The French Laundry at Harrods, which opened on Saturday and lasts just 10 days, might politely be described as a phenomenon.
Hundreds are on the waiting list each day at this pop-up restaurant, the managers say, undeterred by a price tag of 250 pounds ($387) per person, plus service and wine. Throw in a generous serving of matching wines and your lunch bill for two may reach 805 pounds -- or $1,250 -- as mine did.
What do you get for your money? Ten courses of exquisite food prepared by Thomas Keller, one of the world’s most respected chefs. He’s brought over about 15 members of his team from the French Laundry, in Yountville, California. If you’re familiar with his U.S. restaurants, you may spot staffers from Per Se, in New York, and from the various Bouchon outlets.
Harrods has constructed a special dining room on the fourth floor, with a version of the facade of the French Laundry. Diners eat from tableware that has also made the trip from the U.S., as have many of the ingredients. A booklet distributed to customers lists the suppliers, from Sterling Caviar of Sacramento, California, to the Chef’s Garden, of Huron, Ohio.
It feels as though no expense has been spared, as you might expect at these prices. The restaurant conducted three practice services -- for friends and family, chefs and journalists -- before opening to the public on Oct. 1. I attended one of these meals on the night before the opening (for which diners weren’t charged) and lunch on the first day, for which I paid.
Hartnett, Perry Lang
(I went along for the latter meal with chef Angela Hartnett and was impressed both with the dishes Keller sent out for her to try and with the fact he varied my menu so I wouldn’t eat all the same things twice. I went to the preview with Adam Perry Lang, who is Jamie Oliver’s partner at Barbecoa. Both chefs commented repeatedly on the quality of the cooking.)
The service was immaculate from start to finish, as if the French Laundry at Harrods had been running for years, the food brilliant. Keller, 55, was there in the kitchen, checking every dish -- I went in to take a look -- and only emerged into the dining room when everyone had been served.
The menu features several classic Keller concoctions, my favorite of which is Oysters and Pearls: a sabayon of pearl tapioca with oyster juice is served with Maldon oysters and Sterling White Sturgeon caviar. It’s creamy and smoky and rich.
The menu alternates between indulgent treats and lighter dishes, such as the salad of Hawaiian hearts of peach palm, which contains Medjool date, young coconut, French Laundry garden carrots, red radish, and candied pili nuts.
While this might not sound light -- it even contains a hint of Madras curry -- the radish is the smallest I have ever seen, about the size of a baby’s fingernail, the carrot is shaved as thin as an ungenerous chef’s white truffle. The elements are tiny, the whole harmonious as a barbershop quartet. It’s perfection in miniature: bonsai gastronomy.
Other standouts include Poularde en Brioche, with Moulard duck foie gras, warm Sauternes jelly, Tokyo turnips, green apples and Perigord truffle coulis. A few of the courses play on classic dishes, such as chowder (with Sacramento River sturgeon, razor clams and sweet corn) and a peanut-butter dessert.
The dishes are imaginative without being pretentious and amusing without being silly. Their beauty is striking and the cooking of every element is faultless. Only a couple of ingredients detract from the perfection of the whole: the Maine lobster is an advertisement for the flavor of its Scottish cousin and the beauty of the beef (with black trumpet mushrooms, pumpkin and fennel) was mainly in the seasoning.
Keller is an outstanding and original chef who deserves all seven of the Michelin stars he holds, including three for the French Laundry, which won the World’s Best Restaurant title in 2003 and 2004. The pop-up is a triumph for him and for Harrods.
It’s an event that will be talked about in the culinary world for years to come. Eating there is like getting a ticket for the 100 Meters in the Olympic Games. (You can pay 725 pounds for that final in London.)
In that sense, dining there isn’t about the cost, and if you want to go and can afford it and can get a reservation, you should go. But it is a pop-up and it just whetted my appetite for a first visit to the mothership in California.
French Laundry at Harrods, 4th Floor, 87-135 Brompton Road Knightsbridge, Greater London SW1X 7XL. Harrods store inquiries: +44-20-7730-1234, http://www.harrods.com.
The Bloomberg Questions
Cost? 250 pounds.
Sound level? Hushed, 65 decibels.
Inside tip? Take your bank manager.
Special feature? It’s the French Laundry.
Will I be back? Sadly no.
Date place? It’s a place to propose.
What the Stars Mean: **** Incomparable food, service, ambience *** First-class of its kind. ** Good, reliable. * Fair. (No stars) Poor.
Sound-Level Chart (in decibels): 65-70: Office noise. 70-75: Starbucks. 75-80: London street. 80-85: Alarm clock at closest range. 85-90: Passing bus. 85-95: Tube train.
(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. He is U.K. and Ireland chairman of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards. Opinions expressed are his own.)