Chef Thomas Keller’s restaurants have struggled in recent years. In 2014, Eater NY dining critic Ryan Sutton gave Per Se, Keller’s long-heralded New York restaurant, two stars, noting that the once-iconic French destination was “showing its age.” Two years later, New York Times critic Pete Wells followed suit, demoting it from four stars to two. And in October, Keller announced that he was closing the Beverly Hills Bouchon, a complex that included a bistro, bakery, and bar. It would be the first restaurant closure since the chef opened his seminal Yountville restaurant, the French Laundry, in 1994. But, there, Keller is as beloved as ever.
In a review published last week, longtime Chronicle critic Michael Bauer has once again bestowed four stars — the paper’s highest rating — upon the French Laundry. According to Bauer, the French Laundry’s tasting menu only gets more refined with age, and following a years-long, $10 million renovation, “the dishes are more exciting and the service staff under longtime manager Michael Minnillo is reinvigorated.”
Bauer notes that “any legacy restaurant that sets standards others copy” is bound to be accused of becoming “staid and predictable.” Keller’s Per Se, which debuted in 2004, was the subject of such criticism: At Per Se’s 10-year mark, Eater critic Sutton wrote that its cuisine was “tired,” while Wells said the experience ranged from “respectably dull at best to disappointingly flat-footed at worst.” The French Laundry, similarly, had fallen out of favor with the folks behind the World’s 50 Best list: It held the No. 1 spot in 2003 and 2004, but had dropped to No. 85 by 2016. After the kitchen renovation, it’s at No. 68 on the 2017 list.
However, even as it fell in world rankings, Bauer never tired of the French Laundry. In 1994, he awarded the restaurant three and a half stars and praised Keller for his “way with fish.” In 2009, a four-star review heralded the French Laundry as “enduring and enchanting.” And in 2015, Bauer reminded readers that Keller “continues to evolve and push the envelope” at the three-Michelin-starred spot even in the midst of a renovation. He said that Per Se was “wonderful,” too.
In 2018, Bauer argues the menu is on par with his most memorable experience at the French Laundry, a 2003 lunch that started and ended “with a profusion of truffles.” (At $310 for the 12-course tasting, though, the modern menu certainly isn’t on par price-wise.) Today, “the French Laundry feels like a newly minted four-star restaurant,” Bauer writes, and it’s clear that Keller has no problem impressing on his home turf — at least according to one longtime fan.
• The French Laundry has successfully reinvented itself [San Francisco Chronicle]