As we walked down the street, nervous excitement swelled in my chest. It felt much like the first time I went to Disneyland with my family, way back in elementary school. Only this time, I was somewhat better equipped to deal with and contain my excitement. But the nerves were much more prevalent now. Unlike elementary school, it wasn’t just anticipation. I was worried: what if this wasn’t really going to happen? What if I somehow had screwed it up? This was a reservation that we had worked very hard to get, and one that you actually have to do some work to keep. I was pretty sure we’d jumped through all of the hoops, but still that voice in the back of my head questioned it. “Did you call in time? Are you sure they got the message? Is this the right time? Are we about to show up 3 hours late? Did you cancel the wrong reservation?” (The story of the reservation is one I should probably address, but not in this post.)
The fluttering in my stomach and the nervous grin on my face grew as we approached the unassuming building that houses one of the finest restaurants in the country. Scratch that, the world. The French Laundry grew closer through the darkness. The lights subtly illuminated the sign out front, showing off the restaurants name cast on a narrow strip of bronze. It was actually the 5th time that day we’d seen the sign, the first four coming on a quick drive and a longer walk through Yountville. This time, as we drew nearer, a middle-aged man and his son, probably in his early teens, walked out and wished us a good evening. The son in particular looked like he’d just done something incredible, something he couldn’t quite believe. I thought of myself at that age. I’m not sure I would have been brave enough to eat at a restaurant like this.
As I opened the door for Kendall and followed her inside my nerves reached a crescendo. This was the moment of truth. Did we actually have a reservation? As the door swung closed behind us, the woman behind the front desk greeted us warmly. Three steps later I was standing right in front of her, giving her our last name, and surreptitiously glancing down at the computer screen she was looking at. Was our name there? Were we in? A wave of relief and elation washed over me as I saw her highlight “GAMBLE, JESSE” on the list of the evenings reservations, and she asked us to take a seat on the velvet upholstered sofa while she made sure our table was ready. This was it! We were here! They were going to let us stay!
The minutes ticked slowly by. Kendall and I chatted about the decor, the Relais & Chateaux books sitting on the small table next to our sofa, and how things seemed similar to or different from what we had expected and the other Michelin starred restaurants we had been to. The hostess asked us if we were ready to be seated, and we jumped up, ready to go (or whatever the “we’re at a super fancy restaurant, play it cool” version of jumping up is anyway.) But it was a false start as it turned out, not quite ready for us yet. So another few minutes ticked by on the velvet sofa, with the soft sounds of the dining room wafting toward us, just out of reach for a couple of moments more.
OK, hold it a sec. I started writing this post the night we actually dined at The French Laundry. The previous paragraph is as far as I got before I needed to get some sleep. It is now a little over 2 weeks later. Why the big delay in finishing the post? Well, it is what happened the next night. We dined at The Restaurant at the Meadowood. I have had the privilege of dining at some of the finest restaurants anywhere. Places you have to call up months in advance. Places where I needed to solicit the help of a French speaker. Places they tell you you’re lucky to get a reservation at once in a lifetime. And while I will always consider my night at The French Laundry to be something very special, The Restaurant at the Meadowood was, if not the best meal of my life, at the very least second best. There is still some debate in my head over whether that honor lies with L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon or Meadowood, but that’s merely academic at this point.
Why am I telling you this now? Mostly because it has drastically changed the post which I intended to write. I’m not sure I can really continue the post that you started reading, at least not in the same way. I am different now. I know that’s a bit of a strange thing to say, that a meal has changed you. But, at least when it comes to how I view the culinary world, it has. So if the tone or style takes a bit of a left turn when I continue the post you started above, you’ll know why. I’m going to try to continue telling the story as I experienced it that night, as close to the way I started telling it as possible, but we’ll see how that goes. Anyway, I suppose I should get on with it.
When we were taken to our table, for real this time, we walked through the very small, very tight dining room. It was obvious that due to the restaurant’s immense popularity that they had fit in as many tables as possible. After being seated at a small table by a window covered in dark wooden blinds, our waiter arrived with menus and a wine list.
I should probably take a moment to talk about the way The French Laundry does it’s menu. First, there is no a la carte option, but instead 2 pre-fixe menus: the vegetarian menu, and the chef’s tasting menu. I won’t mention the prices…you can go look those up yourself if you’re really curious. Each of the two menus is about 8 “official” courses, though I hear that can change from time to time just depending. For a few of the courses, you are able to make a choice between 2 different options, one of which is included at the normal price, the other for an additional, non trivial, amount.
I opened up the menu to take a brief look, but dove straight for the wine list, which happened to presented in the form of an iPad. Having done some research before hand, I knew they had a particular bottle of wine that I really wanted to get. It was a wine Kendall and I had at Joël Robuchon’s restaurant in Paris 2 years prior, and it was the wine that made me realize I actually DO like white wine! (At least when it’s good.) Within seconds I had located the bottle, made a mental note, and had gone back to looking at my menu. I was going to get the chef’s tasting menu, I was sure of that already, but what about the alternative courses? There were three courses that required a choice. I already knew I wasn’t getting the alternative for the first course. Thomas Keller prepares what he calls “Oysters and Pearls” at both The French Laundry and his New York restaurant Per Se. I very much wanted to try it. The second course, however, was a different story. As I read my options, the alternative immediately caught my eye. Macaroni and Cheese with bacon, cabbage, and shaved black truffle! Umm….YES PLEASE! And while the alternate for the meat course looked amazing (grilled Wagyu beef), I decided that the lamb option would be wonderful, and had the added benefit of not requiring me to wash dishes for a week to pay for our meal.
The waiter returned, we ordered, showed him the wine we would like, and we went back to taking in the whole thing. We were actually there! Really, truly, it was happening! I’d been thinking about this moment for two months! We listened to the soft chatter of the other diners, admired the wooden laundry pegs that had been pinned to our napkins when we sat down (and yes, we did bring those home), swooned over the amuse, and soon enough, the first course was arriving. I will spare you the details of each course – if you really want to know, you can ask me, I’m very happy to talk about the food – as I’m already 1400+ words in and we’ve only just begun to eat. But I will say that from the first moment, the food was impressive. Beautifully presented, expertly prepared, each bite delicious.
I will also take a moment to talk about my mac and cheese. The best mac and cheese I have ever, and probably will ever, eat. And also the most expensive by a wide, wide, wide margin. Since we had sat down, every several minutes we would see a waiter walk into the dining room holding a large tray. On that tray rested what looked like a fairly large, red, wooden humidor. Another waiter would approach him, open the humidor, and remove from it a large, black truffle. He would then take from the tray a grater, turn to a diner, and begin vigorously grating truffle over their dish. Quite impressive! Well, my mac and cheese shows up, and out comes the humidor again. Our waiter withdraws the truffle, and starts to grate. And he grates. And he grates. And he grates some more! Now, I have seen truffles sliced or grated over dishes before, but never like this. He went at it with aplomb! I very quickly figured out why this mac and cheese demanded a premium. I had seen black truffles for sale at a market in San Francisco the day before, and it was $98 an ounce!
As the waiter withdrew, I stuck my face right into the bowl to breathe in the aroma. Black truffle smells (and tastes) like nothing else, and I absolutely love it. I just basked in the decadence for a moment before mixing the truffle into the gooey cheese sauce. This….this was heavenly. Perfectly cooked pasta in a decadently rich cheese sauce, with bits of bacon and green cabbage (which was a lovely complement to the whole dish), and perfuming the whole thing was the black truffle. Delicious! Mac and cheese will never be the same again.
We shortly finished off the first bottle of wine – which it turned out was only a half bottle – and the sommelier helped us pick out two more half bottles that would take us through the rest of our meal. (Hey! We walked, ok? No driving! And there are a lot of courses! This is a multi-hour meal here!) The courses continued one after another. And the room got hotter. And hotter. And hotter! By the fourth course I was sweating rather profusely. Whether it was the halogen light bulbs I was sitting under, or the lack of air flow (the AC was definitely not on yet, it was a pretty cold week when we were there), or the tight confines of the dining room, it was getting uncomfortable. Kendall was also feeling the heat, and excused herself to the ladies room to try to cool off. The man I think was the floor manager for the evening came up to me while Kendall was in the restroom and asked if I’d like to take off my jacket (a jacket is required attire). I declined, but thanked him for the thought. A few moments later, our waiter came by and told me that he had asked the kitchen to hold things up for us after the next course, and asked me if we would like to take a few minutes outside to get some air. I very gratefully accepted!
This is exactly the sort of thing that earns you 3 Michelin stars! Yes, your food must be outstanding, but it is the attention to detail that sets you apart. Without prompting, he had seen we were getting a bit uncomfortable and taken the initiative to help remedy the situation. This, my friends, is hospitality. Too few restaurants truly understand it. The French Laundry proved to me that they most definitely do.
We took our little stroll outside, and were able to peek into the kitchen through the windows in the garden. It was immaculate as you would expect, with each member of the kitchen staff moving in well rehearsed rhythms, setting out plates, juggling pots and pans, delicately plating pieces of fish or meat. After a few minutes we had sufficiently cooled down, and headed back inside for the home stretch. The last several courses came, and lucky for me Kendall was getting a bit too full to finish, so I did what any self respecting guy does in that situation, eat both of our courses!
Dessert finally came, and in true French style, it was not just one dessert. There were the two main desserts, and then the cookies, and at last the chocolate truffles. These were brought round in another very impressive box. Six different varieties, choose as many as you’d like. Kendall, being absolutely stuffed at this point, had to decline. So of course, they brought us a to go box with one of each in it! Again with the hospitality!
As we walked to the door, we were handed a folder containing copies of the menus from the evening, two small metal tins containing shortbread cookies, a copy of Finesse magazine (produced by the restaurant quarterly), as well as a couple of books featuring Relais & Chateaux properties, of which The French Laundry is one. It was undoubtedly the most stuff I’ve ever walked out of a restaurant with. We were thanked by no less than five different people for coming, and we exited into the cool night air for our walk back to the hotel.
I was very, very happy. Yes, I had been overheating for much of the evening. Yes, I was full to bursting, having eaten my 8 courses plus a couple of Kendall’s. Yes, my wallet was significantly lighter. But for me, there is nothing quite like a fine dining experience. And this, no doubt, had been a fine dining experience. I let the memories of the evening wash over me as we walked back to our hotel, very content. It was a good night.
Little did I know that the next night, something would be blowing all of this out of the water. I’ll be back soon to tell you about it