This is me. At The French Laundry. In shorts. Don't worry--there's an explanation for how I ended up at the finest restaurant in America so woefully under-dressed. One that involves a fateful phone call, a bicycle and copious amounts of complimentary champagne. But to do the story justice, I have to go back to the beginning of our trip across California. Once upon a time, three girls were on an adventure in a far away land called Los Angeles. There was sightseeing, there was cocktail sipping, there was karaoke (You Don't Own Me, First Wives Club Style. Bring it Diane Keaton.)
While we were in LA, two important things happened. First, we decided to call in a favor and see if we could get ourselves bumped to the top of the waiting list for reservations at the French Laundry. Second, we had a teensy tiny little incident while parking at Runyon Canyon and bumped the front of the Mercedes behind us. (Of course it was a Mercedes. Of course.) There was no visible damage to the vehicle, but being the nice, responsible girls we are, we left a note and our phone number anyways. And then we spent the next 24 hours terrified that the phone would ring and we'd answer it to find the angry Mercedes owner on the other end. (Well, Barbara did anyway. I spent the next 24 hours hoping the phone would ring and we'd answer it to find Ryan (Reynolds or Gosling, it doesn't much matter) on the other end. He'd be calling to tell us that his car was fine but he wanted to thank us for leaving a note anyways and did we want to meet at Chateau Marmont for a drink? Before I knew it, I'd be in the midst of a romantic comedy, dating a movie star, palling around with Sandra Bullock, and undoubtedly falling into a pool at some point because, hey, this is a romantic comedy set at a hotel in Hollywood after all.)
But I digress. The point is that just as we started heading north, the phone finally rang. Barbara and I looked at each other with a mix of dread (her) and excitement (me). But it wasn't the owner of the Mercedes on the phone. (Or Ryan. Or Ryan for that matter.) It was The French Laundry calling to tell us that a spot had opened up for lunch on Friday at 11:30. When Friday rolled around, we could barely contain our excitement. In fact, we were so afraid we were going to be late for Thomas Keller that we left San Francisco at the crack of dawn and arrived at the French Laundry at 10am to find that they were still getting set up for the day.
After strolling around Yountville for a while (we didn't want to be too unfashionably early) we headed back to the restaurant and passed the remainder of the time until our reservation wandering through their incredible garden. (Julia was totally stealing that tomato, by the way.)
And then, it was finally time. What can I say about dining at The French Laundry that hasn't been said before? In a word, it was extraordinary. I don't know how they do it, but this restaurant somehow manages to be impressive, inventive and inspiring without being the slightest bit stuffy or snobby. Actually--I take that back. I do know how they do it and it was all in the service. From the jovial sommelier who joked about making sure we didn't end up too tipsy to our waitress who gave us tips on what else to do in Napa Valley to the Maitre D, Larry, who went above and beyond to make sure we had a good experience (more on that later) everyone took such good care of us that we never wanted to leave. (And almost didn't. More on that later too). What did we eat? Here we go!
When we sat down, we were given a salmon tartare cone (it was literally salmon tartare in an ice crema cone, and it was delicious) as well as the best gougeres I have ever had in my life. Our official menu started with The French Laundry's signature dish, the "Oysters and Pearls," which is pearl tapioca with oysters and caviar. Julia didn't think she liked oysters or caviar until she tried this dish, but by the time she cleaned her plate she was a convert. We washed down our oysters and pearls with some rose champagne.
Next, I had a hearts of palm salad with date "pate," shaved carrots, cashews, coconut gelee and curry, followed by cod with chorizo, corn, artichoke, arugula and spicy tomato emulsion. I almost don't want to mention it here because it was such a non-issue, but because it's important to the story of how I ended up back at the French Laundry in my short-shorts, I will tell you that a small mistake was made with respect to one of Julia's courses. The mistake was caught right away, it was fixed almost instantaneously, and no fewer than four people stopped by our table to tell us how sorry they were for the error. Obviously, we made fast friends with all of them, including Larry, who continued to stop by throughout our meal to see how we were doing.
After the cod came the sweet butter-poached Maine lobster tail with fennel, hazelnuts, watercress, and black truffle and cherry-beet puree. I think I'm prepared to say that the lobster was one of the best things I've ever tasted in my life. The combination of the hazelnuts and the black truffle cherry-beet puree was especially delicious, and I scarfed down the entire thing before I could so much as think about taking a photo. Sorry. After the fish courses, it was time for meat. If you've been reading here for a while, you may know that while I'm certainly not a vegetarian, I don't eat meat very often. So it's really saying something when I tell you that I fell head over heels for the pork jowl with dill pasta, pickled green tomato, mustard greens and Spanish capers, pictured below. While the lobster was stunning, I think that the pork was my favorite dish out of the entire French Laundry experience. I would have eaten five of them if given the chance. Following the pork was lamb with chantarelle mushrooms, peppers, potatoes and red onions.
By this point in the meal, we'd had a lot of wine and a lot of food. We'd also regaled Larry, our waitress, and several others with the tale of how we had driven across the state in a Jeep Wrangler with the top stuck down. (I'm just going to go ahead and venture here that the French Laundry doesn't get many groups of tipsy, twenty-something girls at a typical Friday lunch. Most of those around us seemed to be work colleagues at business lunches (how does one get that kind of job?) or couples on romantic vacations, so I think we were entertaining, to say the least). After soliciting recommendations from the staff on which vineyards to visit on the bike tour we were planning for the next day, it was time for dessert. First on the French Laundry dessert menu was a cheese course, which was a ramp "pain perdu" with sorrel and apple relish. Otherwise known as the best grilled cheese of my life.
We must have all attacked our pain perdu with gusto, because here is what went down next: Larry came over to clear our plates and to chat, and he said, "I can't help but notice you have cleaned all of your plates. Are you still hungry? Are you getting enough to eat?" After a second of stunned silence, we all burst out laughing. "I...meant that as a compliment" he chuckled. We assured him that while we certainly took it as one, we were totally stuffed, and politely declined his offer of an additional cheese course. Needless to say, we spent the next several minutes laughing so hard we had tears running down our cheeks. Remember that time we went to the French Laundry and ate so much they asked us if we required extra courses? Yeah. That happened.
Nevertheless, after a pallet cleanser of watermelon sorbet, an extra, off the menu dessert appeared in front of us. It was the delicious lemon "float," pictured above, and it was accompanied by a glass of dessert wine. Since Barbara was driving, Julia and I did the responsible thing and drank her glass for her. Next up was the dessert we had all ordered--the Chocolate cremeux with banana, candied peanuts, and salted popcorn ice cream. Let me say that again: salted popcorn ice cream. If there's a heaven, this is what is served for dessert.
After the chocolate cremeux, we were served the famous French Laundry "coffee and donuts" which were divine. I'd like a dozen for breakfast tomorrow, please and thank you. Along with the coffee and donuts came chocolates, hazelnut candies, and so much sugar that even I couldn't handle it all. My favorite of the truffles was the peanut butter and jelly (not pictured below, as it was in my belly) and we learned that it was made with Skippy, which is Chef Keller's favorite peanut butter.
There were also shortbread cookies to go. But the best thing we left with wasn't one of the parting gifts. It was an invitation to return. Just before we finished the last of our sweets and made our way back to the car, Larry stopped over at our table and told us that if we wanted to come by the next day post-bike ride for a glass of champagne in the garden, we'd be most welcomed. I don't know if it was the small mistake they made on Julia's cod, the fact that we were apparently among the most enthusiastic eaters The French Laundry has ever seen, or just our wit and charm, but we'd somehow gotten ourselves invited back to the French Laundry.
Needless to say, we practically counted the hours until we could take him up on this generous offer. So after fourteen miles of biking, eight hours in the hot sun, and multiple vineyard visits, we rolled up to the French Laundry. In short shorts. While Barbara had the foresight to bring a dress fit for biking, Julia and I had no such wardrobe options. (And, somehow, between the two of us, couldn't manage to come up with the idea of bringing clothes to change into post-biking and pre-French Laundry. I swear, we really do have law degrees). So that's the story of how I ended up at the French Laundry in shorts.
Despite our attire, they could not have been nicer to us, and we sat in the garden for hours, sipping champagne, watching the staff set up for an outdoor dinner party they were having that night (the table is below) and flipping through the cookbook I bought to commemorate the occasion (that's four in California, for those keeping track). It was magical. So magical that when Larry came out to check on the progress of the party set-up and remarked with a smile, "you're still here!" we told him we were planning to pitch a tent and sleep in the garden. We didn't go quite that far, but it was difficult to drag ourselves away.
Most sincere thanks to Larry and the entire French Laundry Team. Our French Laundry experience was the perfect finish to a perfect trip, and I can't recommend it highly enough. True, it's a serious splurge and the most expensive meal I'll probably ever eat. But to me, the food and the entire dining experience were well worth it. Everyone I've told about our time at the French Laundry has said "Wow--that's a once in a life time experience." My response, "not if I can help it."