All it took was one phone call. So of course we had to go.
Securing a reservation at The French Laundry – considered one of the world’s best restaurants – is supposed to be difficult. You have to call two months to the day in advance. If you’re lucky enough to get through, you likely will have to put your name on the waiting list – and then hope and wait. And you’ll likely have to try again. And again.
You should know that making that call was Kenley’s idea.
Kenley and I don’t self-identify as foodies. I don’t like to cook. Kenley doesn’t like to eat vegetables. But if you read this blog, you know that we have enjoyed exploring our still-new city of Los Angeles by dining at its incredibly diverse eating establishments (including The French Laundry’s sister restaurant, Bouchon, in Beverly Hills).
And in Kenley’s past life as a copy editor for SmartBrief, he edited the Culinary Institute of America’s newsletter. So he’s very familiar with chef Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry and its impeccable reputation.
So on Nov. 23, two months to the day from our wedding anniversary, Kenley was working from home. I was shopping online rather than battling the crowds at the malls. Kenley casually suggested that I should call The French Laundry, just for the fun of it.
It happened to be the day after Thanksgiving, when most people are recovering from a turkey-induced haze and not making plans to eat a nine-course meal.
I dialed. A voice answered. I asked whether it was possible for our party to be put on the waiting list. The voice said our party could be seated at 5:45 p.m. or 9:15 p.m.
Gulp! We were giddy – and a little scared!
I started planning a trip to Napa Valley.
The French Laundry topped Restaurant magazine’s list of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2003 and 2004. It’s the only U.S. restaurant to have reached No. 1, and it reigned as the magazine’s Best Restaurant in the Americas from 2005 to 2008. Chef Keller was honored with the magazine’s lifetime achievement award in 2012:
“His iconic restaurant, The French Laundry in Yountville, California, effectively revolutionized American cooking, combining classical French techniques with distinctive, locally sourced quality ingredients years before such an approach became de rigueur.”
The French Laundry also is one of two restaurants in the San Francisco Bay area to have earned three stars from the Michelin Guide (The Restaurant at Meadowood is the other), and Thomas Keller is the only chef to have earned three stars for two different restaurants at the same time (Per Se in New York is the other).
The notoriously hard-to-please celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain declared The French Laundry “the best restaurant in the world, period” on one of the first episodes of his TV show “No Reservations” in 2005.
Oh, yeah. This was going to be good.
The French Laundry is a small stone building along a quaint country road in Yountville, Calif., about 15 minutes north of Napa. (It actually was once used as a French steam laundry.)
If not for the small bronze sign on a stone wall at knee level, you might drive right past it. There’s no valet. You just park on the side of the road next to the restaurant’s garden.
When we arrived, it was dim and hushed inside. We were seated at a table in a cozy nook next to a stone wall, which I believe was hiding the wine cellar on the other side.
The attention to detail was almost flawless. We were presented with the chef’s tasting menu, and it had “Happy Anniversary Shelly and Kenley” written at the top. They had asked how to spell Kenley’s name when he called to tell them we were celebrating our anniversary. But they didn’t ask how to spell mine. Like I said … almost flawless.
The wine menu was displayed on an iPad; the printed version is more than 120 pages. We felt totally overwhelmed for a split second, but the waiter (there were several) read us perfectly and suggested two half-bottles of red from the Napa Valley area.
The wine offerings sell for up to $8,000 for a bottle of 1997 Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon. Fortunately, the waiter’s recommendations fell precisely into the much, much more moderate beverage budget that Kenley and I had agreed to earlier. Another waiter even joked with the men at the other table that the big news of the day in the wine world was that the price of Trader Joe’s “Two-buck Chuck” was going up to $2.49 from $1.99 because of bad crops in 2010 and 2011.
Because we were celebrating our anniversary, the waiter asked us whether it would be “appropriate” if he brought us a glass of sparkling wine, on the house. Um … totally, dude.
The glass of bubbly was specially crafted for The French Laundry by nearby Schramsberg Vineyards, which we had plans to visit the next day.
Then, the food began arriving.
First were light gougeres of Gruyere — essentially small, delicate cheese puffs. They were followed by salmon tartare cornets. (Kenley called them fish ice cream cones, and we had a similar dish at Wolfgang Puck’s Spago, in Beverly Hills.)
Then the first course of the tasting menu arrived: Keller’s famous oysters and pearls, which is tapioca with Island Creek oysters and white sturgeon caviar.
(We at first didn’t feel comfortable taking photos, especially after I had read a piece in The New York Times a day earlier about restaurants being camera-shy. But then we saw others snapping pics, and we figured since we likely weren’t ever going to do this again, we might as well document it.)
Next we received another off-the-menu surprise dish: egg custard with white truffle and homemade potato chip served in an egg shell.
The custard was followed by the first of three bread offerings — sourdough, pretzel, multigrain, brioche, pain au lait and more. The bread was so good it was hard not to try all of the selections, but we remembered the wise words of our friend Tug Baker, who writes a column called Tug Eats Everything — don’t fill up on starches. We each chose a different type of bread and then carefully broke the rolls in half so that we could have a taste of both. A waiter caught us and laughed good-naturedly at our rationing, offering Kenley a job in the kitchen for his precision with the knife.
One of the best things about this experience was that Kenley, an extremely picky eater, had to eat everything on his plate. No way were we letting even a tiny morsel go to waste. So when it came to the salad course — winter chicories, including Cara Cara orange, Marcona almonds and rose hip — Kenley looked skeptical. Then, he took a bite … and proceeded to clean his plate. Days later, he’s still talking about how fresh and flavorful the salad was.
Our first entree was the sauteed fillet of Atlantic black bass with Arrowleaf spinach, parsnip puree and saffron-vanilla emulsion. It was an unexpected flavor combination, and it turned out to be my favorite dish of the evening.
Before each dish, we were presented with silverware specific to each course. The server quickly and quietly whisked away the dirty sets and replaced them with shiny new ones, taking care to ensure the pieces were arranged perfectly on the table. I think that job must be among the most stressful at the restaurant.
I had never seen the large spoon that was served with the bass. It looked a little like a large spork. I thought to myself, “I’m out of my league here.” (Internet research later determined the utensil in question was likely a sauce spoon. The Los Angeles Times even wrote an article headlined “Sauce Spoon sighting.”)
The second entree was a New Bedford sea scallop “poulee.” Our waiter explained that it was the chef’s take on a deconstructed clam chowder. The scallop was served with small but thick chunks of Hobb’s bacon, celery and petite onions.
Our third entree was a “Liberty Farm Pekin duck,” served with Tokyo turnips, sprouting kale, mint and Cumberland sauce. I admit I don’t eat duck very often, but this was the best I have ever had.
After the second or third entree, I started to feel pretty full. In true French style, the dishes were all very rich. My mouth was puckering because of all the salt. I guzzled lots of water. Then I worried that the water was filling up my stomach. I again thought back to Tug’s recent food challenge.
And then the final entree was delivered to the table: Snake River Farms “Calotte de Boeuf Grillee.” Snake River Farms is known for its American Waygu beef, which sometimes is called American Kobe beef. It’s possible that I won’t ever have a better steak again.
A waiter then asked: “Are the two of you ready to move on to cheese?” Kenley’s answer to that question will never be “no.” We were offered a final bread selection and served Andante Dairy “Acapella,” which is made from goat milk and served with dried persimmon, young fennel, pine nuts and black truffle.
The cheese was followed by a sorbet course: a Star Ruby grapefruit “float” served with “pain d’epices” — a French spice bread — and marshmallows.
Then came the desserts! It was almost like we were just getting started. First to arrive was a passion fruit “swiss roll,” with Valrhona chocolate cremeux, caramel mousse and banana ice cream.
Then we enjoyed a Bakewell tart, with Fuji apples compote, “pain de gene” and toasted oat glace.
But the best was the cappuccino semifreddo and the cinnamon-sugar doughnuts, with a helping of caramelized macadamia nuts and chocolate truffles!
I simply couldn’t eat any more, so I asked for a to-go bag. And it was the most elegant to-go bag ever! It included the remaining macadamia nuts, chocolate truffles and an additional favor — shortbread cookies in a tin with The French Laundry pin logo on the top. We also were given folders with copies of our menu and our receipt, which was on an old-fashioned laundry tag.
To help us transition back to the real world after our three-hour-plus dinner, Kenley and I went down the street to a dive bar called Panchas and ordered beer from plastic cups. Definitely more our speed.
I don’t want to know how many calories we consumed in those three hours. Likely enough for several days. And indeed it would be several days before my body felt like it had regained its balance, though some of that probably had to do with the wine tastings we participated in later.
Our main takeaway from The French Laundry experience: The food is indeed extraordinary and commands respect, the service is unparalleled, and yet there is very little pretension. We walked in worrying that we’d be intimidated, but instead we were immediately set at ease. The waitstaff seemed genuinely happy to share in our experience, which nicely illustrates chef Thomas Keller’s philosophy:
“When you acknowledge, as you must, that there is no such thing as perfect food — only the idea of it — then the real purpose of striving toward perfection becomes clear: to make people happy, that is what cooking is all about.”
Come to think of it, that’s not a bad motto for anniversaries either. On the downside, Kenley’s gonna have a tough time topping this next year.