For which restaurant would you jump through flaming hoops to get a reservation and be willing to scare the hell out of your credit-card limit with the resulting bill? For whose food would you deny yourself other pleasures—for a long time—so you could partake at this particular table?
In July, I discovered that my answer to this question is the famous Napa Valley gem and Thomas Keller showcase, The French Laundry in Yountville, California.
I was peripherally aware of the restaurant and Keller when my brother Chuck, my foodie sensei, gave me the French Laundry cookbook. I read this book like a novel, a fantasy novel. The idea I could procure those ingredients—black truffle!—and do those things to them—strain milk through chinois, cut eggshells, whip up some beurre monté —seemed like a well-written dream.
And I learned that “much-lauded” isn’t adequate to describe Keller’s career as a chef; his list of accolades is impressive, and it would be more impressive to me if I knew what some of them meant, but I do understand the rarity of the prestigious Michelin stars (he’s the only American chef to earn multiple three-star ratings).
When my friend and I decided to go to Napa Valley for a long weekend, Chuck talked me into the French Laundry.
Rather, he talked me into trying to get into the French Laundry, which is the arduous first step for dining there, unless you’re someone like Ashton Kutcher—more on that later.
Here’s a bulleted list, heavily edited, of my personal saga of securing a reservation:
- I read the FL Website carefully enough to score 8,000 percent on a reading comprehension test.
- I learned you may only make reservations two calendar months in advance (we were about 70 days out). But you have to call at noon Pacific Time and hope you get through before all the tables are gone. This is not often a successful method.
- I Googled. A lot.
- I learned it is possible to luck into the one or two tables they leave for OpenTable.com exactly two months out. This isn’t urban legend: My friend Mike scored one of these. But there’s a lot of ambiguity here. This should not be Plan A.
- I also learned there are people you can pay to help you. One gentleman will charge $100 to get you a table on the date you stipulate, but nothing if he fails. He succeeds about 50 percent of the time.
- Finally, I learned that if you have a Black AmEx, your concierge service is the best possible chance of securing you a table. Of course, I don’t have a Black AmEx, but my foodie sensei does.
Chuck stepped up with his AmEx and got us the table. Game on!
(During the exactly two months from when the reservation was procured and the dinner date occurred, the French Laundry and Chuck played routine phone tag with voicemails confirming and reconfirming the reservation. At one point, Chuck told me his return VM went like this, “Yeah, about that dinner, my sister wouldn’t eat your swill if you were the last KFC on earth.” Thanks for the Sedaris-quality, sibling-humor moment, Chuck.)
Before leaving for Napa, I carefully chose what to wear. I know it’s California, and it’s wine country, so it was going to be a little casual, but there is a dress code (men must wear jackets). After much wavering back and forth, I chose a Mad-Men-esque Tracy Reese cocktail dress with mustard lace overlaying a gray-blue satin sheath. Its less forgiving waistline may have been an error, but it made me feel like a million bucks.
Or, at least like $11,000, which is the most expensive bottle on the extensive iPad wine list. This is for the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.
The wine is something that surprised me about the French Laundry. I had gone with my husband to Ashley’s for Chef Lee Richardson’s “Chef’s Degustation” tasting menu once before, and with that, diners could select wine pairings. The sommelier chose a smaller pour from various wines to accompany each course. But at the French Laundry, they did not offer this. There was a sommelier who helped us select our wine, by the bottle or the glass. When you were out and ready for more, he would advise and counsel based on your menu choices, your wine preferences and your budget.
But when it comes to the food, there is no a la carte. You can choose from two prix fixe menus of the day. The chef’s tasting menu has meat, and the other is a “tasting of vegetables” and is vegetarian, not vegan. On the meat-inclusive list for us, several courses included more than one offering, usually with a “supplement,” meaning an additional charge. Both prix fixe menus are $295 per person before supplements (service is included). That night, our supplements ranged in price from $40 for foie gras instead of hearts of peach palm to $100 for Wagyu beef instead of nature-fed veal.
After viewing the menu and the wine list, I made a personal promise to myself that my wine selections wouldn’t exceed my food spending for the night. I just made it.
We started with a $32 glass of champagne. With bottles of wine that list for thousands of dollars on the menu, spending $32 for a glass seems reasonable, miserly, even, regardless of whether it is more than I spend on a bottle of wine at Yancey’s.
We didn’t, unlike some patrons, start piling on the alcohol expenses in the waiting area. When we arrived around 8:40 p.m. for our 8:45 p.m. seating, a few couples in the posh, quiet lounge area were sipping white wine or sparkling drinks. I knew I’d do enough damage to my budget by the time we left three hours later to accept only the hostess’s offer of still water while I waited.
Our table was in a small dining room upstairs, with four or five other tables. To our right, on the other side of the stairs, was a small room with a larger table for a private party. Luckily, our table was on the way to the bathroom—more about that later.
And this is when the service began. The dining room staff members here dress in nondescript, dark-colored business suits, backing up the professional air their knowledge and demeanor quickly communicate. Later I had the feeling we’d had about 17 different people waiting on us for food, wine, bread, salt—yes, salt. This is the level of detail that is attended to at the French Laundry. During our second course, someone placed a salt cellar on our table with six different choices. Not long after it appeared, a waiter approached and asked, “Has someone gone over the salt choices with you?” and promptly walked us through each of the salts and their origins.
Of course, we should probably discuss the food. Here was our menu for the evening:
- Oysters and Pearls: Sabayon of pearl tapioca with Island Creek oysters and white sturgeon caviar
- Royal Ossetra caviar: Maine lobster en gelée, compressed cucumbers and garden dill bavarois ($75 supplement)
- Hawaiian hearts of peach palm: Compressed summer melons, Fresno chili, cilantro leaves and finger lime gastrique
- Élevages périgord moulard duck foie gras terrine: Nectarine marmalade, roasted pistachio butter and fennel pollen lavash ($40 supplement)
- Loup de Mer: Garden squash, niçoise olives, spicy basil and tomato water vierge
- Hand harvested Georges Bank sea scallop: Toasted cornbread, chanterelle mushrooms and Brentwood corn velouté
- Wolf Ranch white quail: Ruby beet pâté de fruit, K&J Orchards blackberries, toasted walnuts and buerre rouge
- Macaroni and cheese: Hand cut macaroni, parmigiano reggiano and shaved Australian black winter truffles ($100 supplement
- Paillard of Marcho farms nature-fed veal: Creamed Arrowleaf spinach, preserved Meyer lemon, crushed capers and brown butter jus
- Charcoal grilled Japanese Wagyu: Corned beef pierogi, Little Farm potatoes, marinated cabbage and sauce choucroute ($100 supplement)
- Andante Dairy tomme dolce: caramelized onion panade, pickled young onions, frisée lettuce and sweet onion crème fraîche
- Assortment of desserts (there were about four courses of sweets)
What was delightful about each dish was that every flavor described could be discerned. The courses were prepared and presented so there was nothing unnecessary and nothing that wasn’t perfectly pitched for its accompaniments. I have never before taken so much time with each bite of food in a restaurant. Each one is a little trio or octet, and all the voices can be heard if you are thoughtful and savor every fork- or spoonful.
It is a lot of food, but it isn’t as much as the menu makes one think and isn’t (until the dessert courses keep coming and coming) uncomfortably filling. Notice that one of the seafood courses comprises one scallop. No “S.” Singular. This menu does what it is designed to do: Allow you to taste and sample many flavors, over the course of the evening, not to weigh you down with large servings. This is an adventure for the palate, not the gut.
Of course, the artistry of the plating is a big part of the experience. The foie gras is presented as a slice upright, with a garnish leaning on it and the accompanying sauces carefully pooled—no stray drops—on either side. For the onion dish toward the end of the meal, alternating colors of accents were carefully balanced on the rectangular form of food in the center of the plate. For one plate, the parsley itself had been “planted” at intervals in the food by the stems.
Brooke and I sat there for course after course of delicious food, imaginatively prepared, exquisitely plated and expertly served, and we reveled in the good fortune that had come together to make it possible. We knew we were experiencing something unique and truly special. Something we wouldn’t have again for a long, long time, if ever.
It’s always a mark of professional service that you enjoy your wait staff without being distracted by them. We were, however, distracted by one guest. After he walked by us to use the restroom, Brooke was sure she had just seen Ashton Kutcher, but even when he came out and returned downstairs, I was a doubter. When our sommelier came by to check on us, Brooke asked him if we’d just seen who she thought she’d seen.
“Yes!” He said, with an enthusiasm that echoed ours, but was still somehow completely professional. “And his lovely wife, as well.” We hadn’t noticed Mila Kunis passing within inches of our table because she was wearing an interesting romper with Chuck Taylors and we had been looking at her wardrobe—“celebrity camouflage,” Brooke remarked. “When your outfit distracts the hoi polloi from your identity!”
As we prepared to leave our table after all of our courses were cleared and the bill, which they cheerfully split (around $600 for each of us) was paid, we were each given a small shopping bag that included our left-over desserts, a tin of short-bread cookies, a French Laundry wooden clothes pin, and a book that included detailed information on the food purveyors who provided many of the ingredients for that night’s menu. We left delighted, amazed and happily overwhelmed with every aspect of our evening.
Was it worth the time it took to get the reservation, the trouble I had to put my brother through and the expense of the dinner? It unequivocally was. It was an experience like none I’ve ever had on any trip at home or abroad, and I felt that I had enjoyed the work of true artisans and artists all evening long in an environment in which no detail of my experience was left to chance.
But I don’t feel the need to replicate the evening and return to the French Laundry. My friend and I wanted to know what it was like first-hand to dine at this famous eatery, and now we do. We have our photos and our souvenirs and of course, our memories.
So, would I go to the French Laundry again? No, probably not. Well, not unless you’re buying. Then, yes, I will happily join you for what I know will be a perfect evening.