Dinner a few nights ago at The French Laundry- These are mostly overall thoughts, tips, and bits about the overall experience. Better writers than I have reviewed individual dishes.
First off, I now love Open Table more than I ever thought possible. On a lark, last Thursday I was looking for reservations for my wife's birthday. Cruised through OT, landed on French Laundry, and not finding a table that night, hit the "find next available" button. Up came a res for 6 days later. I honestly hesitated for a few minutes as I considered whether or not I was going to spend a month's rent on one dinner, wife's birthday or not. I ended up hitting the button...
Yountville looks as if it has lots of money coming in yet has been smacked hard by the recession all at the same tome. The main street has new luxury hotel construction right next to closed high-end restaurants and galleries. But it's still a pleasure to walk. The town has made sure that whoever is there maintains a certain charming look and feel.
FL is just past the main downtown, and once you see it you know exactly why Chef Keller knew that this was the place for him. The building itself made it feel like somewhere in France with its distinct architecture and old stone exterior. Across the street is the garden where FL gets what I assume are most of its vegetables. An intern was out cutting mustard flowers for the night's menu when we walked by, and graciously let us wander the garden, even saying it was okay to taste the occasional bit.
Inside the restaurant, the dining area is as small and intimate as you would imagine, the perfect place for a romantic dinner. There was a good background noise there. It wasn't too bustling or boisterous, but it was a very happy restraint. People knew exactly where they were dining.
The service is as good as you would hope. The waitstaff is courteous, friendly and very professional. They kindly answered all of my questions about everything from what wine to order to what the funny kind of spoon-shaped-yet-flattened utensil was and how to use it without being the slightest bit patronizing.
Food- Pluses and Minuses
Plus-overall, a superb meal. Every course was uniformly delicious. Plating was equally excellent, and the pacing of the meal was just right. The wife and I left just the right amount of full, and just the right amount of tired.
This was also the minus. The food was superb, but nothing just blew me (or my wife) away. The fois gras was closest for me, and the dessert for my wife, but they were simply favorite courses, not something to have a food porn moment over. The best comparison I can come up with is against the restaurant TRU in Chicago. Both spectacular meals. The meal at TRU, however, had a couple of better individual dishes that DID blow us away, along with a couple that we didn't really like. FL's courses were more uniformly good, but with less spectacular highs and lows. I must admit, I was hoping for a spectacular high point or two amongst the courses. Honestly, though, this is a quibble. FL showed that it merits its three-star rating in every measure.
A slight minus. At the end, chocolates were served. They were good, but not nearly good enough for FL. Flavor was great as one would expect, but the ganache was slightly broken. The mark of a pastry chef trying to make chocolates, instead of a confectioner. Most people would never notice, just as only a major league baseball player would really notice whether that pitch was a curve ball or a breaking ball. Just happens to be my field and I noticed the subtle difference.
The wine- The only words you need to know are "ask the somellier" He is smart. He is nice. He is a professional. He is here to make your meal better, and he is not trying to upsell you to the '57 Margeaux at $3500 a bottle (although will be more than happy to serve it to you if you wish). If you only want a glass or two with dinner, let him know. I don't drink much, and he was extremely accommodating while also pairing wines for my wife, who is much more of a fine wine lover.
The bill- Did you cringe and clutch your wallet yet? You should and you shouldn't. Yes it's expensive, and rightfully so. It's a high-end, high-quality niche, and it is what it is. Accept that. I've read reports of people upset at price hikes to $240/person. Get over it. You know where you're going.
The really nice thing about the bill is that the tip is included. That may sound like one of the stupidest things ever uttered, but it's a win-win situation for everybody. For the customers, they know exactly how much the meal is going to cost. Think of that... not having to worry about an extra whatever it is percent on the meal. And the wine. Thank you, God, the wine is also tip included. For those of you who like to adjust percentages based on level of service, this is the French Laundry... there will be a minimum level of excellent service, or Chef Keller himself will take them out back and beat them about the head and shoulders with a rubber hose (well, I can only assume). For the waitstaff, it keeps cheap people from stiffing them to save a buck on a VERY expensive meal, and for the restaurant it keeps things set in stone for the diners, making sure there is no discomfort at tip time. They understand (and brilliantly so) that not everyone who dines there is an uber-experienced fine dining maven who knows all the ins and outs of 3-star cuisine. I sure don't. Their policy is a good one. And of course, in case you're truly impressed by the level of service, as I was, there is a space for an additional gratuity on the receipt.
I've spoken to some of my coworkers about the meal, and more than a few of them said they'd never eat there. Not because of the price, (okay, partly) but because they're intimidated by the place. For anyone who's reading this, understand the following- The French Laundry is one of the finest restaurants in the world. Because of this the FL staff fully realize that many people who dine there do so because it IS one of the best. They know that some people who dine there, like me, eat at Taco Bell most days and don't necessarily know which fork to use, or how to eat the funny seafood thing they can't pronounce properly. When I asked what the funky utensil was and how to use it, I was answered as if it were the most normal question they get asked. My wife and I were treated with kindness and respect and not in the least patronizing. Go there and enjoy being pampered with one of the best meals you'll ever have.
NB- There was one sad side to the evening. At the next table was a young couple who came in for the later seating, as we did. The young lady was being take out for a birthday dinner and was extremely excited to be there. The gentleman was a local winemaker, and her boyfriend. The young lady, freshly moved out from a small town back east somewhere, was unfamiliar with fine dining. Although the waitstaff was brilliant, the boyfriend wasn't, and proceeded to turn into a snob in front of her eyes (and ours, from the next table), proceeding to belittle her for asking questions about the food and acting like a complete jerkoff wine snob. By the last course, as my wife and I left, the young lady was in tears. We were seriously debating telling the young lady to ditch the jerk, and take her out for a nice birthday dessert and drive her back home ourselves. To the gentleman who turned out not to be a gentleman, I hope she dumps you quickly, embarrassingly, and publicly.