When the bar is set so high….everything else seems unacceptable
*At the time this piece was published, we thought we’d lost the photos we took from our lunch at Thomas Keller’s French Laundry. So instead the photos below are from Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bakery in Yountville and the rest of our Napa Valley wine tasting trip. The good news is we found the photos and published them on our French Laundry Lost Footage piece.
Back in the early 2000’s when everyone hemmed and hawed about Harry Potter, I was immediately turned off and had no interest in reading the books. That’s the same way I felt about Thomas Keller’s (and I’m using bunny ears now) “The French Laundry.” I don’t know why, but I guess I have this guttural aversion to the collective consensus.
Since moving to San Francisco in 2007 it was “French Laundry this,” and “French Laundry that,” and without any tangible experience with Chef Thomas Keller, his restaurants, or French laundromats of my own, I was nonplussed with the notion of a “best restaurant in the world.” Unimpressed with the price, unimpressed with the exclusivity, and particularly unimpressed with the purposefully pretentious use of “the” in the name as an attempt to denote its uniqueness, when it’s surrounded by some pretty amazing dining experiences. If I learned one thing during my time in Hollywood it’s that “exclusivity” is just a fancy word for GIANT EGO! And I barely have room in my life for my own. A shrink would probably diagnose me with some severe outlier’s syndrome. Some innate need to be the center of attention…in this case, by being a naysayer.
But as much as I hate the idea of being controlled by some marketer’s puppetry, the consummate foodie inside refuses to let that hinder my ongoing exploration of all things food and food related. Which is why I gladly took the chance to dine at The French Laundry when Jonathan’s mother generously offered to fly out from DC and take us there for the 30th anniversary of his expulsion from her uterus…a memory I’m sure she was more than happy to celebrate being over!
I’ll be honest with you, I don’t care how big one chef’s ego might be, I’m not turning down some of the best cabernet sauvignons, best service and a chance to stuff my face with the most sought after grub in America if someone else is paying. And if that makes me a hypocrite and a stereotype….I’ll live.
There was only one problem with the plan….we had to get a reservation, which if you ask someone who knows firsthand, is seemingly impossible. Well if you follow these tips (most of which are online already so I’m sorry for being unoriginal here), you could end up with two reservations like we did.
Tips for getting a reservation at Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry:
1.) The reservation line doesn’t open until 10am everyday and they only take reservations 60 days out to the day for lunch or dinner. So as you can imagine a ton of people call at the same time, and depending on your luck, your call will be answered before the tables are all gone. Otherwise you get the busy signal. But my tip is to not give up, because if the tables are all gone when you call… you should be more than willing to put your name on the wait list. A lot of people reserve tables at The French Laundry and then cancel for a variety of reasons. A few days later, they called us with a table that became available. The wait list in many cases is almost as good as getting a reservation the first time around.
2.) They reserve a few tables for less desirable times on OpenTable and since you have to book 60 days out, to the day, those tables become available just after midnight…every day. Stay up late and see if you can snag one.
3.) Find a distant cousin or friend with a Black American Express credit card. A cousin of ours has one and while four of us frantically hit the phones at 10am and dialed over and over again, our cousin had the Black AMEX concierge make a reservation without a fuss. That’s how we got the first reservation and then the wait list (mentioned above) is how we ended up with the second.
4.) Be flexible! If you want to go for dinner and they only have lunch, then take the lunch! Besides, it’s hard to start a 3-4 hour meal at 7pm when you’re relaxing and drinking and then have to get in a car and drive to a hotel, B&B or back to the city when you’re full at 11pm. It would be jarring to say the least. With lunch you can do a wine taste or two in Oakville first (I suggest the regular and reserve tastings at Turnbull Vineyards) and then go to lunch. And by the time you’re done, the sun is still out and you’re headed home and beating the wine country traffic of bachelorette parties in stretch limos scrambling for the last tasting of the day before the wineries close.
The quant stone-walled restaurant quietly rests near the end of Yountville’s tree-lined main drag. It’s a vine-covered two-story stone structure modeled after an old laundry cottage, like the kind you might pass on a bike ride through Provence circa 1905 (so I’ve heard). There’s a tall green hedge surrounding the manicured front lawn hidden from the street’s view. That’s where we were asked to wait, clad in our dress-code compliant outfits, while our table was prepped. They only offer two seatings a day: lunch and dinner. You’re required to order the chef’s tasting menu (there’s a vegetarian option if you’d like), which is a perfectly paced spacing of 9+ courses, each using ingredients sourced from a private garden across the street. There were a few places where you had a choice of two dishes for a specific course. No protein or vegetable is used more than once during the meal. The two butters they put on the table were possibly the most fantastic butters I’ve had in my entire life. One was local and unsalted, and the other salted and from Vermont. I used as much of both as I could on the delicious rolls of bread they served from Keller’s Bouchon Bakery a few doors down the street. The wine list is huge as if it’s the sixth book of Moses. The attentive wait staff was quiet and stealth, like secret agents completing a mission to anticipate our every whim undetected and before we can think of something we want or need.
While sitting at that window-side table on the second floor, the hustle and bustle of the world outside seemed to fade away while we soaked up the attention to detail, amazing flavors, skill, colors and the overall experience of eating at Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry. And yes, fine dining is normally just a fancy way of saying overpriced tiny portions, but with the surprise courses sent out, there was plenty of food, and the four-hour dining experience was almost necessary for us to walk out of there without feeling stuffed like turkeys wobbling to our car.
Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry
Here’s what we ate…..
Cauliflower “Panna Cotta” with Island Creek Oyster Glaze and California Sturgeon Caviar.
Salad of Hawaiian Hearts of Palm with French Laundry Garden Nantes Carrots, English Peas and Summer Truffle.
Loulard Duck “Foie Gras en Terrine” with Juniper-White Honey Glaze, Brooks Cherries, Celery Branch, Hazelnuts, Red Ribbon Sorrel and Aged Balsamic Vinegar.
Chatham Bay Cod “Confit a la Minute” with Chorizo, Fava Beans, Piquillo Peppers, Spring Garlic, Parsley and “Sauce Pimenton.”
Tartare of Japanese Bluefin Tuna with Globe Artichokes, Jingle Bell Peppers, Baby Fennel, Spanish Caper Lavash, Frisee and Lemon Coulis.
Sweet Butter-Poached Maine Lobster “Mitts” with English Cucumber, Hass Avocado, Petite Lettuces, “Pommes Maxim’s” and Red Beet Essence.
Salmon Creek Farms Pork Belly “En Feuille de Bric” with Umeboshi, Santa Rosa Plums, Tokyo Turnips, Wilted Mizuna and Cashews.
Marcho Farms “Cervelle de Veau” with Swiss Chard, K&J Orchard Peaches, “Soubise” and Veal Jus.
Elysian Fields Farm Lamb Saddle with “Collier d’Agneau,” Eggplant Confit, Demi-Sec Tomatoes, “Haricots Verts,” Chickepea Puree, Arugula and Nicoise Olives.
Beechers “Flagsheep Reserve” with Morel Mushrooms, Green Asparagus and Dijon Mustard.
Royal Blenheim Apricot Sorbet with Toasted Barley-Brown Sugar Streusel, Cilantro Shoots and White Apron Ale “Nuage.”
“Cremeux Aux Fruits de la Passion” with French Laundry-Garden Strawberries, Pistachio “Pain de Gene,” and White Chocolate Sorbet.
“Pane di Ricotta alla Griglia” with Delta Blue Blueberries, Pine Nut Nougatine, “Limone Cagliata” and Buttermilk Sherbet.
And some mignardises or sampling of little desserts. Some chocolates and some little cakes and pastries.
And because we had just spent $250 per person (service included) but not including the bottle of champagne and white wine we had during the meal (bringing the per person cost to $300+) they put the daily tasting menu in off-white folders with letter-pressed clothespins on the front so you can remember what you ate years later! It’s those little touches that make it such a friggin classy establishment! Once the bill was paid, each of us French-Laundry-converts were then sent back into the world with our menus and little cellophane bags of subtly sweet shortbread cookies, allowing the experience to continue beyond the restaurant.
We took a short stroll through beautiful Yountville and checked out Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry gardens across the street where most of our meal’s vegetables were harvested earlier that morning. And then we headed home to San Francisco where for the foreseeable future no food would ever seem worthy of consumption again.
Thank you Chef Keller for an amazing experience. One I hope to be fortunate enough to repeat very soon.