DINING AT MCLAUNDRY

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What restaurant could possibly follow a meal at the French Laundry? McDonald's, of course. Mark Vanhoenacker compares the two ...

Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE

Some friends and I recently completed a culinary circuit of Northern California, with memorable meals at San Francisco’s much-loved Zuni Café and at Cyrus in Healdsburg. But the highlight was lunch at the French Laundry.

Our experience at Thomas Keller’s Napa flagship was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, well worth its breathtaking cost. Within minutes of arriving, we had already noted the staff’s warm welcome and the extraordinary bread and butter (all three varieties). The rest of the afternoon continued in a similar vein. The experience was pretty much perfect.

The aftermath of our Elysian excess was not. One task was to mollify American Express, whose fraud-prevention systems had apparently concluded that either my personal bankruptcy was imminent or that my card had been lifted by some ruthless gang of epicures.

A further challenge was the inevitable anti-climax of any meal thereafter. The mere thought of going to another restaurant made us wistful for mignardises, teary-eyed over heirloom arugula.

Rather than risk violence against a waiter who tried to suggest sybaritic indulgence with an outsize pepper grinder, we decided to engage in some serious expectations management. What restaurant-what affordable restaurant-would never disappoint us?

McDonald's, of course, where we ate the rest of our meals. Our seven-day McBinge was the perfect length: time enough to compare the two restaurants that effectively bookend American food culture, without succumbing to any sort of “Super Size Me”-type organ failure.

The French Laundry and McDonald's may well be America’s two most internationally renowned restaurants. McDonald's has long served as ambassador for American culture and cuisine, while Thomas Keller’s restaurant has more recently reached the pinnacle of Michelin-starred global prominence. But worldwide fame is just the start of their similarities. McDonald's

For example, cheerful, unpretentious service was the hallmark of nearly every interaction at either place. Both restaurants have a set menu. At McDonald's, they call this their Value Meal, which comes with a soda-pairing. Their Dollar Menu also essentially works as a tasting menu, letting diners sample widely on smaller portions.

Neither establishment encourages tipping and both offer parting gifts-Happy Meal toys or wooden laundry pins (which seem to be of the same approximate value). Unfortunately the French Laundry doesn’t offer easy, inexpensive opportunities to "go large", but then a three-hour, ten-course menu will leave few feeling hungry.

At McDonald's one is not likely to be served such French Laundry delights as a Tajine of Sweetbreads or Confit de Coeur de Veau. (And really it’s a pity to go through life without ever trying the Foie Gras en Terrine with K&J Orchard Peaches, Fennel Bulb and Yogurt Génoise.) Yet these are just the sorts of animal parts that fast-food restaurants have long been accused of stuffing into their burgers. Why is offal okay when Thomas Keller uses it? Both restaurants serve impressive pommes frites.

The mere mention of nutrition in any discussion of haute gastronomie is a cheerless business. Still, I’m certain that my waistline and arteries were affected more by our French Laundry feast (did I mention that the foie gras had chocolate on it?) than the day I had a Bacon, Egg & Cheese Biscuit for breakfast ($4.49 with hash brown and coffee), the Angus Burger meal for lunch ($6.19) and a Chicken Selects dinner ($7.39).

Meanwhile at the French Laundry, an entire plate of salts amounted to a separate saline course, enough to redline the cardiogram of a whale. The options were of remarkable provenance: an ancient Jurassic salt from Montana; hand-harvested sel gris from Brittany and Pangasinan; a Filipino deep-sea salt. But is your circulation charmed by the subtleties of salt terroir? Ask your cardiologist. At least McDonald's publishes its nutritional information.

This is not to diminish the thoughtful criticism that is often lobbed at McDonald's. Many accuse the fast-food chain of enslaving diners with precision-engineered, high-fat, high-salt food that is nearly drug-like in its power to induce a delirious, short-lived “high”, followed by an uncontrollable desire for more. It is just that this pretty much describes the food at the French Laundry, too, just at a considerably higher personal financial cost.

Neither restaurant should have to apologise for making food that people adore. (Attending environmental and health problems are perhaps another matter.) Indeed, second only to the Apple Pie chez McDonald's ($1.49) was the Gâteau Saint Nizier au Manjari, with Mango-Chili Relish, Valrhona Chocolate Cocoa Nibs, Lime Foam and Coconut Milk Sorbet at the French Laundry. I have yet to recover.

Alas, getting a reservation at the French Laundry required three friends to speed-redial more than 1,000 times exactly two months prior. Mercifully, a table is never a problem at McDonald's, and anyway there is always the Drive-Thru. And unlike McDonald's, which has some 30,000 global locations, each marked by those famous arches, there’s only one French Laundry and it is remarkably difficult to spot from the road.

Picture credit: Adam UXB Smith and avlxyz (both via Flickr)

(Mark Vanhoenacker is a writer based in London.)