How do you get a reservation at one of the best and most exclusive restaurants in the country? You hope and pray.
And that’s how my wife and I acquired our recent lunch reservation at The French Laundry in Yountville, California. The process of getting reservations starts two months to the day that you want the reservation. I had started my quest on Saturday, May 8, 2010 for a reservation on Thursday, July 8, 2010. I called The French Laundry at approximately 10 A.M. PST (1 P.M. EST). A soft spoken young lady answered my call. I had requested a reservation for any time on Thursday night. I was politely denied and was asked if I would like to be on the waiting list. I kindly obliged and ended our call. I repeated this phone conversation for the next two days. The young lady was kind enough to also put me on a waiting list for lunch on Friday, July 9. I was happy to be on the waiting list, but knew that my chances where slim to none for receiving a reservation. So besides the occasional prayer and wish, I sort of put my French Laundry aspirations on the back burner.
However my aspirations started to boil over a little less than a week before our planned trip to the Napa Valley. I received a phone call on Saturday afternoon, July 3, from the same soft spoken young lady I had spoken to a few months earlier. The young lady informed me that a table for two had become available for the 12:30 P.M. lunch sitting on Friday, July 9. I couldn’t get the word, “YES!” out of my mouth any faster than I did. I was excited. I was stoked. I was speechless. The hoping and praying paid off.
I was a nervous wreck the morning of our reservation. I had butterflies in my stomach. My palms were profusely sweating. I felt like I did on the morning of my wedding. I was ready over an hour before our scheduled 12:30 P.M. reservation. I was dressed in a suit and tie (the required dress for dining at The French Laundry).
We arrived 20 minutes before our reservation. I was snapping pictures of the exterior of the restaurant. The French Laundry is housed in an unassuming wood and brick building on the corner of Washington Street and what appeared to be an alley in the small town of Yountville. We walked around to the entrance, which was a dark blue door. We entered and were cordially greeted by a woman and a man. I gave my name and reservation time to the man. He checked the computer and asked if we would not mind waiting for a few minutes in the salon. I obliged and my wife and I took a seat on a couch. We waited no more than five minutes before we were whisked away into a downstairs dining room next to a fireplace.
As we were seated we presented with a menu that contained both a “Chef’s Tasting Menu” and a “Tasting of Vegetables Menu”. We chose the “Chef’s Tasting Menu”.
The menu was as follows:
Chef’s Tasting Menu – 9 July 2010
California White Sturgeon Caviar
with Melba Toast and Haas Avocado Puree
Salad of Hawaiian Hearts of Palm
Brooks Cherries, Belgian Endive, Granola, Watercress and Yogurt
Moulard Duck “Foie Gras En Terrine”
Frog Hollow Peaches, Lillet Blanc Gelée and Toasted Brioche
Atlantic Cobia “Confit À La Minute”
Hen-of-the-Woods Mushrooms “à la Grecque,” “Onion Rings” and Chives
Grilled Pavé of Spanish Mackerel
French Laundry Ham, Globe Artichokes, Jingle Bell Peppers, Castelveltrano Olive Tapenade and Greek Basil
“Pinces De Homard Pochées Au Beurre Doux”
Black Truffle “Pain Perdu,” Golden Corn and Cutting Celery
Whole Roasted Liberty Farm Pekin Duck
Santa Rosa Plums, Tokyo Turnips, Cashews and Bok Choy
Marcho Farms “Cervelle De Veau”
Cauliflower Fleurettes, Fava Beans, Navel Orange, French Laundry Garden Haricot Verts and Green Peppercorn Sauce
Elysian Fields Farm Lamb “Rib-Eye”
“Ribettes,” Grilled Zucchini, Sweet Garlic “en Persillade,” Demi-Sec Tomatoes, Arugula and Lamb Jus
Marble Potatoes, Young Beets, Swiss Chard and Dijon Mustard
Royal Blenheim Apricot Sorbet
Toasted Barley-Brown Sugar Streusel, Cilantro and White Apron Ale “Nuage”
“Crémeux Aux Fruits De La Passion”
French Laundry Garden Strawberries, Pistachio “Pain de Gêne,” and White Chocolate Sorbet
“Pane Di Ricotta Alla Griglia”
Delta Blue Blueberries, Pine Nut Nougatine, “Limone Cagliata” and Buttermilk Sherbet
The menu read like the end credits of a Hollywood blockbuster. Our captain (aka waiter) explained in detail each and every item on the menu for us. He said that we had a choice of plates if there were two in a section. My wife picked the top plates, whereas I chose the bottom ones. And so began our dinner theatre.
Our captain (his name was Patrick and he was absolutely amazing) and the rest of The French Laundry service staff doted on us and showered us with constant attention. Our glasses were never more than half empty throughout the entirety of our lunch.
(Note: I will now describe each dish I devoured at lunch. Even though I sampled each of my wife’s dishes, I do not think I would be able to describe them in detail and give them the justice they deserve. Especially since, I did not eat the entire dish. With that said, I will concentrate on what I ate.)
My wife and I both started out with the California White Sturgeon Caviar. The caviar tasted like the sea. When I bit down on the caviar there was a salty burst of goodness in my mouth. The avocado purée was creamy and coated the roof of my mouth. The richness of the purée was prominent without overpowering the dish. The melba toast separated the caviar from the avocado purée. It also lent a crunch component to the dish. This was a good way to get the salivary glands going.
I am a huge foie gras fan. That is why I chose the Moulard Duck “Foie Gras En Terrine” over the Salad of Hawaiian Hearts of Palm. The foie gras terrine sat on the Lillet Blanc gelée, while the peaches rested off to the side. Two slices of brioche were served on a separate plate. The Lillet Blanc gelée is a gelatin of Lillet Blanc, which is a French aperitif made with wine and a variety of orange liqueurs. The gelée was bright and full of citrus flavor. It also had a slightly alcoholic taste. The foie gras was smooth and satiny. I enjoyed the foie gras slathered on a piece of the brioche. The buttery brioche went oh so well with the creamy foie gras. For those of you who never had foie gras, it is fattened duck (but traditionally goose) liver. (Note: I am not getting into the ethics argument of whether or not it is cruel to force feed animal to fatten them up. The French have been doing it for centuries. It tastes good. So I am leaving it at that.). Foie gras goes so well with sweet fruits, especially peaches. The peaches in this dish were juicy and sweet. They were a perfect accompaniment.
There’s something special about the crispy skin of every animal. This is definitely the case for the skin of the Spanish mackerel which was grilled to crispy perfection. This was a Spanish dish through and through. The salty olive tapenade was chunky and salty, both in a very good way. The French Laundry ham was a nice representation of jamón serrano. The jingle bell peppers, which are smaller versions of the standard red bell peppers, were sweet and crunchy.
Who doesn’t like lobster and melted butter? I know when done right lobster and butter can be heaven on earth. And that was what I found in a dish called “Pinces De Homard Pochées Au Beurre Doux”. The lobster claw meat was poached in unsalted butter. The lobster was meaty and sweet. What I really enjoyed about this dish was the black truffle “pain perdu”. This was black truffle French toast. And, boy oh boy, was it heavenly. The pain perdu tasted like buttery brioche infused with the earthy flavor of black truffle. Black truffles permeate all of the body’s senses, especially the sense of smell. Truffles smell so good.
I am an offal lover, so I really enjoyed the Marcho Farms “Cervelle De Veau”. Offal is also known as organ meat. And cervelle de veau is certainly an organ. It is calf’s brains. Some people might be turned off to this fact, but I have to borrow one of my Grandfather’s favorite phrases, which was “Don’t knock it until you try it.” The calf’s brains were breaded and lightly fried. The crispy exterior gave way to an oozing center of brain matter goodness. The tart sweetness of the navel oranges was a refreshing burst flavor. The fava beans were perfectly al dente with a hint of saltiness. This was a beautifully prepared and executed dish.
I am a fan of lamb, so the Elysian Fields Farm Lamb “Rib-Eye” was right up my alley. The lamb was well seasoned and cooked to a perfect medium-rare doneness. The thinly sliced grilled zucchini were fresh and still had a nice bite to them. Demi-sec or semi-dried tomatoes were plump and supple. As you bit down on one, their flavor burst was bright and slightly acidic.
Cheese is one of my food passions. I am always willing to try out new cheeses. The French Laundry cheese course consisted of Bohemian Creamery’s “Boho Bel”, which is a semi-soft cow’s milk cheese that is aged 6 to 8 weeks. The flavor of this cheese is subtle, so it paired nicely with the boldness of the Dijon mustard. The potatoes, beets and Swiss chard were all nice supporting players in this course. They each accentuated the cheese in their own unique way.
The Royal Blenheim Apricot Sorbet was a fitting palate cleanser to prepare your mouth for dessert. The White Apron Ale “Nuage” was spicy and a bit bitter. This contrasted well with the sugary sweetness of the apricot sorbet. The toasted barley-brown sugar streusel reminded me of granola. It was crunchy and sweet. The barley also played off the White Apron Ale nicely, since barley is an ingredient in beer.
The dessert was “Pane Di Ricotta Alla Griglia”, which is a grilled ricotta cake. It was a very moist cake. The Delta blueberries were little orbs of sweetness. I really enjoyed the “Limone Cagliata” which is The French Laundry’s version of lemon curd. The Cagliata was tart and creamy.
Just when we thought the meal was over the captain started to bring out what is called mignardises. Mignardises are bite sized desserts that are served at the end of a meal. The mignardises included a peanut butter and jelly cup, which was sweet and savory at the same time. There is nothing more comforting the flavors of peanut butter and jelly. These flavors transport me back to childhood. After the peanut butter and jelly cup, a plate of assorted chocolates was presented to us. These bite sized chocolate pieces were rich and decadent. This was a proper ending to the most outrageously awesome lunch.
After I had finished my double espresso, the captain presented us with our bill, which was neatly handwritten on a laundry tag. I thought this was an ingenious touch, a real play on the name of The French Laundry. We were also presented with four shortbread cookies wrapped in plastic and tied with a ribbon that had a clothespin on it. This was our parting gift. (Note: Those shortbread cookies were so good. They were sweet and buttery and had a nice crunch.) We were also given a folder with the day’s menus.
Before we made out exit from the restaurant, the captain gave us a tour of the kitchen (where the magic happens). The kitchen was the most extraordinary kitchen I have ever seen. It was clean and brightly lit. There was a big television screen with a live feed of the kitchen at Per Se, which is The French Laundry’s sister restaurant at the Time Warner Building in New York City. All of the chefs were concentrating on their assigned tasks. There was no music playing or screaming or hollering, which are present in many kitchens. There was only one voice that was audible, that of the expediter. He was the gatekeeper. He made sure every plate that left the kitchen was absolutely perfect. The chef de cuisine, Timothy Hollingsworth, was overseeing this well-oiled machine. I thanked our captain for giving me this behind the scenes sneak peek into the famed kitchen. He shook our hands and thanked us for dining at The French Laundry. This was a fairy tale ending to what I would consider the best meal I have ever eaten. I believe that one meal at The French Laundry should be on every foodie’s bucket list. I hope for a day when I can go back and do it all over again. Buon Appetit!
Living to eat,
Standing next to the Blue Door
A glimpse at The French Laundry Garden