The French Laundry
Who would have thought that a clothespin could generate so much reverence, excitement and envy?
TFL has been the number one restaurant on my bucket list for quite a few years. When we finally secured our coveted reservation, I was still so afraid something would go wrong that I barely breathed a word about it until after the meal was over.
I became a fan of Thomas Keller after flipping through one of his cookbooks. His words spoke to me and as silly as it may sound, I really felt that this man I’d never met and whose food I’d never tasted, really understood me. Over the years, I’ve experienced TK’s food at Bouchon, Bouchon Bakery and Addendum, which all reconfirmed my initial belief in him.
A few years ago, I broached the subject of wanting to come here with DH, but he balked at the prices. It was decided that this was something we would experience in the far far future. Maybe after we had retired. But after eating at some other high end restaurants, suddenly $270 for a 9-course tasting menu at a 3 Michelin Star restaurant (the set price includes service charge), suddenly didn’t seem so bad, especially since the other 3-star restaurants charge significantly more. Through my research, we also learned just how nearly impossible a reservation is to come by through normal means. So when the opportunity presented itself to obtain a reservation, we shifted up our timetable.
Like everything else in Yountville, TFL resembles more a small tavern than a famous restaurant. The quaint restaurant offers two seatings a night and only two tasting menu options: one regular and one vegetable tasting. The menu changes daily and never repeats itself, ensuring that returning customers will never have the same exact experience.
We had a group of four, and were seated in the upstairs section, which seemed a little more private. Still, the spacing of the tables was quite tight because of the small quarters and we could easily hear the conversations of the other tables that evening.
I had thoroughly done my research before our meal, including reading experiences online and talking to friends who had dined at TFL or Per Se. I wanted to make sure we didn’t miss anything in our likely only time at TFL, and it turns out there’s quite a few things you’ll miss out on if you haven’t done your research.
First, all non-alcoholic drinks are included in the $270 price. No drinks other than wine and water were offered, but once we requested a list of non-alcoholic drinks, the waiter named teas, coffees, and several flavored sodas including apple sparkling cider, pomegranate soda and an aloe vera coconut apple drink which was my favorite. It was refreshing, floral and light, and worked as a great palate cleanser between courses.
Our first bite was a complimentary appetizer of smoked salmon served on a crunchy cone filled with cream cheese.
Amuse bouche part deux
The second amuse bouche were TK’s famous bite-sized gougères, which are French cheese puffs. Many restaurants have begun serving these, but this was by far the best version I’ve had. I only wish they weren’t so tiny. They literally were one bite, and nothing more. It was one of my most favorite bites of the night. I could easily down a few dozen of these.
First Course, Oyster and Pearls
Description: Sabayon of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek oysters and White Sturgeon Cavier.
I was a little sad to see the amuse bouche end so early, but oh well. The first course is another signature Thomas Keller item. It was a nice way to start the meal. I wouldn’t think to combine tapioca with oysters and cavier, but the ingredients all worked quite well together.
Secret Course, Truffle Egg Custard
This is another one of those things where you have to request to receive it. It didn’t cost extra, but unless you ask for it at the beginning of your meal, it’s not included. I’m so glad we knew to ask for it though because it was one of my favorites of the night.
The creamy egg custard is enriched with white truffles. It is served with a chive chip spoon which only has a lifespan of about 8-10 seconds. So you do have to eat the chip fast. You’re given a regular spoon to enjoy the rest of the custard.
Second course, Musquée de Provence Velouté
Description: Pumpkin Seed “Gnocchi a la Parisienne,” Compressed Asian Pear and Watercress
First came the components of the soup. Then additional servers came to pour out the pumpkin broth. This was light and refreshing and I enjoyed the crunch of the sweet Asian pears. I was a little surprised that the broth was more lukewarm than hot.
We were then given a selection of four breads to choose from. I chose a puff pastry and brioche roll. Both were good and went well with the soup.
Third Course, Sautéed fillet of Mediteranean Lubina
Description: French Laundry Garden Sunchokes, Romaine Lettuce, Tellicherry Black Pepper and “Ecume de Mer”
We were given an explanation of the elaborate preparation of the fish to ensure a moist fish and shiny skin. What I tasted was quite a flavorful piece of fish. It had managed to soak up a lot of the surrounding elements in the plate. The fish itself was one of the best prepared cooked fish fillets I’ve tasted. The skin left a little something to be desired. One of my dining companions wished that the skin had been crispy instead of soft.
We were a little surprised by the proportions too. Even for a tasting menu, this course and many of the subsequent main courses were quite smaller than our other tasting menu experiences. I don’t know if you can tell from the picture, but it was basically a two-bite piece of fish.
A second set of four completely different breads were offered. This time I selected a french baguette and a pretzel bread. I adored the pattern drawn onto the pretzel bread. Next time I make pretzel bread, I’m going to try to design mine the same way.
Course Four, New Bedford Sea Scallop “Poelee”
Description: Fuyu Persimmon, Celery Branch, Chestnut and Black Truffle
This was the most perfectly cooked scallop I’ve eaten and one of my favorite courses of the night. The black truffle helped too.
For the fifth course, there was a choice. You could stick with the menu, or spend an additional $150 for the supplement course which was a Risotto with Shaved White truffles. We had all decided that we were all going to just stick with the regular menu, even though it was the height of truffle season and Thomas Keller is known for obtaining some pretty high quality truffles. However, when it came time to order, DH changed my order to include the truffle supplement. It was generous surprise extra Christmas gift from him, his reasoning being that we’d likely never be back and so he wanted me to experience everything.
Carnaroli Risotto Biologico
Description: “Beurre Noisette,” Castelmagno “Nuage” and Shaved White Truffle
Of course there was an entire show that went with this dish. A box was produced with the truffles. It was taken around to each person so that we could smell the truffle. Then the truffle was shaved in front of me. It was quite a lot too. I was surprised that they shaved about half of a medium potato sized truffle into my bowl.
To my surprise, the risotto was overly salty. The risotto was actually the worst dish of the night. All my dinner companions got to experience a few bites of truffle and risotto and agree that the risotto was too salty. The risotto is necessary to help bring out the taste of the white truffle, otherwise the white truffle pieces by themselves don’t have much flavor. I ended up eating only small bites of risotto with the truffle and didn’t actually finish all the risotto.
I did take the time to eat every crumb of truffle though and tried to savor it as long as possible since it was so expensive.
So was it worth it? I think that given the cost of white truffle and the amount that was shaved onto my plate, $150 actually wasn’t too far of a stretch for price. However, I personally don’t think any one dish would be worth that much to me. It’s just a matter of priorities and despite my love of truffles and food in general, I feel like there are other things I’d like to do with that money where I could enjoy it more than the few minutes it took to eat my dish. Also the risotto really should have been better given the price. I am very grateful for the opportunity though, thanks to DH.
In contrast, for those who don’t choose the supplement, they are offered this:
Fifth Course, Four Story Hill Farm Poularde
Description: Hobb’s Bacon, Petite Onions, “Pruneaux d’Agen” and Dijon Mustard
We had to chuckle at how small this dish looked in comparison to the supplement. I had a bite of DH’s and found it to be quite good though. I enjoyed the crispy chicken skin and the meat roll. I wish the bites had been bigger.
Course Six, Herb-Roasted Elysian Fields Farm Lamb Rib-Eye
Description: “Naan” Charred Cauliflower, Mushrooms “a la Grecque,” Castel Ventrano Olive and Castelfranco
This was another course where there was an option for a Wagyu Beef supplement ($100), though no one in our group partook so I don’t have any photos for comparison.
This was one of the weakest courses of the night, with no one in our group enjoying it much. The lamb was well prepared, but the sauces and ingredients accompanying the lamb didn’t really pair well together in this dish.
Course Seven, Mimolette
Description: Thomas Keller waffle, flowering quince and Iberico Ham Gastrique
This is Thomas Keller’s cheese course. I was a little sad that there wasn’t a cheese cart as that is usually one of my favorites parts in a tasting menu. Unlike most waffles which tend to be dense, Thomas Keller’s was unbelievably light. It was then topped with grated Quince cheese. The waffle itself had cheese and ham.
This course had mixed reviews. I loved the lightness of the waffle, but felt the overall dish was just alright. One of my dinner companions wasn’t fond of the savory pairing of waffles and cheese.
After this course, our server came by and asked us how our appetites were. He told us we should be pretty stuffed at this point. Maybe because we are all pretty big eaters, but we glanced around at each other and it was clear no one was close to being stuffed. However, this would change by the end of the night with so many dessert courses.
We were offered tea or coffee with our desserts. There was a complete tea menu with several tea options and the coffee is a special blend created by Equator just for French Laundry. It’s also available for purchase at the neighboring Bouchon Bakery.
Course Seven, Blood Orange Mimosa
Description: Champagne Granite, brown sugar streusel and fresh cream sherbet
This sorbet-like dessert is meant to cleanse and refresh the palate. Normally I don’t really care for sorbets, but I thoroughly enjoyed this one. I loved the different textures and bubbly granite. It was a playful dish that both refreshed and woke up my taste buds.
For the next course, we were given a choice between two desserts, one which was chocolate based and the other fruit based. DH and I chose different ones so that we could sample both options.
Course Eight, Chocolate Torte
Description: Pearson Farm Pecans, Cinnamon Whip and Banana Ice Cream
I’ve already been a fan of Keller’s Bouchon Bakery, but I was very impressed with the dessert courses here. I loved the crunchy bottom of the chocolate torte, the banana foam and ice cream pair very well and the flaky pastry dough was a nice touch.
Course Eight, Bakewell Tart
Description: Rome Beauty Apple Compote, Pain de Gene and toasted oat glace
I was equally impressed with DH’s dessert. In fact, I simply couldn’t choose a favorite between the two. There were so many different fruits used in this dessert and each one bite was so delightful.
Secret Menu Course, Coffee and Doughnuts
Again, this is a dessert you have to specifically request ahead of time. There’s no additional charge, you just need to say the magic words. This was such a fun dessert and I’m glad we got to experience it. The coffee is actually an espresso mousse. It’s accompanied by small doughnut holes and a jar of chocolate covered macadamia nuts.
By this time, our table was quite stuffed and we had trouble polishing off the donut holes. There was quite a large amount of macadamia nuts served. It actually seemed a little too much since it would be hard for any table to polish off the entire jar. I actually requested to take them home rather than see them go to waste and they had it wrapped up in a nice bag so it resembled something I could have purchased from the bakery.
Course Nine, Mignardises
For the final course, a wooden box appears with about eight choices of various flavored chocolate truffles. We each chose 2-3, and loved each one. Some of the flavors included hazelnut, coconut, peanut butter and jelly.
To end the night, we were given a parting gift. A tin containing a box of shortbread cookies. It was a nice souvenir and I really enjoyed the gesture.
We had also requested a kitchen tour, which the manager took us on after our meal. The kitchen was quite a lot smaller than we had anticipated. It may be one of the smallest restaurant kitchens in existence. Despite the cramped quarters, it was fascinating to watch the various sous chefs turning out dish after dish. The manager was very pleasant, chatting to us for a while and letting us stay as long as we wanted. The staff also were equally nice. They all greeted us as we entered, and even broke out into a birthday cheer for my friend.
Before departing, we were also able to take home copies of the menu, which came in nice folders also embossed with the famous clothespin symbol.
So how was it overall? We discussed it at length in our car ride back. While we were all grateful for the experience, we also felt that there was more lows in the meal than we expected. There were highlights of course, but we were expecting the entire meal to pretty much be flawless and it wasn’t. Another concern I had was the air conditioning.The air conditioning would suddenly blast for a few minutes, presumably to air out the packed restaurant, and then shut off again. But it would do it continuously for most of the night and while each blast lasted maybe 10-15 minutes, they were a very cold and uncomfortable 10-15 minutes which happened about half a dozen times during our meal.
We also felt that the service wasn’t nearly as attentive as some of our previous nice dining experiences. In some ways they paid attention to great detail such as alerting the kitchen staff to our friend’s birthday during the kitchen tour and even letting them somehow know which one she was (which I still don’t know how they managed considering we were all wearing heavy black coats by then and any description of her probably would have matched me too), or fetching DH’s glasses from his coat hanging downstairs mid-way into our meal. But there were other details that were forgotten, such as only sometimes folding the napkins when one of us got up to use the restroom or forgetting that we had requested a kitchen tour. One thing we really liked about the service is that we found it to be a lot warmer than some of the other high end dining places we’ve experienced.
At the end of the night, we just felt that while we were grateful for the experience, we also didn’t have a burning desire to return anytime soon and would rather go to other places on our bucket list.
So that was my dining experience. I do hope to return one day, though it won’t be in the plans to do so in the near future. If you do get to experience TFL, definitely request those secret menu items as they were some of the highlights of the night.
For those wondering about reservations, they are quite hard to come by. Reservations can be made exactly 2 months in advance via telephone or a few tables are available through opentable. I’ve heard that the phone line is pretty much always busy from the minute it opens up. If you have a larger group and are willing to pay a bit more, you can make a private party reservation up to a year in advance and this is one option for an easier way to get a reservation. If you are lucky enough to own or be very good friends with someone who owns a platinum American Express card that is willing to add you to their reservation, one of the big perks of the card is that the concierge is able to get you a reservation at TFL (though it also must be made 2 months in advance).
One other note, there is a strict dress code, which requires that men wear jackets.
The French Laundry
6640 Washington Street