom Keller, I would say, "Have some pride. If you can't do a decent tea service or don't want to because most diners won't order it, just skip it. Just look anyone in the face who wants to order tea and say boldly, 'We don't serve tea because we pride ourselves on only serving the best and we just don't feel that we can accomplish that with tea.'" Either that, or hire someone who knows something about tea).

The meal ended with another sour note. The bill arrived. I almost slapped down a credit card without really looking at the bill. Because, of course, a restaurant of the supposed caliber of the French Laundry wouldn't make a mistake. But the total seemed very high, given that we had only ordered one $75 bottle of wine, four glasses of California sparkling wine and one extra glass of wine. And then there was this entry where I couldn't quite make out the handwriting, but it looked like it said "cookbook" and $50 was written next to it. No one at the table had ordered a cookbook. Yup, they gave us the bill for another table. A high-flying table who had ordered expensive wine, supplements and a French Laundry cookbook. The mistake was taken care of, but still. It was not a pleasant ending to the meal, scrunching up our faces in consternation trying to figure out why the bill was so high and then delegating one of our party to take the matter up with the establishment.

This is the best restaurant in the United States?

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  1. Thanks for the report; sorry to hear it was an overall disappointing experience for you. Do you know the specific cheese you had?

    6 Replies
    1. re: ccbweb

      It was "Green Hill." Here are the tasting notes from the dairy's website:

      Semi-ripened, double-cream cow's milk cheese.

      Ingredients: Cultured pasteurized cow’s milk, salt, and enzymes.

      Type: cow’s milk cheese; soft-ripened with a white, bloomy rind; rich and smooth; aged 3-6 weeks.

      Size and Shape: 8 oz or .5 lb/piece; about 2-3" high cylinder shape. The rind is edible and affinage takes about three weeks.

      General Characteristics: Green Hill is named after our predominately Jersey cow dairy. The color of our cow’s milk cheese is a bright yellow, caused by the higher butterfat composition in the milk due to rotational grazing.

      Tasting Notes: This cheese has a buttery taste and soft, creamy texture with a thin to medium rind. Pleasant acidity and very sleek finish. This cheese really showcases our great milk from our pasture grazed cows.

      Too bad we have crazy rules in this country about raw cheese. If they could do that well with a pasteurized cheese, I can only imagine a raw cheese from them.

      1. re: omotosando

        Sounds delicious, but the two-day shipping to the East Bay is $43. Yikes!

        1. re: junk2

          Seems omotosando paid a bit more to get his one small piece already.

          1. re: junk2

            From Sweet Grass Dairy's website, quite a few other restaurants in the Bay area serve their cheese.


            Sadly for me, they only list one restaurant in Southern California.

            1. re: omotosando

              Rainbow Grocery (San Francisco) carries their cheese, a raw tomme, the pasteurized Green Hill (why pasteurized if some of their other cheese is raw?), and a Holly Springs goat. Since Rainbow isn't on the list you linked to, you might try calling sweet grass to ask if they have a socal distributor.

              Note on the Holly Springs goat: someone at Rainbow just told me they carry that over the phone, but I think he was mixed up because the Sweet Grass Dairy web site doesn't list that cheese.

          2. Hello O- We had lunch there on Sunday with almost identical results. Be glad no one ordered the beef, it was almost inedible. The only other diffence was the foie gras starter, which was excellent.
            The service would have been bad for any restaurant, never mind the FL. It was a completely different experience from previous visits. Question- were your chocolates offered at the end of the meal, or placed in a to go box? Ours were in the box and I have to say I did feel rushed through most of the meal. I don't feel we lagged, out in under four hours and the restaurant was still full when we left. We did see a large number of the staff sitting at a picnic table across the street when we exited.

            1 Reply
            1. re: calif_martinigal

              Hi, I was there too. Our chocolates were presented on a tray after the other deserts, not in a to go box. Though we had other problems, I never felt rushed. It's terrible that you did.

            2. That's really such a shame that your FL experience wasn't better. We didn't order wine or tea/coffee, but our server was so helpful with "pairing" non-alcholic beverages that really helped our experience be so delightful. And the bill issue was definitely something you shouldn't have had to deal with...I wonder if all this is related to Laura Cunningham's departure? It's a shame we didn't get a chance to visit while she was GM.

              1. Omoto, I was also unimpressed with TFL. I didn't have any gross service lapses, but I do feel that the service at Daniel and Jean Georges in NYC is more fluid and personable. I felt the food was much more inspired at Manresa. Also, there was a VIP table of 8 next to us and they definitely got the bulk of the service and attention from the staff (eg. courses were presented on a stack of 5 plates of decreasing sizes, etc.)

                If you figure in cost, Manresa easily trumps TFL. That said, it's one of those restaurants you have to go to and experience for yourself. For better or worse.

                Here's a recent Manresa review with links to my Manresa vs TFL experience.

                To answer your rhetorical question, no, it's not the best in the US.


                1 Reply
                1. re: Porthos

                  Ooops. Forgot to mention that Manresa also boasts a wonderful tea selection at the end of the meal. At least 10 types of both eastern and western type tea leaves are presented to you in a dark mahogany box. It's nice to watch the whole chrysanthemum flower unfold in the tea pot.

                2. I am not surprised. This restaurant was amazing in the mid/late 90's. Last time I went in 2005 it was okay but not worth the effort or expense. I have not since been back. I think it has become a victim of its own success.