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Terrible French Laundry Visit 2/18/09

In a nutshell, our first meal at the French Laundry was inconsistent at best and disappointing at its worst. It was really surprising and has left my husband and I wondering if we missed the boat. In a certain sense we felt like children being told that Santa Claus isn't real. That isn't to say it was all bad. It had its moments where it was everything we dreamed it would be, but some of the flaws were simply unforgivable for a restaurant of that caliber.

Here's how it went. . .

The meal started with two canapes. The first was a beignet stuffed with sausage and cheese. It wasn't part of the printed menu, so I can't really remember exactly what the filling was. It was definitely a tasty little bite. The second canape was their signature Scottish salmon with creme fraiche in a tuille cone. It is easy to see why it is a signature. It was definitely one of the highlights of the evening.

The first real course was their "Oysters and Pearls" dish. It was a sabayon of pearl tapioca with Island Creek oysters and white sturgeon caviar. It was crazy delicious! My husband and I aren't oyster people, and we still licked our plates clean.

The next course was the first where my husband and I got two different dishes. He got a salad of cauliflower, Granny Smith apples, red radish, perilla, and a garden mint gastrique. The salad was light, clean, and a good illustration of the quality of their produce. I got the terrine of foie gras with a black truffle glaze, navel orange, celery branch, Marcona almonds, and toasted brioche. They also served it with three different kinds of salt, two of which were sea salts, and the third was a forty-million year old "pre-historic" pink salt. The salt presentation was cool, but I found that the foie gras didn't really need any salt. It was pretty perfect on its own.

At this point we are both really happy, but the next course will start to illustrate what we felt was the biggest problem with the experience. It is also a good time to describe the dining room. Its a small space, which means that a good deal of the experience is influenced by the behavior of your fellow diners. Unfortunately our fellow diners were a bit of a problem. There was a table of six young-ish people sitting next to us. They seemed to be wine salespeople judging by their conversation. They were also REALLY drunk, which caused them to be really loud. At one point the drunkest of the women actually knocked her chair backwards onto the floor causing the entire dining room to fall silent and stare at her. Not exactly the kind of behavior you expect at a three Michelin star restaurant.

Going back to the food. . . the next course was the first of the fish courses. One of the dishes was a tartare of cold water Japanese sea scallops with charred Asian pear, Belgian endive, mizuna, and young ginger. This was by far the best dish of the night. It was really complex, expertly executed, and felt like poetry. It was the beautiful dish that I expected everything to be like. Unfortunately, the other dish was one hundred eighty degrees opposite. It was red snapper with littleneck clam broth, asparagus, green garlic, sweet peppers, and an extra virgin olive oil emulsion. The fish was completely overcooked, dry, and fairly flavorless, and the sweet peppers dominated everything else on the plate. It felt like bad catering food. We were shocked to be served something so amateur.

Get ready for the roller coaster now. . . the next course was their classic "Beets and Leeks" dish. It was a butter poached main lobster tail with melted leeks, red beet essence, and a "Pomme Maxim." All of it was cooked perfectly. The lobster melted in your mouth, and the red beet essence looked like it would be overpowering, but it was really soft and pretty.

The next course was by far the worst of the night. One of the plates was a fricassee of pork belly with sunchokes, Swiss chard, mustard blossoms, Dijon mustard, and sour cherries. Just like the red snapper, the pork belly was overcooked and dry. In all the dish was just nothing special, however nothing special is a compliment compared to the other dish. It was what they call on the menu "Epaule de Lapin Farcie aux Ris de Veau." Translated, the server described it as rabbit stuffed with veal sweetbreads. In real life the dish looked like a mystery meat meatball that was covered in a sticky Teryaki-like sauce. I like both sweetbreads and rabbit, but they had done something to the combination to make it seem like something you would find in a steam tray at a terrible all you can eat buffet restaurant. Just awful!

At this point we are feeling a bit deflated and let down. I think it was when we started saying that it felt like someone had killed Santa. I also started wondering if I should complain. The restaurant is epically expensive and I feel everything should be flawless for the prices they charge. We decided to finish out the meal without saying anything though. The food and the experience were going to be what they were. Bitching wasn't going to fix it.

Moving on, the next meat course was a beautifully cooked piece of beef with bluefoot mushrooms, purple-top turnips, brussels sprouts, and caraway sauce. Once again, its the roller coaster ride. This dish was beautiful, whereas the course preceding it was nearly inedible.

Next was a small cheese course that consisted of a semi-soft cow's cheese with "pain perdu," romaine lettuce leaves, and San Marzano tomato marmalade. It was pretty good.

Then there was a tasty little yogurt sorbet with a cream scone, Earl Gray foam, and poached kumquats.

Last was dessert. One of the dishes was a good chocolate mouse with banana ice cream, and candied cashews. The other dish consisted of braised pineapple with spiced sweet rice beignets, dark raisin coulis, and long pepper sherbet. This was a terrible way to end the meal. The long pepper sherbet tasted like sulfur and was completely inedible. It was shockingly bad.

They then finish out the night with a quick procession of sweet treats. There was an assortment of cookies brought to the table, and then a server brings a silver tray of artisan chocolates to choose from. All of those were really good. Lastly they bring some shortbread cookies to take home for the next day.

All of that took just over three hours. I felt like I was soaked in butter and wine by the end of it. In terms of wine, we started with a glass of champagne each to go with the canapes and the caviar. We each had a glass of 19 year old German riesling to go with the salad and foie gras course. For the fish courses we had a half bottle of French meursault, and the meat courses we paired with a half bottle of Chateaneuf du Pape. We had a glass of Italian red with the cheese and my husband had a glass of madeira to go with his desserts.

To sum up, we are glad we did it, but would probably not go back or recommend for anyone else to go. We feel as if Thomas Keller has stretched himself too thin and let the quality of his flagship slide. Its unfortunate that we can't really believe in Santa Claus anymore, but that isn't going to stop us from believing in the Easter Bunny, unicorns, and The Great Pumpkin.

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  1. Oh dear. You're right -- at those prices everything should be perfect. I just wish you'd said something to the staff about the dishes you didn't like -- I'm virtually certain they would have apologized profusely and replaced them with something else. I know what you mean about making an disappointing situation even worse by bitching about it, but in this case, I think the restaurant would have made it better if you'd given them a chance.

    1 Reply
    1. re: Ruth Lafler

      Have to agree with Ruth 100%. It is always worth bringing your dissatisfaction to their attention so they have a chance to satisfy you and show you their hospitality. I guarantee you that they wouldn't hesitate. I had an experience at another, extremely expensive restaurant in the area and was impressed with their response to our issues.

    2. Good review.

      I'm sorry for your roller coaster experience. Did you mention it to the server/chef? Maybe send a link to this post?

      It's sad when such a highly esteemed restaurant makes so many gaffes. Even an off night in a fine dining establishment shouldn't be quite so off (maybe 1 or 2 oddities, but not at the level you experienced).

      Himalayan salt, by the way, is quite good, and I would recommend trying some on your own. It's milder than most sea salts, and is a bit sweet.

      If I had had such an experience I would have been in such a foul mood, even with the gems you noted.

      The French Laundry
      6640 Washington Street, Yountville, CA 94599

      3 Replies
      1. re: Caralien

        My husband tends to be a bit shy about complaining, and he gets easily embarrassed when other people do. I didn't want to make a bad situation worse for him. The meal was his Christmas gift to me this year, so I needed to walk a fine line between being disappointed with the experience, but also appreciative of his thoughtfulness.

        I decided to email the restaurant when I got home yesterday. It was a really difficult email to write though. Our disappointment had nothing to do with overinflated expectations or giant egos. We genuinely got an amateurish meal and I think it is a disservice to a business owner to keep quiet about bad experiences.

        I will be curious to see if they reply.

        1. re: andrew344

          Ah yes. My dad is like that, so I know exactly what you mean! I probably would have done the same. I'm surprised no one noticed that a couple of plates went back uneaten, though. I would have expected that level of service from a restaurant of that caliber.

          1. re: andrew344

            At these prices, is it really the customer's job to do the job of quality assurance for these folks?

        2. I am surprised that they did nothing about the obviously drunk party. Some friends were having dinner at Per Se, Keller's New York outpost, and one in their party became obviously drunk. Shortly thereafter the kitchen brought the rest of the meal out "to go" and the group left. They were pissed, not at the restaurant, but at their drunk dining companion. I wish that TFL had done something similar to the group adjacent to you.

          Its hard/impossible for them to move you to another table at TFL as there are so few tables....

          2 Replies
          1. re: Senor Popusa

            My husband and I were talking it over and we are wondering if the drunk party had connections at the restaurant. They were clearly in the wine/food industry and my husband said that he noticed them getting dishes that the rest of us weren't.

            I cannot say enough about how obnoxious they were. I'm no saint, but I don't want to listen to sexual innuendo jokes and drunken blathering while I'm trying to focus on my foie gras.

            1. re: andrew344

              When I told my SO your story he asked if the drunk people had some kind of connection to the restaurant. I can't imagine any other explanation. It's really too bad.

          2. Well, reading your post, MOST of your meal seemed ok but there were 3 or 4 dishes which you found either mediocre or terrible. Not to excuse a 3 star because if this is the case, it is completely unacceptable.
            Drunks suck but most people drink and don't realize that they are often the offending party. This does not refer to you, just saying it as a general point. Reading the "reviews" of others who are in the tank is not so reliable though they get to write whatever they like.
            There are ways of mentioning the subpar performance without making a scene. I dislike complaining because I feel that if it is that bad then the place just doesn't deserve the praise and I won't go back. If it is one or two thing that could happen to even the most diligent, well, you can let them know. Go to the restroom, on the way back ask to speak to maitre'd on the side and explain it nicely. I would think you would be treated well.

            One woman who claimed herself an expert on high dining(meaning she isn't if she has to tell us about it and she was from Chitown, maybe 2nd city envy), complained on the boards about pacing(that is about it) at 11 Mad Park. Now, everyone on the board read her story and said that SHE was at fault, at first she NEEDED a drink faster, then courses were too slow, etc. In any case, they COMPED her $400 check AND made arrangements at some top place in Chitown, I believe also comped. AND she was still complaining that it wasn't enough. 2 comped high end meals for 2 is insane for maybe making her wait 10 minutes(forgetting the fact that she was probably drunk and definitely has no clue about anything).
            So, if you had legitimate, reasonable complaints, you can tell them and see what happens. Again, a 3 star should be quite near perfect execution. This does not mean that every random whim of every dope who goes can be satisfied but the best places are more than gracious and generous.
            Also, you can not go back which is more than fair.
            A long winded version of what it seems is a semi consensus above me.
            Drunks, cannot stand them. Too bad most people don't think it is them, it is always someone else.
            I wish all restaurants threw out unruly parties, appropriate to the venue, of course. Some places are louder, fine, some more reserved. Act accordingly, drink like a reasonable person, don't act like an ass.
            OK, that's enough.

            1. Is anyone else confused that the gougre contained sausage for this user....something it never has contained before?

              FWIW, I had the absolute best meal of my life at TFL on 02/17/09 and felt as though the staff absolutely bent over backwards to make the evening flawless in every single way.

              9 Replies
              1. re: uhockey

                I may have misheard the server when I heard sausage. What do they usually contain?

                  1. re: lizziee

                    Lizziee - we don't see enough of you on Chowhound.

                    Nosh - I disagree - if someone's taking you out it's a little rude to complain about the food.

                    However, I think you're right that the "terrible" descriptor is a bit extreme.

                    And I do wonder myself. I've never had a bad meal at a *** or a ** for that matter. Occassionally something isn't quite right, but that's rare. A *** should be perfect. Always. And whether or not the chef is in the kitchen that night should have no bearing whatsoever in a *** or a ** restaurant . I've been to serious restaurants when the chef is there and out of town and found the food perfectly consistent, There are still very skilled chefs cracking the whip in the kitchen, not just one.

                1. re: uhockey

                  We had the best meal of our lives at TFL on 2/8/09. Many of our dishes were similar to your menu. I don't like long pepper, so I did not expect to like the dessert with the sorbet. As it turned out, I liked everything about it, except the sorbet. We felt the restaurant provided an amazing dining experience at a very serious price point. If you did not like something, perhaps it is your tastes that are different from the chefs? My husband and I often prefer different foods. He will give me a bite of something he loves, and I will shrug and say I don't care for it, even though it is a fine example of whatever that food is. He does the same with me.
                  We were seated in the side room at TFL, with two other tables. They kept taking pictures with flash. Both tables. Annoying, but not a deal breaker.
                  ( The gougere was a classic Gruyere on our visit.)

                  1. re: oaktowngirl

                    >>> If you did not like something, perhaps it is your tastes that are different from the chefs? <<<<

                    No. I am not a fan of FL, but I don't like the style period. The dishes on my visit were well executed. There is a difference here.

                    Overcooked fish and pork are overcooked fish and pork and wrong at that price point. Someone different could have been in the kitchen that night. Even the tastes you liked might have been ineptly executed by the people in the kitchen that night.

                    I don't know how often Keller is actually in the kitchen at FL these days, but even if this were his only restaurant, he'd need a night off. Maybe Wednesday is one of those nights.

                    I think you did the right thing in emailing the restaurant separately to address your complaints. I hope you report back their response, if any. Linking online reports lends less credibility and has the whiff of extortion that is used on yelp by some reviewers. And at a level like FL, they are not concerned about the little fish in food forum ponds. It ain't going to hurt their business one bit.

                    1. re: rworange

                      Very good point that you must recognize a dish done well that is just not to your taste and a just done poorly no matter who's taste it suits.
                      I have had dishes at some restaurants that are top notch that I did not care for so much but I did not dock them points. I believed them to be done as well as they could have been, I just chose an item that was not for me. Rare but it happens.
                      Also, I agree not to link anything from a board of the masses. Honestly, the masses don't know much and Keller or whomever should not be concerned with that since, really, look at what the masses are eating, in general. I know everyone thinks they are well versed but then why are so many rubbish restaurants still in business?

                      RWOrange, well done. Nice to read something with some thought instead of "I DIDN"T LIKE THE PORK", "THEY DiDN"T MY BOOZE FAST ENOUGH" from someone who eats all types of processed garbage, fast food and the average mediocre restaurant fare which is no better.

                      1. re: dietndesire

                        I can say without hesitation that I know when something isn't to my liking and when it isn't prepared well. In fact what I didn't write into my original report was that part of the problem was that many of the things we had seem to be done better at other places. We have had better sauteed fish at Nopa in SF, better pork belly at Redd in Yountville and Simpatica in Portland, better sweetbreads at Prune in NY, etc. I just believe that with the price point, Michelin stars, and reputation, the food and experience should have exceeded more pedestrian locations.

                  2. re: uhockey

                    I'm looking forward to your report on your trip, uhockey! With all the advice we gave you, it's good to know what worked and what didn't.

                    1. re: Ruth Lafler

                      To be fair I didn't take tons of your advice, but I did have a stellar time at TFL. I posted an exhaustive review here: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/599579

                  3. I have read and then carefully perused your review, and I think your title "Terrible" is both inaccurate and unfair. If you go dish by dish, you enjoyed the vast majority of the many courses and found a couple to be superlative, while two you found overcooked and two others either not to your liking or taste. It appears that the biggest problem with your evening was the loud and obnoxious party sitting near you, and this poses a difficult dilemma for a restaurant, particularly if they have some connection to the enterprise. My biggest disagreement is that you never expressed any of your discontent or concerns to your server or any manager. Yes, there is always an excuse -- "I was the guest, and didn't want to insult my host," or "I was the host, and didn't want to mar the experience for my guests," or the copout "We just don't like confrontation." Even the finest restaurant can't be perfect or please everyone, but the best turn problems into memorable recoveries if given the opportunity. I think it is wimpy to say nothing at the time and then to post your complaints here under such a negative heading.

                    6 Replies
                    1. re: nosh

                      If you read that carefully, the OP sent an email of complaint.

                      Sharing this in a food forum is a good way to get a reality check to see if maybe your experience was as good or bad as you thought. It helps other diners not only in terms of what to expect at the restaurant but perhaps how to handle situations like this should they encounter something similar.

                      Not all of us want to confront the restaurant. Having to share a restaurant with tables close together with obnoxious drunks nearby with at tab that must have been at least $700 ... food aside ... if that doesn't count as terrible, I don't know what does.

                      I always think it is unfair when someone has a bad dinner and the onus is put on the diner.

                      This sounds more and more like Keller wasn't in the restaurant that night. Unless that drunken table contained investors in the Keller enterprise ... and even then I'm sure there are no shortage of potential investors ... the staff should have done something without diners having to complain. That is the point of paying those big prices and there is no explaining away a bad night or an off night. Not at those prices.

                      Yep you can't control the first time something unacceptable by a drunk happens be it overly loud conversation or a chair falling backward. Just as you can't control a dish or glass accidently being drop. But like broken dinnerware, you clean it up IMMEDIATELY and don't let it sit there for others to complain about.

                      After that chair dropped, those diners should have been removed. Whoever they were, the Keller people should have had the skills to deal with it gracefully.

                      Doesn't matter who the drunks were ... business assocates ... let them take their business elsewhere for having the gall to ruin dinners for others ... relatives/friends ... deal with it and hope they apoligize to you afterward ... restaurant critics (real ones) ... have some balls and put your other diners experience above a potential bad review ... and I'd call the editor or boss of those people to report them the very next day.

                      1. re: rworange

                        rworange, I read your posts and usually value your opinion, but I respectfully disagree here:

                        An email sent later is NOT the same as presenting a server, manager or owner the opportunity to correct the situation at the time. It is not necessary to "confront," but it is incumbent on the diner to inform if a situation becomes intrusive and offensive or to notify if they found seafood overcooked. Yes, it would be better if it never occurred, or if the restaurant noticed the flaws themselves. In a perfect world or restaurant everything and everybody would be, well, perfect.

                        When does the happy, celebratory lively table turn into the boisterous, drunk, obnoxious distraction? When exactly is the line? Should my dad have been thrown out at dinner the other night when his beer spilled -- is that a line -- or is it excused because he mistakenly placed it on the edge of a knife? The staff takes cues, and should, from the vibe of the room and the other diners. They can't read minds. Most patrons will laugh politely, though some will stew inside; it is when a neighboring table or two quietly whispers their displeasure that the staff has the ammo to tell the offenders they are bothering others and not contributing to the evening.

                        What is the goal of the email after the fact? I read on these pages of people that write and then complain that there is no response. What is the expectation? A correction? Well, the writer may never know. A thank you? I'm sure that would be unsatisfactory. A gift certificate? Maybe that is the intention, subconscious or explicit. But in the case of the French Laundry, most patrons are from out of town. The OP pretty much expressed no desire to return. And should the restaurant be in the position of having to comp an entire meal or two when they were presented no opportunity to correct the situation at the time? Do they owe entire meals when the patron didn't even tell them the seafood was overcooked, in the OP's opinion?

                        1. re: nosh

                          Some good points, especially about giving a waiter ammo to say that others are complaining.

                          Though I have never had a bad experience at the level of French Laundry, if a place upsets me enough I usually send a letter or email. Well, if anything upsets me enough I send an email.

                          IMO, if a place gets enough of those ... people who took the time to actually complain personally ... maybe some changes will be made which is better for diners in the future.

                          Usually letters to restaurants are only after I have personally brought it to someone's attention and nothing was done or the staff is so wacked out I know that a complaint ain't gonna do a thing at the time.

                          To use an example at the extreme other end. I love the McDonald's filet o fish. They changed it a few years ago, making it bigger, changing the bun, putting (ugh) lettuce on it and charging more. I wrote a letter of complaint. The customer rep blew me off and said their focus group liked it better. A few months later the original returned.

                          Now whether sales dropped off or enough people complained I'll never know. Still, change was made. That is my whole point in complaining at all. One little rain drop means nothing. However, when it starts pouring down, pay attention.

                          A single voice at a restaurant dies the minute the words are out of the mouth. I believe in documentation. I think a letter is less exploitive than linking to an online bitch. In that case you are throwing a public temper tantrun and almost explicity demanding some sort of comp.

                          1. re: rworange

                            rworange, Who could ever guess that our discussion would evolve (devolve?) from The French Laundry to a McD's filet o' fish?! Pretty funny.

                            Yes, documentation has its usefulness. And if the purpose is a change in policy or protocol that needs to be implemented at a higher level, emails and letters are absolutely appropriate and effective. But influencing a megacorp's menu choices requires different strategies than quieting a table of drunks or correcting an overcooked seafood dish.

                            At the level of The French Laundry, its pricepoint, reputation, and level of expectation, it is more than unfortunate that the experience is marred. I am not excusing or apologizing for the restaurant's responsibility. I just wonder what the post might have read if the OP had expressed the dissatisfactions to the servers and manager at the time. At the least, I hope and trust that the overcooked and even disliked dishes would have been replaced quickly and graciously. If the offensive party couldn't be subdued or removed, I wonder what steps they would have taken to distance or at least placate the innocent table -- wine? foie? who knows? I'd love to have read the story of what might have been.

                          2. re: nosh

                            I am loving this thread.

                            Nosh, in case you didn't read my original post, I will sum it up. Comped $500(about) meal for 2 PLUS I believe COMPED dinner in diner's hometown of Chicago, though the latter might have merely been arranged.
                            Only problem with timing between courses. And that wench had the nerve to say money couldn't make up for it because it was the anniversary.
                            But of course, she did TAKE the comp. AND I am sure the other meal.
                            But it wasn't about money. I love when people say that. OK, then why not leave a 500% tip? Or just pay the restaurant 10x what the bill is?
                            It is not about money in someone's mind, until it hits their own limit. Then it is about money.

                            While no 3 star should be overcooking anything(pet peeve, well, all execution issues but in all restaurants that label themselves good or better), I would gladly take one overcooked course for a comped meal. This is to demonstrate the point.

                            I am not sure about OP's position and motivation so I won't say, the other post, it was obvious. Oh, and I am quite sure she was a drunk. Couldn't wait to get booze to start with, then told them to back off, then complained that courses were spaced too far apart. 3 hours, too long for her on a 10 course meal. Obviously, she knows nothing. And the commentary was so negative. I am not even a fan of that restaurant but the service there is on it's worst night really attentive.
                            Free meal of that caliber for those mistakes and you write them up as if they gave you a TGI Friday's meal.

                            The bigger problem is these same people will then be giving great kudos to some place that puts out food that is barely a step above TGIFs.

                            No rewards for emails, afterward, you are right. How do they know your problem and what are they going to do, invite you to another meal on the house? Far too much.

                        2. re: nosh

                          Nosh, good point and I mostly agreed with you but OP was not as egregious as that poster I had mentioned so I cut her some slack. IF those dishes were that poorly executed, that is really not acceptable at a 3 star, do I know they were, no.And yes, OP did seem to enjoy most of them. The title of the review is certainly way too harsh, agreed.
                          That is not "terrible", it is "disappointing" I would say.
                          I do think management should have done something about the drunken party. I don't give a hoot who they were. If you run your place like that, then it is not 3 star, it is an upscale spot for cronies.
                          Yes, something should have been said somewhere along the line of the meal or afterwards but if you are not used to dining in venues like that(and I am not saying OP is or isn't)then some hesitation is understandable. As I said, I hate complaining because there are some many hypochondriacs, who know nothing about food or anything and whine about the most idiotic things, oh, I wanted my food out in 3 min 45s and this was 4min or some such nonsense. So, either I just cross it off the list or will say something ONLY if I feel the management is truly sincere. I don't care to hear, SORRY, when you will do nothing and don't actually care. Action over words.

                          I recall reading this thread because of the title and thinking that it was not possible and it would be like that other absurd post I read. This post is notcompletely out of line though yes, that title is CERTAINLY not deserved even based on OP's own writing which may or may not be accurate but it is worst case and even then, "terrible" does not belong.

                          Good post, Nosh, though RWOrange is on point with his next post.


                          Another well conceived and written post. Nice to see this, SO rare.
                          Again, agreed with almost everything except to say that there are those whiny, ignorant diners who are not pleased when a restaurant is literally doing everything and anything and going way beyond what they should(even for a 3 star)to make up for it.

                          As to your point about the fact that you shouldn't HAVE to say anything. True, they should know what a 3 star experience is. Which is why I usually just say to myself, not going back there. Great analogy with the broken dish.

                          I cannot stand drunken fools. If you are that wasted and quiet and not falling over, great(well, until you drive your car and wack some innocent out) but adults and not even young adults, acting this way is tolerated and encouraged far too much.

                          And how do you trust the reviews/experiences/notes of people who are often quite deep in the drunk tank, reviewers both pro and amateur?
                          I think this has much to do with why there are such wide variances about the same place.
                          Probably another reason, along with the fact they they are all buddies, that I don't trust many pro critics.
                          If it is an old school feast as the Romans would have it, well, don't tell me the next day about the details, you really can't say. Unless you are one of those people who is "fine to drive, I am NOT drunk, I only had 4 drinks". Well, if you care to wager on your skills as measured by a machine after 4, you will see how drunk you are, plus the fact thatyou probably had at least 8.

                          But I digress, good posts here.

                        3. thomas keller rarely cooks anymore but corey lee is more than capable of handling the kitchen. I talked with both thomas and corey the last time i was there and they know how hard it is to keep 3 michelin stars, off nights very rare. Another thing to consider is a large part of the menu changes daily and at that high level it is amazing that they can keep it up. Most places i visit like the Fat Duck, Le Bernardin, the amazing Providence in LA, Manresa don't change as frequently. Well it is off to Pierre Gagnaire in Paris next week

                          1. Hope you two have great eating adventures in your upcoming trip to France and Germany.

                            1. It's regrettable, and at that price point AND reputation, there should be no room for regrets. That said, I think you handled things perfectly with the follow-up email. For me, the whole problem with telling a staff member that something is not up to par is that the very act of having to say that changes the dynamics of the remainder of the evening. If you talk to someone about the first course that is sub-par and later a second one appears, it's not unreasonable to ask yourself if this time it's intentional or whether they had to bring in a "chef" from The Greasy Spoon. In your situation when the evening was a gift from your husband, it makes it even more difficult to walk the line.

                              I think you handled things exactly right. You gave yourselves permission to enjoy the rest of the evening for what it was without influencing things by lodging a complaint during dinner. I'm sure all of us are interested in hearing what results your email will bring. It's my contention that *anyone* who works in a restaurant of that caliber should be able to recognize overcooked fish and pork just by looking. It should never have been served. Sorry for your bad experience.

                              9 Replies
                              1. re: Caroline1

                                If they had "given themselves permission to enjoy the rest of the evening" it might be a reasonable strategy, but they didn't. The first five dishes were good to great to superlative, then one of the next pair was overcooked. It is at this point in the narrative that they didn't point it out, but instead mentioned being annoyed by the boisterous party alongside them. At that point the successful plates are barely acknowledged, and the writer begins to painstakingly point out the flaws.

                                I have no qualm about the email afterwards. I do have disagreements with posting such a negative account under the title of "Terrible" when they took no responsibility for bringing problems or flaws to the attention of anyone who could help solve, remedy, replace or accommodate the situation at the time.

                                1. re: nosh

                                  I'm unclear whether you've missed my point entirely or if you're just disagreeing with my opinion. For me, having to speak to anyone about the problems changes the whole dynamics of the evening, and for me, definitely puts an edge on everything thereafter. That should NEVER happen at those prices and with a restaurant with that reputation.

                                  1. re: Caroline1

                                    Caroline, I understand and completely disagree. I go back to my comment about a perfect world -- ideally, yes; in reality, unattainable. Yes, at a restaurant of the caliber of The French Laundry water glasses should be kept full without asking, but it is not going to ruin my evening or put a pall on my relations with the staff if in the midst of a dozen courses and countless other tasks I have to request a refill or let them know that I prefer lots of fresh ice and no lemon. If I have a problem, a low voice, a smile, a pleasant inflection in my tone conveys anything but confrontation and unpleasantness. Good servers are eager to please, and excellent managers enjoy solving problems -- it becomes a win-win. If having to speak with anyone about a problem puts an edge on an evening for you, then don't. But I think that failing to accept any responsibility for the interaction lessens your right to complain or post about it after-the-fact.

                                    1. re: nosh

                                      Well, we're not talking about refilling a glass of water, are we? We're talking about being served food that should never have been transferred from a pan to a plate, let alone being moved from the kitchen and placed before a diner. THAT, in my opinion, is a critical difference. Servers don't have a lot of control over a chef's decision to plate unacceptable food.

                                      1. re: Caroline1

                                        Yes and no. Yes, it is unfortunate when any mistake comes out of the kitchen. But a cutting-edge restaurant kitchen is not a mechanized computerized assembly line -- product, cooks, situations, timing varies, and this isn't even taking into account the subjectivity -- that what is overcooked to the OP may be exactly what the chef and cook intended. We don't even know how much of the dish the OP ate -- the whole thing? just a first bite from the thin edge that was closest to the heat?

                                        I am not excusing the possible mistake. I am imploring diners to take some responsibility at the time. Servers are not mindreaders. If something is unsatisfactory, politely let them know. Restaurants want to please. Give them the opportunity to correct the flaw on the spot, at the time. If doing so is going to ruin your evening, an email is fine. But without giving the place notice and an opportunity to respond, posting a wildly negative review under the heading of "Terrible" is inaccurate and unfair.

                                        1. re: nosh

                                          Okay. I can go along with that. But I do also understand the extreme need to vent. For that kind of money, wow, would I need to vent! '-)

                                          1. re: Caroline1

                                            Nosh & C1:

                                            My husband hates having to complain--it ruins his experience and can cloud the rest of the evening. I don't mind, but know it makes him uncomfortable, but we realise that at least one of us ought to say something if it's not obvious the the server that we have been discomforted by other diners or plates being retrieved uneaten--even a server at a greasy spoon asks if everything was OK if the plate is barely touched.

                                            We dined on the QE2 for 2 weeks; not once was there a problem with service--water, wine, or under/overcooked food. If the plate wasn't finished or barely touched, our server was concerned and offered an alternate suggestion (by the end of the trip, we decided that we really couldn't finish all 5 courses each evening). There were never repeated offerings for any of the lunch and dinner menus, and never an off-night for the chefs.

                                            The server doesn't have to be a mind reader to notice discomfort--a frown (or grimace), uneaten food, etc. Or having other guests stare in disbelief at the table where someone was so drunk that they fell backwards in their chair.

                                    2. re: nosh

                                      You make an interesting point about one weird thing happening but the rest of the meal was up to par. I've been to another chronicle 4-star /2 stars michelin tasting menu place and had one sub-par dish out of 9 or 10 but everything else was great. The reaction was something like "that was weird, actually bad, okay no biggie, move on to the next course." It was still an excellent meal.

                                      Also been to The French Laundry (8 yrs ago) and had a weird service experience. I think wacky and semi-unprofessional is the term, all within the first 5 minutes. Despite this, the food was exceptional. It deserved to be nicked .25 pt however.

                                  2. My take is a bit different. Why would you have said anything? It sounds like you loved the majority of the meal, all except for two dishes of an intricate tasting menu. While that will reflect on the over all experience, as can a rowdy table, it's not really your burden to say something in such a situation. Not everyone wants to invite confrontation, during a special occasion, and be the one to tell FL they're not only serving poorly cooked food. Worse, that they can't even tell the difference to prevent it. Your server should have recognized if something looked wrong. At that price point, that really is an indication something is wrong, on an off night, so much as just what they get away with and likely most of the people dropping money there aren't going to admit what they're thinking when a dish like the stuffed venison is just bad.

                                    Chances are FL isn't 100% perfect, because let's face it, if you're all having 100% perfect meals everytime you spend a certain set dollar amount, chances are it's partly in your heads. A 100% perfect meal is a rare experience rarely duplicated even at the same establishment. Review ratings and price rarely have anything to do with it. My guess? You could go back tomorrow and have that perfect meal....or go back and find a different 2 dishes were buffet steam table quality. In this economy, at that price point, with their reputation, there's no reason you should feel as if there was something you could have said or done to correct their negligence.

                                    1. I have never been to FL (but have been to 2/3 star places elsewhere), and would love to go one day, but it seems that FL posts on CH do tend to flag up issues arguably on a more regular basis than other restaurants at that level - perhaps more an indication of how much passion everyone has for the place than volume of problems?

                                      As far as my opinion on the issues raised and following discussion, I think it is hard to pre-plan a judgement call on speaking to management during the evening. I do not like 'having' to complain in such a situation, as IMHO, once you go down that route, you are changing in your own mind your enjoyment level of the evening and this will leave a horrible taste in your mouth (no pun intended), although this obviously will be traded off against the fact that there was no immediate resolution either - essentially you lose 'something' either way, although giving the establishment the opportunity to redeem themselves obviously brings some recompense, but if you care about your choice of restaurant, you then are likely to spend time and stress wondering how your complaint will be dealt with.

                                      In terms of the issues described, if I was in a 3 michelin star establishment and clients at an adjoining table were obviously disturbing myself and other clients, I would 100% expect that to be noticed and dealt with by the staff. Three stars is about the package, not just the food, and I think it is unfair to the OP to argue that a little alcohol fuelled exuberance is the same situation as wholesale overt drunkeness. Things obviously dont always run smoothly (even with 3 *), but the dining room must be monitored and the diners experience buffered along the way to minimise problems.

                                      Can I ask the question no one else has yet - did you get a reply from FL and did they say?

                                      1. humblepie asks a good question -- it'll be good to know if (and how) FL replies.

                                        Good thread, brings out core issues explicit and implicit. I agree with rworange, diner is not the problem in most bad experiences, yet there are still reciprocal responsibilities. Communicate. One neighbor had a quirky bad experience at a normally superb restaurant, now denounces the place. I asked if she tried any thoughtful, after-the-fact followup with the ownership -- clear the air, see what happens. No, rather keep things as they are and complain to others. That means she's chosen not to use all her options and also to broadcast an atypical experience, which may be a disservice to her listeners. Another restaurant forum carried two long threads -- one about French Laundry -- by diners admitting they created their own bad experiences, but still want to complain. (Each also got many sympathetic replies.) Reciprocal responsibilities.

                                        N.B.: "Price point" is a technical term from economics that does not mean "price" (just as parameter is a term from mathematics that doesn't mean constraint or boundary) but is sometimes used that way:


                                        2 Replies
                                        1. re: eatzalot

                                          I've never seen "price point" in agricultiral and environmental economics.

                                          1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                            I had a similar experience to the poster and did send two things back since they were ice cold. they did give us an extra course but no one said a word. I did not think everything was as it should be and we did actually complain very gently. Too gently, I guess. I sent a letter afterward and it was six weeks before I received a very snooty reply to the effect that it must be me...