Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The French Laundry

On a recent visit to San Francisco, I visited The French Laundry. Along with El Bulli near Barcelona, The French Laundry is one of the top three restaurants in the world, with its chef Thomas Keller, among the top three or four chefs in the United States. Keller presided over a stunning vegetarian degustation menu and a full Chef’s version to die for and yet, the experience was a tremendous disappointment.

The food was beautiful and the vegetarian nine course tasting menu is tough to find anywhere else in the world, but the décor is pedestrian. Guillaume, the maître d' who hails from Versailles, does his best to add color, but the whole place is dull and unimaginative. If you’ve read my book, you’ll know I believe in the power of Mystery, Sensuality and Intimacy. These qualities were all there in the food but were lacking in the total experience. For a start, when you first arrive you’re parked in the garden with no music and no offer of a pre-dinner drink. Zero intimacy and a profit opportunity missed. Once you are inside there is no art on the walls, so the effect is rather like eating in a cell in the Villa San Michele in Florence. Restaurants are about conviviality, social interaction and fun, as well as great food. The French Laundry takes itself far too seriously. It seems to me to have a very Calvinistic attitude to food, seeing itself as a temple of haute cuisine. Literally.

Meanwhile at The Fat Duck, Heston Blumenthal and his team rock. The French Laundry feels to me like listening to music – before Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash.