A Midsummer Night’s Dream
A Visit to the French Laundry
Gourmets (not mere, trendy foodies) dream of Thomas Keller’s French Laundry the obsessive way the starstruck dream of George Clooney or Marion Cotillard, except all the gourmets need to attain their dream is to be quick on Open Table or the phone, at exactly 10 a.m. two months prior to the day they care to dine… and to be able to pay $270 per person, for nine courses and service, with tax and alcohol additional. But you don’t quibble cost with Keller (I can’t say for Clooney or Cotillard), for you’re in for the culinary experience of your life.
And sure, that’s what everyone says. But that’s because everyone is treated intensely well at this Napa Valley landmark to cuisine. If you ask to keep your menus, you’re told they’ll be ready when you leave, in an embossed folder that will wow the designer in you. If you ask to peek into the kitchen, you’ll get the chance, and meet a sous chef (especially if you’re leaving around midnight). And the crazy professional wait staff — even the person who seems to be bussing knows everything about each dish — will never clink one plate unpleasantly when clearing or lay on the faux chummy, but will help you to perfect wine pairings (via iPad), and make clever jokes, like when explaining one dish and ending, “and that’s Pommes Maxim’s, basically the most magnificent potato chip you’ll ever eat.”
The Laundry manages magnificent regularly, making each ingredient taste more than you ever knew it could. I skipped the Hen Egg Ravioli with a heavy snow of black winter truffle (for a $75 supplement) and didn’t regret it a bit, instead receiving a revelatory “Salade de Légumes Vertes” in which you couldn’t quite tell if you had a preserved green tomato or Persian cucumber on your fork until you tasted it, as they were cut in the exact same scoop. It’s food you have to consider, but it is truly considerable. Much of the produce comes from the large garden carefully attended across Yountville’s Washington Street from the restaurant, so it couldn’t get much more local.
Not that local is the only goal — putting the absolute best on the plate is. So, there are Island Creek Oysters from Massachusetts in the “Oysters and Pearls,” a Snake River Farms charcoal-grilled “Calotte de Bœuf,” and a sautéed fillet of Mediterranean turbot. The beer in sauces is their own Blue Apron Ale they brewed up with Brooklyn Brewery. Each taste is essential, from the classic salmon tartare cornet with sweet red onion crème fraiche — has there ever been more elegant finger food? — to the “Grilled Cheese” cheese course, an at best inch-wide sandwich that’s 90 percent Cabot clothbound cheddar and a mere 10 percent, yet still identifiably there, bread.
At meal’s end it becomes clear why a woman exiting when we arrived quipped to her dinner-mate, “Quick, let’s leave before they give us another course.” You get to opt for one of two desserts (how does “Dark Treacle,” Devil’s Food, Valrhona Chocolate “Marquise,” Lyle’s Golden Syrup and Marshall Farms Burnt Honey Ice Cream sound?), and you’ve had a cheese course and palate cleanser, but then there’s a gorgeous wooden box opening offering you six different house-made (but of course) chocolate truffles like espresso stout (“Take as many as you want”), tins of shortbreads (the meal extends for days this way), saran-wrapped caramels, light and dark, plus the old signature dessert “Coffee and Doughnuts,” dropped off gratis, the dough fried crisp yet so moist and delicate inside, the coffee actually cappuccino semifreddo frozen beneath steamed milk. There’s nothing precious or cute about these mignardises, as the menu bills them.
Nothing is frivolous. Nothing is mere grace note or garnish. Every single thing on a dish, every last course is entrée, if often no more than a bite. It’s a meal that says, “Pay the heck attention” and teaches you how and why to do so. No wonder the meal is so expensive, for it allows you to stop the clock, to give pleasure its full and timeless due.