How does one approach what is supposed to be the best meal of one’s life? Whether or not most people actively contemplate the answer to this question, everyone who visits the French Laundry for the first time has to negotiate the reality of how their own expectations measure up to whatever best describes the reputation of this hallowed institution ” mystique, hype, fantasy, legend?
This is, after all, the restaurant that gave Anthony Bourdain the best restaurant meal of his life and was named the best restaurant in the world last year by Britain’s Restaurant Magazine.
My own expectations for the first time I ate there were also heightened by an article in the San Francisco Chronicle about chef Thomas Keller’s floor manager and girlfriend, Laura Cunningham, and the level of service she has spent several years honing to perfection. I also had read Soul of A Chef, in which Michael Ruhlman (who would go on to author Keller’s French Laundry Cookbook) spends some significant time in the kitchen and the restaurant describing how the magic happens.
I think unless you live a couple of blocks away and know the Chef, going to the Laundry is always a special event, and for many people it is THE dining event, perhaps even of a lifetime.
Everyone’s experience of The Laundry begins with the reservation process, which is a nightmare and enough to drive anyone who doesn’t have the connections to secure an “off the books” reservation totally bonkers. Several years ago, in an attempt to get a reservation for my birthday, both Ruth and I spent nearly 2 hours constantly speed dialing on both our cellphones and our work phones starting exactly at 10:00 AM two months to the day in advance. I never wanted to use a phone again after that ordeal ” I had a raging headache and didn’t get anywhere close to securing a table. If you’ve tried before, you know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, don’t bother — I currently have two reasonably good ways for securing reservations which I share in detail at the end of this review.
After the reservation ordeal has passed into distant memory you will eventually find yourself crunching over the gravel of their parking lot to enter the beautiful garden patio that sits at the back of the brick and hewn-stone building off of a quiet street in Yountville. This garden area, even in winter, is a beautiful space, and the opportunity to dine there, or even relax on their wooden bench, makes for an added bonus to a summer meal. I recommend going for an earlier seating at the restaurant as well, so that should you end up dining upstairs you might end up with a view of the garden as you eat. An earlier seating will also allow you to remain awake throughout the 3 plus hours that a proper meal should take here ” if you’re like me, starting such a marathon at 9:30 PM is a waste of time, since I’m comatose at around midnight and couldn’t appreciate anything put in front of me, even if it is one of chef Keller’s incredible desserts.
Before I move on to the food, however, let’s talk about the entrance to the restaurant. You are met by smartly suited staff, who convey an extraordinary sense of expectedness ” they know who you are, most likely, and have been patiently waiting for your arrival. It’s a good feeling. As you pause briefly in the stone tiled and well appointed foyer, which feels vaguely like a cross between the entrance to an exclusive spa and a tiny hotel (welcoming, but not somewhere you want to linger), the coats are taken and you are then led to your table.
Dining takes place in one of four main areas of the restaurant, which has an intimate, residential layout, as if this were someone’s home who had, just before you arrived, whisked out all the furniture and replaced it with as many tables for dining as possible without quite feeling cramped. The downstairs main dining room holds perhaps seven or eight tables, and just off of this room there is another, darker room with exposed stone walls next to the kitchen and wine cellar which holds a few more. Upstairs, split down the middle by the staircase are two rooms which each hold several tables and, oddly, the restaurant’s washrooms. Most of the rooms are nicely adorned with gorgeous flower arrangements which play off the understated combination of redwood timbers, antique white tongue and groove paneling and window casings, and in places, the exposed stone and brick that must have made up the original building on the site.
The meal begins with a decision on how you would like to dine. The options have changed recently to be either a chef’s tasting menu of 9 courses (also available in vegetarian) for $150 or a prix fixe a la carte menu of four courses for $135. Each often also has additional supplemental options involving foie gras or truffles that incur extra costs, from $25 to $80. The a la carte menu used to be less expensive, but I would imagine that most people end up ordering the tasting menu, which is definitely my recommendation, and for the money, by far the better way to go. The restaurant is very flexible to accommodate dining tastes, and is willing for instance, to substitute a seared foie gras dish from the a la care instead of a terrine on the tasting menu if you so desire.
The question of wine must also be addressed at this point in the meal, whether for a wine flight to accompany the meal or ordering a bottle or glasses from the list. I hardly need to spend much time on the wine list, as I would exhaust my limited vocabulary of superlatives. Let’s just call it “heavy” and leave it at that. It’s pretty easy to blow through a week’s salary here on wine, no matter what you make. In addition to wine, the restaurant offers a modest list of sake to choose from. On my recent visit, I was accompanied by several friends who were not going to drink very much (one due to an allergy) and found the combination of ordering a bottle plus some selections by the glass to be a great way of enjoying some variety without breaking the bank. The by-the-glass list is not extensive, but the wines offered are extremely good, including the house label Cabernet, “Modicum,” (made at Harlan Estate) which was nothing short of outstanding.
The menu offered on our December 6th visit was a wonderful mix of wintery dishes that built lightly on one another, moving from delicate to very rich flavors and back again with dexterity. We began with Keller’s signature amuse bouche: black sesame cornets of Atlantic salmon tartar with red onion crème fraiche ” tiny little ice cream cones of goodness that further reinforced the visual pun by melting in the mouth. The tartar was diced so finely and so perfectly that Ruth commented that it briefly had the texture of caviar in the mouth.
One of the things that I love about the French Laundry is the degree to which they are just as excited about the food and wine as many of the diners. A politely curious and engaged diner or wine aficionado will find themselves offered a range of small sips and nibbles throughout the evening. If there is a wine that the staff thinks will pair exceptionally well with a dish you are having, it is not unusual for a small pour of it to appear just before the dish arrives.
Next for us was Keller’s famous oysters and pearls, a Nova Scotia oyster and Iranian Osetra caviar with creamy tapioca, which must be experienced to be believed ” such an amazing combination of flavors, textures, and aromas that bounce between unexpected and familiar. Such opposition and inventiveness, along with the touch of whimsy is Keller’s hallmark, yet unlike some chefs who have become famous for one thing or another, it is not overdone. Our meal had little puns here and there in it, an occasional unexpected pairing, yet these elements were subsumed in what was first and foremost a carefully crafted meal of dishes that were food first.
If there is one thing that the kitchen at the French Laundry does better than any restaurant in California it is the presentation of each dish, most often on a line of dishes designed specifically for the restaurant. The food is always delivered in impeccable artistry, combinations of shapes and colors that are subtle, elegant, and nothing short of amazing. I still marvel at the three colors of Thumbelina carrots which accompanied my seared foie gras and mushroom fricassee, and the gorgeous oval, high-walled bowl that cradled my small sautéed filet of Japanese Suzuki with wilted arrowleaf spinach and caramelized salsify.
Following foie gras with lobster isn’t that difficult, especially if the lobster is poached in pure butter, but pairing it with artichokes, cipollini onions and nicoise olives nearly made me fall over in my chair. Dishes like this showcase Keller’s own perfect culinary insanity, executed so as to leave me breathless, much as I would imagine one would have felt listening to Mozart play in person.
Lobster was followed by Liberty Valley duck breast, endive fondue, ruby grapefruit wedges, dusted with a powder of candied citrus zest and a hint of fennel. The duck was fantastic, but my notes from the evening are consumed with the dish that followed, which despite its simplicity may well be the best single dish that I have ever had in a restaurant:
Let me reduce all that French and fancy description to something simpler. Take a nice 3 ounce piece of finest free range beef, grill it incredibly hot for several seconds on each side to a perfect medium rare and place it in a deep black pool of sauce which is basically a black truffle reduction. On top of the meat, quickly place a small dollop of bone marrow (which you have scooped out of the bone and frozen in a mold, then coated in flour and flash fried in clarified butter), then add some potatoes and broccolini for starch and color. The Japanese have a word, “utskushi,” for the ultimate in visual beauty which loosely translates as “sublime” but it is such a powerful word that you would never consider using it to, say, describe even the most beautiful woman you have ever seen. If it could be used to describe food, which I’m sure it could not, I would happily apply it here. The beef and truffle combination was so pure and powerful in its musky aromatic glory, and the light crunchiness of the buttery bone marrow on top added an airy, yet rich high note that simply carried on forever, like a wine with a finish that goes on and on.
Keller once reported to Michael Ruhlman that “his favorite aroma, perhaps his favorite thing to do as a cook, was to brown floured meat,” revealing perhaps a bit of the culinary sensibility behind this dish, which at its base was simply grilled steak and mashed potatoes, but on another plane entirely by the time it was finished.
Our meal finished with a sequence of desserts, moving from a poached pear tart and cinnamon sauce (gastrique) with micro “mache” greens; a coconut sorbet with almond streusel, Persian lime jelly and toasted coconut and buttercream touille; and the coup de grace: a Valrhona chocolate cream devil’s food cake with chocolate chip ice cream and espresso anglaise; Tahitian vanilla bean crème brullee; caramel infused panna cotta; I probably could have finished at least 2 each of the chocolate cake, and the panna cotta, but was left to stuff myself on the little chocolates, jellies, and cookies which accompanied our teas and the denouement of the meal.
The fact that I was primed for more eating is no small indication of how masterful this meal really is. I’ve eaten a lot of 9+ course tasting menus in my life, and at the end of all of them I am usually loosening my belt a little and feel a little overstuffed. The amount of food provided at the Laundry is perfect, and what’s more, the pacing of the entire meal is impeccable. Dinner unfolds, if you’ll forgive the musical metaphor, much like Norah Jones’ first album, on the first time you listened to it. Time slips languorously by, soothed and smoothed, and each course, like the brevity of Norah’s songs, leaves you satisfied but hungering for more.
This magical quality is really what elevates the already outstanding food to a level that can begin to meet the expectations that many people have for this restaurant. Some of the dishes do not stand head and shoulders above others that I have eaten yet the meal was closer to “perfect” than most others I have had. Has the restaurant played host to the best meal of MY life? Probably not, but I’d say it was up there in the top 5 restaurant meals I’ve ever had, no question about it (though getting me to enumerate the other four would be tough).
At the end of the day, I think some people will find the restaurant over-hyped. How could they not with the buildup that it gets from everyone under the sun? I myself was dismayed to find the service less than perfect (my bottle of Sauvignon Blanc was delivered a bit warm, and at times our waiter was not as polished as he could have been, bumbling over some of the menu items distractedly). The wine gaff is inexcusable, but I wouldn’t have given the waiter’s stumbling another thought in any other restaurant. But this is The French Laundry, and even I expect it to be inhuman in its precision. I think it’s good for us all that it really isn’t.
There are some meals that I’ve paid more than $300 per person for and have had a slight tinge of regret signing the credit card slip. That, I firmly believe, will never be the case here. I’m not sure it’s the best restaurant in the world, but its definitely the best restaurant in Northern California, and after all these years, still worth the time and the effort to get to. Everyone should go, at least once.
How Much?: Expect to spend roughly $300 per person assuming you buy a couple bottles of reasonably priced wine. If you’re dipping into the dusty bottles then all bets are off. An 18% gratuity is automatically added to each check (which, as a nice touch, comes on a laundry ticket).
Men are requested to wear jackets. No jeans, shorts, or t-shirts. Parking is easy.
HOW TO GET RESERVATIONS:
As you know, the restaurant takes reservations two months, to the day, in advance, via a telephone samurai battle that makes a Kurosawa movie look peaceful. I suggest refraining from the melee in one of the following ways, listed in order of their ease:
#1. Call around 2 PM and ask very nicely and politely if they have any cancellations between now and, well… forever for a party of
#3. Use a concierge service (American Express Black, anyone?) or the concierge of a very high-end hotel in wine country (The Fairmont, Harvest Inn, Meadowood, etc.).