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Saturday, July 23, 2005

The Future of The French Laundry


As much as it pains me to type these words, I feel that I have to say it:   The French Laundry appears to be slipping.   Now, I should note at the outset that I am not ready to declare just yet that the restaurant has lost its claim to being the best in the region.
Furthermore, I would still recommend that those who have never been to The French Laundry make a point of trying to experience it at least once if possible.   But that said, I have reluctantly come to conclude that as the years have gone on, the restaurant has lost some of its focus, its attention to detail, its "finesse."   And at the same time, a small group of contenders – including the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton, Manresa, and Gary Danko – have continued a steady upward march, to the point where they are now well within striking distance of the Bay Area’s most famous dining establishment.

My first meal at The French Laundry in April 2000, without exaggeration, changed my entire gastronomical worldview.   Never before had I tasted such refined flavors and brilliant combinations, never before had I seen such amazingly constructed and intricate presentations, and never before had I experienced such impeccable service.   Simply put, Chef/Owner Thomas Keller revealed things that I – despite having previously dined at the Bay Area’s finest restaurants – never even imagined could be achieved with food or with food service.   Every element of that first visit reached perfection, and I left the building awestruck at what I had just experienced.

My next several dinners at the restaurant brought more of the same, as Keller continued to raise the bar even higher.   Time and again, he left me shaking my head in wonder at his ability to create taste sensations like no other.   He prepared food items that I normally dislike in ways that made me love them.   He took a humble ingredient such as the parsnip, and worked delicately to isolate, distill down, and concentrate the essence of the vegetable into a single explosive bite.   He paired food items that previously seemed to have no affinity for one another, and demonstrated why the combination made all the sense in the world.   Indeed, what Keller provided was nothing short of an education - about the flavor, the texture, and the potential of the very foods that I had been eating my entire life.   And the service was spectacular – gracious, courteous, accommodating, anticipatory, and knowledgeable.    Keller was – in my book – a genius, and The French Laundry was the paragon of restaurants, light years ahead of its closest competitors.
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There's more...
The first less-than-stellar experience I had at The French Laundry was in January 2003.   The food remained at the same magnificent level as on earlier visits, but the graceful service – described as “balletic” by some – was clearly lacking.   Waiters were presenting and clearing dishes from random directions, refilling wine glasses by reaching across the front of guests, and thrusting baskets of fresh white truffles uncomfortably close to diners’ faces.   One obviously-new waiter even stood tableside for what seemed to be an eternity, faithfully moving one spoon over another in an attempt to form a quenelle of a nearly liquid cheese – apparently hoping that persistence might magically cause it to come into existence.   My next visit a few months later found the service to be similarly substandard.

Over the course of the ensuing two years, I told myself that the service issues that I had experienced were probably attributable to Keller’s plan – already underway at the time – to open Per Se, his multi-million dollar New York counterpart to The French Laundry.   Certainly Keller and his staff were a bit distracted, I figured, and once both restaurants were up and running at full steam, The French Laundry would naturally return to its inimitable form.   Well, my opportunity to test that theory finally arrived when two friends and I recently made the journey up to The French Laundry for dinner – my first meal there since Per Se opened in early 2004.

Much to my disappointment, the service was once again less than impressive.   As described more fully in a companion post, waiters repeatedly reached across guests, failed to describe courses fully and accurately, and neglected to monitor and ensure proper wine levels throughout the course of the meal.   Furthermore, the menu itself seemed to be a notch below what it once was.   Sure, there were several courses that were just as spectacular as anything Keller has ever created; but for the first time in memory, there were some courses that were not. And that, to me, was profoundly disappointing – in a way that is difficult even to describe.

So, what conclusions, if any, can be drawn?   Well, one thing I can no longer deny is that over the course of three consecutive visits, The French Laundry has exhibited service that has consistently been below excellent.   Is it downright bad, or rude, or offensive in some manner?   Of course not.   Is it still well above the service that the vast majority of our local restaurants provide?   Certainly.   But is it anywhere near what The French Laundry itself once offered – what Keller demonstrated could be achieved with the right mix of talented people, attention to detail, and a passionate commitment to excellence?   Absolutely not.

The quality of the food, meanwhile, has not fallen off quite as precipitously.   Yet, my recent meal at the restaurant included several dishes that – as described in the companion post – fell somewhere short of greatness.
Again, the food obviously was not bland, bad or inedible, and a meal at The French Laundry is still a special experience when compared to the overwhelming majority of restaurants in town.   But does the entire menu – from top to bottom – still reflect the brilliant conception, the meticulous focus on presentation, and the astonishing effects that each and every dish did three, four, or five years ago?   Unfortunately, no.

Now, one might argue that some of my comments – or perhaps even all of them – are merely nitpicking.   Maybe I’m just expecting too much, some might say.   To that, however, I have two responses.

First, it is important to keep in mind that I am not measuring the restaurant against some abstract, unattainable level of perfection that I invented in my head.   Rather, I am measuring it against the standard that The French Laundry itself previously set.   If that benchmark was attainable before, why shouldn’t I expect the restaurant to attain it now?

Second, and more fundamentally, when I am asked to pay $175 for a meal before the cost of alcohol is added in, when a 19% gratuity is automatically imposed regardless of party size, when a group of three walks out the door of a restaurant a grand total of $1000 poorer, I have no qualms about demanding absolute perfection.   To put it plainly, The French Laundry’s prices today exceed those of its competitors by a long shot; it’s only fair to expect its food and service to do the same.

And therein lies one of the basic problems that The French Laundry faces.   Over the past five years, the cost of Keller’s tasting menu has risen dramatically – from $105 per person to $175 (a 67% increase).   With inflation of that magnitude, diners have a right to expect that the quality of the experience will be at least the same as it was before, if not even higher.   And they certainly wouldn’t expect quality to decline as prices skyrocket.   Yet, as described above, that is precisely what has happened.

While all of this is unfolding at The French Laundry, of course, the rest of the market is not standing still.   There are certain chefs in the Bay Area – most notably Ron Siegel, David Kinch, and Gary Danko – who have steadily continued to invent, improve and refine, and who are doing some amazing things at their respective restaurants.
And importantly, each of these chefs is charging considerably less than Keller:   Siegel’s menu (9 courses) is $115, Kinch’s menu (10 courses) is $98, and Danko’s menu (5 courses) is $79.   As these gentlemen move closer to producing a menu that is just as good as Keller’s current one – and Siegel and Kinch, in particular, are very close – how much longer will diners be willing to pay The French Laundry’s prices?

In the end, I do not for a moment believe that Thomas Keller has lost his touch, that his extraordinary talent has somehow diminished over time, or that other chefs have managed to surpass him in creativity or ability.   To the contrary, I still hold Keller in the highest possible regard, both for the education that he has provided as to what is possible and for his phenomenal talent and vision.   No, what I fear is that the dizzying heights that The French Laundry once hit on a regular basis were reached only because Keller devoted every last ounce of his passion and obsession to that singular pursuit – energies that are now distributed and diluted across a mini-empire that includes two top-tier restaurants on opposite ends of the country.   And as long as that situation continues, I suspect that The French Laundry will not be able to reclaim its past glory.

But I cannot even begin to tell you how fervently I hope I am wrong.


5 Comments:

Anonymous Catherine said...

Really interesting point of view. I have only eaten at TFL once, and it was a spectacular and memorable experience, but there is only so much of TK to go around.

August 19, 2005 4:18 PM  
Blogger NS said...

Catherine: Thanks for stopping by, and thanks for the comment. I agree - even chefs who are "mere mortals" only have a finite amount of time to devote to seeing their visions implemented, and anybody who spreads himself/herself too thin is going to see that vision diluted. In Keller's case, however, I think the dropoff has been even more pronounced; after all, we have gone from having his disciplined "obsessiveness" fully concentrated on one restaurant to having him juggle multiple projects all over the country. Something has to give, and I think it unfortunately has.

On a tangential note, I noticed your teaser earlier this week regarding Manresa - I'm very curious to find out whether your comment about it being the "Best Meal" of your life actually does mean that you preferred it over TFL. I have been extremely impressed with Manresa myself, and I plan to review it here soon.

August 19, 2005 10:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I gotta be honest with you. Your article lost all credibility with me when you compare Keller's food to Danko's. Danko's food is an unimaginative, middle class cuisine designed to satiate the masses while Keller's, and this is coming from someone who did not fully enjoy his one FL experience, is suave, playful and refined. To compare the two is blasphemous.

August 30, 2005 8:54 PM  
Blogger NS said...

Anonymous: Interesting take on Danko v. Keller. I will grant you that Keller's dishes have the more intricate presentation, and that Keller injects a playful sense of humor into his menu that Danko does not.

But I cannot agree that Danko's cuisine is "unimaginative" food designed simply to satisfy the masses. Take a look at Danko's dishes and the flavors that he pulls together; they are anything but unimaginative, and they generally tend to work unexpectedly well. For example, his foie gras preparation -- the recipe for which is on the restaurant's website and employs roasted peaches, caramelized onions, Armagnac, Essensia, and verjus -- is brilliant, and for many years was the best preparation in the Bay Area in my opinion. (The new title goes not to Keller, but to Ron Siegel over at the Ritz.)

At any rate, I do not contend that Restaurant Gary Danko has passed The French Laundry, nor do I think that Danko himself is especially close to producing a menu better than Keller's. Indeed, as you will see in an upcoming review of Gary Danko, I think that there are some issues that the restaurant definitely needs to address. My primary point is simply that The French Laundry seems to be in a dangerous decline, and that there are other talented chefs in town -- including Danko -- who have both the ability and the means to take advantage of that fact. Whether Gary Danko will be able to rise to the occasion is anyone's guess, but he certainly is not there yet.

August 30, 2005 10:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just ate at the French Laundry on Sunday and while the food was amazing, it did not live up to meals I've had there in the past. My tuna smelled, and later that night I was sick. I should of returned it, but this was the French Laundry, they don't sell bad fish. Well yes they do. Everyone at my table who ate the tuna was sick. No return calls from the French Laundry.

March 01, 2006 11:33 AM  

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