The French Laundry
Date Visited: 5/22/16
Meal Length: 4 hours
“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.”
– Thomas Keller, The French Laundry Cookbook
Why should you be interested?
This is the Grand Daddy. The fine dining restaurant even the most gastronomically unaware among us have “heard of.” Maybe they even know a guy who got in. Ooo. Ah. It’s up in beautiful Napa Valley (second honeymoon anyone?). I hear they have their own gardens. The butter comes from the milk of only 12 cows? The French Laundry is a mythic restaurant. Not just among Michelin and the rest of the ratings cabal. Thomas Keller has molded American dining with calm, kindly hands (all while wearing very well-kept denim). He’s the man they go to when it’s time to cater the Oscars–and also to mentor the USA Bocuse D’or team (where the level of technique shown escapes even my understanding). Any dive into Keller’s accomplishments is staggering, and perhaps it says it all that I take the time to name them when I scorn such things.
Per Se, the laundry’s NYC offshoot has nurtured much of the same acclaim as its Napa relative but has more recently caught the ire of the city’s food media. My first meal at Per Se (in the summer of 2015) was magical. Subsequent visits left me confused. The dishes didn’t satisfy, but surely it must be because I just don’t understand them fully? My last visit, just a couple weeks after the NYT’s deduction of the restaurant’s stars, bordered on offensive, both in server tone (not unlike what happened at Meadowood) and misfiring of food (like the “signature” butter-poached lobster that appears on both restaurants’ menus). Yet Per Se retains its three stars. In 2016, it can claim to be the “#52 best restaurant in the world” (by way of the Nestlé/San Pellegrino/Acqua Panna list). And I didn’t experience just a consistent failure to impress, but a soulless culture that put on a good show but was already thinking about the next ass to fill your seat. It wasn’t everywhere–some servers were cheery and sincere as any I’ve had. But it was palpable in others, in management and sommeliers, in such a way that I knew the rot came from the core.
And Per Se has still been wildly successful in arguably the toughest real estate in the world. They don’t need me–and they don’t need anyone really–as long as they draw a certain private dining and Pétrus-pouring crowd. I just couldn’t buy the lie that this hospitality group is the shining star of “excellence.” I’m earnest enough to know when the technique demonstrated escaped me, and I will even concede the satisfaction of the food to personal taste. But we can all critique hospitality, and a restaurant that consistently leaves you befuddled, inadequate, even irate sounds like an exercise of torture more than excellence.
So how could the industry venerate this? Per Se has been taken down a notch, but where’s the blow for the French Laundry? Or, again, was it me? Critically and personally, I knew this meal would be important. Not just as a pilgrimage to a temple of gastronomy (one of few places to which that truly applies), but a referendum on an entire genre of fine dining that had dramatically failed me once.
How easy is it to locate?
Given the building is surrounded by the great breadth of the restaurant’s gardens, you simply can’t miss it. The entrance is located off of an intimate courtyard, and despite construction on their kitchen, the property is really, naturally picturesque. A well-earned payoff for them taking such good care of the old laundry.
How do you feel when you enter?
I’d been putting on a brave face for my companion during the drive to the restaurant and initial tiptoeing of the property. But really, truly, there was a significant flutter as I opened that famous blue door (a duplicate of which, of course, they shipped to Per Se to act as the muleta for east coat conspicuous consumers). The space is small; you’re not guided from an air-conditioned holding pen into the dining room. The buzz and chatter of service softly reverberates and you strain to situate yourself. But a warm, confident “good evening” beckons you. You’re asked if you’d like to start your meal in the quiet courtyard. It’s “no problem at all.”
How should you order?
The French Laundry offers one chef’s tasting menu each evening alongside a vegetable tasting menu both priced at $310.00 with service included. Wine pairings are tailored to individual parties, drawing on the restaurant’s impressive cellar (really, so impressive it was robbed on Christmas Day 2014). The only decision to make is a rather morbid proposition: to take a meal you’ll already likely spend $500+ per person with drinks and tack on $30, $60, $100, and $125 in supplements. Not supplements for more food, but upgrades of one caviar to a “royal” variety, a simple salad to a slab of foie gras terrine, lamb for well-marbled wagyu, and a mountain of truffles. These accessories certainly push the “complete” experience far closer to Meadowood’s Chef’s Table, Masa, and the like. And I think people should know they’ll be tempted (but not coerced) to plunk down closer to $465 on food when all is said and done (I leave off the $60 supplement as the caviar supplement is discouraged for first timers). I would also advise guests to study the restaurant’s wine list online before their visit if they’re concerned about the decision (or simply wish to gawk as I love to do).
What are the notable dishes?
A quick note: There are couple very signature dishes that first-time guests will almost certainly be given. Those who have read about the restaurant or even Keller in general will already know what I’m talking about, but I’ve omitted both for the sake of surprise. They do not demand some smug, knowing ode. They’re excellent for anyone at any level of fine dining “experience.”
Chilled Garden Carrot Soup: No tricks here, just a terrific showcase of the quality of the restaurant’s gardens. Like gazpacho, in which tomatoes seem to strike with an uncommon intensity, the chilled carrots–helped with a sprig of dill and what looks to be good balsamic–touted plenty of sweetness but a vegetal depth to rein it back. I’ve adored carrots of a similar rare quality when served simply charred in other fine restaurants. But like many of my favorite dishes, the curious form of a frothed chilled soup and equally restrained seasoning are used to draw deep, deeply satisfying flavor from the root vegetables.
A Quartet of Simply Prepared Seafood: Each of these bites arrived in perfect symphony, with the ending of the description of one signaling the arrival of the next. Impressively done (considering I otherwise would have dove in too soon). First [moving clockwise from the top left], a delicate “fry” of applewood-smoked cobia from the Gulf Coast stuck to a dollop of horseradish crème fraîche. Following that, shima aji (striped jack) sashimi floating on a chiffon (an ethereally light “cake”) of young coconut. Third, a piece of charcoal-grilled sayori (known here as halfbeak) with barley miso. And last, a piece of abalone (sea snail) tempura with mayonnaise made of kanzuri, a Japanese chili paste fermented in the snow. These four dishes are both a study in texture (firm, glossy, grilled, and delicately crisp) and cultural exchange. The humble cobia is featured alongside prized Japanese fish. And expert techniques like tempura and sashimi are imbued with a bit of the laundry’s own personality and mastery. When many restaurants now try to wow you with a dramatic deluge of dishes, these four are painstakingly arranged, intellectually impressive, and–yes–satisfied with pleasing variety of temperatures and textures unlocking subtle flavors.
Hen Egg Custard: I’ve seen these sorts of eggs (and egg custards) at Next, EMP, and a few other places, but I suspect their lineage can be traced to (or through) here. Topped with a slender cracker containing a single stalk of chive, the custard was warm, smooth, and supremely savory–helped all the more by a powerful ragout of Périgord truffle. Again, an intense (yet familiar) flavor manifested in an impressive and playful form.
Stonington Maine Halibut: Sautéed to an almost potato chip crust, the soft flesh of the fillet yielded to creamy bites of Sacramento Delta asparagus, fava bean, and sweet white corn ragout. It all sat in a dark puddle of basil-infused olive oil, which tied the deceptively simple, simply elegant fish and fresh vegetables together. [They just cook fish better in San Francisco than anywhere I’ve traveled. And the accompanying grains and/or vegetables, always so simple–but in that, so sublime–were often among the best elements across the entire menu].
Charcoal Grilled Japanese Wagyu: The wagyu arrived topped with a wild Oregon porcini that looked plucked from Super Mario Bros. (the second game with all those oversized root vegetables). The subtle stripes from the hot grill formed a proud crust that revealed a blushing gradient of glossy, deeply red meat. This wasn’t a postage stamp of “kobe strip” tacked onto the end of the meal, but something you could sink your teeth into. A thickness and portion that expresses just what that marbling brings to the table in mouthfeel. And then the restaurant imposes a bit of its own style: a puddle of “Sauce Bordelaise” (red wine, marrow, shallots, butter) and an accompanying pie of calf sweetbread. Though I do prefer sweetbreads fried, the crust enclosing the filling provided a very pleasing, intensely flaky texture.
French Laundry Ho Ho: The first Ho Ho, as it happens, was baked in San Francisco not long after the First World War. The French Laundry’s, not to be outdone by Hostess, inverts theirs: pairing vanilla genoise (whole-egg sponge cake) with chocolate mousse. A wonderful, rigid structure of gold leaf tops it–I hate the stuff, but used sparingly and appropriately one remembers how pretty it can be. In truth (and perhaps it’s been too short a time since I’ve consumed my share of Hostess products), I missed the overwhelming, processed punch of sugar my brain is wired to expect. But I deeply enjoyed both the irreverence of serving a Ho Ho and the reverence they showed to thoughtfully reconstructing and riffing on the form.
THE BREAD BASKET
The bread at the French Laundry is an education in texture. Yes, the crumbs are perfectly sweet, or deeply wheaty, or just properly, perfectly salted depending on the bread. But look at those charred tips. Those dramatic, proud grooves and glazed, elven spirals. It’s certainly an understated bread service compared to some of the novelty loaves and never-ending options peddled or pulled from carts at other restaurants. And in that, it’s excellent. Sincere. And a testament to the restaurant putting their talent towards making the right breads, making them with care to each piece and a timeless rather than trend-towing sensibility.
How does the service make you feel?
For the reputation the restaurant wields–and rightfully wields given the quality of the food–the service is gracious, honest, and truly attuned to the guests’ desires. You don’t need to prove yourself here, to act the part of the pilgrim who dialed so many times their fingers bled trying to secure a reservation. When a server or sommelier is at your table, you are all that matters (one would think this is an essential part of fine dining but is nearly always a carefully-managed facade). No furtive glances telegraphing the next task to be completed or direction to dart. Calmness. Considered movement. A feeling of luxury that escapes the demands of time and that sinking feeling you sometimes get in fine dining: maybe my table really isn’t “special.” This prevailing patience walks hand in hand with sincerity. The staff doesn’t fill empty space with memorized spiels; they observe, react, and cater. And they talk to you like an honored guest, perhaps a new friend but not a fake friend. The food is introduced with the warmth of a host and a want–nay a mission–to keep you well fed. Just the same, when so many servers end up poking and prodding and talking themselves into trouble during the course of a long meal, I appreciated that–even among stretches where we sat in silent, vinous rumination–we were not disturbed. Not that I snub the interaction, just that so many places treat you like “food tourists,” who if they’re not talking or taking pictures or raving there must be a problem. Here, again, you are the guest, and you’re given leave to let the totality of the restaurant and experience embrace you.
Was the meal satisfying?
Hugely, deeply. To both the mind and stomach and even (dare I say) the soul. Intellectually, the meal is staggering. It’s not a know-it-all; it doesn’t beat you over the head with obscurity or solicit forced, polite nods as the server indulges in a tableside lesson of French language, history, and culture. It predictably explores the French tradition, but it holds your hand. And it does so with the Japanese influence as well. There were a couple spoken (and later listed) ingredients I did not recognize (and many, many things I could never sense and will not claim to). But as always, intention is key, and The French Laundry clearly looks to educate without pontificating or peddling the sort of menu world salad that invariably puts people down as they pay large sums. A foreign sauce or, say, a strange fish is anchored to one (or many) simple ingredients. Servers know not to shock and awe the diners but let a few considered words and their own tongue guide them through the dish. Hedonistically (fullness and in terms of gustatory satisfaction), the meal also triumphed. Those ingredients you know and enjoy strike with a greater depth and pleasure. And when luxurious ingredients appear, it’s not as lip service–not as a box on tasting menu bingo to be marked off. For a menu that changes daily and endeavors not to use the same (major) ingredient twice, they pull it off. The food is being tasted, it’s being fussed with and cared for and coddled but you really feel the plates are–at the same time they honor tradition and their products–engineered to make you happy. Not the imposition of what “chef likes right now,” but the chef using his better judgment and wisdom to feed their guests.
And not just that, those parts do make a larger whole. Without employing any real “bag of tricks” in presentation or performance, the restaurant’s food strikes with a larger sense of identity. That unrelenting, unimaginable attention to detail and demand to get so many moving pieces perfect is one half of the same coin as the earnest, natural service. It’s rare a culture can sustain both these essential things–when the pressure to deliver perfection an international, (wannabe) discerning clientele just has to demand some compromise. Unlike, say, Eleven Madison Park, where the touches of “New York” that so regale diners feel contrived. Stapled and taped and fashioned onto food that is technically excellent, often in flavor too, but lacks subtle confidence and larger coherence. The French Laundry’s menu–one comparably stripped of all the frills of fine dining presentation, interaction–tells the story of its ingredients (a turn of phrase that’s been bled of almost all meaning now). The finest fish and proteins are sourced from around the country and even afar–yet they are funnily enough the most static pieces. The story is in the soil, in the larder, and the forests. It’s the great bounty of California and the Pacific Northwest and the larger United States walking hand in hand with–improving and elevating further–the prized totems of global gastronomy. And, perhaps most importantly, the meal shows that excellence can walk hand in hand with joy and understated playfulness. I always found that booklet Per Se gives you detailing some of the farms and purveyors they use tacky. But here, I think I finally get it. I understand the sincerity, and I know that these are dishes those who birthed the ingredients could approach and deeply enjoy.
How does the restaurant rank in its category?
In the category of fine dining–of dining in general–The French Laundry ranks among the best meals I’ve had. The food’s unerring quality glides past that of NYC’s major French players and, I think, was dish to dish more impressive than Manresa. It competes with (and if I had to say, beats) Brooklyn Fare for flat out most impressive food. But I can only speak to my tastes right now. More importantly, the sincerity and earnestness of service matches my favorite meals at Next, Elizabeth, Atera, and Brooklyn Fare. I think that is what matters. And that The French Laundry can take a location and traditional style of dining that simply begs for pretention and snobbery and so heart-on-sleeve share it with diners.
Would I go back?
Yes. Can I go back? Will I go back? I can only hope and dream, but I know it will be the right time if I do.
How hard are reservations to get?
Hard. And in the old-school, man the phone lines sort of way. There’s not much I can say that hasn’t already been said. OpenTable, as much as I love it, seems ill-suited to handle the rush for seatings. The current construction at the restaurant means reservations are taken only a month in advance (which intensifies competition but is a boon for those taking less time to plan a trip out west). It helps to have flexibility (a couple days and wide range of times), and you should consider the restaurant also offers lunch service Friday – Sunday.
Reservations, directions, and other information can be found at www.thomaskeller.com/tfl