The French Laundry. It usually evokes the same initial response; "Have you been there"? The
desire among hardcore foodies to secure one of 62 nightly seats in the non-descript brown
building borders on the religious. Almost like a trip to the Vatican, a pilgrimage to Mecca or a
private audience with the Dalai Lama. Would it leave me in gastronomic nirvana or simply clean
out my wallet? Since I pride myself in forming my own opinions, the only way to find out is by
actually dining there.
How to Secure a Seating
Reservations are taken 2 months in advance by telephone. Two reservations per night are taken
through the www.opentable.com website but unless your ISP server has terabyte/terahertz
capability, the telephone is probably your best bet. Unlike attempted phone reservations which
start at 10:00 a.m. Napa Time, the OpenTable website allows attempted online reservations at
12:00 a.m. California Time but believe me, I tried it and simply got the overloaded server error
message every time… and this is using broadband cable access. If you are still on dial-up internet
connection, forget it.
The phone system seems to stack incoming calls - if you're fortunate enough to reach the
automated voice mail system. We called for 3 consecutive days before finally getting a
reservation on the 3rd day. It seems that your call needs to be stacked within the first 15
minutes or so to get a table. We got through at 38 minutes on the first try and were informed
that no tables were available. On our second try, we got through at 28 minutes and were put on
the wait list. We secured our table on the 3rd try at 9 minutes. If you are fortunate enough to
secure a table, you do need to call back (thankfully at a separate phone number) to confirm
your reservation 48 hours before you dine.
Once we secured our reservation, I performed countless internet searches ranging from possible
menu selections, to restaurant location (contrary to popular belief, The French Laundry does
have a sign though it is only about a foot off the ground and partially hidden by foliage) to
possible wine choices. As I booked other restaurant choices while staying in Napa, I also
discovered that Thomas Keller was doing a book signing at the Copia Food, Wine and Arts
Center… the only problem was that it was on the same evening as our reservation! As colleagues
discovered our date with The French Laundry, requests started to accumulate. They were as
simple as “Can I get a copy of the menu”? “Can you get Chef Keller to sign my cookbook”? “Can
you take a picture of every dish served”? down to “Can you steal the wooden clothespin that
holds the napkin”? We were there to simply dine… not engage in any form of crime.
Dinner started with Chef Keller’s signature smoked salmon amuse bouche served ala ice cream
cone. Since we started the evening with a glass of Rene Geoffrey Rose Champagne (we were also
celebrating our 10 year anniversary), course #1 & 2 perfectly complimented the Champagne.
Course #2 was also a Keller signature – Oysters and Pearls. A “sabayon” of tapioca formed a base
for Osetra caviar and 2 of the smallest oysters I have ever seen – about the size of kidney beans.
The texture of the tapioca extended the mouth feel of the caviar so it made it seem as if the
whole dish was pure caviar. The saltiness of the caviar also perfectly balanced the creamy tapioca
and cream(?) sauce. At this point I requested our server to choose two other glasses of wine to
compliment the rest of the dishes. He suggested ½ glasses instead, to which I replied “Please do”!
Course #3 is where you have a choice to order an alternative course (with a supplemental
charge) or stick with the pre-planned salad. I opted for the White Truffle Risotto. Words cannot
adequately describe this dish. Our server appeared with what seemed to be a cigar humidor. He
opened the lid to expose the largest fresh white truffle I have ever seen – about the same size as a
small human brain. And the immediate truffle perfume instantly hit the brain. If a lightening
bolt hit me at that point, I would have died a happy man! He proceeded to shave razor thin
slices over my risotto – so much so that I felt guilty that other diners may not get their share of
this fungal gold! Silly man! This was served with a 2002 Eric Texier Rousanne. Course #4 was a
crispy skin Pacific Threadfish – also known as the fish of royalty in old Hawaii or Moi. It was
served atop bok choy, edamame and piquillo peppers with a lime based “aigre-doux”. This was
the first time that I had edamame in a dish that actually complimented the dish. The subtle
sweetness from the edamame and peppers complimented the subtle sweetness of the Moi while
the lime flavored syrupy sauce provided just enough balancing acid. Course #5 was a lobster claw
“fricassee” served with the flattest piece of bacon ever seen. Or was it just bacon appearing and
actually a bacon flavored “wafer”? The lobster claw was perfectly prepared (as both lobster and
crab claws can “dry-out” even when steamed). This was served with a 2002 Neyers Chardonnay.
Course #6 was a perfectly roasted Wolfe Ranch white quail served with caramelized salsify
(gobo) and poached prunes. The glaze on the quail had a richness like perfectly poached egg
yolks. Course #7 was the last of the entrée courses. It was a tail of Snake River Farms “Wagyu”
“Calotte de Boeuf Rossini” rib eye. This was served with a Yukon Gold potato and truffle “Mille-
Feuille” with a sherry/foie-gras sauce. We were not asked “how we wanted our beef done”
because anything more than medium-rare would have ruined the meat. Can you say melt-in-
your-mouth? This was accompanied by a 2000 Modicum Cabernet Sauvignon that we were told
was an exclusive bottling for The French Laundry. The cheese course was a Forster Kase served
with a Savoy cabbage “slaw”, mustard vinaigrette and caraway lavosh. Unlike usual cheese courses
that tend to kill the palate, this course actually left me looking forward to desert… until I
found out that we would be served about 5 deserts. The two listed deserts were the coconut
sorbet with toasted coconut “gianduja” and the Valrhona chocolate tasting featuring a Manjari
ganache, Guanaja brownie and Caraibe chip ice cream. Other than caramel, peanut butter and
bananas, coconut and chocolate are my other favorites so I was in desert heaven. They paired
this with an Australian Chambers Rosewood Muscat. However following the listed deserts, they
proceeded to serve us complimentary chocolates (Earl Grey infused, peanut butter filled and
caramel filled), macaroons, Crème Brulee, Panna Cotta and finally, a plate of “Mignardises” or
Gochiso-translated, little sweets that need to be swallowed upward into the brain because the
lower half is totally saturated with food.
Was it Worth it?
What is the price or value of anything? The price was a tad below six Franklins, the value; A
dinner on our 10th anniversary that I’ll easily remember until our 20th or 30th. A meal
presented with impeccable service like the old Japanese proverb that service should be like the
wind, “always felt but never seen”. Course after course of dishes where I would not have changed
one spice, one technique, or a singular taste sensation. Yes! It was worth it!
We initially requested a signed menu from our server (being that it was our anniversary). He
initially stated that Chef Keller usually didn’t work on Fridays and was on a book signing
engagement that evening (which we already knew about) but would leave a menu on his desk –
just in case he decided to pop into the restaurant. About two hours into dinner, he said that
Chef Keller would not be stopping by so he gave us a folder with the complete menus of the
night and a list of the wine pairings. We were also given a chance to view the kitchen before
leaving. When we arrived back in Hawaii, there was a voice mail from The French Laundry
stating that Chef Keller had signed a menu and all they needed was a mailing address. Lastly,
upon being seated at the restaurant, were informed that the wooden clothespins were ours to
keep for a memento of the evening… so no misdemeanors were required.
Other Digestible Tidbits
The French Laundry also offers a vegetarian (not pure vegan since butter and cream are used)
nine course tasting meal for $125 and a five course meal where you have a choice with each
course for $135. The nine course tasting menu we opted for was $150 ($20 extra for foie gras and
$40 extra for the truffle risotto). Men are required to wear sport coats for dinner service and
requested the same for lunch service (only Fridays through Sundays). Jeans, tennis shoes, shorts
and t-shirts are NOT permitted in the dining room. Private parties more than 8 persons may be
booked one year in advance. Street parking can be found along Washington Street. Lastly, if you
do secure reservations and need two more in your party, I can be reached at Gochiso@hawaii.rr.
Eating Around the Bay Area. Episode 1