AS someone whose job description includes reviewing restaurants, I admit it: I’m spoiled. Sure, it’s not all perfect foie gras and caviar washed down with Dom Perignon. But over time, you clock up a lot of great food because inevitably, the job includes eating at the very best as well as the not-so-good.
I tell you this to provide context for the level of blown away-ness I felt after eating at the French Laundry at Harrods. What this means is that Thomas Keller, America’s most revered and decorated chef and the man behind the legendary three-Michelin star French Laundry near San Francisco and triple-starred Per Se in New York, is as good as his gastronomic halo would have you believe. This is the best French food ramped up to hyper-brilliance by the American touch – s’mores (campfire classic of Hershey’s chocolate and bonfired marshmallows between sweet Graham crackers); popcorn, “blt” and grilled cheese sandwiches are part of a playful theme of retro American deliciousness that is wound through the superbly accomplished, Gallic-style jellies, foams, brioches and ways with foie gras.
In London for just ten days – from 1-10 October – Keller has literally shipped the French Laundry here, from its staff to the mini radishes and carrots grown in the restaurant’s garden. Zut, you say, the foodmiles! But Keller isn’t interested in this line of thought – when I ask if people object to his flying radishes in from California and lobster from Halifax, he gets hot under the collar. “I can’t get into that”, he says, but makes clear in every way that his relationships with foragers and farmers are the mainstay of the French Laundry. Worry about carbon footprint if you want, but spare a thought for the rural tomato growers who find their livelihood in Keller’s patronage.
I am with Keller on this, so the only twinge I felt eating at the popup was the futile longing for a permanent French Laundry outpost in London (call it “London Rain-Soaked Clothes”?). But unlike Pierre Koffman, who opened up shop at the Berkeley after a very popular stint on Selfridges’ rooftop, the really rather handsome Keller says – with a refreshing lack of PR-trained obfuscation – that London is not on the cards. “There’s nothing for me to gain by opening outside America,” he tells us after lunch. The truth of his statement is glaring: we need him a lot more than he needs us.
Now, to lunch. At Harrods (unlike in California), there is one menu. And because Keller knows best about food, it’s a joy being relieved of choice. The menu glints with delights aplenty but the fun starts surreptitiously, in the form of up to six freestyle tricks from the kitchen. We were blown away before the listed meal started – usually it’s an amuse bouche or two, if you’re lucky, but we had steaming bowls of chestnut custard and foie gras with hot truffle cream poured over, served in a champagne bowl with a glowing ember of applewood bacon at its core that gave off the exact aroma of the Vermont campfires of my youth. We had monkfish liver in a fudge-like ball of richness sunk in a neon green Japanese seaweed gel that was creamy but full of iodine spike too.
Dishes weave on and off the menu – in some cases at the same time. At one point my companion Lucie had the menu’s “oyster and pearls” (Maldon oyster in a tapioca broth with white sturgeon caviar) while I had a tiny wheel of smoked fish in an equally dazzling broth that wasn’t listed. Next, I had “salad of Hawaiian hearts of peach palm” off the menu – medjool date puree, coconut, slivers of radish and carrots – while she had beautifully delicate, chicory-coloured curlicues with curd.
I was particularly ravished by “chowder” – again reminding me of the New England clam chowder of my youth. A far cry from those big bowls of cream-loaded clam broth served with bags of salty crackers in roadside clamshops, this was a deeply luxurious preparation with a sashimi-soft rhomboid of Sacramento river sturgeon at its centre, and razor clams. Typical of the menu’s playful Americana, the dish paid homage to its rough ‘n’ ready coastal origins with a tiny little oyster cracker perched on top.
The lobster imported from Nova Scotia was worth every food mile – warm, silky throughout and oozing with sea-scent, it came in a well-tempered beet broth and was wholly wonderful, down to the microscopic, bulb-shaped piece of potato that came with.
To get in before Keller closes here will require ingenuity and luck on your part. But who knows – it might happen. Alternatively, if you’re going to the Bay Area any time soon, book ahead and put a few hundred dollars aside (more if you want in on the sumptuous Californian wines on his list – of which more, see box below) for the original experience. It will – must I say it again? – blow you away.
Until 10 Oct. £250 per person without wine. To reserve for the waiting list at Harrods, call 0203 059 6498. For California: +001 707 944-2380.
LUCIE GREENE ON THE ORIGINAL FRENCH LAUNDRY AND HOW HARRODS MEASURES UP
The original French Laundry occupies a small leafy building in the rarefied Napa valley town Yountville. From the outside it looks like a transplanted Provencal farmhouse (it is in fact a former saloon). You could almost miss it from the street if you weren’t looking as only a discreet sign divulges its purpose. Once inside there’s a low hum of chatter, corks popping and servers gliding from table to table – it’s almost like you’ve been granted access to a fabulous secret members’ club. In fact, you really have.
Tables here can only be booked two months in advance and seats are like gold dust. With good reason too – the food is exquisite.
Its menu is different to London’s – slightly less playful and theatric with more of a focus on classic dishes rather than the neon green jelly and smoke-emitting wonders we are presented with in Harrods.
The French Laundry food in Napa is offered as two set tasting menus (London has a streamlined single menu): the Chef’s Tasting Menu and the Tasting of the Vegetables, which also includes meat and fish but is designed to highlight vegetable flavours. Each is around ten courses. There are also swathes of extra canapés, added delightful fripperies, chocolates, and even homemade after-dinner doughnuts (as in London), which makes it feel both extra special and also like there’s a lot of added value to its pre-wine $250 fixed price tag (London is £250).
The final twist to the experience is the Napa restaurant's ingenious wine list – not available in London in part because they’ve used the Harrods wine collection. This comes presented on an iPad complete with functions to shortlist your favourites and easy search navigators to sift through its 110 pages of wines. (Note to restaurants everywhere: please copy.)
Finally, you're sent off with a delicious bag of buttery shortbread for the journey home. (London did up the ante here. They sent you home with a whole full-size cake.) Keller (pictured left) just can’t disappoint.