The French Laundry
Extreme dining in California's Napa Valley
One of the finest events I’ll ever experience began with the following words:
“Thank you for making your reservation at The French Laundry. Your reservation is confirmed.”
The e-mail arrived within minutes of my call to place the reservation. Thomas Keller’s French Laundry claims three Michelin stars and a Grand Chef Relais & Châteaux among countless other accolades. You must reserve exactly two months to the day ahead of your lunch or dinner date. Fellow Burqueño Mike Wing and California friends Edouardo “Edo” Maragliano and his wife, Patty Ting, would join me for lunch.
I had doubts about this adventure. Travel and lodging aside, the meal and wine would run nearly $500 per person. How could one spend that kind of money on a lunch? But I was surprised to learn that a number of friends had dined at the Laundry. They urged me on with requests for copies of menus and a full report. The desire to experience one of the best restaurants in the world was too great to ignore.
The French Laundry makes its home in Yountville, Calif., in the wine country of Napa Valley. The stone building originally housed a saloon in the 1880s, then became a brothel in the wake of local prohibition. In the ’20s it was a French steam laundry—hence the name and the theme that runs through the decor. Keller acquired the property and opened the restaurant in 1994. Here are the highlights of our extravaganza:
We take our nonstop to Oakland and pick up a rental car. In the evening we drive through pouring rain to Yountville to get our bearings.
We arrive ahead of our 11:15 a.m. reservation and sit across the street, watching caretakers work in the French Laundry garden. Three acres, including a green house, supply greens, vegetables and flowers year-round. The air is cool and damp, and it smells incredibly clean. A chef in kitchen whites gathers a handful of greens and flowers, then scurries back to the kitchen.
The building and grounds are well-tended. A small patch of gravel alongside the wall is raked, zen-like. Pears ripen on trees in the courtyard, where everything is in bloom. Edo and Patty arrive, and we enter the small foyer.
Martin, the maître d’, greets us. Our waiter Andrew shows us to a table tucked into a stone-walled alcove. As soon as we are seated, Andrew brings a bottle of Champagne. I tell him that I don’t drink. “Not a problem,” he says. In minutes I have a sparkling apple beverage that is crisp and dry, and just as appropriate to the first courses.
There are murmurs of “omigod” around the table. I am reminded of the line in When Harry Met Sally ... “I’m having what she’s having.”
A waiter brings us an amuse-bouche—a gougère. The cheese pastry melts in my mouth.
Sharing our alcove is a couple at a banquette that has four small tables. The ambiance is cozy and the decor minimal. Another waiter arrives with a small silver tray. Four savory cones are filled with salmon tartare and sweet red onion crème fraîche. The four of us are wide-eyed and grinning. Edo and Patty are giddy. Then come the menus.
The French Laundry serves two unique nine-course tasting menus every day: the chef’s tasting and the vegetable tasting, with no repeating ingredients. Our plan is for two of us to have the chef’s tasting while the others order the vegetable tasting. I love vegetables, and this is the venue to savor a glorious presentation. But when we see the courses on the chef’s list—moulard duck foie gras en terrine, sautéed fillet of Spanish lubina, jambonette de lapin and Elysian Fields Farm lamb saddle—our party shows its carnivorous teeth. The portions are, after all, a taste. We all order the chef’s menu.
Edo is partial to Italian wines, and we have a hundred pages from which to select them. The sommelier helps us choose a Riesling, a Pinot Grigio, a Brunello di Montalcino and an Oremus Tokaji. For every wine pairing, I have an equivalent nonalcoholic beverage—the aforementioned apple is followed by rhubarb, then pomegranate flavors, all of them sparkling.
Our first course, cauliflower panna cotta, bears no resemblance to the vegetable. The cauliflower is transformed into a creamy base for a perfect quenelle of California sturgeon caviar, served with a mother-of-pearl spoon. Every mouthful is a revelation. There are murmurs of “omigod” around the table. I am reminded of the line in When Harry Met Sally ... “I’m having what she’s having.” And we have eight courses to go.
The Laundry website declares, “We want the peak of sensation on the palate to be all that you feel. So we serve a series of small courses meant to excite your mind, satisfy your appetite and pique your curiosity.” Course after course, Keller’s food does just that. With each new course is a change of dinnerware. If you leave the table, your napkin is folded. There is never a moment when you feel as if you are hurried, nor are you waiting.
Near dessert, we lose track of which course we’re eating. Some courses come with their own set of options, so we taste from other’s plates. Patty is seriously overwhelmed and can’t eat another bite. Edo is sipping his Tokaji. I want to see the kitchen, so they both join me for a tour, leaving Mike to contemplate his tea. The maître d’ approaches him at the table and, with a grin, offers, “Was it something you said?”
When we first arrived at the restaurant, our waiter asked if we were celebrating an occasion. We told him we were celebrating The French Laundry. Indeed, for five hours we celebrated culinary excellence unparalleled in our combined experience. The perfect balance of artistry—in the kitchen and in the service—created a meal that is unforgettable. We will go back for the vegetables.