In my last blog I promised that I would go into detail about my experience the evening that I dined at Chef-owner Thomas Keller's The French Laundry in Napa Valley. I need to begin this blog by saying that I am not a restaurant critic, just someone who loves great food, restaurants and dining out. I have made a point of only writing about places that I love, why bother with negativity.
The French Laundry has been a destination spot for many and rarely has there ever been anything negative written, therefore I feel it is my duty to voice my opinion honestly, which may not be in the majority but should be heard nonetheless. I may save a lot of people the disappointment they end up feeling when told that they can't have a table for three months. I may also save them quite a lot of money in the process, something that in this economy, I am sure would be quite appreciated.
l admit that my evening could have turned out differently had I personally not been so overwhelmed by the reputation that preceded my arrival. I had always wanted to dine at The French Laundry and felt it was an obligatory stop when one visited the Napa Valley.
Before arriving at the restaurant, I was warned by my friends that The French Laundry is a very serious place, therefore, I would be expected to keep my voice down and if I was out of line, could be asked to leave. Hey, we don't come to worship when we come to these bastions of fine dining, we come to eat extraordinary food and enjoy the company of the people with whom we are breaking bread. But, I guess The French Laundry feels differently. Eating should be like prayer, done in silence. Alright, I thought, this could be like a journey to Mecca for foodies like me, so I thought, I could do this, but in the end, I have to admit, it totally cramped my style.
My friends and I agreed to do the chef's "special" tasting, (there are normally two tastings per night, the chef's and a vegetarian tasting) but the waiter failed to tell us what the price of our "special" tasting would be, and since we were not given menus how would we know, or I should say, how could I have known? This was my first time at The French Laundry, I was following the lead of my friends and trusted that the waiter would not steer us wrong or at least down the most expensive path I have ever taken in a restaurant. First mistake! I should have asked the waiter to see the menu or at least asked him what would be the cost of this tasting. The tasting that most people choose costs $250.00 dollars per person. Ours ended up costing $400.00 dollars per person! Whoops!
Before the tasting began, I told our waiter that there were certain foods that I would prefer to not be included in my tasting; other than those items, I would go along with the group, but when two of the chef's creations arrived looking and tasting very different than my friends', (and not looking very good, I might add), I questioned the waiter as to why I was served these very unappetizing combinations, he said it was because I had mentioned that I wanted to avoid eating certain items that were used in my friends' dishes. He clearly didn't listen very carefully to what I said to him initially. Well, my fault again, I should have asserted myself, and sent the food back to be prepared like my friends' dishes, but I wanted to behave and didn't want to insult the chef or appear unsophisticated.
Both of our fish courses came over-cooked (my friends agreed) and my meat course undercooked, I should have sent them all back to the kitchen to be prepared properly and in the case of the meat, to my liking, but noooooo... I wanted to behave and therefore accepted these dishes as they were served. Frankly, in a restaurant of this caliber, the fish should be cooked to perfection, never over-cooked. I also might add, I was not crazy about the selection of fish that day.
I was not in the least bit impressed with the chef's menu the day I was there, (the menu changes everyday), except for the risotto and white truffles, but you can't go wrong with white truffles. I am so tired of these strange combinations of food that frankly don't make sense half the time. The restaurant says that their aim is to excite the palate of the customer with each course served, and instill the desire for more before their plate is taken away to make room for the next dish. Not me, I didn't want to take even another bite of most of the dishes served to me. Even the cheese course lacked a real punch. You would think for the price we were paying they could have come up with a choice of some very hard to find French cheeses instead of the very boring and not quite ripe camenbert we were given, even a fabulous chevre from one of the local farms would have been better. (For those of you who read my last story...."Everybody Sleeps, Eats Drinks Where? In Napa", you will remember that cheese is double the price in Napa Valley which probably explains the cheese we received). Was it my fault? Yes. Just because a restaurant has 6 Michelin stars, doesn't mean that you should accept everything the chef decides to create and serve to you. I did. Dumb!
Now on to the wine... The French Laundry has an unbelievable wine list but it is also extremely overpriced. Only Restaurant Daniel in New York City seems to think it is ok to triple and quadruple the price of wines on their list just like The French Laundry. They do allow you to bring your own wine, but limit it to one bottle per two people and no more than two bottles. They charge a $75.00 corkage for 750 ml bottles. For those of you that flipped out over the $1.00 dollar corkage at Gott's, what do you think of this price? Come on, this is really taking advantage of the customer!!
One of my friends with whom I was dining and who truly knows wine, ordered the five different half bottles of wine to pair with our dinner. After the sommelier told him that the vintage of one of the wines he ordered was not available but an older year happened to be, he neglected to tell my friend the price, and yes even my friend confessed to being embarrassed to ask him the price. Ok, in a restaurant like this, I guess the service staff expects that the customers can well afford anything that they have on their wine list, therefore, no need to talk about money. (Just because we stupidly decided to spend outrageous sums of money for one meal doesn't mean that the wait staff should assume we are all billionaires). Because of our stupidity, we ended up with a $495.00 dollar half bottle of wine which was a lot more than my friend expected the wine to be. Surprise, surprise!! Never be embarrassed and intimidated to speak up. Hey, I am sure there are people that go to this restaurant that think nothing of spending thousands of dollars on wine, but not the average customer.
Then there were the little things that I tend to take for granted in restaurants such as this, like replacing an empty butter dish or bringing more bread without having to ask, but not on the night I dined there. (The bread, butter and the cookies were the best part of my meal). Ok, maybe it was an off night, every restaurant, no matter the caliber, can be less than perfect on occasion, but unfortunately, I will not return so as to give The French Laundry another chance to prove to me the reason why they have maintained such an illustrious reputation over the years because of the exhorbitant prices, unless of course it is on someone else's dime!
My friends begged me not to write this blog because they live and work in the valley and because of their familiarity with the restaurant were able to garner a table for me with only three days notice. Though it was a wonderful table, I explained that I paid dearly for this table and therefore had to keep my integrity by telling the truth.
A good friend of ours wanted to join us that evening, but the restaurant could not accommodate another person at the table they had reserved for us. I told her that they saved her a lot of money by not being able to enlarge the table.
A restaurant is lucky to have customers. Enough with restaurants acting like they are doing us a favor by giving us a table. Where would they be without customers? Where would all these uber-chefs be without their fans? It is time that they start worshipping we the customers because one day you are hot, and the next day you are not.
I would like to finish by adding that many years ago I was invited by friends to join them for dinner at Per Se, Keller's NY outpost. I truly enjoyed the food and found the service to be impeccable, but felt that this was the kind of restaurant one could not visit on a regular basis because of the time involved to dine there. I also found the restaurant to be somewhat boring and when I dine out, I prefer good atmosphere along with my good food.