The French Laundry & Other Great Dining Experiences

This past Friday, I had the privilege and pleasure of dining at The French Laundry, one of only a handful of times I have dined at a restaurant rated Michelin-anything, and certainly the only time I have eaten anywhere in its league. I don’t know if I will ever have the life circumstances between time, money, and proximity to ever go back, but I am really happy I went once.

Getting Reservations: Upon telling anyone that we had secured reservations there, their first question was almost always how we got them. I had been kicking around the idea of going there ever since living in the Bay area and securing gainful employment, but it wasn’t exactly clear what the process was. A few years back, I had tried using the concierge service of my Amex Platinum card, but they pretty much told me no and directed me to Solbar instead (also a great restaurant, but not in the same league). This year, MrsWookie and I were kicking around anniversary ideas, and, figuring it wouldn’t work, I decided to put the concierge service of Chase Sapphire Reserve to the same test. They had the decency to not only try, but they also explained what the process was. There is one website on which to book reservations, and that is the only thing for anyone to use. They release dates for a whole month at midnight on the first of the month two months prior to the month in question. Best of luck, be fast, know what days and times work for you. For us, it was currently mid August, our anniversary was in October, November would be the first availability, and we have two very young kids who would need to be cared for. We were able to secure grandparents for child care, so we gave the concierge a few days where we could work a weekend day or an adjacent day at a dinner-ish time. If it were to work out, we figured we’d just postpone our celebration a month. Then we didn’t worry about it until the morning of September 1st, when I got an email from Chase saying that it had worked, and an email from The French Laundry saying the same and that we had paid in advance, bout tree fiddy each (not knowing how much it would cost, it was about a hundo or so less than I was thinking). November 15h, 8:45 pm, a Friday. Not bad! Bottom line for people wanting to do this, I would recommend the Chase concierge, but if you don’t have the card (which is great even if you don’t do this), the website system does not seem that bad as long as you are awake for it.

We worked out that we would take a long weekend, Friday to Sunday, in wine country, doing one night at a B&B that wasn’t terribly remarkable except for the fact that it was the shortest of walks from the French Laundry and the second at another nicer B&B we had stayed at 7.5 years ago that is just outside of downtown Napa.

Posting this now so I don’t lose it, food porn to come.

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Wow. I’m crazy jealous and really looking forward to the rest of the TR.

looking forward to this!

My only michelin-starred experience was at the 1-star Kokotxa in San Sebastian…it was phenomenal.

+1 to everything said!

We took Friday off, hit a few wineries on our way north, and check into the B&B in time for their 5 pm happy hour for a snack and some more wine before a later dinner (being the parents of young kids, we have joined the club of the olds where try to have dinner done by 7 so that we can get some girls to bed). It also gave us a chance to change so that we didn’t have to look fancy all day. I hadn’t actually looked into if they had a dress code, but I was planning on showing up in a suit and tie. I didn’t think there was any chance that would be insufficient, and as it turned out, I didn’t see anyone in a tux or tails. All the men there were in at least a blazer, but the tie was apparently optional. The women were pretty much all in dresses above the knee rather than lengthier gowns.

We were a touch early, but they happily greeted us, poured us each a glass of bubbly, and seated us immediately. The bubbly, they informed us, was this year a private selection from Schramsburg, as they always seek out a bubbly that will pair with their caviar course. While this would not be my first time having caviar, it would be my first time having it as a “course.” We were then given the menus, which I figured would just be a dictation of what we’d be having, but that wasn’t quite true.

Hmmm, I had been writing this on my phone and planning to do direct upload to discord, but it says this one is too big to do that. I think I will post my progress so far and then work on uploading.

First surprise was the customized menu. I was less surprised than MrsWookie, as they had called me before our trip about the nature of our special occasion, but it was a nice touch. I didn’t tell her that they had. All of the many servers who waited on us congratulated us on our anniversary without asking us if we were celebrating anything.

To the left of my thumb was the unexpected vegetarian menu, whereby you could apparently choose to spend the same amount of money for a vegetarian meal. I don’t scoff at vegetarians necessarily, LOL @ that.

What was expected was a multicourse tasting menu. I had forgotten that pricey supplements would be a thing, but I did recall having seen things like that when I’d read other fine dining trip reports over at our previous home. What was definitely a surprise was that there wasn’t an option to pay for a wine pairing with each course. If anything, I would have guessed that there was a wine pairing option for hoi polloi like us for whom dining there was a stretch, and a higher one for the real ballers. Neither was the case. Instead, the wine list was on an iPad (lol). There was a section for wines by the glass, but it was pretty short. The vast majority of the real estate was dedicated to wines by the bottle, which, like, for a super diverse multicourse tasting menu, I didn’t really want to commit to a single $400 bottle of Napa Cabernet Sauvignon that I was probably unfamiliar with and that wouldn’t pair with a majority of the meal. Talking with the waiter (there were many waiters, but he was the main-est one), though, he was a champ and said he could just make up a pairing and bring us two whites and two reds as the meal went on that would suit each dish. There were some spendy individual glasses of wine on that list, but tonight was not the night to quibble about a $30 glass of wine vs. a $90 glass of wine. In for a penny, in for a pound.

Anyway, supplements. As I had mentioned, we were already in for bout tree fiddy each, plus an unspecified wine tab, and now do you want to go bigger? Neither MrsWookie nor I have any food allergies, and we have very few dislikes. But, a mutual one was right there at the top: oysters. We aren’t big fans. I’m not stupid, and I know that even not liking oysters I’d probably be enamored with whatever the hell the French Laundry did with them, but on the other hand, I could just elect to get my caviar with lobster instead of oysters. I know at least something about French food, and while I can’t say I speak French I at least know some French words, mainly those around food and pleasantries (the most important words to know when visiting foreign countries). But even if I were to be able to expertly decipher everything on the menu, you don’t really know what it is and if you’ll like it until you try it. Tough call on that oyster dish, but both MrsWookie and I elected to go with the supplement for that course. We both elected to skip the white truffle mac and cheese. A little too baller, and the quail sounded great. We decided we’d get one order of the wagyu and share it and the venison course, as the venison sounded pretty amazing, too.

Decisions made, it was time for food. As is customary at these fancy pants restaurants, you get an amuse bouche that isn’t on the menu.

I don’t have a proper francophone description, but this was basically salmon blended with something dairy stuffed into a savory sesame waffle cone and topped with sesame seeds, and then there was some similar salmon stuff between two wafers. Both delicious, especially the cone.

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$175 mac and cheese wow we need a revolution

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It’s not $175 mac and cheese. It’s $175 extra for mac and cheese. Yes, I have been amongst those who should be first to the guillotines. Please at least make me last.

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First course! Neither of us had actually taken the mental energy to parse the nature of the supplemental caviar course beyond “caviar” and “lobster” so we were a bit surprised by this:

Not pictured is the fancy pants mother of pearl spoon with which you’re supposed to eat this thing. One bite in was still another surprise. “En gelee” should have been a tip off, but we didn’t really process what that would entail.

You’ll have to forgive my poor photography, as I was relying on my phone’s defaults while trying to be discreet in the fanciest of restaurants surrounded by people who looked liked they’d been there before and who were not bothering to photograph their incredibly beautiful food. Picture quality is going to vary.

I’m going to describe this dish in a very unflattering manner: served cold, small chunks of lobster encased in a dense brown gelatin, topped with a layer of creme fraiche, a dollop of caviar, and a garnish of herbs. On the side was a crunchy tube filled with what was essentially fancy mayo capped with more herbs. It was DIVINE. I don’t think either of us ranked this dish outside of the top two dishes we had on the night, despite it being chunks of a spider relative inside of brown jello topped with fish eggs. One thing this dish taught us right away was to be strategic with our bites going forward, to try to get a little bit of everything on there. This dish like most of the subsequent ones was definitely far more than the sum of its parts, and taking a bite without any one component was a big waste.

I don’t know why my phone turned these pictures orange, but this is definitely my worst photography of the night. I’m tired now, though, so I’m going to have to finish up tomorrow.

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This is bringing back memories! My (now) wife and I ate there in 2013 and had an incredible experience.

On Saturday I was serendipitously looking at our menu, I got it framed years ago and I’m thinking of hanging it in a hallway in our new place. It’s been in storage for 4 years.

Re the salmon amuse, that is salmon tartare in a sesame cornet - basically a v fancy Bugle. I’ve had several friends work in TK kitchens and I remember practicing making these for a New Year’s menu. They are super tricky - have to be baked to the perfect doneness and then immediately formed into shape. Once they cool down, they set and are no longer pliable. Easier said than done of course because the forming of them requires dexterity and precision, plus they have to be perfect or they can’t be used.

Looking forward to the rest of your TR. Most fine dining in the US has gone the way of the Dodo bird so it’s refreshing to see someone excited about this kind of rare experience!

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I’ve seen things like this with salmon or tuna tartare, but this seemed to be cooked and blended into something creamy. Maybe it was just my senses lying to me, but it seemed like it tasted like a superior and creamier version of salmon dip that I make from time to time.

One thing I forgot to note when I was looking at wine, one conspicuous entry on the iPad menu was “Well Traveled Wine,” which I clicked on strictly for my own amusement. Yeah, that shit starts at mid four figures per bottle.

I also want to make a note about service, which was excellent. One thing I noticed right away: what do The French Laundry and Chic-Fil-A have in common? Nope, it’s definitely not an anti-gay agenda, it’s “My pleasure.” The other place where it was easy to make a comparison with the service was the Culinary Institute of America, which is just a bit down the road on the north side of St. Helena. I do recommend it, as it’s a surprisingly affordable way to experience some fine dining, but the waitstaff that they are training there are definitely trained to be over-attentive. Your water glass seldom dips below a single sip’s vacancy, and you should expect your second course by about when you put your fork down from the last bite of your first. The 3-4 men (yeah, the waitstaff we saw was almost entirely men) waiting on us had a much better balance, as well as being informative but unpretentious, and talkative without talking your ear off.

Second course!

“Avocado tapenade” is an awfully fancy way of saying “guacamole,” but much like a good rug, it tied the dish together. It was hiding at the bottom, so once again you had to be a bit surgical to get a complete bite. The little roll, I’m not sure of the style of bread, but it was spongy and buttery and didn’t need a damn thing on it.

Also pictured here was our first wine pairing, a German Riesling that was surprisingly a bit sweet rather than totally dry. I like the style, and it was a good pairing, but it’s not what I expected to make the cut on the fairly short list of wines by the glass. Stemware here was its own spectacle. We experienced 6 different glasses for our eventual 6 different wines, and looking around at other patrons, we were only scratching the surface of what they had on hand.

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Awesome trip report, and I’m looking forward to the rest of it. One thing that I hope you’ll mention is the logistics of tipping - when you’re given that level of attention from that many people, are you tipping multiple people individually, does it lead to a much larger-than-normal % tip, that kind of thing.

Also, I can’t tell which one is more stunning - the $175 incremental for mac and cheese or the notion of a $90 glass of wine. This is a case where I’d much rather swallow a comprehensive up-front amount than try to make those incremental decisions. For some reason, I’d be much happier saying, “Here’s my $800 or so, give me the full experience” than saying “Here’s my $350, now let me sweat over Value Over Replacement Items for each of the incremental food and drink choices.”

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Yeah, I agree that it felt a bit odd, and it’s hard to fight the temptation to sweat over all the details, but that’s also why it was so nice for the waiter to just take over our wine.

Third course!

Not pictured in the shot: my first encounter with a dedicated fish knife (genuine silver, naturally). It’s basically a butter knife that cuts about that well. Not sure who decided that was optimal for fish. Anyway, the smoked mackerel was incredible: delicate, and just the right hint of smoke rather than seeming like it’s just off the Weber kettle. Nice crust on top, too. I can’t say “pickle emulsion” were two words I thought I’d ever encounter together, but it made for a helluva good sauce.

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oh man, this is the first picture in this thread I can actually taste (i’m sure my imagination doesn’t come close to how good it actually was). That looks perfect.

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Sometimes it’s necessary to infiltrate the circles of the vieux and nouveau riche to formulate an optimal plan of attack. I’ll allow it.

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I’m reading this while eating chicken tenders and potato wedges I grabbed from under the heat lamp at the supermarket.

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Is Thomas Keller insanely wealthy from this or is it just expensive b/c it’s in Napa Valley and he uses expensive ingredients? Too bad I have insane shellfish allergies. I can’t even be in the room when there’s shellfish being consumed.

I’m sure he’s done pretty well for himself, but the reason dining at this level is so expensive is because it costs outrageous amounts of money to deliver the experience. It’s not just the ingredients, it’s the equipment and labor required to make the dishes. This is an entirely different world from the restaurants most of us frequent, including whatever the average person considers to be a nice or high end place.

It’s expensive because of ingredients, because of location, because of reputation, and because of the skill that goes into making it all. They actually have windows into the kitchen so you can see the small army working away on the numerous dishes being put together. It’s expensive, but there are actually a lot of other more expensive restaurants in the world.

Fourth dish!

New wine, too. A white Burgundy served in a fishbowl that definitely is not what people think of when they think of a white wine glass. Probably my favorite wine on the night, and this was my favorite dish on the night. Three chunks of Alaskan king crab that were buttery and delicate and just melted in your mouth. The texture was so much softer than any crab I’ve had anywhere else, but I’m not sure how much of that is king crab vs. snow or dungeness crab, and how much is due to superior technique (seems like it might have been sous vide or something to get it that soft). A few crunchy, buttery croutons and rind-on bits of lemon for acid, all in a rich, creamy, foamy cauliflower sauce.

And we’ve reached halftime.

“Laminated brioche” is practically a croissant but not quite, and the fancy butter they went to great lengths to describe pretty much just tasted like good butter and not much more than that. There was no sweetness to the chocolate layered in. It was just bitter and rich. MrsWookie actually thought the fancy butter was unnecessary.

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Dumb question: how did you eat that croissant thing? To me the correct way would be to just tear a piece off with my hands, spread some butter, and pop it in my mouth, but I would be a ball of stress in a fine dining place thinking I was doing it all wrong.

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