For my birthday this year, I wanted Chris to get me something special that we could enjoy together (it’s tough buying me a good gift because I’m not into jewelry, I’d rather buy my own clothing than have another person pick it out for me, and Chris already bought me the Wii and the digital camera that I wanted). It was a little difficult coming up with a gift that Iâ€™d really enjoy, but then we started discussing the option of flying out to California and going to The French Laundry. At first, I thought it was a ridiculous gift because 1. How could Chris get a reservation for The French Laundry, 2. If somehow Chris *could* get a reservation, how would we be able to both take off work so we could fly over there? Well, two months before my birthday, Chris luckily made a reservation, booked two tickets to California, and set up the most magical birthday week for me (he actually had to see if he could get a reservation BEFORE he booked a ticket – two months beforehand is standard at The French Laundry).
If youâ€™ve been reading this post and youâ€™re thinking, why the heck is Grace so excited about a meal at a place that sounds like they fold laundry? Well, The French Laundry is the best restaurant in the Americas AND the 4th best restaurant in the world, plus, itâ€™s a once-in-a-lifetime dining experience. Chris and I are both huge Thomas Keller fans (more on that later) and weâ€™ve been to almost every restaurant (Per Se is the only one we havenâ€™t visitedâ€¦.yet!). Chris and I were more than psyched for the trip to The French Laundry (there will be a ton of pictures in this post, so get ready!).
On the day of our reservation, Chris and I got up super early to prepare for the drive from our “hotel”; based off David Colkerâ€™s write up of his experience dining at The French Laundry for the LA Times, we thought it would be fun to stay at the same place he stayed at (although we had a private room). It was the worst hotel experience Iâ€™ve ever had â€” worse than the TWO times I was attacked by bedbugs. The hotel was a campground that was clothing optional (those of you that donâ€™t know me that well should know that I am NOT that free-spirited but I thought it might be a good way to save money since most of the hotels in the Napa area were at least $250/night with a three night minimum). The campgrounds/hotel had mostly older guests, so seeing those people doing yoga and stretching without clothing in broad daylight isâ€¦slightly traumatizing. Anyway, we headed down to Yountville from our hotel an hour early so we could make our reservation on time. We were slightly early (our reservation was for 11:15), but it allowed us to walk around The French Laundryâ€™s beautiful vegetable gardens (about 10% of the vegetables grown in the garden are used for the tasting menus):
There were chives, leeks, turnips and lots of other vegetables being grown in the sunny garden:
We were able to take lots of pictures beforehand, including a picture of the famous blue door:
And pictures in front of The French Laundry’s sign:
And a picture of the sitting area next to the entrance:
Youâ€™re required to dress up for your meal there (Chris had to wear a suit jacket), but the atmosphere wasnâ€™t stuffy at all (there was a very laid-back Californian feel inside the restaurant).
We were seated in a nice alcove to the right of the main dining room, where we sat by ourselves for most of the meal. Our waiter came to greet us soon after we were seated and offered us complimentary champagne and sodas. They have the usual Coke, Pepsi, Sprite, etc., but they also have lots of interesting sodas, including lavender, rhubarb, orange, and grapefruit (I tried all four and my favorite was rhubarb). A picture of me before our culinary adventure began:
We decided to go with the chef’s tasting menu because it had a lot of variety and we probably couldn’t eat 9 courses of vegetables. As soon as we ordered, a waitress brought along these little puppies:
Little puff pastries with cheese inside – yum!
Then another waitress brought along these:
A canapÃ© of salmon tartare with red onion crÃ¨me fraÃ®che in a savory tuile that looks just like a tiny ice cream cone – the idea actually came to Thomas Keller while he was eating an ice cream cone at Baskin Robbins! The tuile was very crispy without being hard and the salmon was very creamy.
Our first course on the tasting menu was a cauliflower â€œpanna cottaâ€ with Island Greek oyster glaze and California white sturgeon caviar:
The cauliflower “panna cotta” had a nice creamy texture and the flavor of the oyster glaze and caviar added a saltiness that rounded out the dish. Chris thought the caviar was too salty, but I enjoyed the dish.
Then came a little bread from Bouchon with two types of butter:
The butter on the left is from Vermont (it’s also salted) and the butter on the right is from a local farmer:
We actually ended up FINISHING the salted butter (we couldn’t believe that we consumed so much butter in one sitting but it was so creamy and smooth!).
For most of the nine courses, there were two options; to get the most out of the meal, Chris and I decided to always split up the course (he’d get one option and I’d get the other). For our second course, I ordered the salad of Hawaiian hearts of peach palm with medjool dates, vanilla “aigre-doux” and Mizuna leaves:
The medjool dates were rolled up like grapes – I was so surprised when I bit into one! The dish was very clean and fresh tasting and the vanilla added a nice sweetness to the overall taste. An interesting fact about Thomas Keller and his restaurants – he finds “micro-purveyors” and develops relationships with them to get some of his ingredients; for instance, he gets his hearts of palm from a commercial airline pilot and his lobster from a scholar that lives in Maine.
For Chris’ second course, he got the moulard duck foie gras au torchon with Royal Blenheim Apricot sauce, fennel bulb relish, watercress, and aged balsamic:
There were also three types of salt to go with the foie:
The pink salt was 35 million years old! Dinosaurs licked it before we had a chance to try it!
The foie was supposed to go on warm brioche toast:
I was taking pictures of our entire experience and the brioche toast was sitting there getting cold, so a waitress pops out from nowhere and brings us another piece of freshly toasted brioche toast. Can you believe the service?
Okay, so after we received our second course, four people came into our room and sat down at a table behind Chris. They were being really loud and obnoxious (maybe they just finished touring some wineries before they sat down for lunch?) and we were saying how we were really enjoying lunch before they sat down and caused a ruckus. We were really hoping they would somehow quiet down, but they kept cracking jokes (that weren’t funny), being rude to the waiters, and talking about how they were from Texas and how they could sell The French Laundry a bunch of wine that was sitting in their trunk. Chris mentioned how he thought it would be funny if people came into the restaurant without knowing anything about it and when they find out there are only two options on the menu (Chef’s tasting menu or vegetable tasting menu), they get up and leave. Well, that’s EXACTLY what happened with the people sitting behind us! The couples were looking at the menus and started asking the waiters if they could order anything else from the menu – at first, the waiter thought they had food allergies and said they could substitute certain items, but then one of the women from the group said that they could not finish all 9-courses (even though everyone else in the restaurant somehow finishes their meals). The waiter was very accommodating and even said he could check to see if the chef could make the tasting menu smaller, but then the group decided that they were not going to order anything and decided to WALK OUT! Can you believe that?! First of all, how did they get reservations? Second of all, if you made reservations, don’t you think you would at least PEEK at the menu?!!! I’m guessing their hotel got a reservation for them/they called the morning of and there was a cancellation. The waiter had already opened a bottle of champagne (which they drank the majority of before leaving), and the table was left empty for the majority of our lunch (each meal is about 3 hours long, so the table is reserved for that specific meal). Chris and I seriously couldn’t believe that happened right before our eyes…the waiter was incredibly nice about the entire situation and even offered to let the group stay and enjoy their champagne/make a reservation at another restaurant for them. As the group was walking out, one of the guy’s said, “well, I guess there goes my craving for an egg white omelet!” OMG SO rude!
Okay, enough of our funny story, onto our third course!
For my third course, I ordered the sautÃ©ed fillet of Atlantic black bass with Yukon gold potatoes, garlic scapes, sweet peppers, and â€œsauce bouillabaisseâ€:
This was actually my least favorite dish of the day – the bass was very fishy and it spread to the Yukon potatoes. Chris didnâ€™t enjoy this dish, either.
For Chrisâ€™ third course, he ordered the â€œtartareâ€ of Japanese Kindai tuna with globe artichokes, Spanish capers, nicoise olives, frisee lettuce, and Jidori hen egg Emulsion:
Since Chris and I both love artichokes, we thought this dish was fantastic!
One thing both Chris and I noticed was that we ate a LOT of food, but didnâ€™t feel gross after our meal. Everything we ate was very light (even the heavier meats) and I didnâ€™t feel greasy or gross after the three and a half hour meal.
For our fourth course, there was only one option: Maine lobster tail â€œpochee au beurre douxâ€ with brooks cherries, French Laundry garden leeks, green almonds, and shaved summer truffles:
I don’t think I’ve ever actually eaten shaved truffles (only truffle oils), so it was a nice treat. The French Laundry definitely takes care of the details – the cherry was in perfect condition, but when we bit down, we noticed they pitted the cherry for us!:
The lobster was really buttery and had a light, clean taste; it was a huge piece of tail that Chris and I both really enjoyed!
After our lobster tail, I had the ginger-glazed salmon creek pork belly with Akita Komachi rice, baby bok choy, and beech mushrooms:
The beech mushrooms were really fresh and chewy and the pork belly was a great piece of fat that I really loved (I ate ALL of it!).
Chris ordered the epaule de lapin farcie au ris de veau with Chanterelle mushrooms, yellow corn, and lovage “jus:”
If you don’t read French, Chris ordered the rabbit shoulder stuffed with sweetbreads with a side of mushrooms and yellow corn. The rabbit shoulder was very tender and had to be placed on a metal contraption so it could be handled:
I’ve never had sweetbreads before, but they were very…interesting. It’s not something I’d seek out at a restaurant, but it wasn’t an unpleasant taste in general.
After our first five courses, Chris and I decided to take a break and walk around the garden. We asked our waiter to stop preparing the rest of our meals for a bit while we enjoyed the sun:
I picked some flowers from the garden and pressed them so I could add them to a memory book (that I haven’t started):
There are windows behind the area Chris is standing where you can watch the chefs do amazing things:
What trip is complete without a couple jumping pictures:
After our jumping pictures, we headed to the second floor:
There are a two sets of lawn furniture so you can enjoy a wonderful afternoon (on the day we went, the temperature was around 80 degrees with a slight breeze). Look at the cute faucet decoration:
The little details in the restaurant are really beautiful – look at the lampshade in the bathrooms:
After our break, we headed back inside and were soon greeted with our next course: Elysian Fields farm â€œselle dâ€™agneau rotie entiereâ€ with Tokyo turnips, fava beans, sweet carrots, and bÃ©arnaise reduction:
The lamb was incredibly tender that and perfectly seasoned. The fava beans, turnips, and carrots were also very tender and flavorful. The bÃ©arnaise reduction was so good I almost lifted my plate up and licked it clean.
We also had more bread – I picked bread with currants:
And Chris got a piece of sourdough:
After our lamb and bread, we moved onto our cheeses (and then onto our desserts!). For our cheese course, we had the â€œTomme Crayeuseâ€ with sultana chutney, celery branch, and curry gastrique:
The sultana chutney and curry gastrique were an interesting contrast to the cheese, but the dish was light and the celery added a great texture to the smooth cheese.
To cleanse our palates, our waiter brought the gros michel banana sorbet with Andante dairy yogurt “granite” and granola:
The white flecks on the sorbet are FROZEN YOGURT! Isn’t that amazing?! The sorbet tasted like a fresh banana that was really cold (no additives or fake sweetness). The frozen yogurt was really interesting — too bad it melted so fast in my mouth!
After our palate cleanser, I ordered the “Lingot de chocolat en mouse de malt croustillante” with candied Spanish peanuts, popcorn “Glace,” and caramel:
It was The French Laundry’s interpretation of Milk Duds and popcorn and it was absolutely fantastic! It was popcorn sorbet and a brownie-type piece of chocolate that was really rich, yet incredibly light, too. Chris and I loved it!
Chris ordered the “Fraisier aux pistaches” with licorice “Bavarois,” Silverado Trail strawberry sorbet, and blis elixir:
The white acorn-type fruits were actually unripe strawberries! They weren’t sour, but didn’t carry much flavor, either. In terms of dessert, I think we both enjoyed my dessert more (it was a little more decadent).
After all of the desserts, we were presented with even MORE desserts! I received an egg custard with star anise:
And Chris got a small serving of creme brulee with Tahitian vanilla:
I enjoyed the the creme brulee more (just enough custard taste without being too thick or too watery) but I thought the egg custard tasted like an Asian grocery store (too much star anise in Chinese cooking).
We also had two pieces of biscotti with orange peel and white chocolate:
While we were enjoying our desserts, a waiter came by to serve us tea:
There was a net to catch the tea leaves – I thought it was so cute that I drank my tea as fast as possible so I could pour myself a cup:
One of the best small desserts – a macadamia nut rolled in a hard caramel and dusted with powdered sugar:
The macadamia nuts were gigantic and the hard caramel was very crunchy (I took some home to have my mom and brother sample them and they loved them, too!).
After our three and a half hour meal, the waiter showed us around the kitchen:
The kitchen is immaculate and every person works diligently on their task (as I was peeking in from outside, I saw a guy using a small melon baller to make balls out of a large carrot). A couple more kitchen shots:
There’s a webcam and a flatscreen television in The French Laundry’s kitchen and in per se’s kitchen so the chef’s can see what the other restaurant is up to (and to discuss the next day’s tasting menu).
The details in the restaurant are incredible; the waiters were all very attentive (but not overbearing) and made our meal very enjoyable. At the end of the tour, our waiter presented us with a goodie bag for the road – shortbread and chocolates:
The chocolates were all delicious (we figured they’d melt if they sat in the car all day while we were visiting wineries, so we’d just eat them right after our HUGE meal):
Our meal at The French Laundry was absolutely amazing – I couldn’t have asked for a better birthday gift!
As an added treat, during the James Beard awards, we were lucky enough to meet Thomas Keller:
I went up to him during the tasting portion of the awards show and he was really kind; he wanted to know how whether or not we enjoyed The French Laundry, what night we went to Ad Hoc, and how we enjoyed our trip to Napa. It was a great way to round out our Thomas Keller adventure!