The French Laundry
Many would cite Napa Valley’s French Laundry as the best restaurant in the world. It’s a legend: a place where some 85 people gather each night to sample the food of chef proprietor Thomas Keller, food that has made its mark globally thanks to the equally legendary French Laundry Cookbook.
If Keller’s reputation rests on the book alone, it is a fearsome one indeed. The production is never less than lavish, the photography stunning and the recipes are an absolute marvel. Chef turned Gonzo writer Anthony Bourdain calls the book ‘the ultimate in food porn’. I now make my pea soup with truffle oil and a parmesan crisp. I’ve stolen, gleefully, Keller’s idea of the composed cheese course, of whipped brie de meux with thin, crisp fried bread garnishes and a line of brown, viscous, sweet balsamico reduction across it. I’m in the company of thousands when I say that Keller’s book was an inspiration. I treasure my multi-kilo copy of some of the most luscious cookery I’ve ever seen, attempted and enjoyed. And the follow-up, Bouchon, the book that accompanied Keller’s second venture, a traditional French style bistro, is just as much a marvel.
There’s even a blog where one keen amateur is trying to cook her way through The French Laundry cookbook – it’s actually a pretty good read in itself. Take a look here.
Bourdain, one of the food writers I enjoy and admire, talks in awed tones of his visit to The French Laundry. He went with two other chefs and the co-author of The French Laundry cookbook in tow and Keller cooked for the four of them: in all some sixty plates of food were sent out to the table over a six hour period, each diner getting separate individual and different dishes with each course and no waiting around. And Keller kept his 85 covers fed that night, too – with a menu that is heavy on multi-course tastings.
Bourdain’s write-up alone must have sent thousands of curious epicures scurrying towards Napa Valley: ‘Awe-inspiring... cooking had crossed the line into magic’, says Bourdain in probably his least gushing comment on the French Laundry experience. What’s impressive here is that Bourdain isn’t a gushy writer – he’s a cynical, wiry beast given to dark humour and his writing is clearly that of a man who has an intense dislike of bullshit.
So we’ve probably established this much: the book’s worth the money and the shipping charge. The man is a legend among his peers and the world’s critics and gourmands alike. The restaurant’s an unmissable experience, an epicure’s place of pilgrimage. We're talking perfection with a capital P.
Which all explains why a casual remark from a friend’s mum as we sat chatting in their kitchen in deepest southern England recently left me with my jaw to the floor, bobble eyes wide open like Hugh Laurie’s Bertie Wooster.
Carol and Gerald are given to eating in great restaurants and travel extensively. They’re incredible hosts. They ‘get’ food and enjoy the challenge of exploring the places they visit for culinary greatness. We were chatting about eating out and great restaurants. They had eaten in most.
Carol had to repeat her casually dismissive remark before it registered: Everyone was laughing at my stunned reaction and I wasn’t hearing properly. I could have sworn she had said “Oh, The French Laundry? We ate there. It was terrible.”
And then she repeated it: “It really wasn’t up to much,” she said.
And so I sat her down, poured her a glass of wine, and bade her tell all...
They were on a two week tour along the West Coast and had long been looking forward to doing dinner at The French Laundry. Which is lucky – making a booking isn’t really that easy. You have to call in your booking two months to the day in advance of the day you want to book for. Not a day earlier, not a day later. Two calendar months on the dot. So they did: a table for four.
“We all had an interesting day touring the Napa Valley,” said Carol. “Of course, you can never quite work these things out perfectly so we ended up arriving at the French Laundry about half an hour early, tired but wired and certainly ready for a culinary feast.”
Which is where the trouble started. “Our happy frame of mind was somewhat dented by our initial ‘welcome’. We found our way around to the front door and to somebody at the reception desk. We said we had a reservation. We apologized for being early - itineraries are not always easy to stick to. But, hey, we could relax, chat about our great day out, have a cocktail or two and take a look over the menu ready for our dinner.”
There was however, no great American welcome. In an area famous for its casual friendliness and hospitality, the group found themselves, well, distinctly under-welcomed. Carol is still visibly irritated by the recollection: “There was no ‘wow you’ve come a long way to eat’, just a cold ‘We are not ready, wait outside’. How rude - obviously their Michelin stars don’t include lessons on how to treat guests!”
Go girl, go! The temptation to jack it all in there and then was obviously discussed by the four (elegantly) dusty Brits at the end of their day's tour: “We were left by ourselves to wander around and find somewhere to sit outside, eventually settling down on some chairs in the garden- with no offer of even a glass of water – it was a hot day! Our driver from the hotel had driven off to take his dinner somewhere else, sensible man, so we were stuck. I think we might well otherwise have simply left. Eventually, after 20 minutes or so, someone came out from the building and took a drinks order – but the drinks hadn’t arrived by the time someone else came out to show us to our table.”
So we’re onto the good bit: time to eat. I asked Carol what she’d made of the famous ‘ice creams’ of salmon tartare, a welcome snack that Keller famously serves up, inspired by a moment of love at Baskin Robbins - a passage in The French Laundry cookbook that is so California mawkish it almost had me doing a Dorothy Parker. “Don’t remember those at all,” said Carol. “But then the food wasn’t terribly memorable, you see.”
I had thought she’d lost the power to shock me. But this was really something else. OK, the service is snotty. It’s the World’s Best Restaurant for Pete’s sake! So you have to jump through hoops of fire naked singing Bohemian Rhapsody to get a table. That’s evolution, no? But the FOOD isn’t MEMORABLE?
She brought me a glass of water, which helped me to recover, and carried on. “One of us had the vegetarian tasting menu and the others had the standard tasting menu. The vegetarian was about 13-14 courses of little bites of food – all quite palatable, but nothing I had not eaten before in some shape or form. The standard tasting menu, again about 13-14 courses (including sea urchin!), was palatable but again nothing special. In fact, I have frequently eaten better in London.”
And that is where she stopped. No more detail available. I tried and tried. “It just simply wasn’t memorable. I can’t think of one thing that stood out or that brought something new to me. There was absolutely no sense that we were enjoying an experience that was in any way defining.” She paused for a second, then: “I mean, the service was fine but really, to be honest, we all felt the whole event was overpoweringly pretentious.”
And there’s more. The guests didn’t want their wine chilled. Let us accept that Californians chill red wine. And that is their prerogative. But the guests didn’t want cold wine. “I’m not saying we had our very expensive red wine ‘on the rocks’, but not far short. How can you taste something so lovingly produced when it is so cold? It had no chance to breathe and reveal its flavours- I would treat a cheap white wine in this way to hide its inadequacies. We called the Sommelier to no avail; the red wine was always served cold. One of our group, who keeps a very fine cellar in the UK, was virtually apoplectic!”
This wasn’t going well, was it? The group of disappointed diners were chatting to one of the waiters, who mentioned that a famous chef was to be dining at The French Laundry the next week. Carol mentioned that they’d enjoyed a dinner with him at a friend’s house a few weeks before. And the group suddenly found they were a little more welcome than they had been on arrival: “Having paid our bill and wondering quite what the hype had been about, we were invited to visit the kitchen on our way out. We were a little puzzled, but went along with it. We went to the kitchen, watched the proceedings and tried to ask a few polite questions. I think we were expected to be awed or something. We sort of stood around a bit. And then we left.”
The verdict, then? “Really? Overly pretentious. Unmemorable. Disappointing.”
Which is about as damning as you could get, really...