As someone who adores food, Chef Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry has been on my “wish upon a star” bucket list, for years.
I’d heard from friends who’ve tried to get reservations, about how impossible it is to book. It’s well-known that diners need to book months in advance. When my friends and I decided to hit Napa for Labor Day weekend, we didn’t think there was a chance we’d be able to get into The French Laundry. I’m a why not kind of girl, so I put in a call, and figured if there wasn’t anything available, it wasn’t meant to be. When I called, there weren’t any open dinner or lunch reservations. The helpful reservation woman on the other end of the phone suggested I put my name on the waiting list for the duration of our stay in the Napa area, just in case. I then promptly forgot all about it.
The Thursday before our Saturday trip to Napa, I received an “unknown ID” call on my cell phone. I never answer unknown numbers, never. This time, I don’t know what it was, but I answered, and got chills when the woman said they had a lunch reservation open on Saturday. I went ahead and gave them my credit card to reserve the spot, with only a few hours left where I could cancel without incurring the $100 reservation cancellation charge.
I quickly messaged my friends to ask if they really wanted to do The French Laundry. Two of us are foodies who willingly pay any price for the experience of fabulous food. The other two weren’t sure the price was worth it, and were also trying to juggle schedules to leave earlier than planned so we could make lunch.
In the end, they realized the price of prix fixe menu is about the price of a trip to Target or Costco, so we dove right in. I’m so glad we did. We totally lucked out on a reservation, the weekend we were in Napa. Our lunch was a magnificent start to a weekend with old friends.
I arrived at the restaurant slightly earlier than our 11:15am reservation. I’m glad I did, as I was able to find free parking across the street from the restaurant, right next to the gardens where they source most of their vegetables. You’ll find the garden perfectly manicured, and there’s a map to show you what’s grown in the individual plots. In addition to the garden, there are beehives, and chickens, and a greenhouse area. You’re welcome to stroll the gardens, or find a bench to sit and revel in the Napa sun.
The outside of the restaurant is what I imagine buildings in the countryside of France would look like. With the way the greenery drapes over the stone and the brick facades. The restaurant requires that men wear jackets for both lunch and dinner. As it is California, business casual is acceptable. You’ll find women in skirts, dresses, and I’ve heard some even wear full-on cocktail dresses as well. Wear what makes you feel good, and leave room for your belly to expand.
The staff are plentiful, accommodating, and efficient. The ambiance is classic, relaxed and intimate. There are two stories, with seating for approximately 60 guests. I’m glad our table was on the first floor. There are two bathrooms upstairs, and that is all I will say about that.
When you arrive, you’re asked to choose wine from their extensive iPad wine list. We all opted out of the wine, and had still water for our meal. Then you have the option of choosing the Chef’s prix fixe Tasting of Vegetables Menu or the Chef’s Tasting Menu. From there, there a few options you can upgrade, if you like. We went ahead and stuck with the tasting menu, no extra add-ons. Everything was delicious.
We started with salmon coronet amuse bouche, and gruyere cheese puffs. So lovely.
First course, the “Oysters and Pearls” – “Sabayon” of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and White Sturgeon Caviar.
While I’ve had caviar in small quantities before, this was my first time having it as a protagonist in my dish. I’m also not a huge oyster girl, so this dish was slightly intimidating for me. However, I recently reread the series, A Discovery of Witches again, and what I love about the novel is how she describes food, and how it tastes. There’s a part where they talk about how a character was able to taste the ocean after she had the oyster. I tasted the ocean, and it was amazing. We used mother of pearl spoons to eat this dish, which may have helped with the flavor. I’ve had oysters in the past, and if they’d all tasted like the oysters I had at The French Laundry, I would adore them. The caviar was very savory, and the tapioca was the perfect compliment to the dish, keeping it balanced.
Second course was the Garden Tomato Salad – Hawaiian Hearts of Peach Palm, Summer Pole Beans, “Pain de Campagne” and Garden Basil.
I love tomatoes. This salad was fresh, and filled with clean summer flavor. If I could order seconds, I would’ve. Trust me.
Third course, Sautéed Fillet of Mediterranean Turbot – Creamed Cauliflower, Spanish Capers, Prserved Meyer Lemon, and Garden Parsley. I liked the tender, light flavor of this fish.
Fourth course, Sweet Butter Poached Maine Lobster – Globe Artichokes, Nantes Carrots, Peashoots, and “Barigoule Emulsion.”
This is another dish, I would’ve gladly had seconds, and frankly, thirds of. My family recently spent the summer in the Boston area, and Chef Keller wins for best lobster. Perfectly tender, and seasoned just enough. Lobster isn’t normally my favorite, compared to crab, because most lobster is slightly tough and chewy, however, the way Chef Keller had it poached just right, gives the lobster almost a crab-like tenderness.
Fifth course, Wolfe Ranch White Quail – Chanterelle Mushrooms “à la Grecque,” Young Onions, Pursland and “Sauce Perigourdine.”
It’s amazing the time and care put into each dish. The sauces take days to make, and I’m so impressed with the result. Every bite is flavorful, and you can taste the delicate and earthy flavors that go into each dish.
Sixth course, Herb Roasted Elysian Fields Farm Lamb – Garden Squash Porridge, Preserved Peppers, Charred Eggplant “Panisse” and Wild Arugula.
I’ve had lamb in the past, and it’s always been slightly gamey. I don’t know what Chef Keller’s recipe is, but it didn’t taste gamey. It was tender and juicy, and made me rethink my relationship with lamb.
Our last dish, and seventh course, before the dessert courses, was Adante Dairy “Acapella” – Schmitt Family Farm Apples, Pearson Farm Pecans and Celery Branch Salad. I love goat cheese.
Did you notice I said dessert courses? Plural. Yes, courses. It’s clearly heaven on earth at The French Laundry.
Honeyed Figs – Black Pepper Pastry Cream, Fig Leaf Jelly and Honeycomb
Vanilla Ice Cream – Compressed Silverado Trail Strawberries and Sugar Wafers
Salted Peanut Caramel – Manjari Chocolate Mousse and Concord Grape Purée
Each dessert was phenomenal. I’m still drooling, just seeing the photos again. But wait, there’s more. Then they bring out the gourmet chocolate truffles. Then there’s the roasted chocolate macadamias. Then there’s homemade macaroons, donuts and cappuccino ice cream.
It’s like a meal in and unto itself. It’s glorious. If I were an angel I would sing Hallelujahs while diners enjoyed the dessert courses. In the case of my fellow diners that day, they’re lucky I’m not an angel.
After the meal I noticed some hubbub. So I naturally, found out from a waiter that THE Chef himself was in the building. He told me that if I wanted a photo with Chef Keller, to let my waiter know, and they would work it out, but to hurry. So I zipped back to my table and found our waiter. He then passed us to a gentleman who told us that we could meet the Chef, and on our way, he noticed another group was with the Chef, so he walked us the opposite direction to tour the kitchens. The kitchen is small, but efficient. I was amazed at how many people were able to work together, and manage such artistic plates, in a tiny space. I was also silently losing my mind, Edvard Munch style, while trying to hold it together as I knew the Chef wouldn’t have time just to hang around waiting for our group, while we traipsed through his kitchen.
We learned from our tour that the restaurant is expanding, and by the end of the visit, we had missed our chance. We were told that perhaps Chef Keller might be around that evening, as he pops in and out of his many restaurants in the area. I was going to type that I was slightly disappointed, but that would be a dramatic understatement, I was really, really bummed. So my friends and I carpooled to the outlets to do some shopping after lunch.
After the shopping, I needed to drive back to the restaurant because my friend Frances had left her car there. We were both debating whether or not we should drop-in to see if we could get a quick moment with Chef Keller, and I didn’t think I’d be able to catch him twice in one day, but she convinced me we should, since we were right there. Thank goodness she convinced me to change back into my heels, from my flip flop sandals too. We walked to the door of the restaurant, and looked toward the kitchen before entering and who should be standing in the kitchen? The Lord of the Manor. Needless to say, we got our picture. Chef Keller was very kind, and even made sure we got a good picture, with plenty of head room.
A few notes. If you would like a menu of your meal, they will provide that. If you want a dessert menu, be sure to ask for that. You’ll leave with the menus and a box of their shortbread cookies. For when you get hungry, after that filling meal.
I did notice that both at lunch and dinner there were folks who just walked into the restaurant asking for a table. Each time they were turned away, because The French Laundry does a good job filling the restaurant for lunch and dinner. I highly recommend calling and getting on the wait list, you never know when you’ll win a spot.
Have you been to The French Laundry? What are you foodie indulgences?