The French Laundry, Thomas Keller’s Yountville restaurant in California, probably does not need much introduction to anyone remotely interested in food.
Continuously ranked high on all the best restaurant lists, The French Laundry (TFL) keeps the hype levels through the roof with its strict booking policy and small number of seats (around 64 I believe). A Google search shows more hits for how to get a reservation than actual reviews from those who did secure a sought after seat. And if you have landed on this page by doing such a search, welcome! I have told my ‘reservation story’ at the bottom of the page, so feel free to scroll down if that is all you are after for now.
Let’s get to our experience shall we?
This is the front of the restaurant, as seen from the street (photo taken last year when we stopped in for a look).
The kitchen garden is directly across the street. This photo was also taken last year. This year’s visit was just after winter so the garden was looking a bit barer this time.
Ours was a lunch booking on a sunny Sunday morning. The entrance is around the side and we entered into a darkish foyer where we were greeted by a hostess. However, we were two minutes early for our 11:45 reservation and were asked to wait outside. What?
This was not what we expected and we confusedly wandered back outside to the pretty and well-kept garden. There is a seating area in the foyer and this was empty so I am not sure why we weren’t asked to wait there. We did not know if anyone would come and get us or whether we should just wander back in, and when it got to five minutes past our booking we went back inside and were greeted by a different hostess who made a comment about how we had been admiring the garden. Um yes, that was because we were asked to wait there! There was a couple seated in the foyer perusing menus, they weren’t asked to hang around outside! While no explanation was given us to why we had to wait I suspect it was because a group of six had just arrived, and they wanted to get them settled and organised with drinks before attending to us.
So, while we got off to a slightly odd start, I am happy to say that once we were seated everything ran very smoothly (as it should).
The table of six were seated in the middle of the room we were in, and around the outside of the room were two tables of four, and five tables for two. In an alcove like area were another two tables for two and two for four (I think). There were also tables upstairs.
Pegged cloth serviettes (napkins) awaited us, and whenever we went to the bathroom these were not just refolded, but whisked away and replaced with a fresh one.
The room was quite dark, and a little old fashioned in decor. The wooden slatted blinds are kept almost fully shut, presumably to deter sticky beaks, as the windows face the street.
This was the table behind us before it was occupied.
We were served by one gentleman for most of the afternoon, and he has been with TFL for 12 years. He was brilliant, as were all the staff. You might think in a place like this that the staff would be snooty or stiff and formal. Nope. They were extremely professional but also relaxed and friendly.
We had a good chat with our captain (as they are called, not waiters or servers) about the menu and our dietary requirements. Two menus are offered, the chef’s tasting menu, or the tasting of vegetables. Both are the same price and are the same whether it is the lunch service or dinner service. The captain really knew his stuff and was automatically able to suggest alternatives to cover our requirements. While the menus are degustation style, there are some choices to be made, some at an additional cost, and I will mention these as I go through each course.
On a side note, as I found this interesting, I overheard our captain telling the table behind us that in all the time he has been there, there has never been a single dietary requirement or request that the restaurant has not been able to meet. The only thing they don’t do is take-away. They have had guests who would like food sent out to their waiting driver and this is always served on plates, not in take-away boxes. And if you only want three courses, not nine? That is also fine, but you will still have to pay the full price.
OK, enough chit chat, you want to see the food right?
We kicked off with a signature Thomas Keller dish, an amuse bouche of smoked salmon and crème fraîche in a crunchy cone. And no, my salmon was not green, I had an avocado version.
Creamy, tangy and the perfect size. And you could do some serious damage if you hit someone in the head with the silver container thing these came in, they had some weight in them!
We were also served two gougeres, light, crispy and filled with cheese. I almost forgot to eat mine as I was still too busy checking everything out!
Our first proper course was a choice between another Keller signature dish, Oysters and Pearls (sabayon of pearl tapioca with island creek oysters and white sturgeon caviar), or the royal ossetra caviar (Kendall Farms creme fraiche bavarios, preserved horseradish, watercress, green apple and toasted brioche). A supplement was charged for the caviar but J still went with it as he wanted to try it.
Look how many plates this dish was served on!
As I don’t eat seafood I was served an excellent carrot soup. This is not listed on the tasting of vegetables menu so I do not have the full description. I also helped J eat the super rich brioche he was served with his caviar.
An unsalted butter, and its salted friend were placed on the table and different breads were offered throughout the meal.
We had a choice of two dishes for the second course as well. The first was salad of heirloom beets (English cucumber, Meyer lemon, wild calendula blossoms and red ribbon sorrel). Or, for a supplement you could have carnaroli risotto biologico (parmesan nuage and shaved black truffles).
Yes, truffles. From France. We were in America for truffle season.
Now, despite having tried truffles a few times over the years and not really getting what the big deal was, I decided to give them another shot. If I was going to like them anywhere, it should be TFL right?
So, I chose the risotto, and our captain offered to get the kitchen to do a tagliatelle version for J (which was on the vegetable menu).
The truffles are displayed to each customer. And it was interesting that whenever anyone had this dish and the temperature controlled box was opened, we could smell the truffles no matter where in the room they were. But it was not unpleasant.
The risotto and pasta were placed in front of us and the black truffle was very liberally grated over the top.
It is a bit odd at first as you wonder whether you need to say stop (as some places charge you by how much they grate on) and I wasn’t sure I really wanted that much truffle. And some of the truffle does fall onto the tablecloth and we had a joke with the waiter, who used one of the bread scraper thingies to scrap of the crumbs, that one speck was worth $20.
Hands down the best truffle dish I have ever eaten! And possibly the best risotto as well. J says it is in the best pasta he has had, on par with Ormeggio in Sydney. The truffles had the best flavour I have had in a truffle but were no way overpowering, and I definitely preferred them to the Australian ones I have tasted before. And, we could scarcely believe it, but we hadn’t even got half way through our respective dishes when we were approached by a staff member who proceeded to grate yet more black gold over our food. Amazing.
The risotto was creamy and the perfect foil to show off the truffles. I think this is where I have gone wrong in the past. The truffles weren’t paired with the best companions and were not done justice.
J’s next course was a sautéed fillet of Atlantic halibut, with marinated eggplant, charred broccolini, cauliflower, young coconut and mint infused extra virgin olive oil.
I had the artichaut farci dish from the vegetable menu – stuffed artichokes with caramelised green garlic, Moroccan olives, garden mint and piquillo pepper marmalade.
I have not mentioned the wines as yet. The wine list was on an iPad and I believe the list is quite extensive, I never actually looked at it. But there were 17 pages of half bottles, which J pointed out is more than some restaurants full wine list. We don’t see enough half bottles in Australia. We started with a half bottle of champagne and then moved onto this gem.
The Kistler half bottles are produced especially for TFL and it is a cracker of a wine. I would rank this in the top three chardonnays I have drunk. In fact, we spotted a full bottle of a different vintage the following day in a grocery store and had to buy it.
The sommelier was lovely, but I did feel sorry for her, as she was barely able to do her job as our captain kept beating her to the punch. She would come over to see how we were travelling but it always seemed to be just after we had placed an order with our captain. But we still chatted about our selections and whatnot.
The other thing that America does really well wine wise, beside half bottles, is BYO. So many more restaurants offer the option to bring your own bottle of wine. Sure, you pay a corkage fee but at least you have the option, most restaurants in Australia don’t even give you that, let alone the top fine dining places. We paid $50 corkage last year when we went to Meadowood, and TFL charges $75 and the bottle cannot be on their wine list. Less formal restaurants charge less of course.
After the Kistler J had a Sonoma Cabernet and I had a Napa Chardonnay. We then finished with a glass of rose champagne each.
Alrighty, back to the food….
This was another seafood dish for J, a hand harvested Maine diver scallop with young artichokes, sweet carrots, caramelised green garlic, petite onions and sauce vin jaune.
The black sauce was a truffle reduction and it was incredibly strong, but J loved it and used his bread to get every last bit off the plate. He said it was thick like tar, and reminded him of vegemite.
I had another dish from the vegetable menu, the mascarpone-enriched English pea agnolotti with glazed sunchokes, petite golden snow peas, garden mint and paloise emulsion.
Best pea dish ever!
My next dish was the Four Story Hill Farm Poularde (poussin) with Sacremton delta green asparagus, morel mushrooms, arrowleaf spinach puree and madeira jus.
It was a lovely dish but I think J’s dish was the winner. He had a quail and lentil dish. He is not the biggest quail fan out there but said this was the best quail he has eaten.
We had a choice for the next course. The Japanese wagyu incurred an US$100 supplement, which we did not think was worth it, so we both had the Elysian Fields Farm lamb rib-eye with purple top turnips, melted savoy cabbage, green tomato relish and mustard sauce.
The cheese course was Westcombe cheddar with young fennel, marcona almonds and sour michigan cherry puree, or as the woman who served us to it said, English cheese on an English muffin.
This was one of my favourite courses of the day. The perfect amount of cheese (and one that had flavour but was not too strong) and I just loved how it was served.
The palate cleanser was verjus blanc (demi-sec grapes, Jasmine tea ice cream and Marshall Farms honey crisp).
I remember loving the combination of flavours and it was very refreshing.
Two desserts were offered and we shared one of each.
The first was the passion fruit swiss roll (Valrhona chocolate cremeux, caramel mousse and banana ice cream).
And the second was princess cake (Animal Farm buttermilk, navel orange marmalade, toasted marzipan and cara cara orange sorbet.
Did we need more food?
Did we have more food?
Petit fours consisted of chocolate covered macadamias, and the famous TFL (and Per Se too I think) coffee and doughnuts (cinnamon-sugared doughnut holes and a cappuccino semi-freddo).
J loves macadamias and was tempted to ask to take the ones he didn’t eat home. I am sure they would have packed them up if we asked, but we didn’t. Not being a coffee fan I did not think I would like the semi-freddo, but I did, and it went perfectly with the doughnut holes.
J ordered a real coffee, an espresso, check out that cup!
I finished off my glass of champagne…
The last treat of the day was more truffles! Chocolate truffles!
Each table is presented with a full box of seven varieties and you can pick as many as you want. And you pick them straight out of the box yourself and put them on a silver serving tray, no need to tell the person holding the box which one you want, just go for it!
I was trying to be polite so only had two. I know the one on the left was peanut butter and jelly, but I can’t remember the flavour of the other one.
Kudos to the guy behind us. He stated that he would never come back here again, so why not try all seven. So he did. Wise man.
We were given tins of shortbread to take home with us.
I did see the diners from upstairs all walking out with goodie bags, but no-one downstairs was given one. But J and I got something that I think was even better…
As we were leaving we paused to say thanks and good-bye to our captain. He immediately came over to walk us out and presented us with a copy of both menus. He then announced he was taking us into the kitchen!
Are you serious?
He explained that the original building is heritage listed and cannot be changed, so the kitchen has been built on the side, down a wide hallway. There was a counter down one side on the hallway with plates ready to be used and a podium desk like item at the end next to the kitchen door where the head chef did his paperwork and so forth.
And then we went INTO THE FRENCH LAUNDRY KITCHEN!!!
As much as I would have liked to, I did not pull my camera out.
But this place was so well layed out and everything clearly had its spot. The chef nearest to us was prepping meat for the dinner service (which would have started in less than two hours after we left). And another was getting desserts ready for the remaining lunch guests.
It wasn’t super busy or frantic, possibly due to the time of day, but there were lots of people around. I would hazard a guess and say it is never frantic, I presume this is one of those kitchens that runs like a well oiled machine and there would be no shouting or swearing.
The captain said TFL employs over 80 people for front of house and kitchen duties.
We also saw the TV screen with the live feed back into Per Se in New York.
We then had a quick chat to the head chef and he signed our menu.
What a brilliant way to end our fantastic lunch!
We don’t know why we were given this honour. Was it because I was taking pictures? Or because we were friendly and chatted with the staff and were genuinely interested? Because we were happy nice people? (J said quite a few other diners around us had scowly sad faces on). A combination of all these things? Who knows, but it was awesome
To sum it up, TFL was amazing. Expensive, yes. But worth it. We have had some incredible dining experiences over the years and this is up there in the top five.
Below is my ‘reservation story’.
When my trip to join J in California was confirmed, I immediately started thinking of restaurants to try. But somehow TFL escaped my brain (possibly due to unsuccessfully trying to secure a booking for last year’s trip and not wanting to have to try again). But J threw the idea out there and as we were going to be in Napa for two weeks there was a greater window of opportunity for us to secure a table.
The thought of getting up before 5am (AEST) every day for a week to make the call was not a pleasant one, but I knew if I didn’t try I would regret it. And 5am was better than 3am which was the time last year when I was trying.
Due to the timing with booking this trip, it was less than a week before the magical two-months-before-the-day-you-want-to-dine came about. I had also called the Platinum Visa Concierge service and worded them up, so I knew they would be calling on my behalf as well. I had used them last time as well but they were not able to get a reservation either.
I also decided to try a lunch booking. I had read this was easier to get, and also more practical, as who wants to go home to bed at midnight after all that food? This way we had the rest of the evening to go for a walk, relax and try to digest our lunch.
I have to admit, I almost did not get up the morning I needed to call. I just could not be bothered, but also, I had a good feeling about the Visa folks. But I knew I had to. So at 4:40 AEST (9:40 PST) I was up, and dialling on J’s mobile by 4:45am. All the lines were already engaged. I think if you are trying to get onto the recorded service, you need to do it much earlier. I kept redialling, and also clicking refresh on Opentable. At exactly 5am a table for two at 12:30 came up on Opentable. I clicked on it but it was already gone. I wasn’t fast enough! But it does reassure me that you can get a booking on Opentable, you just need to be quick.
I kept pressing redial on J’s phone, but by 5:10am I was a bit over it, and cursing the whole system and what a joke it was (I am not a morning person). I decided to give it another five minutes as I figured all the tables would be booked if I managed to get through any later than that.
Two minutes later my mobile rang.
I confess I think I might have just stared at it for a second or two. The thought process that went flying through my head was that it had to be the Visa folks (who else would be calling me at that time) and they must have a table for me, as they wouldn’t ring me if they didn’t (they didn’t call at all last year, I had to call them to enquire how they got on).
I answered my mobile and yes, it was a lovely lady who told me she had someone on the line from TFL who would take my booking. She patched me through and I was given a choice of three times (11am, 11:45 and 1pm). That totally surprised me! I chose 11:45 and gave them my credit card details and my email address and was given the run down on the format, address, dress code etc. Everything was locked in.
The TFL reservationist hung up and I was back on the line with the Visa lady who confirmed I was happy and was there anything else she could do for me. Yes, I am happy and you have done more than enough, thank you so very much. I think if I could have hugged her I would have.
I logged straight into my email and the reservation confirmation was already waiting for me.
All reservations have to be re-confirmed three days before, and this was the Friday before I flew out (Thursday in California). I rang and confirmed, all good. Though an hour later they called me to confirm!
Whew, this has been a massive post, so thanks for sticking with me. Any comments or questions about the food, the reservation process or anything at all, feel free to drop me a email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or enter a comment below.