The French Laundry Experience, Part II
Was it worth it, was it mind-blowing, was it good as god?
This is part two of a story about eating at one of the most famous restaurants in the world. Should you be interested in the whole chronicle, this is the link to the first part.
There is a very specific diet you should stick to in the hours leading up to a 12-course French meal—one that wipes your palate clean, throttles your appetite, and prepares your body for the caloric hailstorm to come. I’m sure there is. I don’t know. Claire and I ate McDonald's and a Slim Jim.
It was my first Egg McMuffin in at least a decade, and her first ever McMuffin of any varietal. Having drastically underestimated our drive time to Napa, we were terrified of being late and losing the non-refundable $650 ($325 per person, paid in advance). We needed to barely exit the freeway, barely slow down near a window, and have a nice man throw barely food into our car. McDonald's is the best at that.
This was dumb genius on our part, and I highly suggest starting your French Laundry Day from a heat-lamped food position. Comparison puts a couple exclamation points on greatness.
The rumor is true: the most famous restaurant in the U.S. is almost missable. Just an inconspicuous wood-and-stone structure with tiny windows, its front hidden in a lush burkha of ivy. Kind of feels like you stumbled on some nice-looking hedges and found a 12-course meal in there. Chef Thomas Keller has explained that people often pop into The French Laundry asking for directions to The French Laundry. They’re expecting some grand architectural gesture, men with nice veneers loitering around fire pits out front, dipping cigars in cognacs, picking their teeth with ortolan bones. Instead, they get an understated 100-plus year-old Napa structure that lived a life as a saloon and a brothel and a steam laundry business (thus the name) before Keller cooked it into a national landmark.
Opened in 1994, The French Laundry this year marks its 25th anniversary. They gave themselves a $10 million birthday gift—a remodel that added the glassed-in terrarium of a kitchen (designed to mimic the central pyramid at the Louvre), a wine cellar (including over 400 half-bottles, a good way to try expensive wines without committing to a whole 750mL), and a new private dining room that glows like orange sherbert after dark. So TFL is no longer just a humble structure on a quaint street (few things in Napa have been quaint since the Paris Judgment in 1976, when area wines beat the famous French ones in a blind taste test and us thirsty herds descended). But from the front, it still refuses to show off, looks like a wealthy older woman’s probably inside making tea and watching soaps with her cats.
Once we’re inside, the hostess acts like she’s been expecting us for weeks, like maybe we all summered together years back and it went well. She knows our names, the nature of our special occasion, probably that my grandmother died in 1993. I imagine her job requirements include Googling the proper pronunciation of international surnames (I’ll overhear conversations in at least three languages tonight). No detail goes unobsessed at the Laundry.
If you arrive early, you can relax or stress out in the thin lounge, shadowy and twinkled with candlelight. They’ll offer you complimentary sparkling wine (though knowing the cost of the whole night, “complimentary” feels a little sarcastic). We don’t get the pleasure of this pre-game, since we arrive barely on time smelling of gas station snack meat. They patiently take Claire’s coat. Dress code is for men only (jacket required, no tennis shoes, no t-shirts), since our gender tends to need fashion encouragement. The captain unhurriedly, pleasantly ushers us to our seats for the one of the longest meals most humans will eat in their lifetime (we’re out in just over three hours, which seems fast).
The main dining room feels like it would pull a quarter from behind your ear or give you socks for Christmas—both grandfatherly and grandmotherly at the same time, a genderless antiquity. Bare white walls are scarcely adorned with flickering sconces, white tablecloths hold white candles. There is carpet. Restaurant carpet has been the mangy scorn of the industry for years, due to its tendency to adopt stray bits of food and never let them go, with all the accompanying smells and microbes. I assure you the Laundry's carpet does not smell, has never smelled, is probably bacteria proof. It's very nice carpet. But carpet also softens noise, so even with every table full (they are always full), the Laundry feels acoustically balanced, hushed but alive, like a recording studio between takes.
Basically, the Laundry dining room seems intentionally designed to NOT demand your attention. Instead, you focus on the food, the wine, and the faces in front of you. In the absence of conversation pieces, people piece together conversations.
The captain makes all the right moves (chair pulled, etcetera) and hands us our menus. On one side is the nine-course “Chef’s Tasting Menu,” with lobster and quail and calotte de bouffe (a ribeye-adjacent cut of beef). On the other, a nine-course “Tasting of Vegetables,” a vegetarian menu with produce pulled that day from their garden across the street. There is no a la carte ordering. The Laundry is tasting menu-only. You can sub for certain courses (maybe you don’t enjoy seafood or it makes you die, for instance). But you’re in for the whole marathon.
I’ve been lucky to eat at a handful of Michelin-starred restaurants, and if the night goes wrong, it’s almost always the servers who deflate the balloon. And it’s almost always because they’re stiff, rigor mortised. They’re so focused on the strict protocol of formal service that they forget about the lightness of hospitality. The self-seriousness drains them of personality, disables their humor, fills the room with compressed air. As your emotional support human for the night, the server makes or breaks.
And the Laundry’s front of the house staff, dressed in wrinkle- and lint-free dark blue suits, is profoundly, awesomely human. It’s the biggest surprise, and crucial to the restaurant's success. There’s pressure eating inside a legend like this. It makes people nervous and weird in the same way being on a Jumbotron does. People either clam, up or they lose all composure and try to shotgun a bottle of Reisling. Laundry staff seems to know about nerves and humans, and constantly wink to break the tension.
Sure, they deliver our amuse bouche—a tiny ice cream cone of salmon mousse, delicate and intricately perfect, the fine result of small tools, like a bonsai tree of food—as if unveiling a rare book from the white-gloves part of the library, with just the right amount of reverential ta-dah. And when a woman at a table next to us is unable to read the menu, the Laundry immediately becomes Warby Parker, presenting her a stately wooden box full of reading glasses in all shapes and fashions. While eating our fourth course—a “choux farcie” with grilled cabbage, daikon radish, and a pretty mind-blowing preserved cabbage “bouillon,” with a hi-hat zing from fermentation and base note of umami seasoning—a light breeze picks up over our table, and a freshly laundered pashmina is immediately wrapped around Claire’s shoulders.
But their hyper-professionalism and stalking of details isn’t intrusive, militaristic, or servile. Just easy breezy. I imagine pre-service huddles where the captain says, “And remember, it’s food, not Jesus, loosen up.” The soundtrack helps. I’d expected Chopin or Wagner, a Spotify playlist with a photo of an ascot. But it’s mostly old rock ‘n’ roll and soul, and at one point we think we heard Sam Smith.
A majority of the diners in the Laundry do appear to be wildly affluent, their money making more money while they dig into a butter cocoa-laminated brioche with Diane St. Clar’s Animal Farm Butter. Rich people look just like you and I, just a little more preserved, their suit coats form-fitting, their jewelry big enough to help ships find harbor in heavy fog. But looking around I see a few I assume are like us, who did a little financial yoga to justify this meal. I bond with them, unbeknownst to them.
I could run through all 24 dishes in lurid detail, but that seems a sure way to make you want to cut their eyes out or quit food altogether. At the risk of sounding too effusive, let me just say that every dish is an arty little diorama that’s part cookery, part science and engineering, and part story. Precious as it may sound, it’s art.
The French Laundry's truffle-infused egg custard
For instance, the truffle-infused egg custard. A polished silver egg holder holds aloft a white egg shell, just enough of the top removed (in a perfectly straight line, as if they used a diamond-cutter) so you can get at its contents. Inside is a custard, like molten silk (its ultra-refined texture is precisely why so many people compare great food to great sex), and a veal ragout as deeply rich as a stew. Rising from the egg like a paper-thin oar is a single potato chip. In the middle of the chip is one perfectly straight chive, fossilized in place for a bolt of bright, sharp flavor to cut through the fat. It’s everything food can be—a visual narrative (one humble breakfast egg filled with Michelin-star custard, a riff on rags to riches), sweet and soft from the cream, salty and crisp from the chip. The amount of work and precision that goes into this tiny morsel (surgically cutting the shell, right-angling that chive, pressing it into the chip so that it’s spine-straight) is more than average kitchens spend on entire meals.
And this concert of minutiae goes on for 12 courses. I’ll spare you the plate-by-plate, but I want to highlight a few thoughts:
1. Order the “Menu of Vegetables.” The Laundry let us order each menu, and we shared. We actually preferred the vegetarian to the omnivore “Chef’s Tasting Menu" (though both are, again, about as good as food gets). That says a lot about the kitchen, and where we’re at with American food. Plant-based cuisine is no longer a loathed outsider concept, begrudgingly cooked for those with inconvenient ethics. Based on this experience, I’d love to see a Keller/Breeden plant-based restaurant. For instance, on course eight—the climax of the menus’ savory portions—the best dish was the slow-roasted hen-of-the-woods mushroom in a bordelaise sauce, with cloudlike potato puree (using La Ratte potatoes, which have an almost hazelnut richness), Nantes carrots and glazed onions. Mushrooms are the ribeye of the forest, but I’ve never had one this moanfully good. Maybe it’s because they put so much work into transforming the vegetables. With meat, chefs are often told to leave it alone, because the best way to mess up a steak is to mess with it. Or because the fruits and vegetables are grown across the street in highly fertile soil, picked hours before the meal. The menu rotates constantly. But at least this night, if I could go back and only order one, I would choose the vegetarian.
2. Skip the truffle if money matters. I texted a chef friend to ask for pointers on doing French Laundry right. He gave great tactical advice for a wealthier version of me. But he also said, “get the truffle, because if one place is going to be the absolute best representation of that food, this is the place.” So I did. They presented a lovely, stinking box of massive, fresh white truffles, probably worth $10,000. They shaved a snow flurry of them onto my mac ‘n’ cheese, and it was absolutely delicious, that intoxicating forest cologne carried by the decadent fat of the Parmesan “mousseline.” But it was $175 extra charge for that one dish. I love truffles, but that seems a bit excessive and is a fairly large no-thanks from me.
3. Dear god that Oysters & Pearls. It’s the dish that made Keller famous—buttery poached Island Creek Oysters swimming in a “sabayon” of pearl tapioca with a small rubble pile of Regiis Ova Caviar. It’s almost like they discovered an entirely new texture—smoother than smooth, silkier than silk, creamier than cream—that drastically improves your existence. And the brine from the caviar cuts it perfectly.
4. Only one dish out of 24 missed the mark. And it was another Keller classic—the butter-poached Nova Scotia lobster. The petite lobster tail by itself, poached in butter and shelled and curled on plate, is perfect. But lobster (and butter, for that matter) are already sweet. Pairing it with the saffron-vanilla emulsion took it into the realm of a dessert, the very taste of insulin.
5. You get a wooden laundry pin to take home. That famous wooden laundry pin, embossed with the restaurant’s name, is a talisman of food culture. A sacred tchotchkie. It is to food people what the ring was to the troll in Lord of the Rings. You get to take it home, do laundry with it, use it as a cigarette holder, frame it, talk to it, pray to it, lose it in a drawer.
Compare this with our tasting last year at Momofuku Ko, where David Chang’s awesomely unbending avant gardeness led to a few clunker dishes that were better ideas than they were food. Keller’s and chef de cuisine David Breeden’s dishes are just textbook delicious French-ish cuisine, with storytelling and art and food magic and seriousness and good old-fashioned fun (earlier this year, after New York Times critic Pete Wells said a mushroom soup at Keller’s other restaurant, Per Se, tasted like bong water; the chef cheekily served soup at French Laundry in weed bongs).
Based on my current financial station, I’m not sure I can ever justify paying this much for a meal again. Alinea and Blue Hill at Stone Barns may have to wait for another life. My life is a balance of daily financial diligence and strategic, periodic ah-screw-it spending. But even after all these years, even after people claiming Keller had lost a step, been distracted by his extrapolating empire, possibly grew a little weary—French Laundry was the best meal I’ve ever had, the rare thing that lives up to insane expectations and hype on all fronts, from front door to petit four.
Now I’m gonna go home and cook beans for a couple months, resuscitate my bank account, get back to being a real person.
YOUR QUESTIONS, SPECIFICALLY.
I queried my social media friends for questions they may have about The French Laundry experience. Here I try to answer them to the best of my ability:
Was it worth it?
No one can really answer this for anyone else. Worth is personal, based on what you dig in life, what you’re passionate about, and how much money you have. For me, as a professional food writer, it was worth it (except the truffles). Thomas Keller is my Banksy and someone else’s Beyoncé, and I’m willing to pay an amount that may seem absurd to others in order to get front-row access to his and Breeden’s art. And do I think Keller and Breeden and a legacy of talented cooks, chefs, designers, servers, sommeliers, bakers, etcetera bring enough value to the meal? Absolutely. They are among the best in the world at creating the very best hospitality experience, the ultimate night out with food and drink, the dinner to experience before dying. They have slogged and tinkered and mastered their craft, and earned every dollar of that bill. But, like I said, I may have personally reached my maximum of meals in this price range. I have a daughter, and she seems smart enough for college one day.
Could the meal be shorter?
It’s hard enough to maintain this level of talent under one roof. The restaurant business is tough and transient. While I’d love to see a three-course version that’s equal to the mothership, it seems impractical. To get the talent all-in, they have to create an all-in experience.
Favorite moment of the night?
Claire and I meeting chef Breeden and getting a brief tour of his new kitchen. The curtain parting in Oz. And when the woman at the table next to us received her new earrings from her beau, and asked if he could return them.
How are the desserts?
Excellent and never-ending. There were macaroons and cakes and truffles and sugar cookies and their famous “Coffee & Donuts” (cappuccino semifreddo with cinnamon-sugar donut holes). To be honest, the only lackluster thing was the donuts. The donut arts have evolved, and these weren’t the best I’ve had.
How many tables near you were seemingly there just to take pictures of the food, themselves, or themselves with the food?
I was probably the worst offender in the room. I was shocked. It wasn’t a food-selfie frenzy. Though our server was very supportive of the Instagram arts. “Relax, take your photos, don’t worry about writing down notes, we’ll send you home with a menu,” he said.
How’s the lavatory? A good one speaks volumes.
Very basic and clean, like almost everything French Laundry. Simplicity and starkness are their trademark style. The decor equivalent of a chef’s coat. Unremarkable, and not the point.
Should I go alone or with a group of people?
I always prefer a group. Half the fun of going here is dissecting the food, riffing on the story. That said, the staff was so chummy I doubt dining alone would feel lonely.
What about the wine?
We set a total spend on wine for our server, and asked him to choose wines to fit that budget. That’s when a funny thing happened. When you’re already paying this much on a meal, your concept of money gets skewed. I gave him a budget of $300 for the night. I never spend $300 on wine for a meal, because I enjoy paying rent. Since they have such an impressive half-bottle program, it gave him flexibility to give us three different experiences: a 2014 Albert Grivault Meursault Clos du Murger" (a great white Burgundy), and a 2011 Araujo Estate Syrah Eisele Vineyard (a Napa Syrah with a touch of Viognier), and aged tawny Port for dessert.
Was Keller in the kitchen?
No. I would’ve been surprised if he was. In restaurants, it’s the chef de cuisine who does the nightly cooking (and even then, not really—it’s the sous chefs and the line and station cooks—the chef de cuisine expedites and quality controls). I’ve heard Keller is at Laundry more than most of his restaurants. This is where it all started, his sacred place.
How did you feel afterward? Did you have to get tacos because you were still hungry?
I’ve had epic, multi-course tastings where I felt gross afterward, almost embalmed with over-indulgence. But the Laundry has been portioning out these dishes for 25 years, and it seems they’ve calibrated it perfectly (as well as kept the heavy and light dishes in balance). I did not need to go get tacos, although I support tacos at all times.