When the Bread Dies, Everyone Knows It

I’ve been to The French Laundry four times, now, and I must admit to myself that I probably won’t be going back. There are a few reasons for this conclusion, which I shall enumerate forthwith, but in short the reason is that it’s hard for me, not being a millionaire, to continue to easily dismiss $400 dining bills for a single meal, no matter how grandiose and wonderful it is.
Getting a reservation at Thomas Keller’s Shangri-La to California-French fusion fare is now the stuff of foodie legend. The restaurant has 16 tables in total, including one in the kitchen (apparently, though I’ve not seen it and at this point I think it may be an illusion foisted on those of us deigning to sit out on the floor with the hoi polloi) and you must attempt to snag one for the two seatings each night by either calling exactly two months in advance, or going online at OpenTable.com and click one of the two available tables-for-four there, choosing either a 5:30pm first seating or a 9:15pm oh my God I don’t want to drive home last seating, keeping in mind that the 9-course menu will keep you there between three and four hours. If you have a special occasion, French Laundry will make special arrangements to sell out the house for God knows how much money, but those are your only options.
I’ve been there now for two lunches and two dinners — they serve the same menu either way so you’re getting the same dishes and paying the same prices (currently $270 a meal before you add in any wine or take the alternates like foie gras for an additional charge) — and, yes, they have all been excellent experiences worthy of going out of my way for, offering some unique tastes that still dazzle in my memory and the best service in a restaurant I have ever had.

This is going to sound horrible and elitist and completely insane, but I have become jaded about restaurants of this caliber. I’m not about to write a negative review of The French Laundry because one knows what one is getting into when one passes through those hallowed portals and sits at one of those tables and starts in on the seemingly unending courses that actually go on a little bit longer than comfortable.
What The French Laundry manages to do can only truly be seen if one attends another galactically expensive restaurant and you realize that how you are treated and how the food is treated are the same things here, while at some other establishments one can feel as if the restaurant is serving you out of pity or that you don’t really know food so why don’t they tell you what you want and you’ll like it or else. I’ve had that sense of feeling ‘not worthy’ at places as diverse as Michael Mina and Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse. It’s like I should feel privileged just to have been allowed inside the restaurant, let alone to actually eat the food they’re preparing.
The French Laundry defies that standard of posh annoyance with a deft and, at times, amusing hand. The service is of a standard that suggests they want you there, they want you to enjoy every moment of your meal, they want to know what else they can do for you, and that no request, question or requirement is wrong, stupid, annoying or embarrassing.
At one point during our meal — well, at two points during our meal, one of the myriad service people attending the patrons (a table has one main waiter and the restaurant has, I believe, two sommeliers, one on each floor) drops a piece of bread next to my chair. The first occasion was a salted roll that may have been over-buttered, if indeed such a thing can be said to happen. On the second, he dropped the toast meant to accompany my foie gras course, meaning that I had to wait a couple of minutes while he retrieved the fallen slice and went downstairs to bring me a new piece.
Ladies and gentlemen, the sound that poor young man made when that toasted piece of heaven hit the immaculate carpet was akin to the soft keening sigh one might make upon discovering that one’s pet Siamese had passed from this earthly realm to the next. I could almost hear inside his head as he began screaming at himself and I felt both a little sad for him, but also, admittedly, disappointed that I had to wait.
Because the sick thing is, I have come, after a handful of visits, to expect perfection. Now, you and I both know that no such thing exists, but in the past The French Laundry has always managed to live up to and sometimes exceed those superhuman expectations. Indeed, on this occasion everything had been going swimmingly, and I should note that my state of mind was not, perhaps, as focused on enjoying a superlative meal as it should have been.
The problem was that I was stressed about the very thing I was trying to enjoy. I had made a Thursday evening reservation for myself and my comrades in The Gentlemen Who Dine, only one of whom had, like myself, already experienced a French Laundry meal. I wondered if I had built this thing up too much. I wondered if they had dreams of the most incredible meal ever in the universe and could any experience actually match that level of wonder, and if it didn’t — was that my fault? And the afternoon hadn’t exactly proceeded according to plan.
We had decided to rent a limo to take us from the city by the bay into the rolling Napa countryside so that none of us would need to be a designated driver, nor would we have to stress about traffic on the way up or on the way back. But the taxi I called 45 minutes prior to departure time to bring me to the limo’s arrival never arrived (Thanks so much, Yellow Cab! You’re a peach!) so the limo picked me up on the way to the Golden Gate. En route, we found out that there was a mix up about our meal time so the limousine was already starting out a half-hour later than it should have, and we would likely be arriving up to an hour late for our reservation.
Panic, subtle but steady, sunk into the pit of my stomach. Would reservations that were so hard to get be as hard to keep if one arrived late? How would The French Laundry treat us upon arrival? Would we have missed our dinner entirely because of a missed taxi, a missed communication and a somewhat surly and obnoxious limo driver who seemed completely calm about our dilemma? I called the restaurant from the limo and hoped that they’d answer their phone (not at all a guaranty) and that my obsequious whining about traffic and late starts and “we’re oh so sorry!” would be enough to elicit a modicum of forgiveness?
As it turns out, I needn’t have worried about the restaurant. They were completely understanding when we did arrive an hour late and put us at our ease immediately. There was another delay on our parts about seating since we all had to piss like racehorses after the bottle of Champagne we enjoyed in the limo made its way through our foodless bodies in record time, and still not a creased brow from the staff, not a restless sigh or a look of disdain or the slightest whiff of anything other than pleasure that we were there to enjoy what they had prepared for the evening meal.
The meal itself was flawless. I believe one or two plates left with cleaner surfaces than they had ever seen. Every question we had, from the origins of Jurassic salt to the correct name for the flattened out spoon accompanying some courses (me: spife. waiter: sauce spoon.) were answered in detail and with pleasant interest. Course after course arrived perfectly timed, with ample pauses for reflective conversation or a slow walk along the balcony to help digest.
I can still, without a moment’s hesitation, recommend The French Laundry for anyone wanted an ultimate dining experience. It’s all about the food, there, and the consummate service is simply the icing on the cake.
There was one last surprise for us, and for all my enjoyment and even the awkward arrival and my self-inflicted guilt trip, it made me feel very uncomfortable. Upon receiving the bill, there was an $800 charge for a bottle of wine. Now, I would never order an $800 bottle of wine. I can’t imagine anything that comes in a bottle being worth $800, I’m just not that much of a connoisseur. My immediate reaction, being me, was that I had made a dreadful mistake and I would be ponying up an extra $800 to cover for it. I was flashing back on the 92-page wine list, wondering if my finger slipped as I pointed at the 2003 Chateauneuf de pape and had asked the sommelier for that bottle — which was very good, but still — rather than the intended one.
I didn’t want to spoil anything, and I didn’t want there to be a problem, and I though for a moment that I’d just let it go (insanity!) rather than subject this poor establishment to another, albeit non-bread-related, embarrassment. But point it out I did, and the bill was adjusted to show the actual cost of the bottle ($180) and they gave us some extra cookies to take home for the hassle of the situation.
And that is why I’ll probably refrain from a return trip. It’s just too much. It’s too stressful. It’s too important. It’s too… everything. They never made me feel unworthy, but the aura surrounding the restaurant has so much power that the little things seem gigantic, and it was hard for me to simply sit there and enjoy a wonderful, superlative meal with friends while all the time thinking, “that poor sod is going to get fired for dropping that bread, and I wonder if my elbow is the real culprit?”
In the end, I know I brought all that stress and worry and hassle on myself. I know it, but with another restaurant I probably wouldn’t have cared. So what if we’re late? So what if he dropped the bread? So they made a (fairly substantial) error on the bill? Everything was resolved and there was nothing that anyone at The French Laundry did to cause me all these dilemmas.
There’s always Auberge du Soleil.
Some French Laundry trivia:
(Prior to our trip north, I compiled this list for the GWD so they might be prepared for the grandiose experience.)

  • The restaurant has 17 tables, 16 public ones and one private, seating a total of 62 diners. Six of the 16 tables are tables for 2.
  • The French Laundry gets over 400 phone calls a day for those tables. Tables must be booked exactly 2 months in advance, but there is a waiting list for cancellations.
  • The restaurant offers three prix fixe menus per day, with between seven to nine course and additional amuse bouche, but there is an unadvertised 20-course tasting menu available for $400, and it must be requested in advance.
  • A gratuity has been automatically added to the cost of every meal since 1998, and it is equally divided among the cooks and wait staff.
  • An average meal lasts 3.5 to 4 hours. The 20-course menu lasts 6 hours.
  • The French Laundry has been a restaurant since 1978 and it has always been popular. Keller bought the building in 1994 and began collecting accolades immediately. It wasn’t until 2000 that the restaurant gained fame outside foodie circles.
  • Waiters are told not to advise diners to “enjoy” their food, and you will never know a waiter’s name unless you ask for it.
  • The restaurant’s manager, Laura Cunningham, once hired a top choreographer to teach her staff the elegant secrets professional dancers possess so that when they move or if they’re simply standing there, you should never notice them.
  • Supposedly, waiters will stand no closer than 18 inches and no further than 24 inches from the table — close enough that you don’t have to strain your neck to look up, but far enough away so that you’re not staring at their crotch when they speak.
  • Waiters are instructed to never hold their hands behind their back. “Inevitably, they will start fidgeting and wiggle their fingers,” Cunningham says. “That’s distracting for anyone sitting behind them.”
  • Ms. Cunningham also offers the following suggestions on how to be a
    good guest while dining at The French Laundry:

    • Make eye contact. Many guests will not even look up from the menu.
    • Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want, and don’t be intimidated by a restaurant’s image and or staff’s demeanor. You are a paying client.
    • Ask questions about anything you are unsure of.
    • Treat the staff like professional customer service people rather than servants and hired help.
    • Develop trust with a particular staff member or two and let them take care of you.
    • Be open to suggestions.
    • Thank the staff if you enjoyed your evening.

April 27, 2007

7 responses to When the Bread Dies, Everyone Knows It

  1. Randy said:

    Do you think they really gave you a fresh piece of toast or just snickered as they brushed off the dropped one?

  2. Calichef said:

    Don’t be silly, Randy. Of course he got a fresh piece of toast. Just one strand of carpet fiber could mean that hundreds, if not thousands, of people would hear about it; this being the age of blogging and all. They would never risk their reputation with a multiple return customer for the cost of a piece of toast!

  3. selmax said:

    We experienced a faux pas as well dining there – we were served coffee when we were only into our second course, the beginning of a long evening. Because of the restaurant’s reputation for perfection, we just sat and looked at it, and wondered outloud if this was some new thing – a coffee break before the third course.

  4. smartastic said:

    You should relax. The idea with a fancy restaurant is not to worry about impressing the staff, which it seems like lots of people do. They can handle it — they’ve seen worse, they may see better. It’s to enjoy yourself, take advantage of their knowledge, and be a relaxed, friendly, polite guest. If they are rude to you, that is to their discredit. You should expect them to be relaxed (but elegant), friendly (but not intrusive), and polite hosts. Nothin’ more, nothin’ less.

  5. You think eating there is stressful? Try cooking some of the dishes in the French Laundry Cookbook. Admittedly, they’re not that hard when you break down all the individual elements of a recipe, but doing some of these dishes can be stressful because you want it to be as perfect as the dining experience there is known to be.

  6. Robert Volz said:

    I went there a year ago and thought the food was wonderful. There was no pretension, just an honest desire on the staff to inform and provide to their best ability.
    Except for the Sommelier. I had ordered the truffle tasting menu with wine accompaniment. The som had the worst breath of any man I had ever met. (Once while riding a Greyhound bus from Vegas to Tulsa, I sat in front of an a just-released prisoner who I swear must not have brushed during his entire stint. His breath actually kept me awake.) Every time I saw him coming with another glass of wine, I would cringe and do my best to hold my breath until he would depart. I met a co-worker at the Beard awards and shared my story. Apparently I was not the only one to notice this.

  7. Sarah said:

    I can’t believe I am reading a review of the French Laundry that says nearly nothing about what you had to eat!

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