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Jan 24, 2012 01:12 AM

French Laundry

We had lunch at the Laundry last week with four friends. My wife and I had been there twice before, both times for dinner and it was several years ago. My wife and one friend ordered the vegetarian menu and the rest of us ordered the standard one. Some quick comments: Those who ordered the vegetarian menu were the happiest. It's not that the regular menu wasn't good. In fact, it was good and that's the problem-- It wasn't consistently excellent to outstanding as we remembered from prior visits.

There was one problem with the vegetarian menu. The handkerchief pasta arrived cold and hard. My wife and the friend who had this dish both said the same thing. They informed the waiter, who responded with an explanation of how the pasta was made and how they served it al dente (as if we were at fault for not appreciating it). Cold and hard is not the same as al dente. When his explanation didn't work, he said that he would inform the chef. Although the dish already had been consumed by the time the waiter was informed of the problem, I found his reaction very disappointing. He should have offered to replace the dish with something else (which probably would have been declined considering the number of courses). This is the French Laundry not the Olive Garden, there is no excuse for undercooked pasta, and notifying the chef did nothing to rectify the problem. All in all, I thought our lunch failed to rise to the heights expected at the French Laundry or to be worth the stratospheric price. You can have as good an experience at Gary Danko for about half of the French Laundry price and without having to go through the reservation hassles. I give the Laundry three stars, factoring in the price (270/person not including tax or wine).

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  1. Three stars out of how many? Four? Five?

    To me, prices like that are supposed to guarantee excellence.

    6 Replies
    1. re: Robert Lauriston

      Prices don't guarantee excellence. They merely guarantee exclusiveness.

      1. re: GH1618

        Let me put it another way: to me, a tab of $270 before tax and tip promises excellence, and I'm not going to put up with less. I would take it as a guarantee in the sense that I'd insist the bill be reduced.

        1. re: Robert Lauriston

          fwiw, $270 includes service, but excludes tax.

          1. re: Robert Lauriston

            You gotta fight for your right . . .I agree with Robert. Your expectations are completely in line with the dining experience they are trying to provide and a word to the captain or manager might have helped your satisfaction at the very least. When I was younger and less worldly, I ate at Le Bernardin and shortly after finishing our last bite and paying the considerable bill, we were pretty much asked to leave because they needed the table. I wouldn't go gently into the night now.

            1. re: Robert Lauriston

              I adhere to the principle that a gentleman doesn't count his change, and this is a similar situation. I would call attention to unsatisfactory food or service, if sufficiently substandard to warrant a complaint, but leave it entirely up to the restaurant manager to resolve. If the problem were not resolved satisfactorily, i just wouldn't return.

              There are too many people making demands over small matters these days, in my opinion.

              1. re: GH1618

                I agree with you 101% on this point. The interwebs have given many people a sense of self-righteousness about these matters that just winds up look petty and ugly instead of acting like a decent, considerate human.

        2. TFL is overpriced and overrated. it absolutely does not deserve its two month queue.

          that said, i really don't think Gary Danko's cooking is on the same level as french laundry.

          i'm curious, though -- you said this is your third visit. Do you generally feel your experience at top places gets better after multiple visits, or gets worse?

          13 Replies
          1. re: Dustin_E

            Thanks for the interesting replies. Before this last visit to the FL, I would have agreed that it's a higher level than Gary Danko. It wasn't true this time. As to whether we feel our experience gets better or worse when we return to restaurants, the best I can say is it depends. We've been back to places that we thought got even better. We've returned to places that were big disappointments. Of course, it's sometimes hard to say whether your memory and the passage of time have changed your perception.
            The comment about gentlemen not counting their change reminds me of Harry Stimson (Secy of State in the 1920s-30's) who famously said about decoding secret messages from other countries: "Gentlemen do not read each other's mail." Unfortunately, being that kind of gentlemen does not win wars or get you good treatment in restaurants.

            1. re: stebro

              If I had never heard of TFL, and if the bill was half the price, I'd have said "oh, that was a lovely lunch." That said, everything was good, service was impeccable, and there wasn't a "wow" bite in all the courses. Corey Lee had recently left.

              I'll return one day if someone makes the reservation and picks up the check. Otherwise, it isn't worth it - not even close.

              1. re: stebro

                War is not a gentleman's game. I thought WW1 had dispatched with that idea. If the food you're being served is clearly off in a high-end restaurant like FL, then when the server asks you about it, don't be shy. You don't have to be brutal about it, just give them something they can work with. If they're a kitchen worth their salt, they'll up their game. If they respond badly, then it's not a quality establishment.

                1. re: weshoke

                  I don't think anyone in this thread suggested that you shouldn't complain about bad food. Of course you should and you may actually be doing the restaurant a favor by providing feedback. The way I read GH1618's post (in response to Robert Lauriston) was that you shouldn't ask for a reduced bill for food that you've already elected to consume. If that was the intended meaning, I completely agree with that. If a dish arrives undercooked and cold, you can either send it back right away or eat it and be prepared to pay for it. If a restaurant serves bad food and doesn't voluntarily handle complaints about it to your satisfaction, you just don't go there again. That's it. You don't haggle over the bill at TFL or anywhere else concerning dishes that you voluntarily consumed after initially tasting them. (Not that the OP ever suggested haggling over the bill.) And all that stuff is pretty much unrelated to war and spying.

                  1. re: weshoke

                    stebro complained that the pasta was cold and hard, and the server replied with a lecture instead of taking it away.

                    I'm not sure what to make of the story since they ate the pasta, so I guess it wasn't as disgusting as "cold and hard" makes it sound.

                    1. re: Robert Lauriston

                      He couldn't have taken it away, since it "the dish already had been consumed by the time the waiter was informed of the problem." I agree that the waiter at a restaurant like French Laundry should not argue with the customer. Ever. However, there was no way for him to know if the dish was not executed properly, as opposed to not to the diners' taste, and inform the kitchen accordingly.

                      1. re: Ruth Lafler

                        What, you can't send it back after you ate it? OMG.

                        On that note, high expectations can kill any meal, especially ones costing around $300 per/person. It's tricky but it's best to curb expectations.

                        1. re: ML8000

                          Yeah, if you're paying that much for a meal at a place with three Michelin stars, some of the food's probably going to be undercooked and/or not at the right temperature, and the server's probably not going to handle complaints professionally, so it's best not to go in with the same expectations you'd have at a regular old restaurant.

                    2. re: weshoke

                      I was there last week as well - in fact, on the day they opened after the winter break. I would dispute the idea that there were no "wow" bites. In fact, I found there were several. It was, however, stunningly expensive. I was prepared for this. Whether the experience is worth the money is, I suppose, a matter of conjecture. The meal I had there had no real flaws, and I did get the sense that any perceived flaw in the food would be dealt with rapidly and with aplomb, so I would echo the sentiment that you should have made some noise if you weren't satisfied. I would have insisted on the course being replaced. After all, it's in the best interest of places like TFL to ensure that the diner leaves happy.

                      1. re: gourmandish

                        >>> After all, it's in the best interest of places like TFL to ensure that the diner leaves happy.

                        Why would they care unless it was someone from Michelan? It is not like getting a reservation isn't already almost impossible to get.

                        1. re: rworange

                          They would probably care because it's embedded in their corporate culture. They became a top-notch restaurant because of a passion for perfection, not because of a "we don't care" attitude.

                    3. re: stebro

                      Any favorite dishes for Gary Danko? I've really enjoyed some of their fish dishes recently, though French Laundry had probably the best cooked-fish dishes i've ever had. Sadly, that was the only dish i was really impressed by, and i'm certainly not about to go buy a whole tasting menu to have that one dish again, let alone deal with the reservation hassle involved in a visit to TFL.

                  2. "Although the dish already had been consumed by the time the waiter was informed of the problem, I found his reaction very disappointing.

                    "The food here is terrible."

                    "Yes, and the portion size is so small."

                    If something tastes terrible, I'm not going to finish it in the hopes that it'll magically improve.

                    3 Replies
                    1. re: MandalayVA

                      If you've ever been the the FL, you know that the portion sizes are tiny (but there are lots of courses). The pasta course was maybe three bites. The waiter wasn't nearby so my wife and our friend both finished it. Perhaps they should have stopped after the first bite! Anyway, as I said before, this is no ordinary restaurant and we felt they could have responded to customer input in a much better way.

                      1. re: stebro

                        I have been there and am well aware of the portion size, but if something I expected to be hot was cold one bite would have been all it took for me to call the server, particularly at a place like the French Laundry. If it was already cold what difference did it make that your server wasn't nearby? One surefire way to get attention at such a restaurant is not to finish something, which your server certainly would have noticed when clearing for the next course.

                      2. re: MandalayVA

                        At the top end, you're paying for the complete experience, not just the food. Sure, even at this level, we've all had dishes that weren't magical, but they shouldn't detract from the overall experience as this one clearly did. I think that's what our OP is noting. How one poorly handled situation, even in the course of an otherwise fine meal can spoil things and, frankly, lose a restaurant a repeat customer.

                      3. Service at TFL likely declined after Laura Cunningham left and the food probably slipped after Corey Lee left. Of course if you're popping for $300 per/person, you don't really care about this.

                        3 Replies
                        1. re: ML8000

                          I don't know when these people mentioned left TFL, but I was there about a year and half ago. I had the lunch which was the same as the dinner. However, the lunch gave us the magnificent view. The service was impeccable. The food was the best I've had anywhere. It was as good or better than any Michelin restaurant that I've been to in France or New York. We ordered some extras, so our bill was $1200 for two people. that included wine. I like that they give you a clothes pin with your bill. It reminds you that the French Laundry just took you to the cleaners

                          1. re: ML8000

                            Food and service were outstanding when we went after Corey and Cunningham left. And i agree with some posters that it is hard to deal for a server with this situation when you complain after you ate the dish (which indicates that it was most likely not that cold and hard). I don't really know what the OP expected from the server when you already consumed a course. (And it's not that difficult to get the attention of one of the many servers at FL even if the course is only a few bites.)

                            1. re: honkman

                              We were at TFL this past weekend for the first time. After the fish, lobster, and chicken courses, all which seemed to be the most delicate versions of the proteins I had ever had, my wife's lamb dish seemed tougher than we expected. We had each taken a bite of the meat. We informed our waiter of the issue, and he offered to take back the dish and give us a new preparation of the dish. He explained that the color of the lamb looked like the correct temperature (sous vided then finished in the pan), but the log shape of the lamb was bigger than how the meat is usually served. I don't recall the last time we sent a dish back to the kitchen, but considering that we were at *this* particular restaurant, and paying the considerable price, we took up his offer.

                              In the meantime, I finished my hare ravioli dish (from the offal menu, see more below). While we were waiting for lamb no. 2, our server gave us each a truffled egg custard. I had only seen one table receive the custards earlier, and was secretly jealous, so this was a great surprise. When the lamb dish was presented again to my wife, I was given a gnocchi dish. The lamb now consisted of two medallions, rather than one log, and it was better than lamb no. 1. Truth be told, the lamb was probably still the least favorite of our dishes, but the service was outstanding. The gnocchi dish only had four dumplings, but delicious in a butter-black truffles sauce.

                              I generally preferred my wife's dishes from the chef's tasting menu over my offal menu dishes. The standouts from the offal menu included a salad with gizzards, apricot, and black truffle; a foie gras sherbert; and a chocolate ganache made with pork blood. A playful dish with beef tendon and uni named "Egg Drop Soup" was overly salty and didn't come together in my mind.