It’s challenging to begin even writing about a dining institution like The French Laundry. In the past few years, TFL has quickly become an institution that is very much admired. As the flagship of the Thomas Keller empire, I would suspect that it is also the best place by which to judge his philosophies. Keller was not there the day that we dined there, but if he is a truly great chef that shouldn’t make much of a difference.
I’ve been very fortunate this year to have had the chance to dine at Alinea, the restaurant of his protege, Grant Achatz. I approached this meal with some concerns about whether it would live up to the amazing experience that I had at Alinea. And with a hefty price tag of $240, I was definitely skittish.
Ordinarily, the reservation process is complicated and a PIA waiting on hold. Fortunately my friend M’s sister is the reservationist. I knew I would be heading out to the Bay Area for a friend’s wedding so we decided that we would take the plunge and get a reservation with plenty of time to spare. And just so you know… no I can’t help you score a reservation, and bribing her will not work. She’s a strict cookie. Not to mention generous…
The best way to describe my experience at TFL is to compare it with my experience at Alinea. TFL is very much guest driven, while Alinea is very customer driven. What I mean by guest driven is that their desire is to make you feel welcome as if you were a visitor. They are kind, polite and gracious. It becomes more of an emotional experience. They select bottles for your wine rather than doing a wine pairing with each course. Alinea does wine pairings and has a far simpler reservation process. They work to meet customer demand and is more cool and business-like.
Alinea was far more of an experience or journey – an intellectual challenge coming from all directions – engaging and fun. Lots of quick, simple bites, which force you to go a little more quickly or you’ll spill. The aura around TFL is that of a religious experience. You approach the food as if to worship – the dishes ask to be savored, lingering on the palate to get your mind around each layer of flavor. I will say that going to TFL, I understand some of the aesthetics of Alinea much better, and see the legacy of Keller. As Anthony Bourdain wrote, the kitchen is quiet with chefs focused on their work, none of the cursing and chaos that is seen in most kitchens. The same is true of Alinea’s kitchen.
The two restaurants are very different in their approaches. I would say that I prefer Alinea a little over TFL, because I enjoyed the more intellectual and surprising approach to food. But TFL’s refined ingredients, presentation and flavors win judging solely on food.
My only bone to pick with TFL is that I found the service a little intrusive. They were extremely nice and patient, but there were many times that we were reached over or our infrequent conversations were literally interrupted. I’ve read that much of the classical service describes it as invisible.
So anyway food porn is available at Flickr. I will come back and discuss the meal in greater depth in a later post. Things are still pretty hectic.