I know this post is slightly delayed but I have some awesome Thomas Keller-specific news to share today as a preamble!
John and I will be in New Jersey for his sister’s wedding during the first weekend in August. We’ll be there Thursday through Sunday with nothing to do all day Friday. We’ll be just 20 minutes from NYC so I suggested a day in the city which led to John suggesting a fancy dinner which led to us checking out Le Bernardin, Le Halles, Jean-George, and of course, Thomas Keller’s Per Se. This morning, on a whim, without any of the fervor of Alinea or The French Laundry, we called for reservations. After being on hold for about 20 minutes I got through and made a lunch reservation for Per Se! We’re completing the Thomas Keller trifecta and I’m so excited. Stay tuned for that restaurant review!
Now, on to The French Laundry.
One of the things we really wanted to do while we were in California on our road trip was eat at The French Laundry (being as obsessed with Thomas Keller as we are). If you don’t know, The French Laundry is located in the Napa Valley region of CA and is regarded as one of the best restaurant in the United States. It has several James Beard awards and was recently inducted into the Culinary Hall of Fame in 2012. So, as you can imagine, it is notoriously hard to get a reservation there. There are dozens of websites just dedicated to how to get a reservation there (here are some examples). The process is very specific – reservations open up 2 months prior, to the date, at 10AM Pacific time. I wasn’t worried though, getting a reservation at Alinea in Chicago was near impossible and we did it. And we did it again with The French Laundry. The hardest part was knowing we had the reservation and not accidentally deleting it off OpenTable. Well, the waiting was hard too. But finally, the day had come!
On Day 4 of our California to Oregon road trip we woke up, got all primped and ready, and made the 2.5 hour drive from Merced, CA to The French Laundry for our lunch reservation. We arrived with about a half an hour to spare, just enough time to take a stroll through the amazing French Laundry garden.
There is a plot map at the front of the garden so you can follow along.
Much of what is served at The French Laundry is sourced from this very garden. Walking around and seeing the attention and care given to everything planted here was incredible.
Not to mention that the garden is as pristine and austere as The French Laundry itself. That’s the culture here and it is nothing if not consistent and completely dedicated.
Behold – The French Laundry.
The building is gorgeous; built in the late 1880’s as a saloon and then converting into a french steam laundry in the 1920’s.
The grounds are immaculate and lush, a common theme we would discover in Napa.
The garden in the back of The French Laundry was humble and impeccably groomed. Through those windows? Oh just the kitchen.
Prestige and exclusivity aside, the reason to go to The French Laundry is absolutely the food. Thomas Keller has mastered an American menu with French influences.
I had the vegetarian tasting and John had the chef’s tasting. Nine courses of culinary bliss.
The wine and beer menu were presented on an iPad. I was thrilled to see not one but two Boston-based breweries featured on the menu: Cambridge Brewing Company’s Audacity of Hops and Pretty Things Beer & Ale Project’s Brown Lager.
The table was simply set with The French Laundry’s trademark white linens and wooden clothespin. Souvenirs!
On to the food! As I mentioned I had the vegetarian tasting and John had the chef’s tasting. The dishes below that are veggie-based were mine and the meat dishes were John’s.
French Laundry Garden Beet Salad – slow roasted ruby beet puree, poached royal blenheim apricot, and toasted pine nut butter.
English Pea “Potage” – pickled quail egg, green asparagus, d’avignon radishes, garden mint, and country bread croutons.
Marscapone-Enriched Sunchoke Tortellini – roasted Oregon cèpes, Cope’s corn pudding, young corn confit, arrowleaf spinach, and vidalia onion soubise.
“Grilled Cheese” – ossau iraty, caramelized broccoli, pickled garlic, and blue apron ale.
Maryland Softshell Crab – hass avocado, green tomatoes, brioche, mustard cress, and thousand island gastrique.
Marcho Farms Nature-Fed Veal Rib-eye – Hobb’s bacon, Cope’s corn cake, brooks cherries, mache and balsmic jus.
Arcango Noir Chocolate Ice Cream (my dessert) – baked tahitian vanilla custard with medjool dates.
Dark Treacle (John’s dessert) – devils food cake, valhrona chocolate marquise, Lyle’s golden syrup, and Marshall Farms burnt honey ice cream.
After the dessert course our server presented us with a large wooden box. “These are our housemade truffles,” she said, and proudly opened the lid to unveil at least eight different kinds of truffles in several perfect rows. With at least 30 truffles staring back at us she told us each flavor and then said “you can take as many as you like.” A total kid in a candy store moment. I took the peanut butter and jelly, caramel, hazelnut, and mint chocolate (clockwise).
In addition to all of that we were also served beignets, candied nuts, and handmade butterscotch and chocolate candies.
Upon leaving we got a copy of the menus, a booklet with all the stories of each purveyor of the restaurant, and a tin of shortbread cookies.
The French Laundry’s philosophy is to create an experience where each element is given the same attention and thought. The food, beverages, service, ambiance, staff all carry the same weight in creating an emotional dining experience. This synergy, this unforgettable cohesion, operates with mechanical magic. I can’t explain it; I could only sit, observe, and absorb it. The food at The French Laundry makes you feel like you would expect – joyful, satisfied, privileged – but the service and surroundings make you feel all of those things and then some. This is the reason to go to The French Laundry.