Restaurants & Bars

French Laundry writeup (long!)

Jesse Sheidlower | Jan 6, 199907:51 AM     9

As promised, my writeup of the French Laundry. Someone
else mentioned Masa's, where I had wanted to go but
couldn't get in to, though I had really wanted to try
FL anyway.
First, the reservation issue. It's incredibly
fucking difficult to get rez to FL, even though it's
in the middle of fuck-knows-where (Yountville, a town
of about 1,000 people in the Napa Valley, about an
hour outside of the north reaches of the Bay Area, to
be specific). It's extremely hard even to get through
on the telephone--people recommend that you call after
6:30 their time because most people are trying during
the day. I tried a month beforehand, assuming that
that's when they opened the list, but it turns out
that they allow a two-month lead time, and even though
I would have taken anything from Dec. 20 to the 29,
there were no tables. I got put on the waiting list. On
a friend's advice, I kept calling: I called a week
later, and they said that there was still nothing
available, but they'd put me on some different waiting
list, I suppose for the persistent. A few days after
that, I had someone who had an AmEx Platinum Card
(they have a "concierge" service that'll do anything
for you, including getting rez at tough restaurants)
call, and even they couldn't get a table, much to
their surprise. I contemplated calling up food-
connected friends for a favor. A week after that, I
called again, and this time said that a table for four
would be OK too, and they said "Oh, we've just had a
cancellation--how's 8:00 on Tuesday?" Great. We're in.
There's some elaborate way to confirm your
reservation--you have to call a special 800 number that
only has an answering machine, and leave all your
info. I did this the day before the meal, and left the
number where we were staying in Berkeley. We arrived
at the restaurant, skipping down the street with
excitement, only to be told, "I'm sorry, you never
confirmed--we gave your table away." The woman further
insisted that they had left two messages for me and I
hadn't responded to either. Both of these were
completely untrue; I had indeed confirmed, and I hadn't
gotten any messages, and I check my voice-mail
obsessively. I protested elaborately, stunned and
ready to break down in tears. The woman was really
unpleasant about it. She didn't indicate that they'd
be trying to accommodate us. Someone else, this nice
older French man, asked if we wanted to have anything
to drink, and we were all thinking, "I'm not going to
order a drink so you can throw us out onto the street."
Finally, the French guy said, "Don't worry, we'll find
you a table," and we breathed a sigh of relief. Still,
I was and am extremely pissed off at how much of a
bitch this woman was--not at all apologetic about it,
but very combative and rude, as if we were trying to
get away with something. As if I would have spent all
that effort to get in, only to not confirm it! It made
the meal start on a down note. The service after this
was, however, uniformly wonderful.
Moving past this, we browsed the wine list and
amazing-looking menu while they set up our table, and
got a bottle of Trefethen Chardonnay, Library Reserve
'93 to warm up. It was a good, rich, buttery, typical
Napa chard.
The restaurant is in a converted commercial
laundry, but this is misleading; it's really like an
old farmhouse. There are a number of small rooms,
three downstairs and two upstairs. There are visible
beams, some stone walls, and the like--very country,
although done up a bit more formally than you'd
usually expect from such a place. Our room was one of
the smallest, only three tables, sitting next to a
stone wall. It was very drafty and cold (we're in the
middle of what passes for a cold snap here, which is
only in the 30s, but since they never expect it to get
very cold, things aren't as well insulated as they
could be). They keep up the "laundry" cuteness
throughout: the napkins were held in place with
clothespins (the old, peg style, not the spring kind)
with the name and address on it, and the bill was in
the form of a laundry tag (manila-type cardboard,
attached with string, "ready on xxx date").
The place is very informal. They claim you have to
wear a jacket, but I doubt this would have been
enforced. I was by far the best-dressed person there,
including the French maitre d. Few other people were
even wearing ties. This being the holiday season, they
had a bunch of people singing carols in the entryway,
which was annoying as hell.
There are effectively three menus. Most people
recommend you do the tasting menu, so I was surprised
to see that the regular, non-tasting menu was very
elaborate and interesting and totally different from
the choices on the tasting menu. I had expected that
they put all their efforts towards the tasting menu,
and everything else was given short shrift. The
tasting menu, which apparantly changes daily, had nine
courses, and we had already been told to expect more.
There is a vegetarian option--actually it's called a
"vegetable" option, so I'm assuming it's vegetarian,
though this is not necessarily the case; Charlie
Trotter often uses meat stocks in vegetable dishes--
that's five courses. The regular menu allows you to
choose from five different sections: appetizer, fish,
meat, cheese, and dessert, which I think is just
fantastic, since I hate being forced to choose between
a fish main course and a meat main course at regular
places, which only have soup/salad things as
appetizers. The tasting menu is $80; the other two were
both $65 (with some supplements, as for foie gras); the
menu unusually specifies the price for Evian ($7) and
Tynant ($8).
There's no requirement that the whole table order
the tasting, so three of us opted for that and one
person ordered from the regular menu. The amuse was a
really neat "ice-cream cone" consisting of a red-onion
tuile wrapped into a cone shape, filled with cream
cheese and topped with a scoop of salmon tartare. (One
person didn't like salmon tartare and declined it, and
was immediately brought a replacement made with
eggplant "caviar.") It was really yummy, and looked
The first specified course was "Oysters and Pearls"
(several dishes have annoyingly cutsy names), described
as a sabayon of pearl tapioca with malpeque oysters
and osetra caviar. This was a very small dish; the
base was a chive- flecked custardy mass with two warmed
oysters in it, topped with a proportionally large
scoop of caviar. It was a good starter; the saltiness
of the caviar nicely cut the dish's notable richness.
Next we had a hearts of palm salad with a date
vinaigrette. Not a typical salad, it was a small cold
dish with a pool of pureed dates as a base, ringed
with cilantro oil, topped with precisely cut slices of
hearts of palm. The palm-date interplay was great, but
the dish was harmed by small (decorative?) piles of
grated coconut which didn't really work. The regular-
menu person at this time got what I recorded as a
"simple but great" artichoke ragout; I didn't save
that menu so I can't give many more details.
The first fish course was a turbotine with rue-
braised cipollini onions, a fricasseed artichoke, and
onion glaze. The fish had a perfect crust, and the
onions were just right, though you would never have
known they were braised with rue. (The waiter was
immediately able to give a disquisition on that bitter
herb, which was a good touch.)
The next fish course was an outstanding effort
harmed only by its affected title "Macaroni and
Cheese." The title refers to the mascarpone-soaked
orzo that was a bed for lobster, served with a creamy
lobster broth. The orzo was risotto-like in every way
(texture, flavor); the lobster was really rich and the
whole dish was a cholesterol nightmare. Thank god it
was a small portion. It was garnished with grated
carrot and topped with a Parmesan tuile. With this we
had a new (half-)bottle, a Patz and Hall Chardonnay '97
(I forgot to write down the vineyard), which was
hugely smoky and fat and strangely spicy. Obviously a
California wine, it worked well with the lobster; it
would have been even better with something smoked. The
regular-menu person had a seared diver scallop (why
the fuck can't home chefs get them?) with marrow
beans; I thought it was great and the beans were
unusual but good.
Then came the meat courses. We moved on to red wine
for this; the sommelier steered us to a Pinot Noir from
Paul Hobbs ('96). I asked him, "If this were a
Burgundy, where would it be from?," which seemed a
reasonable question, and he went into paroxysms of
amazement at how brilliant a question it was, no one
has ever asked such a good question before, etc. He
seemed sincere. Apparently, up there in the vineyards,
a lot of people ask about Oeschle levels and
fermentation temperatures and other idiotic wine-geek
nonsense. With this, which he suggested comparison to a
lesser Cote de Beanue wine (an apt comparison, I
think), we first had a saddle of rabbit wrapped in
applewood-smoked bacon, on a bed of toasted farro and
butternut squash. This was really great. The farro was
nutty but not unpleasantly grainy; the rabbit was
incredibly tender and the bacon added a great rich
flavor (further picked up by a good brown sauce). In
fact the bacon-rabbit combo may have been the best of
the evening.
The final main course was also awesome, a filet of
"nature-fed" veal with wild mushrooms, sweetbreads, and
polenta cake. Don't ask me what "nature-fed" means, but
it was the best veal I've ever had. I don't normally
like veal, since it's too flavorless and weird-
textured, but this tasted nothing like any veal I'd
ever had. It was intensely red inside--dark red, that
is, not pinkish, as if it were beef or some game--and
had a rich, strong but not gamy flavor. The regular-
menu person had a lamb dish which I liked but didn't
record in detail.
The cheese course was Gorgonzola. It wasn't a
typical cheese course, but was a highly arranged dish,
surrounded by bitter rosemary-poached fruits.
The first dessert course was a "Candy Cane
Parfait," which I barely ate. It was a cylindrical
parfait of sorbets with a few (an artful few) drops of
chocolate sauce, topped with some whipped cream and a
twisted tuile. Unfortunately, one of the sorbets was
mint, and mint is one of the very few things I really
detest, so I had a small taste and pushed it away.
The other dessert was a chocolate fondant
(Valrhona, natch), with assorted yummy but predictable
chocolate trimmings. I was rolling at this point but
it was great, as were the Earl Grey pots de creme that
were an extra dessert.
Coffee was in a French press, and the milk served
with it--for those who would adulterate their coffee--
was warmed.
In the end, we walked out of there about three and
a half hours after we had arrived, our pockets lighter
by some $600 for a table of four (no cocktails but
some non-trivial wine consumption). The main question
here is, I suppose, "Is this the best restaurant in
the country?," as it has been called by a number of
commentators, including Ruth Reichl. I was thinking a
lot about this beforehand because expectations were so
high. I think that it is certainly _one_ of the best
restaurants in the country, or at least one of the
best I've had the fortune to eat at. I do not think
that it is _the_ best, or certainly not so far
superior to a number of other great restaurants that it
could claim that title without argument. Many of the
dishes were among the best things I've had. I would
look forward to a trip in the future: apparently
Keller is opening another, less fancy restaurant
elsewhere in town and is then going to remove some
seating and expand the kitchen so as to allow even
more elaborate dishes in the main place.

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