Incredibly difficult to get in to, a gorgeous setting, wonderful hospitality, extremely rich, French cuisine and officially the most expensive meal I have ever had in my life at just under $1,300 for dinner for two (this is with a very moderate wine selection). Those are my abiding memories of this visit to one of America’s cherished venues from arguably their most celebrated chef, Thomas Keller. I will elaborate on all in the full review as usual but essentially, I walked away having had a lovely time from some of the best people in the industry, but feeling overly bloated and out of pocket for a meal as a result.
As a summary I do now believe you are paying for where you are rather than the food as the primary and that the price tag was basically close to elitist and unnecessary in parts. Dishes wise I would put this just straying in to ‘true’ 2 Michelin starred meal territory for reasons at the expansion button (friendly warning: this is a lengthy review, please scroll to the 7th Para. if you want to bypass the history, booking process, scenery details and wine list and head straight to the menu run down). I would also say if you are wanting to propose to someone and want way better odds for a good result, no matter what the cost, this would be the perfect venue for you.
The French Laundry sits in the absolutely gorgeous and chocolate box setting of Yountville, one of Napa Valley’s 7 main towns and perhaps the most alluring. When Michelin first came to San Francisco and the Bay area in 2007 it awarded The French Laundry 3 Michelin stars and these have been retained ever since. The fact that Per Se (Thomas Keller’s New York based restaurant) was awarded 3 Michelin stars a year prior in 2006 will no doubt have turned Michelin’s attention very much to this restaurant having been owned by Thomas Keller since 1994.
The building is actually a stone cottage built in 1900 prior to being an actual steam laundry and residence, hence its name. In March 2018 it had a 10 million-dollar refurbishment for the kitchen, garden and private dining area and is undeniably beautiful. It always was one of the most difficult restaurants to gain access to and its new look has only made this process seemingly more difficult than ever. To explain, the online reservation calendars go live for fresh reservations at the start of each month up to a maximum of 2 months ahead (although this seems to have now changed to 4 months ahead). I needed a table on 1 Jul and could only book this at the stroke of 6pm (GMT) on 1 May 18 for which I had already created a Tock account (required), credit card details for the non-refundable payment in full already uploaded and made sure I was in an environment with a minimum of 60 MB per second internet strength (very fast). This is how that went:
17:59 and 58 seconds, 17:59 and 59 seconds and 18:00 precisely, I refreshed the booking page, selected lunch on 1 July within 3 seconds – no spaces. Dinner, same day (3 seconds later) – no spaces, all taken. SH******T!!! Ok, emergency measures, lunch on 2 Jul anytime (probably no more than 3 more seconds), one table remaining – “I will TAKE IT!!” was the overriding out-loud shout. Payment was made with pre-loaded details within seconds thereafter and $700 dollars was paid in full with the table for 2 booked. After refreshing and checking soon after for any other tables at random on any day in Jul, I could not find any other available. Hence, this is a very difficult place to get a space, let alone near when you want it, unless you live in the area and are a regular, according to our Uber driver.
So after all the hype and history, we arrived at a stunning location with a huge open garden area over the road from the French Laundry, owned by the restaurant. Each night, two well-dressed staff members from the restaurant lower the American flag and fold in an almost military and immaculate fashion. The interior has its customary stone walls and elegant décor, its carpets giving the feeling of someone’s home. An army of well drilled staff, pay close attention to not banging in to each other or any guests as they circle the floor, as the interior is in fact, quite cramped inside.
Very kindly, the establishment had provided two complimentary glasses of champagne as a congratulations for this particular celebration. This was not only welcome but actually a bit of a relief as the wine list, not only wholesome in choice (mainly from Napa understandably), is the first wine list I have actually been a little wary of. Champagnes by the glass are an average of $50, the cheapest wines by the glass being approximately $20-30 and whilst there are options starting at $40 and $60 for half bottles, these are the minority and the vast majority are held at $100-200 and it is obviously far more expensive for the full bottles. Therefore, unless you are teetotal, or wish a booze-free night (hard considering the surroundings) it is simply difficult to escape The French Laundry without spending a lot of money on drink here.
I had opted for the tasting menus of $350 each paid upfront however there are more expensive tasting menus at $450. Once there, you have the choice of which dishes on those menus that were pre-paid, but rather like ordering an expensive car and then being presented the upgrades available, this was a similar experience. Numerous dishes that we actually wished came with a supplement – $60 extra for the shrimp with caviar, $100 extra for the wagyu steak and $125 for the truffled parmesan mousse to name but a few. This was very heavy on the bill obviously and I actually thought wholly unnecessary in two cases at the end.
The meal began with mini cones with tuna tartare and lime creme Fraiche (perfectly fresh but also lacking any substantial tuna flavour) and much better cabot cheddar cheese bites with crispy shallots, and caramelised onion which went down as one of the greats for cheese bite flavours. ‘Oysters and Pearls’ is a Keller signature product served at Per Se and The French Laundry and this has a wonderful oyster and egg-based sabayon, tapioca pearls, poached oysters from Creek Island and Regiis Ova caviar – a quality dish no question.
Pink Hopper shrimp came with toasted sesame, celery branch salad and Royal Kaluga caviar which was a pleasant dish with just the right balance of vinegar within the sparse dressing although the dish was crying out for more shrimp and less caviar, (which ultimately dictated the upgrade price and made the shrimp hard to detect). More shrimp (as is the main aspect of the dish), less caviar, a touch more seasoning and less supplement I thought would be better here overall. The egg custard with truffle and wafer-thin potato crisp with line of chive running through is another signature interlude and was as seductive as it sounds with lovely texture but strangely did not have much truffle flavour – this was genuinely surprising.
The moulard duck foie gras terrine with almond cream and strawberry gel was a triumph. The whole wheat brioche was outstanding to go with it (multiple top ups of exquisite brioche perfectly timed), the foie gras itself utterly delicate and smooth and the gels acting perfectly to add their sweetness to the silk-like foie gras. This was actually the only dish I was perfectly happy with the supplement choice. A summer melon salad came with peach, coconut gel and shiso leaves (fresh but nothing very exciting) and the fillet of halibut came with a dill chilli sauce, pickled cucumbers and avocado mousse. All of these no doubt took an age to make but the avocado was simply too salty and was the dominant force on the place, pretty much shooting down the other flavours, not least the prized halibut itself.
The abalone was chewy and quite salty, with a purée that was mainly garlic as well, although the sweet from the corn helped a little with the artichoke to add a bit more balance. The melon and this dish for example I would say were no more than 1 Michelin star dishes if that. The dried tomato baguette and buffalo milk butter burrata interlude was fine but had no explosions. The rabbit was succulent with juicy morels, very good spinach gel, clever potato medley and a knock out sauce Périgourdine (laced with truffles from Périgord).
The soft-boiled hen egg dish was served with soft polenta, parmesan mousse and what I can only describe as a waterfall of shaved black truffles. I had two problems with this dish: 1) the truffles did not actually give off much of their fabled aroma as is their primary purpose (virtually no flavour as well) and 2) this seemed over the top for the size of the dish in the bowl. I’m sure the $125 supplement was probably fair to the amount given, but I would much rather have had far less of this truffle, at greater potency and for significantly less of the price as a result. Lavish, but hence this seemed unnecessary and frankly over the top.
The lamb held good flavour but along with a cassoulet of beans, squash and aubergine béchamel and olive oil and red wine jus, it also came with some inedible gristle (overall it was simply a touch too salty as a dish). The wagyu main was one of the richest courses I have had and that was after what seemed a truck load of calories already. I was puzzled why there were so many components of such richness on one plate including crab, mustard gel, fried onion, fried frankfurter among others and an intense reduction poured all over an already extremely fatty meat (one of the richest you can get). On its own this dish was probably enough for a meal but sadly, within this meal it only demonstrated how out of balance it made the menu, grandiose as it was.
Dessert came in the guise of a mass army of petit fours dishes including cappuccino ice cream, mango macaroons, vanilla ice cream with corn bread and whipped honey, chocolate crémeux with olive oil and delectably light mini doughnuts to name but a few. These were superbly crafted with the cappuccino ice cream with soft foam being a real treat, but by this stage eating was becoming a hardship, meaning we couldn’t enjoy them as much as we would have liked to.
This is a very long review for which I apologise, but because this is such a fabled restaurant and so hard to get in to, with so much accoladed, I wanted to explain fully what I saw as the reality and the grade. The dishes ranged from very skilfully designed to surprisingly simple however, the main take away thought was the excessive amount of expensive and rich ingredients that were simply too much at times (and overall) and in the case of the shrimp and the hen egg dish, showed this to an overarching negative effect. Had it not been for such a heavy menu and some dishes actually backfiring, I obviously would have graded higher. I can only think that my suggestions of how some dishes could be improved will no doubt only endanger the restaurant not making as much profit as it could do.
I absolutely enjoyed the occasion and we were extremely well looked after, but I honestly don’t have an urge to rush back in a hurry (especially based on the measures needed to getting in). By way of a conclusion, go here certainly for a lifetime special occasion and if you can easily miss £1000 at the very least for dinner for two people, but you can get better levels of cooking at 3 star level in some equally picturesque locations in Germany or Italy for example, for significantly less charge and this is the simple truth at the end of this visit.