For most of us, eating at the The French Laundry is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Getting a reservation feels like an odd combination of winning the culinary lottery and going to the prom, due in equal parts to its draconian reservation policy (only accepted 60 days in advance to the date) and because it’s widely considered the “best restaurant in the world.”
When a friend tells you they’ve secured a rez to the end-all, be-all of haute cuisine, I don’t care how broke you are, or how lactose intolerant your girlfriend happens to be; you get yourself to Yountville. The bragging rights alone are worth the $270 per person! (That includes service charge, but sadly, not wine nor add-ons).
So the next time some smug idiot tells you they graduated from Harvard, or summers in the Hamptons, you can simply retort: “I ate at The French Laundry.” You have, in effect, climbed culinary Everest. No matter what else happens (stock markets go up and down, you may lose your job, your hair, your fortune, etc.), you once ate at the finest restaurant on the planet. Period. The End.
Chef Thomas Keller’s obsession with details—the exact temperature and measure of ingredients in his dishes, the care with which he sources his vegetables, his championing of the sous vide technique—have all been endlessly chronicled. So I’m not going to take a number and get on the long line of foodies, critics, talking heads, and sycophants waiting their turn to kiss Chef Keller’s ass. Ultimately, I was most impressed with the service.
The giddy feeling of both exclusivity and anticipation was palpable on the morning of our trip. The four of us dressed up in our best formalwear, not unlike getting ready for the prom (with pictures taken before, during and after). And like teenagers waiting for the limo, we were nervous. Upon our arrival to the modest-looking stone and slate two-story structure, however, the respectful but informal maître d’ greeted us warmly and simply. Walking up the wooden staircase, we saw a cozy, understated, country inn-like atmosphere of candlelight, rustic wood, and simple sconces on the walls with wry laundry symbols, all which set us at ease.
Our lead waiter (yes, we had a lead waiter) was helpful, respectful, and elegantly deferential. While we awaited the menu—a nine-course chef’s tasting menu which changes daily—we flipped through the legendary 107-page wine list on an iPad and nibbled on the signature amuse bouches of salmon tartare cornets (like sushi, but classier) and flaky, gooey Gruyère gougères. Each course had its own service team and the lead waiter explained each dish as was served. We were never rushed, and our every need anticipated. (I wish I had these folks around for everything.)
Out of sheer practicality, we started with Metaphora Rose of Pinot Noir, as it was the most versatile wine to pair with the varied menu.
Our two appetizers:
“Oysters and Pearls”—Sabayon of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and White Sturgeon Caviar: so sumptuous, plump, creamy, minerally and tasted like luxury in a dish.
Royal Osetra Caviar, Bone Marrow Custard “Fumé a la Minute,” Meiwa Kumquat and Tarragon. I believe “Fumé a la Minute,” roughly translated, means “so damn tasty I wanted to snort it through a silver straw.”
Moulard Duck “Foie Gras En Dôme,” “Coeurs et Gésiers De Canard,” Petit Onions, Red Walnuts and Guinness-Chocolate Emulsion: It was OK, but not worth the extra $30 for the foie. The waiter made a point to tell us about the 140 million-year-old Jurassic salt from a cave in Montana. Insert snide dinosaur comment here.
By this time, the house-baked bread and butter came out. The choices: pretzel, baguette, or sourdough. (Yes, also served by a specialty waiter.) The pretzel bread was so good, I felt faint.
Sautéed Fillet Of Atlantic Black Bass, Alaskan King Crab, Watercress and Pickled French Laundry Garden Vegetables: This was a masterful combination of textures and flavors. The supply cooked, flaky bass with crunchy skin was juxtaposed by the sinfully rich crab purée and crisp, tangy veggies.
Georges Bank Sea Scallops “Poelées,” “Tendon de Boeuf,” Nameko Mushrooms, Broccolini, Tokyo Turnips and “Sauce Japonaise”: A tie for my favorite course of the night. I wanted a second helping.
At this point we started sweating profusely, as the food had been deluged with butter. Very much like my prom, my date was having issues. Danielle made her second trip to the curiously unattended, no-frills bathroom and somehow she managed to crawl back to the table, perspiration streaming down her face, for round two.
We needed more booze for this mission, and fast, as the meat courses were approaching. We settled on a lovely 2006 Albert Morot Beaune 1er Cru Les Toussaints. Nothing like a good Burgundy Pinot with meat.
The game course:
Wolf Ranch White Quail, Michigan Sour Cherries, Cauliflower, Sicilian Pistachios, Mizuna, and Black Winter Truffle: My other favorite course. The skin was crispy, the meat perfectly moist, contrasted by the acidic and sweet cherries.
Danielle dissented with our assessment at this point, thoroughly unimpressed with the quail. She preferred the fried chicken from Ludo Truck, which we visited in a parking lot in Reseda two nights prior. I’m sure this might have something to do with the raging stomach pain brought on by the swimming pool’s worth of butter she had consumed, unaided by an ever-growing mountain of impotent Lactaid pill wrappers next to her plate. Unfazed, the rest of us moved on.
The meat course:
Braised Snake River Farms Beef Short-Rib, Pearl Barley, Nantes Carrots, English Peas and Caramelized Green Garlic.
Danielle disappeared again after eating a bite of this bland, butter-drowned meat sponge. I sneered at the plate and washed it down with more wine. I was disappointed by the flavorless taste of this usually rich cut of meat.
The cheese course:
Jasper Hill Farm “Harbison,” Hobbs Bacon, “Pommes Dauphine,” Cornichons, and Dijon Mustard. (Also cellophane wrapper.): I bit into my first piece of cheese and let it mix with bacon on my palate until I noticed a weird texture. Also like my prom, this led to unexpected fun. I pulled an odd-feeling morsel out of my mouth to find: GASP! Cellophane!
I was at a loss and didn’t quite know whether to be:
A) Outraged—$270 plus for THIS?
B) philosophical—I guess there is no such thing as “perfection”
C) understatedly humorous with the wait staff
I chose option C. The bread server was the only staff visible and so I called her over. When I showed her the cellophane and said that I doubted that this was one of the ingredients on the menu, I think she turned blue with shame.
She apologized profusely and went off to tell her superiors of the offense. While we awaited an official response, my friends and I speculated about the restaurant’s reaction. I suspected that someone would get fired or executed. Simon thought I should insist on getting the meal for free. Danielle was of the opinion that I should threaten to go to the Food Network and do an exposé. (Lactose-related anger at work there, I’m sure.)
The response was eye-opening and in an odd way, the most Zen-like, valuable part of the meal. I received a sincere, respectful, and dignified apology from the manager and our lead waiter. The manager then comped all our add-ons, and said that there would be surprises to come—in the form of a kitchen tour, extra desserts, souvenir shortbread cookies complete with tin, and in an entrepreneurial moment on my part-the private reservation number to Per Se in New York. I realize that what makes this place the best restaurant in the world isn’t just their food, but how they respond to their guests.
Therein was the lesson: Even the best screw up sometimes. It’s how you recover that counts.
The dessert courses blended together, so blitzed we were with sweets, from house-made chocolates, to cold hot chocolate, to coffee so good it tasted like heaven in a cup. When we were done with the meal, we were given a tour of the kitchen before being sent on our way. The evening of a lifetime was made possible, not so much by my expectations, but by the gift of the unexpected, and the wisdom of adversity turned into opportunity. (I will not elaborate on that last prom reference in the name of good taste.)
Was it worth it? Yes. (But like Danielle, I still liked the fried chicken from Ludo Truck more.)