The French Laundry. Period. And this review could very well end here. Its name is synonymous with impeccable service and exceptional food. Winner of countless awards and public praise, it also brings to mind reservations that are hard to come by.
For the lucky ones who get in, it’s an experience they will never forget. For those who spend months of daily calls, busy signals and polite turndowns, the expectation grows with every try. For some, it becomes a game. A lottery, where very few win but many more try. There are no shortcuts, but here I’ll guarantee you it’s well worth the time (more on that later).
Behind The French Laundry, another well-known name; Thomas Keller. The only American chef with two Michelin 3-star restaurants. Keller has been honored by virtually every award in the industry, wrote 3 exceptional cookbooks and helped Pixar as a consultant for “Ratatouille” (watch the DVD extras for a behind the scenes featurette). But even with his hands on multiple ventures, he will always come across as a perfectionist. A purist who embraces creativity.
In an interview with Charlie Rose earlier this year, Keller said that cooking is a simple equation. It’s about product and execution.
In terms of product, he is known for creating strong relationships with small farmers and purveyors around the country. It’s from these farmers–and the restaurant’s own 3-acre garden right across the street, that come his best ingredients. Becoming a French Laundry purveyor is not for everyone though. It’s a long process. But once inside, it will give any small farmer an unparallel endorsement–better than a royal seal of approval (by appointment with her Majesty the Queen). His cookbooks have entire chapters dedicated to the people behind some of his most precious ingredients. Proper credit is also given on the menu.
As for the execution, he says there’s a determination to go in everyday and do it a little bit better than the day before. To Keller, “Simplicity is the hardest thing to execute”.
Favorite meal? Roasted chicken, in its purest form. To him, food is about stirring emotions, evoking memories. At the restaurant, many dishes are created as inventive reinterpretation of classics that evoke reference points and surprise you at the same time.
6640 Washington St.
Like many celebrated restaurants in Europe, including various Relais & Chateaux properties, The French Laundry is located in a small town, away from the big city. Yountville, population 3,103; a burg Thomas Keller made his epicurean home–Bouchon and Ad Hoc are right down the street.
The restaurant occupies a 1600sq feet structure built with Valley timber and river rocks in 1900. Before being acquired by Keller in 1992, the address was home to a salon, a residence, a brothel and, before it became a restaurant, a French steam laundry–where its name comes from.
As you walk around the building to find the entrance door, the sense of privacy is clear. Inside, the waiting room resembles a quaint Swiss chalet. We were prompt, our table was ready.
The small dining room is divided in 2 floors; there are only 15 tables, 62 seats. The atmosphere is cozy and warm. The design is simple, clean and authentic. Lighting comes from signature sconces marked with laundry care iconography. A river rock wall gives depth and character to the room. Behind this wall, the restaurant’s wine cellar can be seen through a small window. Seating is very comfortable, a must for a 4-hour meal.
A warm welcome
As we sat at our table, Nicolas Fanucci, the General Manager, came by to introduce himself. Nicolas who has been with the restaurant for 3.5 years speaks with enthusiasm about the level of service they can offer. A level, in fact, unlike anything I ever experienced. He recognizes the importance of the staff and getting them the best training and mentorship they can possibly provide. Beyond the 4-6 weeks training period staff members go through, Nicolas also prides on the fact that his turnover is much lower than the rest of the industry–the restaurant’s captain, for example, has been there since 1994.
We talked about the different atmospheres between The French Laundry and Per Se, and what similarities we should expect to see–like how all meals start and end the same way. To him, in heart and soul, both experiences come from the same place.
But the differences are clear. While Per Se is spacious and modern, French Laundry is cozy and quaint. Both are elegant, but each in its own way. Both require proper attire–jackets for men, no jeans or snickers. It’s not as much about formality, as it is about respect. Dining at The French laundry is more than a meal after all; it’s a lifetime event. If not for you, most likely for those around you.
But as Nicolas went on to tell me about the restaurant’s lack of full liquor license and valet parking (both not allowed in its residential neighborhood); he described it in a way I had never thought of. “In many ways, The French Laundry is a simple restaurant” –he said. That phrase stuck in my mind and throughout dinner I started to understand what it meant.
Keller’s “law of diminishing returns” is about serving a sequence of small dishes that peak your palate with a jolt of flavor and end before they start to deaden; leaving you hungry for the next course–when it all happens again. After a dozen of these, you are full, fulfilled and happy. But while Keller is careful not to over serve, he’s generous when portioning delicacies like foie gras, truffles and caviar so their flavors can be truly appreciated.
The menu changes daily and is conceived the night before, after the last service (more on that later). It includes some of French Laundry’s staples but it’s for the most part driven by seasonal ingredients. There are 2 options to choose from; a 10-course tasting menu (more like 13) and a tasting of vegetables. In both menus, diners can pick from 2 options at 4 different points. The prix fixe is $240, service included. A few dishes with foie gras and white truffles are charged as a supplement.
When you are presented with the menu, a member of the wait staff patiently and eloquently walks you through it, dish by dish, in great detail. More than an explanation, it’s a captivating lecture that enhances your appetite and brings you into the process. No questions are left unanswered. From that moment on, you understand the menu as well as if you had created it. Choices become clear and all you can think is when is it going to start. And so it begins.
Perfection if seen in the smallest details, like the restaurant’s own carbonated water; produced with a neutral taste, clean on the palate and the right amount of bubbles.
To start, GRUYÈRE CHEESE GOUGÈRES. Hot out of the oven, these light and fragrant puffs have a delicate crust and a moist, hollow inside.
The first canapé, “CORNETS”. A dish that marks the beginning of every French Laundry (and Per Se) meal– and invariably causes a smile. The cornets are carefully made with a batter of flour, sugar, salt, butter, egg whites and black sesame. A special round stencil helps create the perfectly shaped rounds that are baked and formed into cones with a cornet mold. Inside, sweet red onion crème fraîche is topped with a tiny scoop of finely minced fresh salmon. A chive tip completes the presentation. The delicate crunch of the cone combined with the creamy filling makes for a delicious dish. It is served with a glass of French champagne.
Second canapé, “OYSTERS AND PEARLS”, “Sabayon” of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and White Sturgeon Caviar. The story goes that Keller was waking down the isle of a grocery store and saw the word “pearls” on a purple box of tapioca. Pearls come from oysters, he thought. And there was born one of French Laundry’s signature dishes. Two oysters float on top of a lush tapioca custard made with eggs, cream, crème fraîche, butter and oyster juice. One of the most sensual dishes on the menu, this canapé is simply unforgettable.
Third canapé, WHITE TRUFFLE OIL-INFUSED CUSTARD WITH BLACK TRUFFLE RAGOUT. Served in a cleaned eggshell, the custard is topped with a paper-thin baked chive potato chip–made with a chive sandwiched between 2 mandoline-cut slices of potato. It’s delicate and luscious.
The first out of 3 bread services brings to the table an irresistible PAIN AU LAIT, served with 2 kinds of butter from small American farms.
One comes from Diane Sinclair in Vermont who produces it in small batches; hand-churn, from the milk of a herd of only 8 cows–including one affectionately named after Keller.
First course, HAWAIIAN HEARTS OF PEACH PALM, Satsuma Mandarins, Cucumber, Perilla and Black Sesame. The peach palm is a variety of palm tree originally from South America that today is grown in Hawaii by one of Keller’s preferred purveyors; John Mood. The cucumbers in the salad are compressed into long ribbons with a sous vide vacuum packer, which results in more intense flavors and a crunchy texture.
As an option to the salad, MOULARD DUCK “FOIE GRAS EN TERRINE”, Green Apple Relish, French Laundry Garden Turnips, Watercress and Dijon Mustard. Keller advocates for foie gras to be, as he says, “left alone”; served cold and barely cooked. The simplest preparations will preserve the integrity and character of this luxurious ingredient. In this dish, a crispy apple relish provides a perfect, delicately sour contrast to the creamy foie gras. The terrine is made with marinated then poached foie gras that is pressed through a fine mesh tamis and piped into molds. The result is an irresistibly lush, silky texture and a great flavor.
Served with 3 types of finishing salt; grey French sea salt, white Japanese sea salt and a pink salt from copper mines in Montana.
On the side, thick, perfectly toasted brioche slices that are replaced as you are midway through the dish with a new warm batch. Details. Details. Details.
Second, CRISPY COD MILT, Globe Artichokes, Sweet Peppers, Niçoise Olives, Arugula and Smoked Eggplant Purée. This dish uses an ingredient that, despite somewhat obscure in America, is extremely popular in Japan. A delicacy only available in the fall and winter months that few restaurants in the US dare to serve. Why? Cod milt is the sperm-filled reproductive gland of the fish–not the most appetizing explanation for a dish. But don’t think of it this way; technically, caviar is roe (eggs from the ovaries of female fish) and that is hardly a reason for not appreciating it. Some of the best delicacies come from offal, this is another one. At the French Laundry, the cod milts are fried to a crispy crust that contrasts with the creamy, custart-like texture inside.
Third, SWEET BUTTER-POACHED MAINE LOBSTER “MITTS”, Romaine Lettuce, Baby Beets, Pearl Onions and Caraway Emulsion. The lobster claws are poached in beurre monté (emulsified butter) at a low temperature for just a few minutes. As a result, they remain impossibly tender, moist and infused with the delicious flavor of butter. The sous vide-cooked baby beets, braised lettuce and pearl onions are a perfect complement adding layers of flavor and texture to the dish.
Forth, ALL-DAY BRAISED BERKSHIRE PORK BELLY, K&J Orchard Chestnuts, Salsify, Spinach and Black Truffle Sauce. The pork belly is braised sous vide at a low temperature which yields an extraordinarily tender meat that is juicy and packed with flavor. To contrast the savoury meat, the sweetness of the chestnuts.
As an alternative, CORNED MARCHO FARMS VEAL TONGUE, “Pain Perdu”, Melted Savory Cabbage, Horseradish Crème Fraîche and Sour Cherry Sauce. In this upscale version of the classic deli sandwich, the meat is picked in brine and braised at a low temperature for an extended period of time to achieve perfect tenderness. The savory “pain perdu” is made like a bread pudding, with custard soaked brioche. Together with the other ingredients, they create a complex layering of flavors that will surprise your palate while evoking memories of familiar tastes.
Fith, RIB-EYE OF ELYSIAN FIELDS FARM LAMB, Panisse, Medjool Dates, Thumbelina Carrots, Cilantro Shoots and Curry “Jus”. Perfectly cooked, the meat is buttery tender. Its flavor complemented by the spiced sauce and the sweetness of the carrots and dates. Together, they form a beautiful presentation in composition and color.
Sixth, ANDANTE DAIRY “CADENCE”, Fennel Bulb, Marcona Almonds, Chorizo and Parsley Shoots. Cheese plays an important role in The French Laundry’s menu. So much so it deserves its own chef and station in the kitchen. Cheese courses are not traditionally served–in a rolling cheese cart. They come to the table in beautiful, thoughtful preparations that enhance and complement their flavors. This pungent cheese is made in Santa Rosa, after the wine harvest, with a combination of cow’s and goat’s milk. Its taste is pleasantly tart which goes very well with the accompanying ingredients.
Seventh, NAPA VALLEY FEIJOA SORBET Caramelized Banana Cake and Pili Nuts. A sweet and fragrant sorbet from a fruit I admit was then unknown to me. Its taste peaked my interest so I asked our waitress to tell us more. Without hesitation, she eloquently described the fruit in details; its origin, appearance and taste notes. Noting that my curiosity wasn’t completely satisfied, she excused herself and, a minute later, came back from the kitchen with the actual fruit, sliced for us to taste. Another example of the unparallel level of service you experience at The French Laundry. Feijoa, also known as pineapple guava, is a green egg-shaped fruit originally from southern Brazil that is now produced in the Napa Valley. Its flesh resembles a guava with a clear seed pulp surrounded by a firmer, opaque ring. Here, it’s made into a delicious, creamy sorbet and served with a tasty banana cake and crunchy Philippine tree seeds.
Eight (this one an extra) “COFFEE AND DOUGHNUTS”, Cappuccino Semifreddo with Cinnamon-Sugar Doughnuts. This dessert combines a fine dining version of the traditional deep-fried treat with a sweet frozen mousse cappuccino, topped with hot, frothy steamed milk. A welcoming twist on the classic all-American duo.
Ninth, JIVARA-CARAMEL “ROULADE”, Musquée de Provence Sherbet, Pumpkin Croûton and Chocolate “Dentelle”. In this delicious dessert, chocolate and caramel are combined into mouse-like consistency and rolled on delicate chocolate shavings. Served with a creamy heirloom pumpkin sherbet and inventive pumpkin croûtons.
As an option, ANDANTE DAIRY YOGURT “BAVAROIS”, Pain d’Épices and Oregon Huckleberries. Lighter than the roulade and beautifully presented, this dessert is also very good.
To fisnish, MIGNARDISES. Much like at Per Se, the meal begins and ends in a familiar place.
An extensive selection of house made chocolate truffles, chocolate-covered macadamias, fruit jellies and other sweet endings are served with coffee or tea.
Something to remember
Of all the tables I saw finishing their 4-hour long dinner, I don’t recall a single group that left without asking their waiter to take a picture of themselves. More than a souvenir, a trophy. A proof that they’ve been there. And even though by itself this is an unforgettable experience, you won’t leave empty handed. To take home, shortcakes for the next morning and the uneaten mignardises that are yours by right. The menu of the day, dated, a one of a kind. The laundry clip that started it all. Tokens of a wonderful time.
One of the diners I talked to, Lauren Golanty, went as far as turning her souvenirs into what she calls “French Laundry art”–a scrapbook board geometrically laying out all keepsakes in a shadowbox that today hangs in her Chicago dining room.
After the meal
Four hours after we sat, we were done. It was 12:30am and only one table remained occupied in the otherwise empty dining room–a rare sight.
There was a sense of calm and accomplishment after another perfect service. As I proceeded on my way to the kitchen, I encountered the staff, gathered around the table brainstorming the next day’s menu.
Corey Lee, Chef de cuisine, leading the charge. Pen in hand, meticulously designing what would tomorrow be another unforgettable meal. Around him, chefs and cooks in full attention and focus showing no sign of fatigue after a long day.
The kitchen at The French Laundry is ample and, like Per Se’s, features a live satellite link to the other restaurant.
On the wall behind them, a clock hangs with the sign underneath “Sense of urgency”. I asked Nicolas, who was kind enough to accompany us to the kitchen, what was the story behind that sign. He explained that they go about everything consistently and with a clear sense of urgency. “Be it a simple request from our guests or a difficult task in the kitchen. We approach them all with the same level of intensity and attention to detail.” He completed.
On another wall, hangs a trophy. A symbol of excellence displayed for pride more than for shows. The Michelin 3-star award. The only one in Northern California. The ultimate proof that the clock next to it never misses a beat.
As I was leaving, I noticed the staff eating something out of a large mixing bowl. It was the send-off of one of the cooks so they celebrated with Canadian beer and chicken wings. In one of the best restaurants in the world, recognized for its sophistication and perfection; in a kitchen filled with truffles, caviar and foie gras, the staff indulges on a very simple thing; chicken wings. Oven roasted and tossed with allspices. They looked great, I have to say. Wasn’t I so full from the previous 13 courses, I would have asked to try one. More often than not, simplicity is bliss.
When you look at it this way, The French Laundry is a simple restaurant after all. A restaurant of simple atmosphere, simple concepts and simple values. Where simplicity means not being simplistic but finding clear purpose in complex things. Distinctive flavors, honest compositions and clean presentations.
An evening at the French Laundry is an experience that transcends dining as we know it. A flawless interplay of exceptional food and remarkable service performing in perfect synergy and purpose. It’s well worth the time it may take you to get a reservation, the trip to Yountville and the cost of the meal. Because, in the end, this is not a meal–it’s an event you simply won’t forget. When at the end of his interview, Charlie Rose asked Keller what would be his legacy; he said that he hopes his guests have memories. Well, Mr. Keller, your legacy is safe with me.
A note about getting in
While the restaurant get hundreds of calls each day, they ask all callers to leave their names and contact numbers. As reservations are usually taken months in advance, cancellations happen more often than you may think. So, as a tip, leave your name on the waiting list. You have nothing to lose. It does not matter if you are first on the list, what matters is the size of the table requested. For example, there could be 50 people who are waitlisted for a table for 2 who are ahead of you, but if they receive a cancellation for 6, the same number that you requested for, you would be the first person the reservationists would call.
Another trick is to call later in the day when the phones are lighter. That way, you are not jostling with the rest of the callers at 10am. Ask for availability/cancellations within the 2-month period. With flexible dates come more opportunities.
When I asked a representative from the restaurant about the things people do to get in, this is what she said: “We do get all sorts of requests, from the genuine to the fishy kind :-) But being in the hospitality industry, we try to accommodate each one of them as much as we can. With 15 tables, it can be quite challenging, to say the least.”
The French Laundry is at 6640 Washington St.
Online reservations are possible, but calling is recommended 707.944.2380