As I shared last week, I had the chance to enjoy two superb Napa Valley restaurants before moving to Bangkok, Thailand. So, on a nice spring day, a mere 14 hours after dinning at The Restaurant, another 3-star Michelin locale in the area, I found myself at the iconic French Laundry, a nondescript stone house in downtown Yountville, CA, for a delightful lunch for two. To say that securing a reservation here was a challenge would be an understatement! The wait list is long indeed, as there are only 50 guests allowed per seating and there are just three seatings per day:
- Lunch at 11:30 am
- Early dinner at 5:30 pm
- Late dinner at 9:30 pm
It may be hard to imagine, but expect to be inside the restaurant for around four hours!
Securing French Laundry Reservations
According to French Laundry’s house rules, you must contact the restaurant EXACTLY 90 days before your planned reservation. Exceptions to this would be if you engage your hotel concierge at one the finer Napa Hotels or through a premiere card service like American Express Platinum Service, as I did. Their assistance was invaluable to securing our reservation. Originally, I gave them three dates for one particular weekend (a Friday, Saturday or Sunday), and I told them any seating would be fine; that translated to nine possible reservation times. The American Express staff worked tirelessly on our behalf and finally secured us a reservation for a Saturday lunch mere days before our planned trip. So that is how it happened that I experienced two high-end meals at Napa Valley restaurants back-to-back.
If I had to do this again, I would not recommend having two high-end meals so close together, as we were still in the after-glow of the previous night’s dinner on Saturday morning. After the countless calls to secure this reservation, I was not about to cancel it – especially after trying (and failing) to secure a reservation here on three other separate occasions over the years. So we soldiered on and, much to my surprise, we were quite happy to consume more delicious food in less than a 24-hour period.
The Meal Itself
One thing that makes French Laundry stand out from other Napa Valley restaurants is their daily menus. They offer two tasting menus, and no single ingredient is repeated during the meal! As the restaurant’s website explains, “We want you to experience that sense of surprise when you taste something so new, so exciting, so comforting, so delicious, you think ‘Wow’ – and then it’s gone. We serve a series of small courses meant to excite your mind, satisfy your appetite and pique your curiosity.”
The courses came out in a seeming unending succession, especially since my friend and I split each course; instead of trying 10 different courses, we actually tried 20! We ordered one vegetarian tasting and one meat-based tasting with a few extra add-ons (we could not resist ordering the Foie Gras, as well as the Waygu beef). For me, of all of the courses, these will be the most remembered, as well as the duck course from the regular menu.
The setting: notice the clothespins as the napkin holder (a whimsical touch from the restaurant name, French Laundry)
Appetizer courses: The signature course was Oysters with Caviar in a Sabayon cream sauce. This is on every menu. Also notice the six imported salts (they were offered with the Foie Gras) and the house-made butter.
Salad, vegetable and fish courses: The grilled lettuce salad was an inspiration. This particular creation is a cross between lettuce and celery. I believe that it is grown directly across the street in the “kitchen garden.” The result was a unique texture and taste similar to cactus paddle. This was followed by poached lobster- sublime!
Meat courses: The Wagyu Beef stole the show!
What are Foie Gras and Waygu Beef? As Wikipedia explains:
Foie Gras, French for “fat liver,” is a luxury food product made of the liver of a duck or goose that has been specially fattened. Foie gras is a popular and well-known delicacy in French cuisine. Its flavor is described as rich, buttery and delicate, unlike that of an ordinary duck or goose liver.
Waygu Beef is a delicacy renowned for its flavor, tenderness and fatty, well-marbled texture.
Dessert courses: I would kill for the recipe for the cream Brule ice cream; it was divine!
By the time we ordered a bottle of wine to share and the add-ons from above, plus the gratuity, the total cost was an astounding $1,000! Would I do it again? You bet. There’s no use trying to justify the cost – you can’t. It’s insane. I will say the precision and artistry really left us breathless and was something to experience at least once. I must tell you, Chef Thomas Keller really sets the bar high. Although the food is unparalleled, I wouldn’t give especially high marks for the atmosphere. Although it was very nice in an understated way, it’s nothing like the elegant and intimate surroundings we experienced the night before at the start of our gourmet weekend enjoying Napa Valley restaurants.
The End of the Meal
Was it wrong of me to order a “to go” bag near the end of the meal? My friend was horrified at the thought, but really, by the time the dessert courses came I could hardly eat one more mouthful. So, after the 3rd dessert, the staff, without comment, dutifully packed us some shortbread cookies, chocolate truffles a few other small goodies in small packages that looked too pretty to eat. I know this would irk my husband, but we had them for breakfast the next day! What struck me as funny, is once other diners saw our “to go” bag, I suddenly saw about a dozen other tables do the same. I think everyone was afraid to ask!
At the end of meal we were quietly ushered to the back to have a kitchen tour (a real honor, indeed). The only thing better would have been to be personally introduced to Chef Keller. Luckily for me, I have the French Laundry Cookbook at home – a signed copy from a long-time client. This meal has inspired me to take a second look at the cookbook. Maybe I’ll try to recreate one of the recipes after all!
As we were leaving, I noticed a special plaque on the side of the building with a “Fleur de lys” symbol that I have seen before. I inquired as to the meaning and was promptly given a handbook that explains this mark of excellence. It has only been bestowed to a hundred or so restaurants around the world. It is an honor that cannot be bought and can be taken away in any given year, should the book’s contributors/creators so deem. I was pleasantly surprised to see the names of three other restaurants that I have had the great fortune to dine in on the list, most notably one we visited in Epernay, France a few years ago. I also see that there is one restaurant listed in Bangkok. In the coming months, I’ll have to give this one try; it is located inside the Mandarin Oriental Hotel on the Chao Phraya River – not too far from our new apartment.
Mary Hathaway, Owner of Dinner Diva, has been a personal chef since 2002. She cooks regularly for clients who have special dietary needs, value healthy cooking by using organic products where possible and those who want healthy family meals but have no time to cook. Whether it’s a dinner for 4, a holiday party for 20, or a set of meals for the week, all of the recipes are customized to her client’s needs or lifestyle. Go to: Dinner-Diva.com for more info.