Chef Thomas Keller is blazing a new trail at The French Laundry these days, as San Francisco Chronicle critic Soleil Ho discovered on a recent visit to the three-Michelin star restaurant in Yountville. There, Keller’s team served the critic a soup course in a real life, honest-to-goodness bong — “the kind you smoke drugs with,” Ho writes.
Ho’s full review of The French Laundry will come later, she says, but for now, she’s dedicated a bit of time specifically to the big, honking water pipe. It’s not served to everybody: Just restaurant industry insiders and writers like Ho who are likely get the joke.
The presentation, as a server explained to the critic, is a reference to a devastating 2016 review of Per Se, Keller’s New York restaurant. New York Times critic Pete Wells wrote that “a lukewarm matsutake mushroom bouillon as murky and appealing as bong water.” Burn.
The French Laundry’s “bong water” — made with porcini mushrooms and covered with billowing smoke — is supposed to look that way, and taste good, too. As Ho writes, “I marveled as it cascaded over the vegetarian ‘pot-au-feu’ of carrots, oxheart cabbage and a layer of leeks wrapped around black winter truffle confit, made to look like a beef bone. It was a brilliantly executed in-joke.”
It’s likely that the critic, who has met Keller before during her time as a cook, was recognized by the restaurant — hence the secret, off-menu bong treatment. And it appears to have made quite an impression on her, too. Writes Ho:
“It would be easier to just let go of the past: to put bad memories aside and assure yourself that history won’t repeat itself. But for him to parade those memories in front of people — in front of a critic! — is a much braver tack. It comes off as a subtle tugging at his collar: a moment of chaotic energy to show that he’s learned from his mistakes.”
Ho’s review of The French Laundry will be the new critic’s second assessment of a Thomas Keller property. In her first group of five reviews, she checked out his new Mexican restaurant, La Calenda, which she enjoyed, calling it an example of culinary appropriation done properly.
While it might be getting easy to caricature Keller or his aging French Laundry (which Ho’s predecessor, Michael Bauer, gave four stars last year), that’s doesn’t seem to interest Ho. Three Michelin stars — and surprising self-parody — are nothing to cough at.