On the last night of a week and a half vacation I took earlier this summer, a trip that covered Hong Kong, Tokyo, and San Francisco, I ate at The French Laundry. Diners there self-select into a specific crowd. Given the restaurant's reputation as one of the, if not the best, restaurant in the U.S., the difficulty of securing a reservation, the average cost of a meal there (four or five dollar bill icons next to certain restaurant names should be put in quotation marks, this being one of them), and its rather out-of-the-way location, a meal there feels like a pilgrimage.
Years ago I had made about a month's effort to secure a reservation, with no success, and then I forgot about it for a while. Back in that day, French Laundry was not listed on OpenTable.com. Two months before the day you wanted to eat there, you had to submit yourself to 15 minutes of frenzied speed dialing each morning at 10am PT and hope for the best, like trying to get through to Ticketmaster to purchase tickets to a Radiohead concert. Eventually you'd get through, just in time to hear that all tables had been booked. It is perhaps fortunate that two months would elapse before anyone fortunate enough to secure a reservation could actually dine there; in that time, the unpleasant and barbaric reservation scrum would have faded from one's memory rather than taint one's overall experience with the restaurant.
While I was planning my vacation, I saw San Francisco sitting at the end of my itinerary, and I may have been hungry at the time, but the thought of trying to tack on a trip to The French Laundry just popped into my head. I didn't think I'd have any luck securing a reservation given I'd only have one day to try to score a reservation, but lo and behold, I called the very next morning, and a table for 2 opened up for me, albeit at the late hour of 9pm PT. When, a few weeks later, I tried to switch my reservation to a party of 3 (it would be a meal to celebrate my friends Howie and Tram's upcoming wedding), they were able to accommodate me, even apologizing for having to move my reservation up to 7:45pm, a far more desirable time. Viva la recession!
Over the years, I've talked to many people who've eaten at The French Laundry, and I couldn't help factoring their reports into my expectations for the meal. Most had nothing but praise, but the few accounts of disappointment hung out in the back of my mind. I was three parts anticipation, one part anxiety.
Even on a weekday, with San Francisco traffic, it only took about 45 minutes to drive there, across the Golden Gate Bridge and out to the town of Yountville. The GPS told us when we were near, but not knowing what it looked like and given its somewhat understated signage, we drove right past the restaurant the first time.
We arrived early, just before sunset, and the hostess welcomed us to take a tour of the garden across the street or to spend some time in the garden/patio outside the front door. We did both.
Walking through the garden across the street is a unique experience. I've been on many a kitchen tour, met many a chef, sat at many a table watching sous-chefs and line chefs mid-task, but this was the first time I'd seen the raw ingredients on the vine. While we were strolling and admiring the gorgeous produce, someone from the kitchen came out to pick some ingredients. I'm fairly certain he wasn't sent out just to impress us.
Back at the patio, we snapped a few photos on various benches, in front of different plants, standing in archways...no matter how our meal turned out, it would be well-documented. Our hostess came out to grab us and ended up offering to snap some photos of the three of us together.
Inside, we were led to our table on the second level. The interior layout recalls an expensive home converted into a restaurant dining space. To one side of us was a group of three older diners. They had the look of foodies about them. It's hard to pinpoint exactly what that is, but it's a way one carries oneself, with the ease of a lifelong Red Sox fan strolling to his seat at Fenway, for example as opposed to the wide-eyed anxiety of a virgin on prom night fumbling with a bra strap, say.
To the other side of us was a table of about eight young male investment bankers in navy suits, a pack of wild dogs with a client's expense account to pillage, the hint of date rape hanging in the air over their table. They were, at that moment, still sober, but I tried my best to turn my chair away from them. More on them later.
We had the choice of two nine-course tasting menus, the chef's or the vegetarian. Both were $240 each, service fees included, with the option to have the foir gras en terrine for an extra $30 on the chef's tasting menu. No disrespect to the vegetarians of the world, but for that price, my meal was going to include some animal flesh. Tram and Howie concurred, and we split up our choices so that we'd have the chance to try both choices for those courses where two items were offered.
I had just begun collecting wine a short while before this meal, and even with my limited knowledge of some of the more famous wines in the U.S., it only took a minute or two for the French Laundry wine list (PDF) to stagger me. Just about every hot boutique winery and big name wine I'd heard of was represented. It's a world-class all-star wine list, the most storied wine list I've ever looked over. The lofty roster had prices to match. High end wines typically don't support more than a 100% markup given the high starting price, and that seemed to be the markup here, but 2X a high price is, well, a higher price. But if you're going to splurge on a meal at French Laundry, digging into their treasure chest of a cellar for a bottle you might not be able to find on the open market is one of the treats.
For those looking to sample a flight of wines, The French Laundry has a great selection of half bottles, of which I picked out two reds, both of which are no longer on the wine list, so quickly does their wine list rotate. The standout to me was a reasonably priced pinot noir from Skewis Winery, the 2006 Bush Vineyard, Russian River Valley. A few weeks after my meal, I ordered a lot of bottles of that gem from Skewis after finding out that it would be their last year of producing the Bush given the passing of the owner of that land. I usually don't enjoy California pinots as they aren't earthy enough for my taste, but this was a beautiful drinking wine, with a long and complex finish.
Here was our menu (many special characters were pillaged from France in its making). I won't linger on every dish, but will call out the standouts afterwards.
"Oyster and Pearls"
"Sabayon" of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters
and White Sturgeon Caviar
Salad of Hand-Rolled "Orecchiette"
Cauliflower Fleurettes, Sweet Peppers, Fava Beans,
Spanish Capers, Marjoram and "Piment d'Espelette"
Moulard Duck "Foie Gras en Terrine"
Gros Michel Banana "Génoise," Belgian Endive,
Hazelnuts and Madeira-Vanilla Reduction
Wild Columbia River Sturgeon
Fennel Bulb, Niçoise Olives, Navel Orange, Pine Nuts,
Arugula and Orange-Saffron Gastrique
Tartare of Japanese Bluefin Tuna
Tokyo Turnips, Broccolini, Ginkgo Nuts,
Perilla and Salted Plum Coulis
Sweet Butter-Poached Maine Lobster "Mitts"
Golden Corn, English Peas and Black Truffles from Provence
Wolfe Ranch White Quail
Spring Onions, Pickled Blueberries,
Red Ribbon Sorrel and "Sauce Dijonnaise"
"Confit de Cœur de Veau"
Pumpernickel "Pain Perdu," Toybox Tomatoes Celery Branch,
Marinated Red Onion and Jidori Hen Egg Emulsion
Snake River Farms "Calotte de Bœuf Grillée"
Cèpe Mushrooms, Green Asparagus, Yukon Gold Potato "Rissolée,"
Garlic Pudding and "Sauce Bordelaise"
Ibérico Ham, Toasted Walnuts,
Collard Greens and Blis Maple Syrup
Ginger "Gelée," Puffed Quinoa
and Boysenberry Purée
"Gâteau Saiant Nizier Au Manjari"
Mango-Chili Relish, Mast Brothers Chocolate Cocoa Nibs,
Lime Foam and Coconut Milk Sorbet
Lemon Verbena "Vacherin"
Tellicherry Pepper Panna Cotta, Garden Lemon Verbena Sherbet
and Chilled Silverado Trail Strawberry Consommé
This is California cuisine, yes, but not the type content to surround two fresh beet halves with five niblets of corn, two asparagus spear heads, and three peas in a miniature tableau and call it a dish. I love fresh ingredients as much as the next gourmand, but in this day and age, when I can visit the same farmer market the local high end restaurant visits for super-fresh produce, the premium I'm willing to pay for such food has shrunk.
Anyone who has perused chef Thomas Keller's French Laundry Cookbook knows that attempting to conquer any of the recipes therein is no task for the average home chef. It will end up more of a coffee table book for most of its owners: inspiring, yes, but a bit like a weekend warrior reading about Lance Armstrong's workout routines. Me, I'm happy to pay for this type of meal because I won't at any point in the meal wonder if I could prepare that dish myself, let alone at a reasonable cost in terms of time and equipment.
Take, for example, the first official course (the first amuse bouche was unlisted and was the same as the one I had at Per Se, Keller's New York sister to French Laundry: cornets of salmon tartare with red onion crème fraiche), one of Keller's signature dishes, "Pearl and Oysters." Served with a special mother-of-pearl spoon, it's a dish whose preparation is a delicate and complex chemistry experiment. If the end justifies the means, then it's worth it, because the dish is brilliant. I don't have the culinary vocabulary to describe it, but in its flavors and textures it's something wholly unique, a creation all Thomas Keller's.
[Note: It was really dark in the restaurant, I did not want to use flash and bother the other patrons, and so the photos are a bit grainy. I would have preferred to shoot with a bit smaller of an aperture to increase the depth of field, but these pics were the best I could manage.]
The butter-poached Maine lobster "mitts" tends more towards traditional Californian cuisine, but the butter poaching and black truffles added just enough dazzle without distracting from the simplicity of its mix of flavors.
Perhaps the most memorable dish of the night was Confit de Cœur de Veau, literally the confit of a veal heart. Rather than serve the heart in one piece, Keller wisely chose to shave it thinly, and it came out arranged like a bouquet of pastrami for the gods. Rich, dense, and unforgettable. I'm not even sure where you could buy a veal heart to work with, so I took my time eating this one.
One last dish to highlight, and that is the Snake River Farms Calotte de Bœuf Grillée. It is one of the best pieces of beef I've ever had in my life. If I were to become a vegetarian for the rest of my life, I'd want to stash the flavor of this beef in my memory to serve as the canonical flavor of beef for the rest of my days.
Snake River Farms also supplies Wolfgang Puck's fantastic LA steakhouse Cut with its American Wagyu, and if you fancy yourself an expert in the preparation of beef you can purchase direct from them. Best of luck if you go that route: 4 10 oz ribeyes will run you $199.
The only thing marring our meal was the company to my left. By this point in our meal, the investment bankers had a few bottles of wine in them. The volume of their voices had turned up, and snippets of conversation from their table drifted over.
"You could tell, just looking at her, she was a little sexpot."
"Oh yeah. If she was a year or two older, what was she, seventeen? My god."
"Hell, even if she wasn't."
To my relief, the American Psycho crew left by the time our desserts came.
The name of the restaurant comes from the fact that the building was once actually a French laundry. In keeping with that theme, the napkins are held in clothespins when you arrive, the bill comes on a laundry ticket, and the lampshades have ironing icons on them.
By the time we finished dessert and nibbled on the mignardises (the little candies and cookies that follow dessert at finer dining establishments, like a post-dessert dessert), I was suitably full. Not sickeningly gorged, but content.
If you drink wine, figure on $300 a person for dinner. After we settled our checks, I mentioned to the waiter that I'd seen the French Laundry kitchen once before, on a plasma TV in the kitchen of Per Se. The two sister restaurants stay connected via webcam. Without my asking, the waiter said once he'd run our credit cards he'd give us a kitchen tour.
The kitchen is not massive, it's smaller than the one at Per Se. By the time we walked in, the kitchen was almost spotless already.
Two things hanging in the kitchen impressed me. One was a sign over one doorway with the definition of the word "finesse." The other was a clock over a doorway, under which was a sign that read "Sense of Urgency." After having completed our meal, these didn't seem like empty decorations but a fitting summary of two of the qualities that make The French Laundry a world class restaurant.
And so ended our journey to one of the world's culinary meccas. I thoroughly enjoyed the meal and recommend the journey for those who can drop that much for a meal and not regret it. You know who you are.