In an earlier post, I talked about my failed attempt at dinner at The French Laundry. Well, with a “significant” birthday approaching and nothing to lose, I decided to give it another crack.
I first learned about The French Laundry from a documentary my daughter recommended called “Spinning Plates”. A terrific film and a must-see for foodies, it chronicles three restaurants – a Michilin-starred restaurant in Chicago, a 150-year family owned diner in Iowa and a small, struggling venue in Tucson, Arizona. The renowned chef of the Chicago restaurant, Alinea, made several references to Thomas Keller and The French Laundry, and as it is in California I told my husband “we have to go there!”
Not knowing the exact location of said French Laundry, I quickly Googled it. Yountville. Yountville? That must be wrong … where the heck is Yountville?
If there is a special heaven for chefs, it’s probably hovering above Yountville. It is an idyllic little town just a few miles north of Napa in the heart of the most beautiful wine country outside Provence, and you have to have coullies sérieux to open a restaurant there, since each one is a masterpiece in gastronomy. Thomas Keller, chef and proprietor of The French Laundry, owns three restaurants in Yountville – the other two being Bouchon and Ad Hoc. And I have now been to all three. But I digress…
The first hurdle to overcome in dining at The French Laundry is getting a reservation, and it’s a protocol not unlike Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi. Every other month, on the first of the month, precisely at 10:00 a.m., they release dates for the coming two months (for example, on June 1st they would release dates for July and August). You MUST be sitting at your computer at 9:59, date in mind, credit card in hand, cursor on refresh, ready to commit.
Watching that calendar fill up before your eyes in a matter of minutes is a sight to behold – like connoisseur piranhas in a feeding frenzy. This is no time to be weak. Pick your date, pick your time, swallow hard and pay the price fast, or you will lose to another hungry fish faster than you can say foie gras.
And just like that, on October 1st at 10:00:45 a.m., I was fortunate enough to get a reservation for the actual date of my birthday.
For my birthday weekend we booked a room at Lavender, one of the Four Sisters Inns located just a few blocks from The French Laundry.
A cozy, Provincial bed and breakfast, each room has a fireplace and jetted tub, perfect for a romantic get-away. We shared a light lunch just up the road at Domaine-Chandon and then a lazy afternoon by the fireplace, before preparing for the main event.
Outside, the restaurant is conspicuously inconspicuous and walking up to the door we almost wondered if it were closed. There are no lines of people waiting to get in – there’s no point in trying to get in unexpectedly with reservations being paid in advance. Maybe there’s an exception if you’re a major film star or the scientist who cloned the first puppy, but I wouldn’t know since I am neither.
Inside looked nothing like I expected. In the 1920’s, The French Laundry was, as the name implies, a French steam laundry, and so I guess I was expecting something like a dry cleaner’s motif– sort of industrial with maybe some long conveyors going up to the ceiling. Instead, it looks more like a large home with several rooms sort of plain and relatively un-decorated. In retrospect, I wonder if it isn’t a bit like the plain, white room that you step into to “decompress” and clear your mind before entering to view Monet’s Water Lilies at the Musee L’Orangerie, since French Laundry is all about the food, the whole food and nothing but the food.
Thomas Keller is owner to a large and verdant garden across the street from the restaurant, which provides much of the menu items. There are two 9-course tasting menus each day, the Chef’s Tasting Menu and a vegetarian menu. The top item of each course is the selection you have paid for in advance, followed by additional selections offered for a supplement. And while some of the supplement items did sound tempting, we opted to go top row across the boards and enjoy whatever Chef Thomas had planned for us.
I’ve had the pleasure of dining at a few one- and two-Michilin starred restaurants, but this was unlike anything I had experienced. Courses were often whimsical and always incredible.
The meal started with an amuse bouche of tiny “ice cream cones” filled with sushi and magic. My bouche was extremely amused.
The “Oysters and Pearls” with white sturgeon caviar is a signature dish of the restaurant, the tiny Malpeque oysters tasting like none I’d ever had before. Courses included little “extras” like tiny homemade biscuits and “Ritz” crackers (their words, not mine). Especially memorable was the Dungeness crab with roasted sunchoke and toasted brioche.
The main course was venison. If you’ve read my “About Me” page, you know I grew up eating my share of road kill, so on paper this selection didn’t blow my skirt up. But the venison I grew up eating was “chicken fried”, like southerners are wont to do. This was a little mignon of perfection, served slightly rare as venison was meant to be, with a “Sauce Grande Veneur”, which literally translates to “great venison sauce”. Which it was. Great.
At the end of the meal I was presented with a candle-emblazoned slice of birthday cake and 43 other desserts including three different ice creams, donuts, and candies, all made in-house. And just when you think you’re safe, they bring around the large “humidor” of hand-made truffles in flavors you can’t even imagine. When I proclaimed my utter inability to take another bite, they offered to gladly box some up for us (and over the next couple days I was very happy that they did).
On our way out of the restaurant, we received a tour of the massive and immaculate kitchen. I believe I have seen God.
A few final comments –
They have a $175 corkage fee on bottles you bring yourself, which I thought was exorbitant until I looked at the wine list. We opted for glasses.
If your palate is not particularly discerning or you are more of a “meat and potatoes” person, then unless you’ve got pockets deeper than Brad Pitt’s dimples it may be a waste of money for you.
If, on the other hand, you are an adventurous eater who’s ready and willing to experience anything, with an appreciation for complex and subtle flavors, you will have found Nirvana.
And finally, my love and thanks to my sweet husband for humoring my every whim and giving me the best birthday imaginable.