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The French Laundry

Five years ago, a young man had a dream. A goal that was so seemingly unreachable that it’s very elusiveness added to the allure and instilled a fire deep within the man’s heart. The dream was to eat at The French Laundry and that man is me.

The French Laundry was started in 1994 by Chef Thomas Keller after he purchased the building from the former mayor. The mayor also ran it as a restaurant but before that, in the 1920’s, John Lande used the building as a French steam laundry. Keller, a restaurateur, cookbook author, and entrepreneur, has won the title of Best Chef in California in 1996 and Best Chef in America the following year. It is one of only five in the U.S. with the prestigious Michelin 3 Stars which represents “exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey”. In 2004 and 2005 it was Restaurant Magazine’s No. 1 restaurant in the world. This year, it is fourth in the world and No. 1 in the Americas.

I have been talking with anyone that would listen and had a hint of food snobbery in them about The French Laundry, in Yountville, CA, for as far back as my early college years. The epitome of fine dining and truly a world class restaurant. Everything I’ve learned, cooked, or eaten since I made it a goal to eat at this restaurant has been leading up to this. I have thought not only about how good the food must be, but the experience as well. I recruited my friends Stanley, Ronald, and Ted and tried to instilled the passion in them. I dare say I was at least semi-successful.

Eating at the restaurant proved to be a logistical disaster. First, Yountville is almost 6.5 hours from where my friends live in Southern California. This means that if you wanted any sense of comfort, diners would have to take at least one vacation day to make it a long weekend. Second, reservations are extremely hard to come by. The reservation line does not take messages and is always busy. I read that they get over 400 calls a day. There are sites dedicated to strategizing on the best way to get a prized spot on the list at the restaurant. Finally, the price is prohibitive to all but the most discerning diner. It’s not for the faint of heart.

Unbeknownst to me, Ronald’s friend Karen longed to eat here as well and she set the ball in motion on January 30, 2007 when she contacted me through my website:

Geez, all this just to invite you to The French Laundry on Monday Feb. 12?

At first I was hesitant and said no because I was not comfortable with the lack of details and the idea of having to take at least 1.5 days off of work. However, the more I thought about it and worked out the logistics, the more I realized that if I didn’t use this opportunity, it might never come up again. After all, this was a life goal, wasn’t it? I asked for the time off and coordinated with coworkers to make sure I could go. Ted and Karen were to pick me up on Sunday morning and we’d make the drive to Oakland, dine the next evening, and drive back on Tuesday morning. A little rushed, I’ll admit, but you’ll soon see it worked out beautifully. You might be wondering how Karen got reservations to one of the top 40 restaurants in the country. Pretty easily, actually. She used her American Express Platinum card’s concierge service and told them it was her birthday (a little belated, but true).

After visiting Google and shopping, we drove to Yountville and immediately hit rain. We arrived at round 5:20 and I mentioned as we passed the restaurant, that the garden across the street belonged to Thomas Keller and that’s where he grew some of the ingredients used in the cooking. I told you I was a fan! Karen and I went to the Bouchon bakery (also a Keller establishment) and bought goodies. Ted changed in the car and when we got back, I too changed. The rain stopped about the same time we pulled into Yountville, but things were still quite wet and puddles were everywhere. Prakash called and he told Ted that he was expecting to get there at 6:30, making him 45 minutes late. I didn’t know what to think. We strolled into the restaurant at 5:45 PM sharp. We informed the lady that we were waiting for one in our party and to be honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect. She said we could either wait downstairs or be seated. We elected the latter and she took Karen’s coat and placed it in the closet on a wooden hanger. We were shown our table and seated. I started taken off my coat and was politely informed that gentlemen had to keep their coats on but if I got warm I could tell them.

We were given a choice of sparkling or flat water. Each was in a glass bottle and ironically came from England, and not France. They sat on silver coasters. The situation was awkward for all parties involved because we did not want to start the meal before Prakash got there. Our waiter, Zion, would often come by and start off by apologizing, “I don’t mean to rush,” before he’d continue “would you like to start off with something else to drink?” We looked through the wine list book which was at least 25 pages long and elegantly printed. Karen ordered some champagne while we tried to decide on our wine strategy. We settled on ordering half bottles to try to pair them with the courses. Two whites and two reds. My only criteria: none were to be from Santa Barbara or the local valley. Why? Simply because I am from here and it just so happens it’s one of the top wine regions of the world, so everywhere I go, I cannot get away from it! I wanted to try something different. Now before the angry mob attacks me, we ended up ordering wine from Santa Barbara, anyway.

About halfway through the wait, we were asked if we wanted to take a look at the menu. Be mindful of the fact that neither the price or dishes mattered at this point because it was a prix fixe (fixed priced menu) chef’s tasting. What we did learn from the menu, though, was that we were dining on nine courses, had a few choices on certain courses, and they custom printed the menus for each party. In this case, Ted and I noticed it said “Happy Birthday Karen” on the top and had today’s date. After Karen realized it, 10 minutes later, she couldn’t stop gushing about it.

Prakash arrived around 6:20 PM and he called me. I did not feel comfortable answering it in the restaurant so I went downstairs to meet him. As I reached the top of the stairs and was about to descend, I noticed a waiter was on his way up. When he saw me, he walked backwards down the stairs and into the hall and waited, patiently holding his serving tray, until I got to the bottom. I thanked him and told him that was unnecessary. He just smiled. I met Prakash outside and he was full of apologies. I found out he actually left Google at 2:45 and was in traffic for over three hours. There were three accidents on the way to Yountville. That made me feel a lot better and changed my perception of the whole situation. I walked him to our table and after a few minutes he realized and was surprised we hadn’t started and in fact waited for him. He took a look at the menu and told the waiter he wanted sparkling water when asked.

My girlfriend taught me to always order sparkling water in nice restaurants!

The first two items out were not even on the menu. We didn’t start our first official course until we had finished eating two amuse bouche’s. The first was Gruyère Cheese Gougères which was basically a cream puff filled with a savory cheese cream. It was the size of a quarter. The second was Cornet of Salmon Tartar which can best be described as a pastry shell rolled into a cornmeal cone filled with red onion creme fraiche and topped with raw salmon. Then our first course playfully named “Oysters and Pearls” was served.

Throughout the night, the staff was impeccable in their execution of service and presentation. Plates and utensils were cleared with each course. They also used Riedel glassware for all the wine, switching to a different glass with each type of wine. Even between the two whites, there was a world of difference in the size and shape of the glass. Everything was (what I believe to be) silver, including the coaster tray the bottles of water sat on. The plates were also custom made, and you could see the classic French Laundry clothespin symbol on them. The lampshades which diffused already subtle light had symbols you would find on an article of clothing’s laundering instructions.Everything done with such extravagance.

They brought out bread in nice linen lined baskets. No stale bread thrown haphazardly the table here. Two types of butter, one of which was unsweetened Vermont butter with fleur de sal (sea salt off the Brittany Coast of France). Breads were brought out between courses, with four choices on the second offering. Karen could not decide and wanted to try all four. They gladly agreed. Each time a new course started, four waiters came out and two diners across from each other would have plates placed down in a coordinated fashion. They then stepped back and the remaining two plates were placed down with the same precision mirroring. Then one person remained and explained what were were about to eat.

There were three points in the meal which we had choices. The time our group differed was on the third course. Ted and I chose the Santa Barbara Sea Urchin while Prakash and Karen chose the Pacific Medai (which is a firm white fish that is similar to sturgeon). We tried each other’s and both were exquisite. I commented that the (sea urchin) dish tasted like butter. It really did! The first part of the meal was seafood focused so we paired it with two half-bottles: 2004 Renard Roussane Chardonnay and 2003 Martinelli Chardonnay Three Sisters. Forgive me if the years are off. I am pretty certain they are correct.

Towards the main courses of lobster, quail, and beef, we switched to the 2005 Copain Thompson Syrah. Karen did a great job picking it and it paired well. We all agreed the beef was the best we’ve ever had. Dessert was coming up next and by this time we were starting to get full. I know it is not technically possible, but it’s almost like they knew the exact combination of how much food to serve and how to pace the courses so you would be exactly stuffed by the end of the meal. We had a cheese platter

There are supposed to be two official courses for dessert. We ate those two (I liked the sorbet over the chocolate) and thought the meal was over, but things kept coming. They gave us an unexpected bonus of mini creme brulee (for Prakash and Karen) and a mini Meyer lemon pudding pots (Ted and I). I told Zion the dessert wanted to make me cry. And Prakash jokingly said:

I am thinking about breaking up with my girlfriend and taking this creme brulee out for Valentine’s Day as my date!

We also got this think flaky rolled “cigar” cookie that was flavored with orange. Karen wanted tea and they gave her a menu to choose loose teas from. It had everything from Golden Monkey to White tea. Some very premium stuff and she was extremely impressed. I secretly was too. I ordered a cappuccino and Prakash first ordered a latte, then he changed his mind and asked if they could make a vanilla latte. They said it would be fine. Five minutes later, he returned and apologized that the kitchen did not have any vanilla syrup, but if it was okay with Prakash, they wanted to steep real Tahitian vanilla beans in his latte for him. Jaws dropped all around and in his nervousness, Prakash declined, accepting just a “regular” latte.

They brought out a chilled silver square plate on top of the regular china and a few minutes later appeared with a large tray with seven columns of truffles. A porcelain bowl of chocolate covered Macadamian nuts were placed on the table. We asked for a few to go and they happily agreed. A really heavy round container came out and Zion spread each section to reveal three layers of chocolates, two wrapped and truffles at the bottom.

Before the bill was presented, they brought nicely wrapped boxes of the chocolates to the table plus a small package of sugar cookies (that were never presented earlier or on the menu). We asked for small bags and they brought out white gift bags. The bill was presented in a traditional black folder with a nice twist. In addition to the register generated bill, there was a handwritten laundry tag.

After paying, and taking a much deserved rest, we told Zion we were ready. He took us downstairs, past the wine cellar, to the kitchen. The place was immaculate and very calm. Everything was very clean and everyone had a purpose. I don’t believe he told anyone we were going to visit, based on the slight surprised look on their faces. He stood by the Chef de Cuisine, Corey Lee, as we was putting starting to plate a dish. He poured out a straight line of pistachio bits and as if it wasn’t already perfect, he used a round blade to straighten them out. Everyone was all smiles and we took a picture with the famed young chef.

Before we left, Zion presented us with folders (again, custom made) with both menu’s. Everyone stood aside and waited patiently for us to exit. A wonderful experience from beginning to end. I couldn’t have asked for anything more.

Here’s what happened when I told Stanley where I’d been that weekend:

st6nl37 (12:21:17 AM): how have you been?

FizzleMan (12:21:06 AM): really good, tired

FizzleMan (12:21:09 AM): i have to tell you something

FizzleMan (12:21:15 AM): i fufilled one of our dreams

FizzleMan (12:21:18 AM): this weekend

st6nl37 (12:21:44 AM): omg, did you go to napa?

FizzleMan (12:21:31 AM): yes

st6nl37 (12:21:50 AM): omg

He just knew.

Total for four: $1315

| More pictures on Flickr |

| Karen’s Recounts TFL |

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