Welcome to French Laundry. May we hang your soiled-from-anticipation pants up to dry in the garden?
Liz and I went out to Napa Valley with Liz’s brother and sister-in-law this past weekend to drink some wine and eat some food. We secured a reservation for 4 exactly 2 months ago from Saturday, May 16th. If you google “french laundry reservation” you will be met with a slew of websites and blog posts devoted to the difficulties inherent in getting a reservation. First of all, you need to call at 10am pacific time (when the restaurant opens) exactly two months before the day that you would like to go. The websites will tell you that even doing this probably won’t be enough as the line will be busy. Some suggest you need to go there in person. There is even a service for which you can pay to have a particular individual get the reservation for you! Such is the desire and perceived difficulty of getting a seat at what is widely considered the best restaurant in the country. I say “perceived” because I am not so sure how much to buy into this. Liz and I started calling with two phones the moment the clock struck 10am, got through after about a minute, and had the option of several seatings. I feel like if you do that and you have a window of a couple of days that you are willing to go, you should have no problem. Especially now since it’s star is starting to fade a bit and other US restaurants are considered as good if not better.
To the meal. Everything was delicious, with the standouts being the Oysters and Pearls (Liz said it was her all time favorite bite of food), the Butter-Poached Lobster, the Black Bass, and the Yogurt Sherbet. The service was amazing – the courses were paced well, and our server was fun and informative. The environment in the restaurant was a little stuffy. No music playing so it was a little awkward at first with lots of tables whispering. But it loosened up after a while, presumably as a function of drunkenness. There were two menu options, the Chef’s Tasting or the vegetarian tasting. The waiter strongly urged us to go with the Chef’s Tasting absent any strict vegetarians, and I think that’s a wise move. For the same price ($240) you better have some strong philosophical aversion to meat to go with the vegetarian menu. The menu was 9 courses with four of those courses having two options to choose from. The Foie Gras and the Kuroge Beef courses carried supplemental charges.
Amuse bouche of salmon tartare with some kind of whipped cheese hiding in the nether-regions of a chive cornet.
“Oysters and Pearls”: Sabayon of pearl tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and California Sturgeon Caviar
Salad of Hawaiian Hearts of Peach Palm: French Laundry Garden Radish, Cucumber, Perilla and Navel Orange
Moulard Duck Foie Gras in Terrine: Green Grapes, Cutting Celery, Compressed Endive and Black Truffle
Sauteed Fillet of Atlantic Black Bass: Garlic Scapes, Carrots, Artichokes and Barigoule Emulsion
Tartare of Japanese Bluefin Tuna: Beech Mushrooms, Gengko Nuts, Broccollini and Bonito
Sweet Butter-Poached Maine Lobster “Mitts”: Potato “Mille Feuille”, Golden Corn, Fava Beans, and Pickled Ramps
Fricassee of Salmon Creek Farms Pork Belly: “Garnitures de Petit Pois a la Francaise”
Sirloin of Kuroge Beef from Shiga: White Asparagus, Pine Nuts, Tulare Cherries, Mizuna and Ginger Sauce
Manchester: Cauliflower, Pumpkin Seeds, Zante Currants and Parsley Shoots
Andante Dairy Yogurt Sherbet: Oatmeal “Sable” and Royal Blenheim Apricot
“Gateau au Chocolat Avec Bavarois Praline”: Caramelized Gros Michel Bananas and Hazelnut Sorbet
“Parfait au Cintron”: Candied Lemon, Biscotti Tuile and Lemon Snow
So, what do I think? French Laundry is definitely one of the best restaurants we’ve been to, probably top 5. Was it worth the price? No, I don’t think so. Not considering what you could get elsewhere for the same price or less. Eating there reminded me of what Ezra Klein wrote about Per Se over at the IFA. “It wasn’t going far enough. It wasn’t inventing anything, or surprising you.” There were no duds at French Laundry. Every dish was delicious and beautiful. But there were no jaw-dropping moments either, except of course when the bill showed up. There was nothing playful about the experience. No whimsy. And dammit, if I’m going to plan a trip around a restaurant and pay that much to eat there, I want some f’ing whimsy. The difference between an incredibly fresh ingredient prepared perfectly and a really incredibly fresh ingredient prepared super-duper perfectly does not merit tacking hundreds of dollars onto the bill. There are other places I could go. Eating the Tour at Alinea in Chicago is like French Laundry meets Cirque du Soleil. And cheaper.
That said, it was a great experience. Yountville and the surrounding wine country is a beautiful setting and must be taken into account if you like to travel for restaurants. While Alinea is a better restuarant, I’d rather take a trip to Napa than Chicago.