something that happened in my life – the french laundry – june 29, 2014

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i feel like french laundry definitely hit the dollar threshold that requires a blog entry, so… here goes!

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definitely stole the clothespin.  though i think everyone does.

daniel and i had a wedding in napa and were staying the night, so we did our prior planning and decided that, since we were “in the neighborhood”, that we would go to the french laundry! yes, one of only eleven restaurants in the united states with three michelin stars and consistently ranked as the top or one of the top restaurants IN THE WORLD, that french laundry.  but okay, first, let’s get this out of the way:

OMG how was it?!?!

so i wish i could write something like this:

And so began the unforgettable, intimate, beautifully orchestrated dinner that has remained one of my and [Daniel’s] most treasured shared memories. That, in fact, it even managed to register as such in light of the incredible number of cocktails and wines sampled throughout the evening is further testament to Thomas’s uncompromising vision. From the gin-and-tonics (concocted with housemade quinine), accompanied by a delicious signature amuse-bouche of “oysters and pearls,” through to the finale, a trove of impeccable chocolate truffles, we felt ourselves to be transported, a lone table in a sea of balletic servers. Delectable morsels arrived in waves over the course of the five hours, never interfering with the intimacy of our tête-à-tête—rather, the beautiful food and wine seemed to amplify the joy my daughter and I were taking in each other’s company. via

but, as jyoti pointed out, we don’t really have a refined-enough palette to appreciate the difference between a $30 meal and a $300 meal. like the $300 meal is better, but probably not TEN TIMES better. (as of writing, the cost is $295/pp (which includes gratuity but not tax.) (BUT it turns out it also includes coffee after the meal, so… drink up!!))

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Amuse bouche: Gougère and Salmon Tartare Cornet

Pâte à choux filled with warm aged Gruyère mornay sauce. Very light pillows filled with a slightly salty crème which still showed the typical aged Gruyère flavor. A rather classic French start to the dinner and for us a kind of palate cleanser for the coming dishes.

One of the signature amuse bouche’s of the French Laundry. The cone had a buttery and soft texture with some sesame seeds. The salmon was almost pate-like with a delicate taste. The bottom tip of the cone was filled with some crème fraiche to give it a slightly tangy finish.  via

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“Oysters and Pearls”
“Sabayon” of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and White Sturgeon Caviar

Perhaps the most written about savory course at the French Laundry and one of the few courses which are part of nearly all tasting menus. Even though we wanted to experience the French Laundry as a whole event we were looking forward to finally try this dish – and it didn’t disappoint. The creamy and rich sabayon laid the foundation for the dish and the tapioca supported this richness with its texture. The perfectly cooked oysters had a wonderful sweetness whereas the quenelle of caviar provided the right balance of saltiness. It’s easy to understand why this dish has such a reputation as being a showcase for Thomas Keller’s cooking as it is a perfect combination of texture, flavor and creativity. The use of a mother-of-pearl spoon to serve the dish fits perfectly into the picture. via

the buildup.

after we decided to go, we had to make reservations, which proved difficult. i’ve heard concierges can do it without breaking a sweat, but we decided to call in. reservations are released exactly 2 months before each day and you have to call a number that you cannot get through. daniel and i both continuously redialled (daniel holed up in a conference room with the land line and his cell phone), and on the 33rd minute (i had given up after 30 minutes), daniel got through!!! though he was only able to get a 4 person reservation (they honestly don’t have a large number of 2-person tables).

choosing the other people to go with was somewhat difficult; we considered a lot of factors including:

  • how much we liked them/how comfortable we would be with them/how close we were
  • people who would appreciate the niceness of the event and had experience with fanciness
  • people in a stable relationship
  • people who made sufficient amounts of income where the french laundry budget is not their entire food budget for the year
  • people who had a car

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jyoti and boaz posing in the french laundry garden

we ultimately settled on jyoti and boaz! who we don’t spend a lot of time with, but who we both really like and were a great fit otherwise. jyoti had always told herself she would treat herself to french laundry if she passed her bar exam, so it was a nice belated celebration on that front as well.

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Garden Bean Salad
K&J Orchard Peaches, Oregon Cèpes, Marcona Almonds and Crème Fraîche

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Squash Blossom “Porridge”
Toasted Pine Nuts and Shaved Australian Black Winter Truff
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(they billed it as a “truffle centric” dish and brought around truffles in a humidor and then shaved it in front of you.  it was weird.)

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Salted Butter and Bread from Bouchon

ways i would describe the food:

delicious. i mean, everything tasted good. i would have happily, happily eaten 5x sized portions of every dish. though, boaz pointed out that nothing really tasted super intense, that the flavors were generally very understated (“balanced”!??!). like there is nothing as obvious or with the taste intensity of a costco hot dog or a costco slice of pizza with a side of ranch dressing. or jalapeno poppers. i guess that was the most surprising part.

tiny. french laundry was a nice thematic continuation of the afternoon of wine tasting, where tastings that i would have drunk in one gulp i would separate into the tiniest of sips, spreading it out for 10 minutes. pieces of meat i would have happily thrown into my mouth, i now sliced into delicate pieces, trying to savor every moment.

against the exhortations of our brunchmates, daniel and i made the most of the omelette bar and gorged ourselves before dinner. because, cmon, no matter how many courses they serve (let’s go with ~8, excluding desserts/amuse a bouches), no fine dining meal will ever make me full. and if there’s anything that would make me feel worse about spending >$300 for one meal, it’s spending >$300 on one meal and still feeling hungry.

interesting. there was just such a wide array of ingredients and cooking styles. various types of morsels and mushrooms and truffles. oysters with tapioca balls and caviar (as jyoti put it, “slimy balls”). wagyu steak, lamb, sea bass, chicken, abalone. a mushroom gravy. a spinach puree. some really unique textures of food. other things i’ve never eaten before, certainly never prepared in that specific way.

beautiful. plating for each plate was so unique. the colors. perfect fried cubes of chickpeas. butter shaped like a beehive. the tiniest of flowers placed onto a dessert. a 3D tendril of chocolate. a garlic puree in a fried pastry shaped like a flower. a quail egg cooked over a perfect circle of potatoes. okay, i’m sure someone from the food network would do a better job explaining, but those were some of my favorites.

technically impressive. all the meats were cooked perfectly. there was this sort of weird eggplant soft cheese jello thing that was… something.

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Sautéed Fillet of Mediterranean Loup de Mer
Preserved Green Tomatoes, Garden Radishes, Sweet Garlic “Barbajuan” and Tonnato Sauce

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Pacific Abalone “Poêlée”
Garden Carrots, Toasted Cashews, Cilantro Shoots and Sweet Curry “Ragoût”

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Four Story Hill Farm Poularde
La Ratte Potato Purée, Brentwood Corn and Morel Mushroom “Blanquette”

the service

so the service was…. interesting. i’m actually intrigued about the demographic that goes to french laundry. what percentage of people are insufferable and snooty, what percentage is a major foodie, what percentage is new money trying to impress a date, what percentage is just random riffraff who happen to stumble into french laundry and maybe shouldn’t belong (us).

in any case, it feels really stuffy. they are definitely warm, but they are not terribly funny or likely to laugh heartily or crack jokes. they are ridiuclously attentive, in a way that makes me uncomfortable (but in general a sign of good service, i think). they speak in a very calm, cool, understated inside voice. the server to diner ratio must be about 1 to 4.

i guess i was just surprised that they didn’t notice that we were of the last demographic and they didn’t tailor their service to be a little more informal and jovial… but i guess that would be unbecoming.

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Herb Roasted Elysium Fields Farm Lamb
Crispy Chickpea “Panisse,” Garden Cucumbers, Moroccan Olives, Romaine Lettuce and Spiced Tomato Conserve

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Charcoal Grilled Japanese Wagyu
Short Rib “Rösti,” Chanterelle Mushrooms, Pickled Ramps, Creamed Arrowleaf Spinach and “Steak Sauce”

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Springvale Farms “Landaff”
Brooks Cherries, Charred Eggplant, Sweet Pepper Essence and Watercress

irreverence

i was telling sean that i was going to french laundry that weekend, and he blinks a couple times and pauses and looks at me and goes, “….. james… you do realize that that place is expensive, right?…” (because i am by far the cheapest member of the oakland lunch group.)

lol, boaz had apparently left his dress shoes at home and only had sandals and socks, and we were FREAKING OUT because french laundry has a strict dress code. while they were freaking out in the cab ride over, the cabbie was yelling at them about how they needed to get their act together and how they were disrespecting the best restaurant in the world and what was wrong with them!?!? we flanked him going inside so they wouldn’t notice his shoes.

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changing in the parking lot at the outlets before heading over

it was really great going with jyoti and boaz, though, in the sense that they were both very excited about the event but also didn’t take the experience too seriously and weren’t afraid to laugh and poke fun at some of the more ridiculous aspects of the event.

two of the highlights include the waittress talking about how a dish included “the hunter of the sea” (aka sea bass!?) and jyoti made a comment about how “it was certainly no chicken of the sea”, which even got the waittress to laugh.

later, daniel had chosen a baguette from bouchon bakery and carefully buttered the insides and put the two halves back together. the waittress came over, and goes, “a butter sandwich! i’ve never seen something quite like *that* before!” in a sort of ambiguously judgmental tone. it was sort of ridiculous and hilarious and we got a lot of good mileage out of that. OKAY you had to be there sorry.

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“Assortment of Desserts”
Fruit, Ice Cream, Chocolate and “Candies”

the experience

i knew daniel really enjoyed the symphony because he had brought me to the sf symphony once early on when we were dating. i later got these tickets for me and daniel to go see the sf symphony, who was performing at an outdoor stage, which was …. a very different experience, despite the performers and music being the same. attending the symphony hall felt a lot more special—people were dressed up, everyone listened with rapt attention, the concert hall was beautiful. that’s when i realized that, while the music was nice, it was the whole package of the experience that really made the trip worthwhile. 

so my go to answer about “how was french laundry” is that it was a great experience that i’m really glad to do once in my life, and i encourage everyone to do it once, and that i wouldn’t go back again. it felt very special, and it felt very fancy, and it felt unique. and that’s the sign of a great experience!

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they personalized the menus for us!!!!  how crazy is that.  and they gave us an “opera cake” (tasted like a tiramisu) and daniel turned the stick into celebratory candles. 

major aside, for those of you keeping score at home, daniel and i got two separate dishes for two of the courses, so the number of photos doesn’t match the number of dishes you actually receive.)

the value/”was it worth it”

so at french laundry, the idea of “marginal happiness per dollar spent” metric was born. where does spending your money get you the most happiness bang for your buck? my answer: almost definitely not going from a $50 meal to a $300 meal. or a $10 bottle of wine to a $100 bottle of wine.

good happiness value with daniel: (we mostly talked about big ticket items)

  • EDC (~$1,200 vacation)
  • driving at a race track

good happiness value with james:

  • getting appetizers
  • buying something new/decadent at costco

not good happiness value:

  • staying at a $300 hotel vs. a $150 hotel

it might be helpful to split activities into “big ticket” and “small ticket” items. and generally you can’t factor in close-to-free items like “cuddling” or “watching a tv show” or “going to the gym”.

OTHER PHOTOS FROM THE WEEKEND

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photos from the wedding, a very nice event held at durham ranch.  a former coworker of daniel’s was getting married. 

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animals in the thomas keller garden

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goofing around/glamour shots in the thomas keller garden.  LOVE the guy-leading-the-girl shot

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the ever so classy menage a trois vineyard.  1) it’s actually a very nice winery to go visit, they have ladderball and bocceball and cornhole and a nice outdoor area.  2) it’s actually sort of funny because menage must drive 100% of the customers into the door, but they sort of treat it is as their bastard child and i think the salespeople have much, much stronger incentives to push their other labels over menage.  poor menage 😦

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