CONFESSIONS OF A                                                                  
A San Francisco Girl's Down and Dirty Adventures in the Culinary Playground

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

House of Worship (The French Laundry -- Yountville, CA)

***Addendum: For my thoughts on that famous reservation policy, see the comments.***

My apologies -- I posted this on Wed. night but since I *started* it on November 12th (I know, I know) and forgot to change the date, it appeared in the Nov. section. I'm just now moving it to it's rightful place. Sorry.

Here she is. I can't promise it was worth waiting for, but how could it ever be, right?

The title refers to a little experience I had on my most recent visit to The French Laundry. It was my third, and this time I was there with Jon and my Uncle G and Aunt L., who were in town for some biz. Uncle G. is my hero -- he's been there at the most critical times in my life -- and I don't get to see them that much so the time is always precious when I do. Aunt L. had always wanted to go to TFL, so we made a ressie and surprised her. When we walked by the sign and I pointed and said "We're going here," the look on her face was so priceless that the meal almost couldn't compare. Almost.

BUT. The title experience refers to about midway through the meal when I was getting ready to open my second stomach and needed a breath of fresh air. I stepped out onto the balcony (we were on the 2nd floor), looked across to their vegetable garden, looked down at the sitting garden, took a deep breath of the crisp fall air and then thought about how freakin' lucky I am, for so many reasons. It was the deepest, most thoughtful prayer I've taken part in in a good long while.

And that's the thing about TFL. It just makes me feel so deeply. Something about the whole experience puts me in a giddy, vulnerable place. Most of it's the food, some of it's the atmosphere and the service and a piece of it is the realization that I'm doing something special, that many want to do, but few have the PRIVILEGE to do.

I've now had that privilege three times. The first was December 26th, 2002 with K&B (Jon and I did this in lieu of any Christmas or birthday gifts that year) . The second was our fourth wedding anniversary on August 11, 2004 and the third was with Uncle G. and Aunt L. on November 6th, 2005.

We were there both before and after Per Se opened. I personally, do not think the quality has slipped since. Some disagree. I think the problem that we're seeing with TFL now is that it's no longer the "only." Other people have seriously upped their game. So it feels like "Gee, for almost half the price I can eat at Manresa." Or, "I can do the truffle menu at Campton Place and get a $20 glass of wine for that price." But I am still a champion of TFL, because there are things that make it like no other. Here are those things:

  • On my first visit, Jon paid the ass rape fee for the foie gras and got a lovely preparation, complete with the most beautiful brioche toast I've ever seen. I begged him for some toast, he wasn't giving it up. What seemed like two seconds later, another plate of brioche appeared at *my* side, with our dear server intoning "I had the kitchen fire some toast for the lady." Fucking priceless.
  • Those ubiquitous cornets. I feel like such a kid whenever they bring them. And I don't even love salmon all that much. But I gobble it down like the animal I am whenever it comes on it's beautiful little stand. The gougeres don't suck either.
  • Thomas Keller's generosity. I mean, the caviar for fuck's sake. It's a ridiculous amount that he slaps onto whatever dish he fancies that evening. On two of my visits, it was the exquisite Oysters and Pearls, still quite possible the sexiest dish I've ever tasted. Those of you who aren't familiar should close your eyes now because once you know what it is, it will haunt you until you have some. This butter poached oyster in a sabayon-tapioca puddle with a huge ass lump of caviar on top is to die for. The cauliflower panna cotta with oyster glaze and osetra that I had on this last visit wasn't too shabby either.
  • Or how about when K, the pickiest eater I know, fiddled around the menu and finally determined that what she wanted most was caviar and blini. Fine, for a $40 supplement. But when it was discovered that for the first time EVER, TFL had run out of lobsters, they just threw in that caviar for free.
  • On that first visit, the table before us wouldn't leave, so we were seated late. And treated to a myriad of extra delights because of it. When our truffle custards arrived in perfect little eggshells, mine had mushroom stock, instead of the veal stock that everyone else got, since I had subbed something else in for the beef dish. Is that fucking great service or what? The custard, enjoyed again on this last visit, may be my favorite TFL item, next to Oysters and Pearls.
  • A cheese presentation that focuses and excites. Such as the truffled, whipped Brie de Nangis that I enjoyed on my first visit, or the Pleasant Ridge Reserve I had on this last one. Nothing is more beautiful than those cheese presentations.
  • The dessert parade. First comes sorbet. On our 2nd visit, I just about started kissing the feet of our server due to the extraordinary passionfruit sorbet. Then comes the major player, although after discovering it was our 3rd visit this past time, we got 2 majors. First was the ever famous (but never yet tasted by us) "Coffee and Doughnuts." I could die. Really, I could. For the 2nd major, the carrot cake and the "Snicker's bar" (chocolate financier, caramel ice cream and Spanish peanut crunch) didn't suck either. Then come the mignardaise -- little pots de somethings. Ladies usually get a mini creme brulee of sorts, while the gents get a "scented" panna cotta. When we lost our TFL virginity, it was the day after Christmas and they were scented with egg nog. TOO. FUCKING.RAD. And then come the petit fours, which used to be mini treats (boxed for us the first time due to our full bellies. And the fact that it was 2:00 a.m.), but now also include macarons in addition to the jellies and sandwich cookies and such. AND now get a box of chocolates to take home. Pure heaven.
  • The clothespin that holds your napkin and the laundry ticket that is your bill. Cute without being stupid.
  • The impeccable seafood. Melt in your mouth Snapper. Cod with the most perfect white beans you've ever set eyes on. Lobsters I could eat 100 of. Poached in butter. Sometimes in a little ravioli. Sometimes with a paper thin sheet of potato balanced on top. Always good.
  • The vegetable menu. Vegetarians usually get shit. I've subbed a few things in from the veggie menu before and the Matsutake mushroom tart is still one of the best things I've ever eaten in my life.
  • Just the entire fact that you *CAN* sub things in from the other menus. Or they'll just make you a whole new thing that's not on ANY menu. This last time, I was going to sub in a veggie for the beef again. After quizzing me on my likes and dislikes, the server ran to the kitchen and returned with the holy fucking grail: "We'd like to make you some pork belly." THAT'S what I'm talking about bitches!
  • The bread. Jesus Hebrew Christ, the bread. Little epi de ble's and ciabatta and walnut bread and all kinds of doughy goodness. With Vermont Butter and Cheese Co. butter AND Straus butter. Mmmmm...butter.
  • The wine list. You can get a bottle of wine for $25 or $2500. And it's all good (well, I don't actually know about the $2500, because I'd never pay that much for wine, but you get the point).
  • I believe it's implied in the other reasons, but the service. Yes, it can be a little on the "reserved" side until you let them know you are there to have fun. Or that it's your 3rd visit. Or that you want some toast.
  • The feelings it evokes. On every visit, I've uttered the phrase "This dish reminds me of..." And by that I mean it's an experience I'm envisioning as opposed to another food item.
  • The fact that no matter what, I always leave wanting to return, with a full belly and a full heart.

So is it the best? You could argue that all day. I think so, but not everyone agrees. And that's OK. Is it overpriced? Maybe. But Mr. Keller doesn't exactly love fame, and I think this price may be his version of a deterrent. In any case, I'd still save up my pennies and go back. Is it going downhill? Nah. I think it just keeps getting better and better. I really, really do.

So there you have it. I could dissect each dish point by point but what fun would that be? I'd rather tell you how it makes me feel. And as you can tell, it makes me feel happy, lucky and full.

And, Bacchus willing, I WILL be going back.


"To eat is a necessity. To eat intelligently is an art."
-- La Rochefoucauld


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think I just came. You make food sound better than sex. Which I know it can be, but I'll never have such an experience.

12/09/2005 6:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not to detract from the experience at all but I'm have to point out that the service touches, subbing, making special dishes etc. are what ANY restaurant worth its salt should be doing.

I'd say once every couple of days, if not every day, we bring someone a portion of something a server heard them talking about, or make a special dish based on their subbing an item elsewhere in their meal. And our per person average is a whopping $28 on the high end, usually more like $25.

I'm not trying to say we're in TFL league. Or to disagree that all those touches, combined with stellar food don't add up to a transcendent experience. Just that most of the service things boil down to the simple dictum of treating your customers as you would treat guests in your home, and there are a lot us out there doing just that.

12/09/2005 9:35 AM  
Blogger NS said...

Joy -- This is a fantastic post that was more than worth the wait, and I think you have perfectly captured so many of the things that make TFL a special place. As I say in the piece from my site that you were kind enough to link to, I have a lot of affinity for the restaurant given the phenomenal experiences that I've had there over the years, so I'm truly happy to hear that you so thoroughly enjoyed your latest TFL meal.

With regard to our ostensible difference of opinion about whether the restaurant has slipped, I thought I should note that the time periods the two of us used are a bit different. My thesis is that the quality I saw this past summer (particularly in the service) was off from where it was on my earliest visits back in 2000. Also, while I'm pleased to know that the restaurant showered you with extras on the evening that you were seated late, I once had a 9:00 reservation delayed to a 10:30 actual start time (due to a "VIP" who had unexpectedly showed up earlier in the evening), and we received nothing - not even a heartfelt apology. Thus, my issue with TFL is not that it never hits greatness, but that it does not do so consistently.

At any rate, thank you for this post and for adding to the collective wisdom regarding TFL!

12/09/2005 12:05 PM  
Blogger shuna fish lydon said...


I think you should send this in letter form to Thomas. No I am not joking. He would get a kick out of it.

I loved what I learned about service there. It was such a great feeling to make special things for people, especially because it was encouraged. I used to have some of the same feelings you described Working there.

One night every person on every station cut up their dishes into small bite-sized pieces for a blind couple.

It's so great that the details are not lost on the guests, I can not even begin to tell you how hard all the cooks worked!

12/09/2005 6:52 PM  
Blogger cookiecrumb said...

It probably drives the restaurant nuts in the creativity dept., but I'm so glad to hear they're still serving the same "crowd pleasers."
How the hell did you get three reservations there? I've only been once, and I had to enlist the help of the restaurant's publicist.

12/10/2005 6:12 PM  
Blogger Joy said...

Haddock -- I completely agree that many restaurants will go out of their way to accomodate you, but I in my experience, TFL has taken it to a level that I've seen nowhere else.

NS -- Thank you so much, and I see where you would get frustrated. I am so surprised that you had to endure a wait because of a VIP -- I hope you brought it to their attention?

Shuna -- well, then, I may just do that:) I'll let you know...

Cookie -- a word about that reservations sitchy: I think it's the last great vestige of the democratic process. I don't ever understand what the fuss is about. My first two visits, I simply picked up the phone two months to the day in advance, at 9:55, 5 minutes before reservations opened, and hit redial until 10:12, and 10:23 respectively, when someone answered the phone and granted me a reservation. Patience was all that was required.

This last time, due to the Aunt L. situation, I contacted their PR dept. BEFORE the 2 mos. deadline. They were lovely, but granted me a lunch reservation, which is what I wanted, explaining that they could not make exceptions for dinner which I thought was more than fair.

Based on my experiences, I couldn't ever really understand why people thought it was so difficult. You just need to be able to use the phone at 10 a.m., which may mean you can only call on the weekend depending on your job, which could affect your date choice.

12/12/2005 7:27 AM  
Blogger cookiecrumb said...

No, I don't have job or time constrictions. I just remember dialing, redialing, redialing... and finally getting answered, only to be told that day was booked. However, you have given me renewed hope. (My PR-related rez was at lunch, though, which is just fine with me.)
Yay on you!

12/12/2005 6:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Long live pork belly!!

5/31/2006 3:47 PM  

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