Years ago when I began writing this blog, my decision to name it EatBigApple meant that I was constraining myself to eats that are relevant to the Big Apple. I started solely with New York city restaurants, then slowly branched out to worthy dining destinations within driving distance. Today I’m breaking from my self-imposed constraint again, as I share the highlights of a recent trip to San Francisco.
When a New Yorker heads west, we tend to walk with a certain level of swagger. It’s an East Coast thing. The never ending comparisons between East and West coast staples of dining are inevitable. The hamburger battle we’ll leave for another day, but for a food enthusiast no comparison can surpass that of Thomas Keller’s Per Se vs French Laundry.
With the same executive chef, same basic menu, and nearly identical prices, this is admittedly not the most exciting comparison. In fact the San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards has recently started to rank Per Se ahead of French Laundry. So why spend another $275 per person (service inclusive) on another Thomas Keller meal when there are many great options around the Bay Area? In some ways, it was the intangibles. French Laundry is where the magic started, it’s where Thomas Keller still spends the majority of his time, and it’s also where Pixar sent a team to intern when they were creating Ratatouille. So that’s why I endured the insane process of securing a reservation.
Side note on how exactly to get that reservation. 2 months before your intended dining date, at 10AM pacific time (1PM here in NY), recruit a few friends and use multiple phones to dial. 99% of the time you’ll get a busy tone, try, try again. Touchscreen phones are not ideal for this task, so I advise digging out your old numeric pad cell phones for quick hangup/redial. If 20 minutes passes and you still haven’t heard a ring tone, chances are you’re heading onto the wait list. For 3 consecutive days I tried to call at exactly 1PM, and redialed over 290 times in total, before finally securing a 9PM dinner on the 3rd day. Luck probably has something to do with it, but having a few sets of hands assisting you definitely doesn’t hurt.
Back to the meal. Yountville at 9PM the area was dead silent aside from the rows of cars parked up front. As you approach French Laundry, the building and surrounding conveys a lot of history and charm. Though with that said, there’s something about walking into Per Se in Manhattan, a transcending experience that allows you to temporarily escape the bustling pace of city life. You don’t get that here, for better or worse.
Service felt more relaxed as well, though still extremely professional and courteous. I’ve always find Thomas Keller Restaurant Group’s service to hit a sweet spot: attentive without being excessive or stuffy. To mix things up, we decide to order a regular tasting, as well as the “tasting of vegetables” (note: not vegetarian).
The start of the meal was familiar, cones of salmon as the amuse, followed by the ever so excellent oysters and pearls. On the vegetarian menu, the first few courses were all straight-line displays of vegetables. While I understand the inherent difficulties of cooking without a central piece of meat, the line up of leafs, roots and stems does not merge into harmonious flavors like items on the regular tasting menu does.
Another recurring problem with the tasting of vegetables was the excessive use of truffles and other overpowering flavors, as if to justify the menu price when there’re not expensive cuts of beef or flown-in pieces of fish. At times, the incredibly fresh and flavorful vegetables are completely overwhelmed by yet again, more scents of oils of truffle. One course featured a 100 year old balsamic, which was fantastic, but not sufficient to carry a dish.
On the other side of the table, the meaty offerings impressed. The coq au vin, which had layered chicken, truffles, and a wine reduction like jelly on top, was tasty and remarkably innovative. Butter poached lobster tail has a texture to die for, though I wasn’t too crazy about the vanilla sauce. There’re over 10 different preparations for Thomas Keller’s famous poached lobster tail, what you get depends on your luck. Waguyu beef was soft, melty and flavorful.
Desserts were tasty, though lacked the fun factor experienced in Per Se. Again, with so many options rotating in and out of the menu, what you get on your tasting is really luck. Sometimes you’ll get a selection that suits your taste, other times you won’t. The same can be said about the cheese course, I wasn’t thrilled with the goat cheese in apple leaves. To each their own (cheese).
One constant, is the absolutely joyous coffee and doughnuts. Not on the menu, but always served to cap off a satisfying meal.
After the meal, we were provided a quick tour of the kitchen, and a glance at the LCD screen with the live feed to Per Se. By then, it was 3AM on the East Coast, and there were still people walking around the NYC kitchen. Perfection is earned.
I finished the meal with mixed feelings. The chef’s tasting was wonderful, and reaches the pinnacle of culinary arts. There were elements that did not agree with my personal palate, but that is really nobody’s fault. On the other hand, the tasting of vegetables did not live up to my expectations, and cannot match up against the “regular” menu in terms of flavor and creativity. At the same price, is hard to recommend.
As for the coast to coast comparison? I think I like Per Se better.
What does this rating mean?
(For the Chef’s Tasting Menu)
The French Laundry
6640 Washington St
Yountville, CA 94599
(707) 944-2380 (good luck)