The first thing people say when you mention The French Laundry is how impossible it is to get a reservation. Then they talk about how it’s the best restaurant in the world and that if you’re lucky enough to eat there, you’ll remember your meal for the rest of your life. All of these things are true. I was struck with the good fortune to have my once-in-a-lifetime French Laundry experience last Sunday afternoon. The restaurant, nestled in the tiny town of Yountville, California, uses Armando Manni olive oil, Leonardi balsamic vinegar (aged 100 years), Ercuis flatware, and (of course) Riedel stemware. There are nearly as many servers as diners, and there’s a quiet but constant vibe from every present patron of “Oh my God, can you believe we’re here? We’re really here.” The wine list, which went digital two months ago, currently features 2,800 bottles and the cellar can store up to 15,000 bottles.
To eat, I started with a miniature scoop of avocado mousse in a faux ice cream cone. Then I sampled a mini gougère with black truffle. After that, I tried Burnt Lemon Granité with Compressed Cucumber, Borage, and White Sesame “Bavarois;” Sacramento Delta Green Asparagus with Petite Lettuces and Périgord Truffle; “Peas and Carrots” with Grilled Hearts of Palm, Akita Komachi Rice, Sugar Snap Peas, Carrots, and Madras Curry “Aigre-Doux;” and Falafel with King Trumpet Mushroom, Eggplant, Sweet Peppers, Chickpeas, and Cilantro Shoots. For the “first dessert” I had Naval Orange Sorbet with Swiss Meringue and Toasted Kumquats, and for the “second dessert” I tried a spritzer with lime sherbet, vanilla soda, lemon, and bitters. It sounds like a boatload of food, but each dish is the size of three thimbles. Several of the vegetables, most notably the radishes, were as thinly sliced as tissue paper.
To drink, we began with a complimentary glass of Pierre Gimmonet champagne, made distinctly for The French Laundry. Then we invited our sommelier to choose the rest of our tastings, with the only stipulation that they be local to the area. His brilliant selections included Crocker & Starr 2008 Sauvignon Blanc (Saint Helena); HDV 2008 Chardonnay (Carneros); and Colgin 2004 IX Estate Napa red wine blend. The service was, as you would expect, perfect…but not unapproachable. Every server we spoke with was easy to smile and genuinely gracious. I shuddered thinking about how Phoebe Damrosch inferred in her book that servers at Per Se, The French Laundry’s sister restaurant in New York, loathe people who order vegetarian plates, but I didn’t feel the least bit scorned. They even let me tour the kitchen, which was bright, devilishly hot, and finer tuned than a Patek Philippe. More difficult than securing a reservation is the complex precision with which French Laundry chefs sculpt every dish. I’m still pinching myself.