Kirbie's Cravings

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.

Amuse bouche

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.

Complimentary Bread

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.

Complimentary Bread

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.

Thanks to Kung Food Panda and Darin Dines for the extra tips to ensure we got everything we could have out of our experience.

The French Laundry
6640 Washington Street
Yountville, CA

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37 comments on “The French Laundry”

  1. I will report back on our experience!!

  2. I am so happy I read this! We are going tonight for our 20 year anniversary and we usually eat grain free!
    I will skip the bread, but may break down and request the coffee and donuts!?!?!
    Thanks for the tip!!!

  3. Wondering the process around the secret courses-do you ask for all at the beginning of the meal, or separately at the point in dinner when it would be served, etc. feels a little funny to approach a sever at beginning of meal to rattle off these ‘secret’ requests but I don’t want to miss out!

    • Beginning of the meal! When the server first comes; that’s when we requested it. We actually called the day of the meal and I asked/requested it and the person told me to tell our server at the beginning. The first one comes pretty early. Though right before dessert started, I casually reminded the waiter again regarding the coffee and doughnuts.

  4. Hey- we have reservations for TFL *tomorrow* night! We are looking forward to it.

  5. THANK YOU for writing this. I am so happy that I found this in time so we can order the secret courses for our dinner at TFL tonight! 🙂

  6. Even with all the accounts I’ve read, I never new that some of the supplemental courses could be added at no charge, that’s awesome!

    I believe it was Keller who wrote something along the lines of “always be overly generous with the truffles so the diner can experience the flavor” too bad about the risotto though (I think they should have comped it).

    and if anyone ever accuses you of a reviewing bias – point them to your critiques of The French Laundry :p

    • You know I definitely saw the egg custard and coffee and doughnuts dishes in other posts, but I didn’t understand it was something you had to ask for until I talked to some friends who had been. So i wanted to make it really clear on my blog so hopefully more people will get to try it.

      Thinking back, I wish I complained about the risotto. It really was poor and I don’t know why I didn’t say something.

  7. Finally! I have been waiting for this post. I had a nice preview from your maid of honor’s FB page. Pretty awesome.

  8. We ate at both the French Laundry and Per Se and had supurb meals at both. This was quite some time ago, when the cost was “only” $150. At that time the tip was not included. Also, non-alcoholic beverages were not included–you had to pay for bottled water. I did LOTS of research, and there was no mention at that time of “secret” courses. Perhaps a recent addition? There were indeed wine pairings available, and at Per Se they were nice enough to split our order for one wine pairing between my wife and myself in separate glasses. And for those of you with extra money to shell out,it is possible to get entirely different courses for you and your date. It was $100 per person when we went. In fact, they can do a four by four, four different courses for everyone at the table. Not that the courses are large enough to share.

    I’m surprised that you didn’t request something else for the lamb dish you didn’t like. A substitute dish was certainly available. The courses are indeed small. Friends of ours ate at the French Laundry and wrote to them complaining that the portions were so small that they came away from the meal still hungry. They got a response from Thomas Keller along with a check refunding the entire cost of their meal!

    • it sounds like the secret courses may have been more recent addition. We didn’t think to ask for a lamb substitute because we like lamb, we just didn’t like the preparation done that night. I’ve never been one to feel comfortable asking for a new dish if I don’t like a certain one, so it never occurred to me to try. Interesting to hear your input on what it was like previously at the TFL and Per Se.

  9. I wanna do-over my French Laundry dinner and request all the “extras” 🙂

  10. Glad you had a chance to try this. Surprised and disappointed to hear about the risotto…yikes! Such a pedestrian mistake on such an expensive dish.

    • Yeah, looking back, I wonder if I should have said something about the risotto. Because it was ridiculously salty. Oh well. Thanks again for the tips.

  11. What a treat…the pictures are great. Thanks for letting us “go along with you”.

  12. Wow, that was EPIC! The desserts looked amazing! It was also good to know about the “insider tips” on the secret menu items. Too bad about it not living up to your expectations though. At least you still enjoyed the majority of the meal.

    • Yeah, most of it was good. Writing about the experience and remembering the highs, made me wonder why none of us we eager to go back. But when we experienced it, at that moment, those 2-3 meh dishes and a few just okay dishes is what made us feel the way we did. And while I loved the dessert, I would have rather had stronger savory courses. Oh well. It was still an interesting and fun experience.

  13. Lucky you! I went there when the Schmitt’s still owned it and it was quite the experience then. You were supposed to wander through the vegetable garden between courses. It was very much like dining in a house if I remember correctly. It was still a prize reservation.

  14. Awesome post. Sorry to hear the risotto was too salty given your bounty of white truffles. I’m still super jealous!!

    • The risotto was definitely not a highlight, though the white truffles were very good. I do feel lucky to have experienced it all. Hopefully, you’ll get to also.

  15. I’m so glad you had the chance to go, the photos look amazing! And thanks for the insider tips on the extras!

  16. Impressive menu! Too bad about the low points in the meal… I would have also expected every single thing to be amazing. The desserts look so good! It also seems weird that everything was so small and bite size… maybe they thought you’d get really full from the regular tastings? In any case, sounds like a wonderful once in a lifetime experience.

    • On the website they talk about wanting the portions small enough so that you enjoy it and want more. Which I understand, but I still felt the sizes were quite small especially for what should have been the “entree” dishes and smaller than other tasting menus we’ve experienced.

  17. thanks for the additional comments. I too am surprised at the number of ‘lowlights’ for you. I realize we can’t please ‘all of the people all of the time’ – LOL but still…… I’d expect fewer ‘lowlights’. Ahhhh well. Looking forward to the visit up there, as we’ll spend several days in the region. Happy New Year!

    • I wonder if it was also maybe that particular meal, since the meals change daily. Since all four people in my group left with the same reaction, I feel like that may have been the consensus for a lot of people dining that night. I have been such a TK fan going in, so it was a little dissapointing. Anyway, there are a lot of stuff to visit in the area, I hope you have fun! Some things I would recommend: lunch at Redd, they have a nice tasting menu for $60 per person or you can order regular entrees too. Jessup Cellars for a wine tasting. If you go, call ahead and reserve a table/room. They give you better service and provide crackers, chocolates, cheese with your wine. The wine tasting price is the same as if you were to just drop in ($20 for about 6 wine tastings, but if you buy a bottle of wine the tasting fee is waived), but the sit-down service is so nice. You can sit, drink wine, nibble on food. They are super nice there. Bouchon Bakery is one of my fave places to stop by too.

  18. Woot! I’ve been waiting for this review since I saw your instagram photo 😛 I’m surprised by the “lowlights” of the meal – and didn’t even know about those secret menu items (reminder to self to do research if I ever visit TFL!).
    Random question: how was the lighting in the restaurant? From your photos it seems pretty bright, but typically these fine-dining restaurants are quite dim.

    • I was surprised by the “lowlights” of the meal too. But oh well. The lighting was actually okay. It was on the dim side but not as dim as some other places. I was sitting near a candle which helped and my friend who had his iphone was able to take some okay photos without the need for additional light.

  19. So glad you had this opportunity ! And good timing for me, as we have reservations to go the first week of Feb, with friends ; – ).

    Question: did you have any wine? I know the cost is additional, but I am looking forward to having a few glasses suggested by the sommelier which will be perfect pairings. Though with each course being “one bite” I suppose the glass of wine will have to be a perfect pairing for several courses….. Or perhaps a 2oz portion size, so you can have a different wine paired with the next course. Hmmmmm. Thoughts on this?

    • Lucky you on your reservation! We opted not to do any wine as we are all light weights and really wanted to just enjoy the food. Of course if you are thinking of doing wine, you should, especially since the area is so well known for wines. I’m sure you can discuss with the sommelier about doing some sort of pairing for each course.