Three years in, Soleil Ho drops a review of The French Laundry, and now the details emerge about why the Chronicle's restaurant critic left Thomas Keller's famed restaurant off a recent list of best splurge restaurants.
It can't be said that Soleil Ho is not a reliable critic, and unlike in the reviews of predecessor Michael Bauer, one can rest assured that there are no sacred cows being given kind treatment, and there is no playing favorites going on. That was the signal the Chronicle wanted to send by having Ho's big opening review be of Chez Panisse — they didn't care for it too much (Ho uses they/them pronouns), but the review nonetheless showed a keen palate and a generosity of spirit, even a reluctance to sound flip or cruel given the respect that Alice Waters and her pioneering restaurant deserve.
Today, we see another Bay Area sacred cow being, however gently, taken down. Ho's review of The French Laundry is out, and by way of explanation for why it's taken them so long to publish, we hear some details about the backflips and tricks required to secure three reservations there in the course of three years — in order to give it the proper three-visit treatment.
The headline, "The French Laundry remains so hot there’s a black market for reservations. Is it still worth the splurge?" should give you a clue about where this is going — because to even ask the question means the answer is likely "no."
I reached out to Ho back in July, when I took note of the snubs of not just the French Laundry but also two other Michelin three-star spots, Quince and Manresa, on the Chronicle's Best Splurges list. No new reviews of these restaurants have appeared in the paper since Ho's tenure began in 2019, so it was plausible that they were left off because Ho had not made it to all of them yet. But, without giving any further insight, Ho confirmed that yes, they had been to all of those places. So, clearly the opinion was: not worth a splurge.
This is, after all, the most vital role of city's primary restaurant critic, to be the final word on whether new or old restaurants are worthy of your hard-earned dollars — we can't all eat everywhere in such a 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 should know whether the significant effort to even garner a reservation is still worth it, let alone the price tag. Ho notes that at one point, before Michelin started publishing regional guides in the US in 2005, it was the only American restaurant to even garner stars. And ever since landing at the top of the World's 50 Best ranking in the early aughts, would-be diners have been gaming the reservation system, which famously opens up tables one month at a time, one month out on the first — these days it's a pre-paid system on Tock, leading to a secondary market of for-profit hustlers and people who simply can't use their reservation and want to resell. (The reservations are not refundable, but they are transferable.)
There are also Reddit threads and Facebook groups now, 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 four-tops are easier to get. "In the Facebook group, many people get into the restaurant this way, with the thought that any social discomfort is a small price to pay to get into the club," Ho writes, adding, "Ultimately, it was fine — even if I was intruding on a stranger’s 10th wedding anniversary dinner."
Keller has employed a succession of talented chefs de cuisine in the last couple of decades, some of whom are now at the helm of their own Michelin-starred restaurants, like Corey Lee of Benu. But, as Ho puts it, Keller's "quotation-heavy menu [remains] built around the culinary wink: post-modern takes on recognizable American and European dishes that unleashed a wave of copycat ideas."
The famous ones are still around, like Keller's "ice cream cones" of sesame tuiles filled with red onion, crème fraîche, and salmon tartare; and his "Coffee & Doughnuts" dessert. Ho gives praise to a "charming amuse bouche of 'Ritz' cheese sandwich crackers stuffed with a spot-on, semiprocessed mush of Cabot cheddar." And she raves about "a quietly marvelous, ruby-tinted slice of duck breast transformed into a stained glass-like terrine by a firm layer of spinach stuffed under the skin."
Keller reportedly recognized Ho on their first, pre-pandemic visit — something that likely happened all the time to Bauer, who held the job for 30 years, but he rarely ever acknowledged it. And out came several extras that average diners do not get, including a porcini mushroom broth served out of a glass bong — the restaurant's perhaps awkwardly clever response to NYT critic Pete Wells' infamous 2016 takedown review of Per Se (the Laundry's mirror-image restaurant in New York) in which he compared the mushroom broth to "dirty bong water." The Laundry's improved version, Ho said, was "brilliant," and "a subtle tugging at his collar: a moment of chaotic energy to show that [Keller's] learned from his mistakes."
Ho's review, at base, is nothing like Wells' earlier takedown, and more akin to that 2019 Chez Panisse review. Ho recognizes the artistry at work, and the respect that 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 have been eating around the Bay and/or writing about it haven't been sharing whispers of this for years. It's hard, after all, to live up to the hype, 30 years in! Even Stevie Nicks and Paul Simon have a tough time writing new hits these days, and at some point, even a Michelin three-star restaurant is going to become a bit of a machine churning out what it knows, "playing the hits." That seems to be the core of Ho's well informed take, after three visits in three years — an overview perspective most of us do not get.
One thing that Ho doesn't say, but I will: In the 20 years since The French Laundry was crowned the #1 restaurant in the world, a whole lot has happened in the American food scene, and fine dining in this country has gained plenty more respect and plenty more star chefs than it had back then. And, several years ago, the Bay Area eclipsed New York in its number of Michelin three-star restaurants, so when it comes high-end food, 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 snub, the Laundry may no longer be the splurge-worthy, bucket-list mind-blower that people once thought it was, at least in this critic's opinion. Ho acknowledges that this is "highly subjective" — all criticism is! — and that it may be a crass question to ask in the first place. But readers certainly do want to know where and where not to spend their money, and Ho says that it was only "rarely" that the Laundry lived up to its big name.
The mythology and all the air of exclusivity that goes with trying to get in, though? That may never die. And there's no discounting the mental hoops that non-critic diners will jump through, after all the logistical hoops they jumped through to get there and the money they've spent, to convince themselves of how perfect it all was, especially after a couple bottles of pricy wine.