On October 29, 2012 at 9:15 PM, I had the most STUPENDOUS dining experience of my lifetime.
It involved 3.5 hours of eating,
13 courses of taste bud-bursting flavors,
A unique menu that never repeats an ingredient twice,
The most exquisite customer service with a sterling silverware change at every course,
Plus an unexpected surprise ending to the evening!
And that’s only the beginning of describing the unassumingly classy, and one of just TEN world-renowned Michelin 3-Star restaurants in the U.S.:
Nestled in the quaint town of Yountville, CA, this rare culinary gem takes a minimum of TWO MONTHS to even get on the reservation list.
As the name implies, it was, indeed, a French steam laundry in the late 1920’s.
In 1994, world-famous chef Thomas Keller purchased the property and quickly turned it into a national and international success that has won countless awards with its unique, American-with-a-French-twist cuisine.
Reservations: To Be Or Not To Be?
Rewind to earlier this fall.
Kyle and I were planning a trip to wine country with our friends, Kevin and Marita, when the brilliant idea entered our bucket list in the first place.
Time and the reality of getting in were just not on our side. Kyle and Kevin’s calls came three days too late of making the list.
Oh well, right? After all, we could save the $270 per PERSON (yes, that isn’t a typo!) that we would have spent on numerous other experiences (like, ahem, a day spa experience, hubby?).
But then, like a thief in the night, the call came.
On the night of October 26th, a mere 12 hours before our takeoff to wine country, Kyle and I were running stairs for our pre-plane workout, when Kevin left us a very serious voicemail: “Please call back ASAP!!”
Concerned and thinking there was an emergency affecting the trip, we rang him as soon as we caught our breath, wondering if we would be going solo to CA!?
Kevin: (Hurriedly) “I got a call from the French Laundry. They had a cancellation and can get us in at 9:15 PM on Monday. I need to know if you’re in ASAP, or they’ll give it to someone else.”
Me: (Relief, shock, and an open mouth as I look to Kyle for approval) “OH. MY. GOSH, are you SERIOUS!?? YES! We are IN!!”
Enter chest bumps, fist pumps and perma-smiles.
Yes, for those of you that are Dutch, this was a very quick decision for an exorbitant amount of money on one dinner… and for a dinner that wouldn’t even BEGIN until 9:15 PM.
But, to me, experiences and memories are priceless.
I fall in that extremely rare category of women that would rather buy an amazing steak dinner than spend the money on clothing.
Prior to the Mecca of Meals
With the anticipation building, I fell even more in love with our extravagant dining experience to-be:
1) The French Laundry’s philosophy is so clean and simple, yet so profound;
“Because a great meal is not one that fills you up. A great meal is a kind of journey that returns you to sources of pleasure you may have forgotten and takes you to places you haven’t been before.”
Seriously! I could not have said this better myself.
2) The restaurant has their OWN GARDEN across the street (jealous!!), which we spotted the day prior, and is the source of many of their ingredients.
3) The chefs plan each day’s new and unique menu (minus a few staples) the night prior, and each ingredient is only used ONCE.
4) The kitchen is PRISTINE.
Arriving 30 minutes early like excited teenagers ready for prom, we put our name in and wrapped our heads around the enormity of the place.
We sat outside in the cozy courtyard and gawked in the glass kitchen windows, noticing each chef dressed in white coats and navy blue aprons, all working diligently on their culinary assignments.
It was incredible to see how efficient the chefs functioned in the moderately-sized kitchen, and how clean the countertops were amongst the madness.
I kept thinking there were cameras from “Top Chef” in the corner somewhere. It was that professional… Minus the exception of one chef that Marita caught licking his spoon in between forming the infamous Salmon Tartare Cornets. (Hilarious/gross/ironic.)
Needless to say, saliva or no saliva, they were scrumptious!
Experiencing the Chef’s Tasting Menu
After seeing several couples leaving the restaurant in a happy daze, the hostess came and ushered us into the restaurant.
The first thing I noticed?
The clinking of plates,
Murmur of chatter,
The small dining area (only 14 tables!!)…
and NO MUSIC.
How interesting, especially with the French feel, that there wasn’t any romantic accordion music to set the mood?
Yet, the lack of music actually made it feel even more intimate. I felt at home.
Seated in the far corner of the room, we observed the fast-moving, friendly wait staff flocking to tables left and right like flies.
- If one of us went to the bathroom, they magically appeared to fold the napkin and place it back on the person’s lap.
- If one (or two) person(s) even began to take off their coats (ahem, Kyle and Kevin!), watch out! The “captain” of the floor was there instantly to let you know that you should keep your coat on; otherwise, everyone else in the restaurant would have to take their coats off as well.
- The highly knowledgeable sommelier, or “wine guy,” as Kyle called him (so respectful, dear), was there to answer our questions, of course, on their 117-paged iPad wine list as well.
So, with a choice between the Chef’s Tasting Menu and a Tasting of Vegetables, us omnivore-loving individuals picked the obvious: the 9-Course Chef’s Tasting Menu (with bonus courses mixed in, of course).
And with that, ALL BETS were off for the evening of sticking to gluten-free and sugar-free (though most of the items were gluten-free and whole foods!).
Without further ado and without writing an entire book about each course, here are my highlights.
NOTE: Due to keeping a low profile (rather, not being “those people”), the picture quality from our phones is poor and does not do the food justice!
1) The best courses…
- “Oysters and Pearls:” Sabayon of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and White Sturgeon Caviar
I had NEVER had caviar prior to this experience, nor was I overly eager about trying it. But, when in Rome… We all looked at each other, curious it would make itdown our throats, but “ooo’d” and “ahh’d” 3 seconds later with wide eyes.
WOW. Creamy, slightly salty, with a hint of sweet…Did I mention we got to eat with a 100% pearl spoon, too?
Side note: Kyle kept reminding me that we were consuming fish eggs that normally grow to 10 feet, which did slightly take away from the experience (BLAH!).
- “Four-Story Hill Farm Poularde:” Quail Egg, Pickled Peppers, La Batte Potatoes, Pole Beans and Whole Grain Mustard
The whole reputation that chicken is dry? Yup, bagged it after tasting this chicken done in two different ways. It was SO moist and SO tender that I didn’t even need a knife to cut it.
As a huge egg fan, the quail egg was a unique touch, with its slightly runny yoke adding another dimension of flavor to the already delicious (and tiny) chicken, beans, peppers and potatoes.
- “Hawaiian Big Eye Tuna:” Artichokes, Cherry Bell Radishes, Arugula and “Bogna Casada”
For all sushi lovers out there, this was incredibly seasoned, OOZING with flavor, and so fresh that I’m pretty sure it was caught that morning!
- Sweet Butter-Poached Maine Lobster “Fricassee:” Chestnut Puree, Marina de Chioggia Squash, Sand Pear, Sage and Pumpkin Seed Vinaigrette
Similar to the tuna, this sweet, salty, and savory combo was popping with flavor and texture between the squash and sage/pumpkin seed vinaigrette.
- “Plum-Ginger Soda:” Champagne Granite, Ginger-Snap Crumble and Green Tea Ice Cream
This was my all-time favorite of the night!! And one of FOUR desserts…
My taste buds were set off immediately with the sweet and bubbly champagne “granite” crystals (almost pop-rockish). Diving deeper, I found the smooth green tea ice cream with the ginger-snap crumble on the bottom. YUM. Creamy and crunchy with a POP!
I have a weak spot for chocolate. There, I said it.
So, when the waiter came around with a massive box of chocolates from their in-house chocolatier to choose from, I melted. Hand-painted and individually flavored, my favorites were the hazelnut, peanut butter and jelly, and caramel, all exploding with gooey flavor in the middle!
As if that wasn’t enough, there were macadamia nuts covered in chocolate and powdered sugar to munch with our coffee post-13 courses…
2) The untold stories…
We were totally those people, wide-eyed and bushy-tailed and excited to learn as much as we could from the waiters, waitresses, and all the fancy names in between.
So, by the end of the night, we learned from the staff that…
- The boisterous table of 6 Baby Boomers next to us, indeed, had ordered $20,000 of wine (just a tad more than our $60 bottle). And because they were ordering so quickly, the sommelier was legitimately angry because he couldn’t properly decant the 50- and 60- year-old bottles. To even fathom spending that kind of money on WINE in one night… there are millions of starving and suffering people that could have stretched that amount for years.
- The waiters and waitresses don’t really need a ton of experience waitressing to land a job at the FL. It’s more based on personality. The captain of the floor, in fact, said that on her first day, owner (and baller chef) Thomas Keller asked her why she wanted to work there? Love the touch-point from the top-down!
- Famed folks have dined in their presence. Seth Rogan had eaten there the night before, Lady Gaga graced their presence earlier this year, as did Molly Sims (the model), who is apparently mean.
- The next morning, the staff had to report for a lesson on bees and honey. Love the hands-on, farm-to-table approach!
3) The private tour of the kitchen and wine room!
After eating for 3.5 hours and clocking in at 12:30 AM, we looked around and realized we were the last ones in the dining room.
As we were waiting for the bill, I leaned to Marita and literally remarked about how amazing it would be if we could get a tour of the kitchen…
And 30 seconds later, our waitress stopped by the table: “We would love to give you a private tour of the kitchen if you’ve got time.”
We about spit up the last course that we ate, and followed her back into the kitchen to meet the kitchen staff, who was sitting around a table, drinking wine and planning the menu for the following day.
So, there you have it. Our entire night of experiencing, sharing, pleasuring, and gushing over the spectacular tastes that French Laundry has to offer.
Indeed, we left satiated, but not full.
The Moral of the Story…
The level of flavors and (extreme) portion control per dish have forever changed my perspective on food, dining, and the purpose of both.
Food is a means, or vehicle, to tastes, memories, pleasures and shared experiences.
And like French Laundry’s motto, it shouldn’t be seen as merely a way to stuff ourselves full; rather, it’s a shared connection towards what truly fills us up: the intangibles of life.