The French Laundry
There is something special about this place. Magical. Even mystical. Standing outside, you can feel it. The giddy excitement of those milling about, knowing they are on the cusp of enjoying one of the world's best and most exclusive dining experiences.
This palpable energy translates to the experience itself. You carry your own inertia in with you. Everyone does. I've only seen this elsewhere at Osteria Francescana. When you wander the gardens and an attractive chef greets you with immensely warm smile as he picks fresh items for your meal to come, the goosebumps are real and they are warranted.
An authentic judgement of the experience must therefore both embrace this magic and attempt to set it aside. Using both rubrics, the conclusions are quite different.
Stepping into the courtyard, you receive your first glimpse into the iconic kitchen and the extraordinary outside dining environments. It is your first opportunity to truly feel "I'm really here."
We were almost immediately jolted out of this pleasure by the hostess, who came out of the building with a curt "what name is on the reservation??" Upon telling her, we were instantly whisked upstairs, left to long for a more leisurely time to adjust and embrace that moment robbed from us. An inauspicious start to what had been the most impeccable and perfect service during my previous visit.
When the first plates were cleared out from under my friend's rushed final bite, I was concerned that we were in for a trying and rushed evening. Fortunately, pacing settled in after that.
Initial bites were spectacular. Keller's signature oyster and pearls was the best version I've had to date. The tomato consume stole the evening with flavors as fresh and deep as they were beautiful. And the cold Aji preparation underwhelmed visually but soared with flavor.
The mains disappointed. The lobster dish was solid, but pales in comparison to the last one. Why shape the meat as a scallop? Not seeing lobster in any of the other preparations, I was left to wonder where the additional meat ends up, given the industry's focus on sustainability. This and some more avante guard platings seem to imply a move away from their classical roots to be more "hip".
Please don't. It's not who you are.
The quail was delicious, with a layer of herb stuffing lined under the crispy skin. An extraordinary technique that translated to the enjoyment of the dish, assuring just the right balanced amount with each bite. The meat was buttery but, to me, slightly overcooked.
The wagyu supplement was well done, but standard. Nothing special about it beyond the fact that it was wagyu properly prepared. The small bite of sausage on the plate was outstanding. And I couldn't help but notice that the braised onion was presented the same as the beef the last time, but in that case it was braised beef which packed far more flavor. This wagyu supplement fell short of the on-menu beef dish from last year. That shouldn't be.
The bite of veal from my friend's choice underwhelmed. As usual desserts were a sight to behold, but nearly identical to my last visit 2.5 years ago. Curious why that area hasn't progressed. Wines were absolutely stellar, as they always are here.
The end of the evening brought the same service discomfort as the start. We requested a kitchen tour and waited by the unmanned (?) hostess stand for quite some time, not knowing if they knew we were there. Even as a few staff hurried in and out, we were never greeted or addressed, much less directed. Guests standing around confused should draw immediate attention from the service team. Not tonight. It took so long we started to go and find someone.
Remember that magic I discussed? With it, there is simply no disappointment. You are eating at The French Laundry!! It's an overall experience that delivers as very few do.
Without it, there are some cracks in the armor, in both food and especially service. From the large moth that fluttered about the tables, to difficulty getting the attention of servers when desired (it took us 4 attempts) and even my chair being kicked as a server walked by. For a restaurant that brings in ballet dancers to train servers on graceful movement, that stood out.
Nitpicky? Absolutely. But this is 3 stars. This is The French Laundry.
All of that said, would I return? Should you dine here?
Are you kidding?? I'd return again and again. You should too. It's special. It's magical. And rightly belongs on everyone's bucket list.
Thomas Keller's The French Laundry is simply the mecca of fine dining. Most chefs have studied here under the master and it is known for setting the standard for Michelin eating. Reservations are nearly impossible, so I felt very fortunate indeed to get one while I visited Napa for a friend's wedding.
Many restaurants that have been this good for so long begin coasting. The little things slide. Reputation covers a multitude of errors, right?
No. Not here.
The French Laundry was every bit of what you have heard, and then some. From the grounds to the gardens, the dining room to the wait staff...and of course the dishes, there is a reason this continues to be the place, delivering a quintessentially luxurious and memorable experience.
I left thinking "That was perfect. Start to finish." And it was. Meeting Chef Keller himself in the kitchen put our experience in the stratosphere. It's like a Catholic meeting the Pope, or a basketball player meeting Michael Jordan. It was quite an honor to meet him in his signature kitchen.
Enjoy the photos, and get here. Make it happen. You won't regret a second of it.