A Feast at the French Laundry


The House of Good Eats

March 14, 2011

“Welcome to The French Laundry.”
Her voice was husky. Hushed. Seductive. It reverberated in my chest. She sounded like a high-class film noir femme fatale.
“I’ve been waiting to hear that for a long time,” I answered.
She smiled. “That’s what we like to hear.” I hadn’t tasted a thing yet, but her voice was like white Hawaiian honey.
And I had waited. For three months, exactly, which is their time-frame for taking reservations. I’d also flown across the country and driven to Yountville, CA, which (besides having an unfortunate name) is one of those pseudo-rural burgs in Napa that caters to well-heeled wine enthusiasts and happens to house one of America’s most famous restaurants, The French Laundry.

I don’t remember when exactly I first heard the name of chef Thomas Keller, but I’ve interviewed a lot of famous chefs—from Julia Child and Jacques Pepin to Anthony Bourdain, Bobby Flay, and Rachael Ray—and more than one of them has identified The French Laundry as their finest dining experience. Most people in the culinary world speak reverentially about it. For some, it’s the Holy Grail on their bucket list.
The only thing that compares (and some would say eclipses) it is Fernan Adria’s El Bulli outside of Barcelona, but otherwise, in terms of influence, Keller has done as much as any other living chef to wrestle the laurel wreath of fine dining out of the hands of the French.
Which gave the place mythical status in my mind. It had to be blown out of proportion. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to try it. Like when you’re seventeen and you know you’re going to get laid, the anticipation was bound to exceed the experience.


Our reservation was at 5 o’clock, when they first open, which seemed barbarically early to be eating dinner, except that we knew it was going to be a five-hour meal. We parked across the street and admired the restaurant’s enormous kitchen garden, which looks as staged and fake as the farm on a salad dressing label. The sun was low over the mountains, and beyond the deep green of the crops was a hothouse that looked like a gauzy white airplane hangar. Despite its name, the restaurant doesn’t specialize in French cooking per se, although no culinary influence is ruled out. Their objective is simply to create a dining experience where each course is an “A-ha!” moment. As for the name, it comes from the fact that the building—a quaint two-story stone and wood affair—actually operated as a French Laundry 100 years ago. While visitors back then were presumably greeted by some sudsy detergent smell, they’re now welcomed into a garden worthy of a Hobbit, and then a hushed interior like a rabbit warren of rooms that are elegant in a spare, Shaker way.


After being delivered to our table and seated, we were greeted with their calling card: a blindingly white napkin held by a clothespin that said The French Laundry. It was the equivalent of the opening credits. After the exchange described above, glasses of Krug were poured and we discussed the game plan in subdued tones.

Prepare to Tie on the Feedbag.

“The chef would like to cook for you this evening, if that would be alright.”
Umm. Duh.
“Anything you don’t eat, allergies, or dietary restrictions?” A necessary blow of practicality softened by the bubbles in the Krug.
“Nothing at all.”
“Very good. And one other thing. We have fresh Alba truffles available for an extra charge.”
In for a penny, in for a pound. Besides, the Krug was already being refilled.
And with that, the ride began.

First came, Krug. Then the wine started flowing

Because the menu speaks pretty eloquently for itself, I won’t go into detail about every course of the 20 they served (besides those listed below, there were gougeres as good as any I’ve eaten in Burgundy, and cones of salmon tartare tastier than anything I’ve had from Scotland, Nova Scotia or Alaska). It’s worth mentioning a few things, though. They claim not to use exactly the same ingredient in any two dishes (although I’m calling bullshit when it comes to basics like water). And I’m no expert in crockery, but it seemed as if each course arrived on a piece of beautiful white bisque porcelain or stainless steel, specifically and cleverly designed for the exact dish it held. As each course was served, the provenance of every ingredient was named—Florida Everglades frog legs and Tuscan lentils—and a surprising number of them were local to me: Island Creek Oysters from Duxbury, MA and lobster from a town in Maine that I’ve sailed to. Things reached the height of esoteric at one point, when a silver tray with six different salts was brought to the table. One was from a mine in Montana, another a gray sea salt from some unheard of corner of the ocean, and they ranged in color from red to dirty snow, and in texture from good cocaine to gravelly.


Needless to say, every course was accompanied by wines that people with the requisite OCD had wracked their brains to pair them with—with the exception of the truffle custard, which was served with a Brooklyn Ale that complimented it perfectly. One dish included a foodstuff I’d never heard of, called a sea bean (which Wikipedia not very helpfully describes as a “glasswort plant[s] of the genus Salicornia and called “salicorne”). When the truffles were served, an hour or so into the proceedings, I thought momentarily that I was being offered a mid-meal cigar, because they arrived table-side in a handsome wooden humidor. And several times throughout the meal, both Sam and I had to excuse ourselves to walk around outside and breath for a few minutes.


As for the service: in retrospect, there was what seemed like a cast of thousands—servers, a sommelier, various levels of managers, busboys, and Christ knows what else—except that none of them were the least bit intrusive. My father always says that a good waiter is one you never notice but who makes sure you have everything you want. Operating with ninja-like stealth, the staff did exactly that, and the loudest sound was the conversation from surrounding tables, which were populated mostly by honeymooners and rich people celebrating important occasions. Several parties came and went while we bravely soldiered through our epic meal.

The sommelier unobtrusively presents another wine

The entire menu, start to finish, appears below. After dinner, we were introduced to executive sous chef Devin Knell and given a tour of the kitchen—as tightly orchestrated as any ballet. On a series of clip-boards Knell showed us lists of what the in-house gardener, local farmers and far-flung suppliers would deliver over the next week or so, which is how the chefs collaboratively determine the menus. Surprisingly immaculate for a busy kitchen, the counters were blanketed by unstained sheets of paper outlined in green masking tape, giving everyone his marching orders. As fascinating as all this was, what truly amazed me was that despite having just ingested enough food to feed a family of five for a week, I wasn’t unpleasantly full.

I certainly wasn’t hungry, and I was somewhat dreading how I might feel the next morning (which was fine, as it turned out). But the portions had been so carefully calibrated, and the meal so precisely constructed, that I felt satisfied without wanting to visit a vomitorium.

As for the crass question on everyone’s mind, the 800-pound-gorilla in this story, the answer is: $900.

So was it worth it?
Would I do it again?
Sure. But only if someone else picks up the tab.


One Comment

  1. Posted August 4, 2011 at 7:33 pm | Permalink

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