Three years later, Soleil Ho publishes a review of The French Laundry, and now the details are emerging about why the Chronicle’s restaurant critic left Thomas Keller’s famous eatery off a recent list of best restaurants to splurge on.
One cannot say that Soleil Ho is not a trustworthy critic and, unlike the reviews of predecessor Michael Bauer, one can be sure that there are no sacred cows that are treated kindly and that there are no favorites. That was the signal the Chronicle wanted to send by making Ho’s grand opening review Chez Panisse: they didn’t like it too much (Ho uses they/them pronouns), but the review nonetheless showed an enthusiastic palate and a generosity of spirit, even a reluctance to sound flipped out or cruel given the respect Alice Waters and her pioneering restaurant deserve.
Today, we see another Bay Area sacred cow being brought down, albeit gently. Ho’s review of The French Laundry is out, and as an explanation of why it took them so long to post it, we hear some details about the tricks and flips required to secure three bookings there over the course of three years, to give it the proper treatment. of three visits.
The headline, “French Laundromat Still So Hot There’s a Black Market in Stock. Is It Still Worth the Splurge?” should give you a clue as to where this is going, because even asking the question means the answer is probably “no”.
I reached out to Ho in July, when I took note of the snubs not only from the French Laundry, but also from two other three-Michelin-star spots, Quince and Manresa, on the Chronicle’s list of best splurges. No new reviews of these restaurants have appeared in the newspaper since Ho’s tenure began in 2019, so it was plausible that they were left out because Ho hadn’t gotten to all of them yet. But, without elaborating, Ho confirmed that yes, they had been to all those places. So clearly the opinion was: not worth a splurge.
This is, after all, the most important role of the city’s top restaurant critic, being the last word on whether new or old restaurants are worth your hard-earned dollars – we can’t all eat everywhere in one food-rich region. , and we seek guidance.
When it comes to The French Laundry, which has been under Keller’s control since the mid-1990s and has been an international destination for much of that time, consumers need to know if the significant effort to get a reservation is still worth it. worth it, much less. the price tag Ho notes that at one point, before Michelin began publishing regional guides in the US in 2005, it was the only American restaurant to earn stars. And ever since it rose to the top of the world’s top 50 rankings in the early years, would-be diners have been gamifying the reservation system, which is famous for opening tables a month at a time, a month before the first: these days it’s a prepaid system on Tock, which leads to a secondary market of for-profit scammers and people who just can’t use their reservation and want to resell.
There are now Reddit threads and Facebook groups, too, and one of Ho’s visits, they say, was at a table for four with two strangers who were reselling their extra seats because sometimes it’s easier to get four people. “In the Facebook group, many people enter the restaurant this way, with the idea that any social awkwardness is a small price to pay to get into the club,” Ho writes, adding: “In the end, it was fine, even if he was intruding on a stranger’s 10th wedding anniversary dinner.”
Keller has employed a succession of talented chef de cuisines over the past two decades, some of whom are now running their own Michelin-starred restaurants, like Benu’s Corey Lee. But, as Ho puts it, Keller’s “menu full of quotes” [remains] built around the culinary nod: postmodern takes on recognizable American and European dishes that sparked a wave of copycat ideas.”
The famous ones still exist, like Keller’s “ice cream cones” of sesame tuiles stuffed with red onion, crème fraîche, and salmon tartare; and its dessert “Coffee & Donuts”. Ho raves about a “lovely amuse bouche of ‘Ritz’ cheese crackers filled with a semi-processed Cabot cheddar cheese porridge.” And he raves about “a quietly wonderful, ruby-tinted slice of duck breast transformed into a stained glass-like terrine by a firm layer of stuffed spinach under the skin.”
Keller reportedly recognized Ho on his first pre-pandemic visit, something that likely happened all the time for Bauer, who held the position for 30 years, but rarely acknowledged him. And several extras emerged that average diners don’t get, including a porcini mushroom broth served in a glass bong: the restaurant’s perhaps awkwardly clever response to NYT critic Pete Wells’s infamous 2016 takedown review of Per Se (the mirror-image restaurant of Laundry in New York) in which he compared mushroom broth to “dirty bong water.” The upgraded version of The Laundry, Ho said, was “brilliant” and “a subtle tug on his neck: a moment of chaotic energy to show that [Keller’s] learned from their mistakes.”
Ho’s review, at base, is nothing like Wells’s previous takedown, and more like Chez Panisse’s review from 2019. Ho acknowledges the artistry at work and the respect such an institution will always carry with it. But there’s a “lack of surprise,” Ho writes, in many dishes, and it’s not like many of us who’ve been eating at the bay and/or writing about it haven’t been sharing whispers of it for years. After all, it’s hard to live up to expectations after 30 years! Even Stevie Nicks and Paul Simon have a hard time writing new hits these days, and at some point, even a three-Michelin-star restaurant will become some kind of machine that churns out what it knows to “play the hits.” That seems to be the core of Ho’s well-informed opinion, after three visits in three years, an overview most of us don’t have.
One thing Ho won’t say, but I will: In the 20 years since The French Laundry was crowned the No. 1 restaurant in the world, a lot has happened in the American dining scene, and fine dining in this country has earned much more respect and many more star chefs than back then. And, several years ago, the Bay Area dwarfed New York in the number of three-Michelin-starred restaurants, so when it comes to high-end dining, there’s a lot more to see here now than The French Laundry.
And, as the Chronicle headline implies, and as we already knew from the list’s snub, the Laundromat may no longer be the mind-boggling splurge-worthy wish list that people once thought it was, at least in the opinion. of this reviewer. Ho acknowledges that this is “highly subjective”, all reviews are! – and that may be a rude question to ask in the first place. But readers certainly want to know where and where not to spend their money, and Ho says that only “rarely” Laundromat lived up to its big name.
However, the mythology and all the air of exclusivity that comes with trying to get in? That may never die. And you can’t rule out the mental hoops non-critical diners will jump through, after all the logistical hoops they went through to get there and the money they spent, to convince themselves how perfect everything was, especially after a couple of bottles. . of expensive wine.
Related: Chronicle lists the best restaurants Splurge, Snubs French Laundry, Manresa and Quince