The French Laundry

Last week, my friend Wilfred said “Hey, are you interested in going to the French Laundry on Sunday?” I said, “Um, the best restaurant in the country (and, some say, the world) French Laundry? The one where you have to call two months in advance to dine, and even then you have to be lucky to get through and actually make a reservation?” He said “Yes, that one.” It turned out a friend of his had a reservation for 6 people on Sunday they couldn’t use, and had asked Wilfred and his friend if they were interested. They said yes, and were gathering people. I dithered for a minute or two, thinking about how expensive dinner would be, and then kicked myself. I’d heard about this restaurant for years, I had always wanted to go, and now a chance was being dropped in my life and I was being indecisive? I told Wilfred I was in.

It was amazing.

Where to start? Let’s start with the food. The food was exquisite. I don’t have a particularly discerning palate. I tend to prefer quantity over quality. So I’ve never seen the point of spending a lot of money on going to fancy restaurants. The nice restaurants I’ve been to had good food and all, but it wasn’t that much better than stuff I can make myself. This was different. This was a whole ‘nother level of culinary mastery, one that I had no idea existed. I now understand Wilfred when he raves about a wonderful gourmet meal. It was unlike anything I’ve ever had before.

We all chose the chef’s nine course tasting menu (click on the image to see a copy). Every course was fantastic. Each bite would melt in my mouth with a subtle blend of different flavors. I would get a big involuntary goofy grin on my face. It was that good. I’d talk about highlights, but I would have to talk about every course. I don’t think I’d ever had caviar before, or foie gras. And having started out with the best, I may not ever want anything less. This could be a problem. Every course was like that. The lobster was oh so good. The steak was phenomenal, with a pepper rub that brought out its flavors even more. Even the dinner roll was fantastic, clearly just made in the kitchen.

Part of it was the ingredients, which were, of course, top notch – the waiter noted that all of the vegetables we were eating had been harvested that day from the farm over the hill, taken straight of the ground, prepared, and served. The steak was from a herd of Kobe cattle in the Snake River valley of Idaho. The caviar was Iranian, which I was told is the best in the world. Et cetera.

But credit is definitely due to the chef Thomas Keller. The juxtaposition of ingredients and flavors was playful and interesting. Man, that sounds so snooty, but I get it now. The quail had these little pickled Granny Smith apple balls off to the side, and the tartness helped awaken some of the taste buds that the quail missed. The “Suzuki” fish course had a green orange sauce that really added some zest to an already tasty fish. Those sort of combinations are what took each course from great ingredients to extraordinary cuisine.

Beyond the food was the experience. When we arrived, we were seated instantly. The staff was helpful without being condescending; the sommelier in particular was excellent at describing the wines and recommending choices to go with the various courses. Each course was presented with style – three members of the staff would bring out six plates, serving first the three women at the table, and then the three men. Then one of them would wait patiently for the table conversation to die down, and then announce the course. Dishes were cleared between each course. Nothing was rushed. And yet time flew by. We ended up spending five hours there. But it didn’t feel like it. We ate, we talked, we drank some wine, we talked some more about the spectacular quality of both the wind and food, we ate some more, etc. And it was wonderful. Since the majority of the tables are a single seating for the evening, there’s no sense of urgency from the staff. We took our time, appreciating the food, and taking breaks between courses. For instance, between the two dessert courses, we drank port out in the garden and looked up at the stars. How cool is that?

The French Laundry isn’t just about the food, although the food is absolutely phenomenal. It’s about the whole experience. It’s about driving up north into Napa Valley, away from the city into the countryside. It’s about being treated with respect for the evening, where the staff is almost telepathic in responding to your desires. It’s about making the whole environment inviting, from the garden to the interior, to having comfortable chairs at the table. Here’s one example that amused me but in some ways sums up the experience. While we were out in the garden drinking port, a member of our group wanted a cigarette. Unfortunately, none of us had one she could bum. So she asked the maitre d’. The maitre d’ went and found a cigarette (we suspect she ran into the kitchen and asked if anybody had one). It was a Marlboro Red. But rather than just coming out and handing the cigarette to our friend, she placed the cigarette on a silver tray, along with an ashtray and a book of matches. Even for something as prosaic as a mass market brand of cigarette, they took the time to make the presentation special, covering all the needs of their customer. That attention to detail, that desire to go further to make the experience special, that is why this was a great evening.

Yes, it costs a lot of money. Yes, it’s almost impossible to get in. But it was an experience unlike any other I have ever had. If you can afford it, I highly recommend it.