A few weeks ago, I got a text message from one of my best friends in Florida, Lyta, asking, "Should I make reservations at French Laundry?", my immediate reaction was, "No, it's too expensive!". I had only heard stories from my friends about how they've spent $7000 on a bottle of wine, and how even though the base cost per person is $240, many end up spending $1000-$2000 per person. Later that day, however, I received a devastating phone call telling me that someone dear to me had just tragically passed away at a very, very young age. Wow. Holy crap. That could have been anyone. That could have been me. And this is going to sound like a weird transition in thought, but as a foodie, it would have been tragic if I were to pass without having experienced at least one 3-star Michelin restaurant during my lifetime. I called Lyta back, "You know what? Life's too short. Make those French Laundry reservations, and count me in".
My fascination with all things French Laundry and Thomas Keller-related started when I first read a 2005 CNN article about how his restaurant was listed #1 for the second year in a row by British magazine, Restaurant, in its list of top 50 restaurants in the world. I was surprised to find that it is located in gorgeous Yountville right in my backyard (if you're jealous, then you're going to hate me even more when I tell you that I live right down the street from Chez Panisse, another regular on that list).
My intrigue grew over the years as I read more about Thomas Keller's other restaurants, tried out some of his recipes with fantastic results (like this marshmallow recipe), and found out that he allowed the producer of Pixar's heartwarming Ratatouille to intern in French Laundry's kitchen during production, and that Thomas Keller actually designed the intricate ratatouille dish in the movie. I also love how, despite owning one of the best and most highly regarded restaurants in the world, one of his favorite places to eat is In-N-Out. So it's no surprise that when Lyta called me a few weeks ago on a Wednesday and said, "Clear your calender for this Friday, we're going to French Laundry", I did just that. Immediately.
Reservations It's pretty difficult to get a reservation at French Laundry, so I was surprised that Lyta was able to get reservations so soon (I was also surprised because Lyta would have to fly to Yountville from Tampa on very short notice). Reservations can be made two months in advance. The surest way to get in is to call in right at 10 AM exactly two months in advance. Otherwise, you can check OpenTable for openings or call to see if there are any cancellations. Lyta did the latter and got lucky. A non-refundable credit card deposit of $100 per person is taken upon making the reservation, and like a doctor's appointment, it's always good to show up 15-20 minutes early. Lyta and I, however, were late, so I had to call the "reservationist", who had to talk to the maître d' (the HBIC!) to see if it was okay if we were half an hour late. The maître d' said that they'd still be happy to have us.
Building The French Laundry building, present day, is a very quaint, two story building with a cute little garden and two parking spaces on the side. We actually drove past it once because it looks more like an average house in the countryside than a restaurant. The interior of the building is nothing fancy, but the simplicity is still beautiful. We sat upstairs by the window, and our table was lit by natural sunlight as we looked at the view of the farm across the street where French Laundry gets their veggies from. It was a very calm and peaceful ambiance.
The building itself has a very colorful history. Built in the 1880's, it started out as a saloon, then when alcohol was banned in Yountville, it turned into a brothel, and in the 1920's, the building became a French steam laundry. Since it had been known as "the French laundry" for so long, the name stuck when then-mayor of Yountville and his wife decided to buy the land and turn it into a restaurant in the 1970's. It wasn't until Thomas Keller bought French Laundry in the early 1990's, though, that it became what it is today.
By the way, when I asked a friend if he knew that the French Laundry building was once a brothel, he replied, "No, but is that why their food tastes like sex, and makes me keep wanting to come back?" Maybe.
Crowd French Laundry's dress code is business casual. The one rule that's set in stone, though, is that guys must wear jackets at all times. Of the five tables upstairs, with the exception of two older British dudes, the rest of the tables were seated with young, Asian kids like me. I was surprised because I expected the usual French Laundry crowd to be much older. The servers, hosts, and the sommelier were all very young as well (not to mention good eye candy!), and extremely knowledgeable in food, wine, and their menu.
Food French laundry has two nine-course tasting menus to choose from -- a chef's tasting menu that includes meat in it, and a vegetable tasting menu that's mostly vegetarian (some dishes have a bit of seafood and meat in it). In some courses, two choices of dishes are given. I didn't know this, but the chef is actually very accommodating to special diets, for instance -- lactose intolerance, vegetarian, or in my case, pescatarian, and you can actually mix and match from the two menus. Lyta and I decided that we would each order from a different tasting menu, which would mean we would get 18 different dishes all together, so that we could each taste almost everything!
I would also like to add that our host had both menus ENTIRELY memorized, as in every name, ingredient, and method of cooking, and recited it to us. That's 18 different dishes, and apparently, no ingredient is ever used twice, so that's a lot of memorizing. Impressive!
I believe that the menu changes daily, but here's a sampling of what we had:
Gougères filled with gruyère.
Cauliflower Panna Cotta Island Greek oyster glaze and California sturgeon caviar.
Crispy-Skin Fillet of Pacific Moi Broccolini fleurettes, turnips, green almonds, and passion fruit.
Hand-Cut Buckwheat Capellini Jidori hen egg, crispy sea beans, perilla and marinated Cyprus seeds.
Rissolee of Yukon Potatoes Sugar snap peas, Maine lobster, red radish, and tarragon mayonnaise.
Andante Dairy Yogurt Sherbet Oatmeal "sable" and royal Blenheim apricot.
Gateau Au Chocolat Avec Bavarois Praline Caramelized Gros Michel bananas and hazelnut sorbet.
Warm Almond Frangipane Field rhubarb gelee, poppy seed panna cotta, and toasted almond-marscapone ice cream.
The infamous Donuts and Cappucino Semifreddo! These used to be automatically given at the end of the meal, but now they have be requested before you start the meal. Do it. They're so yummy! :)
Service Service was impeccable. What I loved about the whole floor staff is that I felt like I was a guest in their home and that they were our gracious hosts. Considering the caliber of their restaurant, they were not snooty at all, unlike some other "fancy" restaurants that I've been to before (I'm looking at you, Chez Panisse. You don't have as much to be snooty about!).
Whenever food arrived, we were always told what it was, the ingredients, and how it was prepared. We had about five different servers. Whenever we took a break to go to the bathroom or take a walk in the garden, our napkins were always changed. If we got up in the middle of a dish, the dish would be covered with a dish lid, and if we were gone for any longer, that dish would be discarded and a new one would be prepared (if you're going to be gone for a while, it's always nice to let the host know what's up though). When we were half way through our brioche, it got replaced because the chef always likes us to have a fresh piece.
The whole dining experience lasted exactly five hours. We got there at noon and didn't leave till 5 PM. Though that may seem like a long time to spend at a restaurant, everything was timed perfectly. There was never a point where we felt rushed, nor was there ever a time when we felt bored and wondered where our food was. Like I said, it was timed perfectly.
Cost So what's the cost of this amazing meal? Whether the chef's or vegetable tasting menu is chosen, it's $240 prix fixe per person for the 9-course meal, non-alcoholic drinks, and service included (though it's always nice to tip a little extra!). Sometime on the chef's tasting menu, there's the option to add something extra special, like foie gras for an additional $30, or waygu beef for an additional $100. And I'm no wineaux, so I didn't order any vino, but a skim through French Laundry's wine list looked impressive. They start at around $20 a glass to half-bottles and bottles that top off to over $10,000. This is unadvertised, but apparently, arrangements can be made to have tasting menus with more courses, or an entirely different tasting, like a cheese or truffle one. According to Wikipedia, a truffle tasting costs $995.
I know that the cost of the whole meal sounds steep, but I took the advice of many of my friends who had dined there before, which is "Don't think about the cost because, trust me, it'll be worth every penny", and it was. If I really had to break it down though, I dined in the gorgeous California countryside for five hours straight, had approximately 2 or 3 of the freshest, highest quality, most exquisite dishes every hour, experienced amazing service, and had myself a marvelous time that ended up being one of the best dining experiences of my life. What a nice gastronomical field trip!
I would like to add that Lyta ending up picking the tab because she took me out to "celebrate our friendship". Awwww, thank you, Lyta! :)
If you're curious about their daily menu, click here, and for the extensive wine list, here. If you'd like to see more pictures of my food (so that you can drool over it, of course!), check out my French Laundry set on my flickr (please disregard my tree-hugging picture, it's just something that I do!).
I'll definitely be back. Perhaps I'll even make a trip to French Laundry an annual or bi-annual activity, and go wine tasting in the Napa wine country while I'm at it. The cost is actually very reasonable as long I stick to the 9-course tasting menu, and don't taste any truffles or more than one cheese dish. With a glass of wine or two, plus tax and service, it comes out to about $300. Think of it this way: that's just a fraction of a one-way ticket to France! Dining at French Laundry is definitely a culinary experience that I wouldn't soon forget.
When I'm not Lunching, I'm a jeweler, and an all around, self-proclaimed web geek. My passions include social media, the interweb, technology, writing, yoga, fitness, photography, jewelry, fashion, … more
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The French Laundry is an American restaurant located in Yountville, California, in the Napa Valley. The chef and owner of the French Laundry is Thomas Keller.
The restaurant is a perennial top five finisher in the annual Restaurant Magazine list of the Top 50 Restaurants of the World, and in 2006, it was awarded three stars in the inaugural Michelin Guide to the Bay Area and has been reviewed by the New York Times.