We are believers! Foodnut.com returns to the best in the West in Spring 2013.
The French Laundry is a legendary restaurant located in the Napa Valley town of Yountville California, Ground Zero for some of the best restaurants in California. They opened in 1994 and have been legendary ever since. The restaurant received three Michelin stars in 2012 and is at the top of many best restaurant lists. They focus on American food with French influences. Thomas Keller is world renown for some of the best cooking. He focuses on the best ingredients and does not discuss prices with suppliers. This was our first visit in way too many years. The Empire now includes per se in New York, Bouchon in Yountville, Las Vegas, and Beverly Hills, and ad hoc in Yountville.
They added hard liquor and cigars in 2013.
Keller protege from Per Se, French-trained Charleston native David Breeden is currently the chef. Yes, Mr. Keller no longer cooks your meal. He tends to his growing empire. Timothy Hollingsworth the previous chef cooks in LA. Corey Lee used to be chef and is now at his restaurant benu. Thomas Keller is also a partner in benu.
French Laundry’s Garden
Notice some herbs have French Laundry signs and descriptions.
French Laundry’s nearly 3 acre vegetable garden across the street and should be visited before your meal. Call ahead and book a tour of the garden. The publicly accessible garden provides 30% of the restaurants produce each morning and focuses on young vegetables that are at peak flavor. Products that do not make the cut are given to Bouchon, Bouchon Bakery, and Ad Hoc.
Scoring a French Laundry Reservation
It is a challenge to just get a French Laundry reservation. We spent the better part of a month trying to land one. The economy must be getting better! Here are some tips to help you land a reservation.
The French Laundry has only 16 tables and usually closes in the latter part of July for a week. They accommodate tables of 2 through 7 guests. Larger parties need to reserve the private dining room. They consistently tend to 74 customers each night. They take reservations two months in advance to the calendar day, every morning starting at 10 AM Pacific Time. You need to redial using several lines to increase your chances. If you don’t get through within the first 15 minutes, you should probably just try again the next day. You can leave your name on the waiting list for as many days as possible. Our name was on the waiting list for probably 30 different days but we never got a call. Reservations for dinner are especially difficult, especially Friday nights. Complicating matters are the VIPs that get priority. We estimated 30% of tables on our night went to them. French Laundry Googles all customers. Birthdays, mergers, special events are automatically commemorated.
You can also try to score a reservation online. There is a table for two at 6 and 9 PM each day, and a table at 11:15 AM for lunch on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Try clicking this Opentable link and refreshing right around 10 AM Pacific Time. Dinner is the preferred time to dine here. Hackertable.com is also a good site to check.
We also try to use our Visa signature card’s concierge service to secure reservation, but they didn’t succeed. Reservations are easier around holidays like July 4th. Call 72 hours before your reservation to confirm at 800-944-1224. $100/person cancellation fee within 3 days of reservations. Alternately you can put a private room for 4 to 10 people, up to a year in advance. You do pay a $100 dollar premium per person, but receive extra dishes, no phone craziness, and privacy.
Upstairs at The French Laundry
Decor, Vibe – This legendary restaurant is located on Yountville’s main drag, right near the residential area. The two-story French Laundry building was built in 1890 as a French Steam Laundry and retains the old-school charm. Elegant ivory colored decor with decorative mirrors, lamps, plush chairs, and lots of flowers. It is surrounded by a beautiful garden / waiting area. Bathrooms are upstairs on the second level. The French Laundry requires jackets for lunch and dinner, no jeans or sneakers. This is a great change as we dined here once and saw a guy eating with the T-shirt on! The crowd was decidedly on the older side with mostly well heeled folks in their 50s and 60s. The sound level increased as the night progressed and wine started to kick in.
French Laundry Menu (Click to zoom into any picture)
The French Laundry Menu has daily changing nine course prix fixe menus for $270 with service and coffee included, (one menu is Tasting of Vegetables) that requires about three hours to complete. No single ingredient is ever repeated during the meal. Some Keller signature dishes stay on the menu. Everyday, each line cook comes up with their own dishes. Line cooks here are ready to run their own kitchen. They have a 1 hour meeting each night to go over the next days menu.
Be prepared for a food coma. The menu is posted online regularly. The vegetable tasting menu is not purely vegetarian but can be adjusted to suit. (Crab, Ham) We ordered the Tasting Menu and had some Tasting of Vegetable dishes mixed in.
Hollingsworth watches every dish that goes out. He also watches plates coming back. If a plate isn’t cleared, he will ask the server why.
French Laundry VIPs
The secret Extended Menu. You need to book at least 3 days ahead and can get this special menu. You basically tell them what you like and they will customize it for you. It costs $550. Ouch!
One thing we discovered dining in the same room with several regular VIPs is that you can have the chef customize the menu for your tastes with dishes not on the daily menu. Minimum VIPs or minis aka regular guests that come often receive an extra dish or two. Maximum VIPs like other chefs, suppliers, industry folks will receive off the menu selections. We ask the server and he said we could get VIP service with about twice as many dishes and pay roughly twice as much, and had to call ahead. Special dishes we saw included a Chawan Mushi, Sashimi, custom Pearls and Tapioca, Custard in an egg shell, table side shaved truffles, pasta course, and others.
Journey starts with house filtered still or sparkling water..
French Laundry Tasting Menu Dish by Dish – Spring 2013
Again, some slight variations from previous visits. New chef also!
“OYSTERS AND PEARLS”
“Sabayon” of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and White Sturgeon Caviar
See 2001 review.
GARBANZO BEAN “CROQUETTES”
Sacramento Delta Green Asparagus, Navel Orange Confit, Pickled Garlic, Greek Yogurt and Garden Mint
Crisp, freshly fried, served toasty hot. Even vegetarians can be in on all the fun.
SALAD OF ROASTED CAULIFLOWER
Poached Field Rhubarb, Marcona Almonds, Niçoise Olives, Red Ribbon Sorrel and Meyer Lemon Vinaigrette
A beautiful salad, much of it coming from across the street. A delicate combination of elements which showed off their care.
BLACK WINTER TRUFFLE AND POLENTA TORTELLINI
English Peas, Cope’s Corn Pudding and Sunchoke Mousse (75.00 supplement )
Frankly, we didn’t think there was a reason to pay the upcharge. While the pasta was definitely good, it’s not worth the extra $75.
Bread Options – Baguette, multi-grain, sour dough, and pretzel roll. Butter from Animal Farm in Vermont and Andante. Brioche and Panomoi served later on.
SAUTÉED FILLET OF MEDITERRANEAN TURBOT
Fava Beans, Oregon Morels, Wild Ramps and “Vinaigrette Bordelaise”
This is definitely not a local fish. You encounter this dish all over France. They cooked it well, but the Turbot did not stand out. The Sea Urchin is a better option.
SANTA BARBARA SEA URCHIN
Vegetables “à la Grecque,” Spanish Saffron, Masia El Altet Olive Oil and Cilantro
A more local option with very rich Uni made even more decadent with the saffron. A very smooth creamy dish with a weird vinaigrette accent.
SWEET BUTTER-POACHED ALASKAN KING CRAB
Sacramento Delta Green Asparagus, Navel Orange, Red Tipped Spinach and “Mousseline Béarnaise”
They normally serve a butter poached lobster, but also switch to crab occasionally. This was an excellent dish. Very tender, buttery and we just wish there was more.
LIBERTY FARM PEKIN DUCK
Slow Roasted Ruby Beets, Preserved Green Strawberries and Green Peppercorn Gastrique
Another excellent dish. Cooked to a medium rare with a crispy skin. Three stellar bites of duck with nice fruity accompaniment.
SNAKE RIVER FARMS “CALOTTE DE BŒUF”
Potato “Rösti,” Nantes Carrot Custard, Spring Onions, Parsley Shoots and Port Wine-Shallot Jus
Super tender beef, also cooked to a medium rare. Surprisingly reasonable portion size and served with some very delicate potatoes.
Peach Leaf “Gelée,” Sicilian Pistachios and Celery Branch
This was a French hard cheese that was a bit off in left field. Very rich pistachio crust and a strong sharp flavor.
Andante Farms Goat Cheese
HAYDEN MANGO SORBET
This was brought to us when they noticed one of us didn’t finish the cheese. This goat cheese was much more to our liking, soft, buttery, nice fruit accents.
Coconut “Succès” and Sichuan Peppercorn Meringue
A nice pre-dessert to keep our guests from getting bored. A play on sweet and savory elements.
“VERJUS BLANC ”
Demi-Sec Grapes, Jasmine Tea Ice Cream and Caramel Crisp
A mouse like dessert with raisins that was refreshing, yet fairly tart.
“DARK TREACLE ”
Devil’s Food, Valrhona Chocolate “Marquise,” Lyle’s Golden Syrup and Marshall Farms Burnt Honey Ice Cream
A bitter chocolate delight for chocoholics. Beautiful, yet satisfying.
“PRINCESS CAKE ”
Animal Farm Buttermilk, Navel Orange Marmalade, Toasted Marzipan and Cara Cara Orange Sorbet
What a name! A delicate, light cake that was perfectly balanced with the sorbet.
Truffle popcorn – decadent and slightly sweet.
Coffee and donuts – See 2001 review
Chocolate Macadamian nuts, caramel candies, and a take home short bread.
Service – the service on this visit was professional as usual. We did encounter difficulty flagging servers down several times. The waiters were running around like zombies focused on a mission. French Laundry should work on this.
French Laundry Tasting Menu Dish by Dish – Spring 2011
Many dishes that slight variations from our visit in 2010.
Same warm Gougeres canape as last visit.
Same Coronet as last visit.
Alternate: Fresh avocado on a spoon. About as smooth, fresh, and refreshing an avocado can get.
Pineapple granitee with sake was up palate cleansing shot of light fruity goodness with just a hint of alcohol. A version with uni was also very subtle.
“Oysters and Pearls” – Same as last visit.
Top Notch fresh Warm bread from Bouchon Bakery arrived. This time at French Laundry we received a mini baguette and a mini pain au lait brioche, both of which were excellent. They even have a gluten-free roll. Same to butters as last visit. We found it best to supplement the unsalted butter with some of the 6 different types of salt included with the foie gras. Also available was a gluten-free soy and rice flour poppyseed bun.
LEMONGRASS “SNOW” shaved ice Yogurt “Bavarois,” said with Earl Grey tea, Cucumber and Dried Persimmon was composed of a mixture of textures and flavors. Sweet and savory at the same time.
White truffle oil infused egg custard with chopped black truffles, chives potato chip is a signature dish is that is a bit heavy as a starter, but had the perfect amount of melded truffle flavor. No doubt a play on Japanese Chawanmushi. You use the ‘little spoon’ to scoop out custard, and then you eat it. The waiter said they went through many organic eggs to find perfect ones to showcase the dish.
Alternate: Hearts of Palm salad with sention blossoms, candied cashews, beet gelee, and blood orange was a beautiful looking salad with extremely fresh hearts of Palm along with a nicely contrasting blood orange gelee. The nuts added a crunchy component to the dish.
Sautéed MOULARD DUCK “FOIE GRAS” – Pickled Field Rhubarb, Celery, Piedmont Hazelnuts and Black Winter Truffle came with 6 different salts this time, including 200 million year old Jurrassic salt from Montana, a Fleur de sel, two red clay salts, and a salt from the Philippines. Last time we had only 3! A tiny piece of high quality foie with a crisp crust, that really stood out when accented with some salt and rhubarb.
Lightly CONFIT PAVÉ OF ATLANTIC HALIBUT – Young Fennel, Niçoise Olives and Winter Citrus “Vierge” fruits was a slow poached fish cooked in olive oil and canola oil that was tender and technically perfectly.
Alternate: Slow cooked Potato confit with diced potatoes, olives, field greens – The Potatoes was slightly undercooked and springy to the touch, but possess solid potato flavor. The diced potatoes were a little more bland. Most of the ingredients were from the garden across the street.
Sweet Butter Poached Maine Lobster Tail – Signature dish, this time with a super thin Hobb’s Bacon, Yukon Gold Potatoe confit purée, Baby Beets, Crème Fraîche, red ribbon sorrel, and “Sauce Borscht” was excellent as usual and featured an interesting crispy bacon twist but we’re not sure how well it worked. They do an excellent job on this tiny piece of lobster, creating a silky smooth delicate meat infused with natural butter flavors.
Liberty Farm Pekin Duck Breast – This version with Petite Onions, Baby Leek purée, and Stewed Oregon Huckleberries was cooked to a medium rare, possess a tender meat and a very nice Huckleberry accompaniment.
Snake River Farms “Calotte de Boeuf Grillee” (Calotte is the part of meat wrapped around the rib eye that butchers mostly trash)- This version with Bone Marrow “Pudding,” Tokyo Turnips, Nantes Carrots from their garden, Braised Green Garlic, and “Sauce Poivrade” or a bordelaise black peppercorn infused sauce. This pudgy, super tender meat was one of the highlights of the meal. Perfectly accessible by all, 3 small bites, yet cooked to a perfect medium rare. The marrow was not greasy, is injected a distinctive flavor to the dish. French Laundry does an excellent job with this dish.
“TOMME DE SAVOIE FERMIER” – Artichokes, pickled Jingle Bell Peppers, Broccolini, and Spanish Caper “Vinaigrette” was a cheese from the Rhône Valley of France. Very mild in flavor, accessible, semi-soft, cows milk, smooth, and served with 2 thin slices of nutty breads. They should have considered a local cheese to keep it local and sustainable.
GROS MICHEL BANANA SORBET – Medjool Date, Pine Nuts, French Laundry Muesli and Toasted Oat Milk was there spin on a breakfast dish, subtle sorbet flavors along with a fairly sedate muesli.
Alternate: Grapefruit sorbet with lime foam, Mandarins, solis greens had crunchy nodules along. Along with a refreshingly fruity sorbet.
“DELICE AU CHOCOLAT À LA MENTHE” – Crispy “Feuilletine,” Mast Brothers Cocoa Nibs, Brown Cardamom, and Garden Mint Ice Cream possessed an interesting but strong mint oil. The dense, dark chocolate cake was extremely strong, while the wafer tasted dish some crunch.
Zen green tea included a sample for us to savor.
Mignardises – Same treats as our last meal in 2010.
Along with their signature dish Coffee and Doughnuts. Semi freddo, semifrozen mousse, espresso extract along with freshly fried doughnuts covered with cinnamon sugar. The coffee was extremely sweet, especially after all the other desserts. They should think of toning it down a little bit and introducing something fruity. The donut holes were tasty crispy doughnut hole treats.
Alternate: Ginger beer float with mango and coconut was actually superior to Coffee and doughnuts. Something a little fruity, light, not too sweet, and refreshing to round out the meal.
A quick tour of the kitchen allowed us to see that the man himself, Thomas Keller, was overseeing the kitchen during our meal. The kitchen is immaculate and operates like a well oiled machine. The Mobile 5 Golden stars proudly hung on the wall. We could see by the live video feed of Per Se in New York City, that the East coasters were heading home.
Our meal was once located in their private dining room and saw a significant upgrade in service over other visits. It’s pretty impressive seen a team of waiters serve and remove dishes in unison. Our headwaiter was far more friendly than our previous one. He helped frame each dish and provided some additional insight after seeing how serious we were about food.
The sommelier was asked to pick several wines that ended up being perfect.
This meal left us satisfied and allowed us to upgrade our ratings of The French Laundry. We also confirm that you can ask for extended service, involving extra courses such as seasonal items or more canapés in addition to the normal menu. As was the case when we ate at per se in New York City, eating at their private dining room really seems to elevate the service.
Parting Gift of the same very buttery French Laundry shortbread.
French Laundry Tasting Menu Dish by Dish – Summer 2010
Leaf shaped silver dish holding an excellent Gougeres canape – Pate a choux or cream puff dough filled with a warm Gruyere cheese mornay sauce. The other similarly looking canape was a slightly salty Potato Truffle Bengiet.
Signature dish – Cornets “ice cream cones” filling a sesame encrusted cone full of red onion creme fraiche. The chopped Scottish Salmon tartare had almost a smooth pate-like consistency. A nice creme fraiche finish at the bottom of the cone.
The other canape was fresh chopped garden heirloom beets on a silver spoon.
“Oysters and Pearls” – warm “Sabayon” of Pearl Tapioca with Poached Island Creek Oysters and local White Sturgeon Caviar has been on the menu from Day 1, a 16 year run! This rich and creamy signature dish is served with a mother of pearl spoon, to scoop the tiny oysters. The center of the oysters are poached in a decadent chive butter.
Jacobsen’s Farm Plum Consumme – Fennel Relish and Almond Milk Sorbet had the consomme poured tableside. The sorbet had very subtle flavors meant to contrast with the tart and sweet plum.
Top Notch fresh Warm bread from Bouchon Bakery arrives 4 times a day. They finished baking it at the restaurant. Later in the evening, the bread that was served was not warm and toasty.
Two different butters were offered. A local unsalted butter from Andante Dairy of Petaluma, and a whipped / salted butter from Animal Farm in Middlebury, Vermont. We preferred the unsalted one.
Salad of baby corn – sweetheart cherries, shaved celery, celery branch, celery ribbons, and black truffle was a beautiful but tiny and minimalist salad featuring produce harvested earlier in the day. You could ‘taste’ how fresh and pure the vegetables were.
Hudson Valley Moulard Duck “Foie Gras En Terrine” – Lillet Blanc Gelée, Pickled Red Onion, Red Ribbon Sorrel and Golden Yellow Peach Consommé ($30.00 supplement) came a toasted Pain Rustique and 3 different kinds of finishing salts; pure white Philipino deep sea salt, Brittany hand harvest salt, and the best of which was a grey Montana Coppermine 40 MILLION year old salt. Silky smooth, this foie gras was excellent when combined with all the ingredients. The toasted bread made at crunch sound that probably filled the room. It was very difficult to scoop the Gelee from the shallow dish. They should provide a spoon with this dish.
Yes even at thisis high price, there are still supplemental fees!
Barbecued Japanese Anago – Akita Komachi white rice, Cherry Belle radish, Galia melon, puree of Hass avocado, Greek basil, and Kaffir lime “Aigre-Doux” had a crunchy poached ocean salt water eel expertly cooked just past its rubber state. Firmer and not ‘muddy flavored’ like most Japanese eel.
Frenchy Laundry Garden Onions – Royal Blenheim Apricot, Toasted Piedmont Hazelnuts, puree of Summer Truffle and Mâche were refreshing fresh and not strong. This dish highlighted the quality of the truffles.
Sweet Butter Poached Maine Lobster Tail – braised fennel purée, piperade, marinated Jingle Bell peppers, and Noilly Prat emulsion was a dish so good, it helped us learn how to appreciate lobster. Afterwards, we would order it on occasionally, seeking the Nirvana we found here. Smooth, tender, and buttery with peppers below having some contrast.
Liberty Farm Pekin Duck Breast – Duck confit, Tokyo turnips, Granny Smith apples, pecans Mizuna and maple-Cherry Gastrique was to perfectly pink medium rare and maintained a thin layer of crispy skin on top which made it a little harder to slice. While duck was perfect, the sauce really stood out. The dark colored cake looking confit was very dense and silky smooth.
Rouelle De Tete De Cochon (Hog’s Head) – Fava bean mousse, French Laundry ham, summer squash, Demi-Sec Tomatoes and Blue Lake Beans was known as the pig’s head, which conjured up visions of a big beast on the table staring back at us. A lightly fried mustard cake crusted all of wonder, filled with tender and delicate ham, was like we got. French Laundry’s version of head to tail eating.
Snake River Farms “Calotte de Boeuf Grillee” (Calotte is the part of meat wrapped around the rib eye that butchers mostly trash)- Hen-of-the-woods Mushrooms, broccoli, Nantes carrots, Pickled Ramps and Sauce Bordelaise featured beef from Idaho was a blend of Wagyu and Angus with visible fat streaks on top. Smooth as butter and melt in your mouth tenderness. Almost as good as our 5A5 Wagyu steak.
Abbay De Tamie – New crop onion tart, French prune, Piedmont hazelnuts and juniper wood Aged Balsamic Vinegar was a cheese course. This dish came with three kinds of bread; Black Currant, walnut, and rustic. This soft cow’s milk cheese comes from Andante Farms in Petaluma and is mild in nature and a bit elastic in texture. The multilayer tart was very flaky and dense making it hard to chopped apart and bundled with the cheese and onion. A delightful but carefully assembled multi-flavored combination was worth the effort. A ball of the same cheese rested to the side of the tart.
Royal Blenheim Apricot Sorbet – Toasted Barley-Brown Sugar Streusel and White Apron Ale “Nuage” was very cleansing to the palate. The apricot flavor came on fast and strong on the streusel below was a bit bitter.
K&J Orchard Yellow Peach and Ginger Float – Young Ginger “Pearls,” Vanilla Sablé, Peach soda, Kaffir Lime Sorbet and Lemon Verbena sorbet was a very tart but fun desert with each scoop yielding different ingredients. Most of the pearls sank to and lined the bottom of the glass.
“Pane di Ricotta alla Griglia” – Delta Blue Blueberries, Pine Nut Nougatine, “Limone Cagliata” and Buttermilk Sherbet was one of the few dishes that did not stand out. The ricotta and corn flour pound cake was course, and not very moist. The sherbet was very nice and exerted a strong milky flavor.
Peanut butter and Jelly Tartlet was essentially an unassuming but excellent PB&J tartlet. No thick peanut butter here, just smooth and rich flavor in each bite.
Compressed Watermelon with Champagne granite was a clinker of the desert with a liqueur-based ice in the middle and two basic watermelon nuggets on either side. Thomas Keller has a molecular gastronomy technique of compressing fruits like watermelons to concentrate the flavor, but this didn’t seem to occur for this dish.
Mignardises – A chilled squared silver tray with bite sized petit fours or candies. Dusted Chocolate Covered Macadamia Nuts. 6 different decadent Chocolates that we had to take home. Flavors included Thai Coffee, Praline, Peanut Butter, Banana Malt, Meyer Lemon Citrus, and Salted Caramel.
Coffee or tea is baked into the price of the meal.
Parting Gift of very buttery French Laundry Shortbread.
Be sure to ask your waiter for a tour of the beautiful state of the art kitchen with 5 gold Mobile stars plastered to the wall and a live video feed from New York City’s Per Se. Under the large clock is the sign “Sense of Urgency” and another sign defining “finesse.”
Surprisingly, after 3.5 hours we did not feel overly stuffed. Portion sizes were on the small side, which is fine with us as we prefer variety or quantity.
The French Laundry had excellent service with almost no need to ask for anything. The servers are very knowledgeable, but this extended surprisingly, to include support staff. They have so many staff members floating around constantly that they surely outnumber guests. Having VIPs in the same room, seeing them get more attention and special dishes obviously reduces the specialness of French Laundry.
The prices are high, reservations are hard to get, the dining rooms filled every day, making it pretty obvious that they are doing a great job here. French Laundry is clearly better than any restaurant in San Francisco, California, and possibly the United States. Our past experience at Per Se slightly topped French Laundry.
Comparing French Laundry to European Three-Star Restaurants
Last year we visited some of the top restaurants in Europe including The Fat Duck, Le Cinq, Guy Savoy, and Gordon Ramsay and we have to say that while French Laundry is in the same league foodwise, the service and decor was superior elsewhere. We felt a bit of cold, arrogantness here, that contrasts with the warmness we felt in Paris’ best Michelin three-starred restaurants. If you have eaten French Laundry, continue to elevate your dining experience by eating at the best in Europe. Our experience in the private dining room did kick things up a notch.
A perfect ending to a meal at French laundry would be to hit the Villagio spa nearby. Driving home right away with a food coma isn’t the best thing to do, especially if you had 9:30pm reservations that finish around 1am!
Save money, Eat at French Laundry
An unexpected result from a meal at The French Laundry is the savings derived from not eating out afterwords. The meal was so good that we felt it was a waste of time eating out at a lesser restaurant! This feeling lasted for a week or two.
Excellent wine selection with high markup. French Laundry as a long 100+ page list that has since migrated to an iPad, glasses from $23, bottles from $55, half bottles from $50, expensive $75 corkage. Wine list