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What Price Folly? 

The indifferent service at La Folie compromises its superb (and costly) cuisine

Wednesday, Jul 26 1995
Here's what I want when I drop a ton of dough on dinner: 1) Superb food; 2) Professional, attentive service; 3) To be coddled and schmoozed to death.

Here's what I don't want when dropping said ton of dough: 1) Having to wait long past the reservation time for a table; 2) Having to ask several times for water and having empty water glasses sit on the table; 3) Hustle bustle.

While a recent meal at La Folie definitely delivered in the superb food category and the service was professional, it left me feeling a bit bereft. When spending almost $80 per person with wine, tax, and tip, I want to be totally indulged. To be treated as the most witty, sophisticated, charming people the maitre d' has ever had the pleasure to greet at the door. To be swept immediately to our table. To have the waiter consult us on our menu choices, treating them with the utmost gravity. To be congratulated on the brilliance of our selections. To be fawned over, just short of obsequiousness, throughout the meal by everyone who comes our way.

There are those who will argue (believe me, I hear from them) that spending so much money on a meal is obscene. Especially today, when the line for free food at Glide stretches around the block and way too many people go to bed hungry. Most of the time I agree. But every now and then, I have some money burning a hole in my pocket, or someone rich invites me to dinner, or there's a really special occasion, or I figure my miserable 80 bucks isn't going to do much for world hunger anyway. So I splurge.

We arrive at La Folie on time for our 7:30 dinner reservation, ahead of our dinner partners, to be told by the hostess that she'd like to seat us at the window table, where the people have just received dessert menus. Or we can sit at what she indicates is a much less desirable back table. We tell her we'd prefer to be seated sooner rather than later, knowing that dessert and coffee and after-dinner drinks can take 45 minutes, knowing we're going to have a big-splurge meal, and not wanting to get too late a start. She's noncommittal, telling us to take a seat at the bar. We do as told, and take in the soft room, with its sky-blue panels and drifting clouds, pastel art, wrought-iron chandeliers, and draped tapestries.

Our friends arrive about 10 minutes later. We all have a drink, and wait for someone to notice we're ready. The perfectly fine back table is still empty. When we finally inquire about the state of our reservation, about 8:15, the hostess tells us she's waiting to seat a party of five there that hasn't arrived yet. Not acceptable, we say. Resignedly she relinquishes the back table, which couldn't possibly accommodate five. An inauspicious beginning.

And throughout our meal there are tiny uncoddled moments: the empty water glasses, for example, as well as perfectly competent but unenthusiastic service. (At these prices, the waiter should linger lovingly over menu descriptions and butter your bread, should you request.) There's also the feeling that the place is overbooked, lots of rushing to and fro, little lingering of any kind, and a feeling of busyness that I like in a bistro but not in a fine dining experience.

On to the reason we're here: the food. A taster in the form of house-cured salmon twirled around a cheese stick and pastry-wrapped mussel arrives. Every element is perfect, setting up happy anticipation about the rest of the meal. Flour-dusted, crusty, warm sourdough rolls are excellent, delicious with first-rate butter.

For appetizers we have the sauteed Hudson Valley foie gras with a poached pear, ginger, pepper, and wild huckleberry sauce ($20); goat cheese "tatin" with roasted eggplant, artichokes, sun-dried tomatoes, and portobello mushrooms ($14); and roast sea scallops with Yukon Gold potatoes and morels ($18). The foie gras is stellar, sinfully silky. The scallops, looking gorgeous in their lime-green pool of asparagus coulis, are topped with thin potato disks and punctuated by beautiful half-green, half-white asparagus. They're marred only by a too liberal hand with the salt shaker. Chilled summer soup ($7.50) is tomatillo, assertive but not shockingly so, and refreshing.

If you like sweetbreads, La Folie's ($28.50) are superb, wrapped in a rattanlike potato casing and sauteed with leeks, shii-takes, and morels in a port and madera sauce. The dried apricots, cherries, and pears served with Sonoma "free range" duck ($24.50) complement the intense, gamy meat (with Armagnac sauce) beautifully.

Roti of quail and squab, stuffed with wild mushrooms wrapped in crispy potato strings with roast garlic juice ($26), is both aesthetically pleasing and a brilliant marriage of ingredients. Farm-raised sturgeon ($26.50) tastes of the sea, and the thin slices of fish arrive rare, as ordered. The accompanying ragout of leeks and shiitake mushrooms with cabernet sauce is, again, oversalted. La Folie's presentation, by the way, is appealing without being so architectural that it pokes you in the eye.

With the advice of the sommelier, we choose a $45 bottle of 1990 Ponelle Nuits St. Georges (I told you, we splurged); it's full-bodied and perfect for our variety of food.

Any respectable splurge includes chocolate; our warm tarte with raspberries and blackberry sorbet ($7.50) is one of the best chocolate desserts in the city. A warm nectarine strudel in phyllolike pastry with unbelievably great vanilla buttermilk ice cream ($7.50) is also excellent.

Would I go back? If somebody else is paying, absolutely. And if you're one of the tiny minority who goes to this sort of restaurant all the time (yeah, right, and you're reading this paper), La Folie should definitely be on your list. But if I'm spending my hard-earned money on a blowout dinner, I'd probably choose the elegance of Fleur de Lys, where the food is as good and the pampering off the charts. I know, when it comes to being indulged, I'm a sucker. So sue me.

La Folie, 2316 Polk, S.F., 776-5577. Open Mon-Sat, 5:30-10:30 p.m.

About The Author

Barbara Lane

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