bay area food #26: the french laundry

You heard that right, folks: Leslie and I finally made it out to that ultimate west-coast food Mecca: The French Laundry. The trip was sort of a combination long-delayed graduation celebration combined with an anniversary dinner. That’s enough justification, right?

It would take quite a while to describe the whole meal (officially nine courses, but also two bonus amuse bouche and an extra dessert course). If you really wanna know every detail, here’s the menu with our notes:

We arrived about half an hour before our 9pm reservations, figuring there would be stuff to see. And sure enough, there was! Right across the street from the restaurant is the incredibly well manicured restaurant garden, where they get a lot of their produce. Representative pic:

The garden was right off the road, in the middle of town, almost like a public park. It had no gates or entry control at all, so we just walked around through it. Very fun. So I guess what it takes to support sustainable urban agriculture is… to use it to supply a super-high end restaurant across the street.

The food itself was… well, just plain outstanding. It was course after course of expertly combined ingredients (LOTS of them, and never one repeated!), always in harmony, always with high-art-grade presentation. The second amuse bouche was a “coronet” of salmon, but obviously it’s supposed to look like a tiny ice-cream cone. So fun!

I got pictures of several more of the courses, but not all of them, and posted them on gallery. I’ll put one more in here for fun, though, check out this crazy-ass dessert (too many ingredients for a succint name… maybe just “anglaise?”):

The interior of the restaurant itself was pretty interesting… it was in an old house, and it felt pretty cramped (the staff and diners were constantly impeding each other up and down the narrow stairs, for example). I overheard one of the servers say it had 16 tables, which sounds about right. Most were 2 and 4 tops but there were a few bigger, and a private dining room with a table for 10 (every table was constantly occupied, of course!).

We sat down promptly at 9, after I was fitted with a borrowed jacket. Such an anachronism, requiring jackets for men, at a modern restaurant on the west coast! My shirt, tie, and slacks made me better dressed than many of the other male diners I saw, but there’s still something magical about a ratty sport coat that makes you acceptable I guess.

As for drinks, they initially brought out their wine list, on an iPad I shit you not. There we were, in this elegant restaurant, with the blue glow of a frickin’ iPad blinding us. I guess in someone’s demented mind (Thomas Keller? Yep, I’m sure this was his idea) this was trendy and a cool solution. Luckily, we didn’t really have to interact with it: we just gave our server a budget ($150/person, wince) and she brought all the pairings, which were great on the whole. They even included a champagne made exclusively for the French Laundry! They’re mostly written in our notes on the menu.

After working our way through every last course, we speculated as to the time and were pretty shocked to discover it was 12:45am–we’d been eating for almost 4 hours! I guess that’s the kind of marathon meal of relentlessly excellent food you’d want to have experienced before being handed this:

Yeowch! At least the tip was included.

Overall, it was an amazing experience. There wasn’t anything about any individual dish that was unlike what we’ve eaten before–we’ve had courses at several places (most recently Commis in Oakland) that could go head-to-head with anything served at the French Laundry. The difference was the scale of the meal, the ambitiousness and variety of the ingredients, and the complete consistency of the flavor and presentation.

Will we go again? I doubt it… when we eat we’re more interested in exploring new things than seeking out extremes. It was a fun adventure, but I think there’s more to learn by eating everyday examples of regional food from all around the world (plus, that’s the stuff we could actually cook!).

Still, I’ve got to say: The French Laundry is a shining example of what complete, single-minded obsession with great food can yield. Wow.

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