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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. The original comment has been removed
            1. 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.