April 24, 2022

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.

Chef picking items from the gardenThis 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.

Cheddar crackers rolled in crispy shallots
Smoked salmon "everything bagel" cone.
Oysters and Pearls. Keller's signature. "Sabayone" of pearl tapioca, island creek oysters, regis ova caviar (Keller's brand, I believe). 3rd time I've had this and by far the best version of it.
The start of our next course...
Green tomato "cosomme". Tomato water gelee and basil infused olive oil. Maybe the best dish of the night. Incredible depth of tomato flavor wrapped in bright, spring freshness. Spectacular.
Grilled Pacific Shima Aji, Sacramento Delta green asparagus, pickled green strawberries and a mint grastique. This was a cold dish. Underwhelming visually but the flavors were extraordinary.
Nova Scotia lobster, parsnip puree, crispy chickpeas, earl grey tomato confit and nicoise olive verve. Nice dish, but the lobster from the last time (with carrot cumin sauce) was so much better. And why shape the lobster like that? For sustainability, where do the trimmings go? I didn't see them in any other component of the meal.
Applewood smoked quail, Marsh Hen Mill Polenta, wild Oregon morel mushrooms, and mushroom jus gras. Beautiful plating.
Check out the herb stuffing under the skin. Brilliant execution and enhanced the dish, making sure you had just the right amount in every bite. I felt the quail was slightly overcooked and would have preferred a sauce with more depth.
"Peas and Carrots". Chateubriand of veal, creamed English peas, cured carrots, pea shoots and garden carrot vinaigrette. This is what the chef was picking in the garden. This was my friend's plate, but I tried the veal. It was good but not great. Again, would have preferred more seasoning. Nowhere near the steak medallion from last visit.
Charcoal grilled Japanese wagyu, potato puree, yukon gold potato confit, caramelize onion compote, watercress leaves and bordellaise vinaigrette. This dish was what it should have been, but didn't elevate beyond that - except for that piece of sausage (at the bottom of the plate, which was stellar.)
The cheese course. Cheese stuffed bun sitting on a black winter truffle fondue. Very luxurious and tasty.
Lots of desserts. This one was a miss for me - kiwi with a smidgen of cake that didn't really do anything. But...
The butter ice cream! This time with dolce e leche. It's JUST SO GOOD!!!
Espresso foam martini.
Got their mint tea again, which just so simple and delicious.
We spilled some water on the table. The waiter pressed it dry with napkins and then came over with the mobile iron to dry it out even more. Impressive. Told us some great stories about irons and how no one will warranty their irons for them because they get used so much. :)
Always visit the kitchen. Always.
September 26, 2019

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.

Everything bagel cone, smoked salmon mousse, cream cheese
Cheese and crackers
Butter poached oysters with caviar
Poached pear
Rhubarb, endive, walnuts
What a sad photo of the best bread I have ever had in my life.
Japanese fish (bluenose medai), stewed tomatoes
Butter poached lobster in a cumin carrot sauce. It was so good I giggled when I ate it. 2nd best plate of food I have had in my life.
Tomato bun (made with tomato juice instead of water).
Burrata butter with oil. You have no idea...
Quail, pear with pumpkin seeds, parsnip puree. That pear tho...
Ribeye cap, matsutake mushroom, spinach stuffed with brisket. The very best plate of food I have ever had. I asked how they got such a perfect char around the meat. After inquiring further, the waiter asked if we would like to visit the kitchen following dinner so he could show me. We couldn't contain our excitement in answering "Yes!!!"
Cheese course. Rich and insanely creamy.
Mint tea. Absolutely beautiful. Somehow, soft and delicate.
Figs with something like the softest, moistest pineapple cake you have ever seen.
Butter ice cream. You heard that right. Butter. Ice cream.
Chocolate truffles. I had peanut butter and jelly (2nd column), sea salt caramel (6th) and dark chocolate (last).
The bill, made to look like a laundry tag.
True to their word, they brought us through this hallway which connects the house and the kitchen. My friend Pat was at the other end talking to one of the chefs. Except...
It was actually Thomas Keller! He could not have been more gracious, spending about 10 minutes talking to us about our hometown and appreciating that we had visited TFL.
Chef Keller presiding over his kitchen.
There is a live TV feed to Per Se in NYC.


What do you think? I'd love to hear from you.

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