When we started to plan our trip to America, we had a dream. We knew that we wanted to stay in San Francisco, and were more than aware that one legendary restaurant was only about an hour away. Nestled in a small town just outside Napa, The French Laundry is like a little piece of southern French countryside. Whilst perfecting his craft, Thomas Keller had spent time in some of France's most prestigious three Michelin starred restaurants, and knew he could bring this to America.
The French Laundry is one of the world's hardest restaurants to get in. Such huge demand on spaces meant that we didn't get our hopes up for a reservation, but we didn't admit defeat either...
How to Get in The French Laundry
Here's a quick guide to getting one of the most coveted reservations in the world...
- The French Laundry take bookings two months in advance. You must try exactly two months to the day.
- Open Table - this is an online booking system. However, there are only three tables available for each day. One for two people and two for four people. Tables are either 5.30pm or 9pm, so put your time selection in the middle of the two so you are offered both. Tables are opened up any time from 6pm (Pacific Time). Check the time difference over there before planning your reservation! I found this system a bit unreliable. I was hitting refresh like crazy, then I was offered a table only for it to suddenly disappear when I needed to put my details in. Gutted.
- Phoning - this is all about endurance. Lines open at 10am. Expect them to be engaged. We had three phones on the go, (two mobiles and the house phone) hitting redial then cancel... again and again... Between us we made over 1500 attempts. After an hour and fifteen minutes we heard the recorded message telling us we were through... We nearly died. We were then put on hold for another fifteen minutes. I was convinced we wouldn't get a reservation. We were calling on the first day after their two week break in July, so every man and his dog were calling! We only had one day that we could go. After a quick chat with a friendly lady, we were in! We were elated! Quick tip here - use a phone that can be plugged in. I'd hate for your battery to go just as you get through...
There are also some other tricks of the trade (so I hear).
- A couple in our San Francisco hotel said they went because their friend knew a chef who worked there... (Note - befriend chefs...)
- American Express concierge - apparently have some sort of 'Bat-Phone' for reservations.
- Hotel concierge - some local hotels are able to get reservations if you book with them three months in advance. The problem with this is that you are stuck with paying for these hotels if you don't get in...
- My main tip - don't give up on the phones. There are only a couple of lines, that's why it's always engaged. We were on the phone for over twenty minutes, so really trying for over an hour means that they may have only dealt with about six people between them?! Persevere.
Many people talk about The French Laundry being in San Francisco. It isn't. It's about an hour and twenty minutes drive from the city. This was one of the reasons we decided to drive from Vegas to San Francisco (even before we had the reservation...). Hotels in Yountville get booked up months in advance, so by the time you have a booking in the restaurant, it's too late. We stayed in Napa which is about a ten minute taxi ride away. We stayed in the Hilton, but we thought the Marriott next door looked like it had better facilities. Hotels here are expensive but necessary if you want to stay so close.
My OCD meant that we arrived (ridiculously) early, but it was already dark at 8.20pm. It's on a little street which looks like something out of a film set. Quaint little bistros and bars sit next to one of the world's most famous three star restaurants. It reminded me a little of Bray in the fact it's a tiny town with a massive culinary presence. The entrance is via the side through a beautiful walled garden with creeping ivy and an abundance of bright flowers. There it was. Even though the courtyard is quite dark, the famous blue door shone like a beacon!
Inside is also very dimly lit, with large dark floral arrangements adorning the corners. We were seated in a small waiting area and offered a drink. This is where it gets tricky. I hate wine. I'm in one of the most famous wine producing regions in the world, in a three star restaurant, and I don't like wine. I confessed immediately, only for the host to look utterly bemused! I asked which soft drinks were available. She had to check. There mustn't be much call for them! It was like the time I went in the Fox and Hounds on Halliwell Road and they had to get orange juice from the basement... We decided for the rest of the trip that I was going to claim I didn't drink. It's just not cricket getting hammered on spirits whilst everyone else daintily sips wine! My husband took advantage of the good choice of ales on offer!
I nearly died with excitement when they said our table was ready. We were taken through to a small dining room, which had another alcove with tables to one side. There were also seats upstairs, so in comparison to many other fine dining restaurants, this was rather large (bearing in mind that a few nights earlier we were two of only eight diners!).
We were seated in a lovely spot next to a window. The chairs even had a little shelf to put my handbag on. The menus were pegged to a napkin with a branded dolly peg. It was fate. I knew instantly what my husband was thinking when I saw his face; 'you're not nicking that peg!' I won this minor battle by asking could I have one at the end. I was told 'of course!' Result. I took both...
Now then, just as we did, I'm going to give to time to peruse the menu before I explain each course. As I mentioned earlier, it was very dimly lit in the restaurant so the pictures are a little hazy. I didn't want to appear rude by using the flash, although one chap was displaying enough bad manners for the whole dining room by boasting 'I probably pay more in helicopter fuel each month than most people get paid!' Knob. It's only slander if it isn't true...
Where there are two or more dishes before a dividing line, these are options.
Canapes: These were certainly a taste of things to come; cream cheese choux rolls and Keller's signature salmon cornet. I hate salmon but this was beautiful. Both had very subtle flavours but worked perfectly.Oysters and Pearls: This was the one I was a bit mithered by. I'm not a huge fan of fish, and this included two very fishy things; oysters and caviar. I was pleasantly surprised by this as the oysters were small and it was served in a rich buttery sauce. The caviar was actually quite mild in flavour.
Bread: I'm obsessed with restaurant bread. Imagine what I'm like in a really nice restaurant?! I'm all about the carbs. A wonderful array of fresh rolls appeared in phases, ranging from brioche style to pretzel rolls. All kinds of spectacular. Keller comes up with masterpieces and I'm scoffing bread like it's going out of fashion. You can take the girl out of Horwich...
Jamon Iberico de Bellota: This is Spanish style ham with peaches, beans and truffle. My husband said it was worth every penny of the supplement. That ham was pretty special!
Salad of French Laundry Garden Tomatoes: Believe it or not this was my stand out course. They had achieved something I have only experienced twice before. They managed to make food taste like a specific smell which reawakens a memory. I'll explain. When I was a little girl I loved picking tomatoes from the vine in my Uncle Tom's greenhouse. The waft of tomato plant as you slid open the door on a warm day... that's what this tasted like. The others who achieved this were Heston Blumenthal (that's his thing...) at the Fat Duck and Frantzen/Lindeberg in Stockholm. These tomatoes tasted of happy childhood memories.
Hibachi Grilled Fillet of Pacific Kanpachi: This elegant looking dish was the start of the meatier courses. This was a meaty fish served with squid, rice and vegetables. Bit of a Japanese nod I think!
Sweet-Butter Poached Maine Lobster Mitts: When done well I'm a huge fan of lobster, when done badly it's like an old tyre. This was perfect. Served with tarragon creme fresh, it was a lovely fresh dish before the onslaught of the meat. I ignored the beetroot (mortal enemy number 2).
Thomas Farm Squab: Just look how rare that is! This was gorgeous. Only just devoid of a pulse, this squab was rich and decadent and full of everything I had hoped! Mixed with such lovelies as figs, hazelnuts and coffee-chocolate sauce, this was Fall on a plate. We both had this, as the alternative was mortal enemy number 1. See menu.
Snake River Farms 'Calotte de Boeuf Grillee': American beef is so much better than the majority of ours (unless somewhere has a particularly good butcher!) This was a modest chunk of shin beef with the flavour of an entire cow. Served with a bone marrow and bread pudding and a thick 'sauce bordelaise', this was the point where I started to die. I always struggle around the main meat course because you generally go from very light vegetable and fish dishes into rich, dark meats with robust sauces. I was flagging.
Brebirousse D'Argental: This was a lighter mushroom dish (thank God!) with ribbons of celery. I was really struggling, but it was gorgeous. Again, very rich despite the lack of meat. Whoever said that fine dining portions leave them hungry need to have another chat with me after a tasting menu.
Plum-Ginger Soda: I was so pleased to see this. Something fresh and cold was just what I needed! This was immense. Sharp green tea ice cream with champagne granite and ginger snap crumble. Heaven.
Chocolate Pudding Pie: This was like a truffle with ice cream. This was the point where I nearly had to have a little cry. I went for a walk to the toilets just to try and wake up! The rich food and ambience was doing a bit of a number on me, and the food ache had well and truly set into the tops of my legs. At least I had a comfy dress on!
Birthday Cake: When we had made our booking, they slyly asked if it was for a special occasion. Most of the restaurants we booked over the phone asked this, but just as part of general chit chat as we were coming so far. My husband was presented with this pretty little cake complete with candle! We just about managed to eat it between the two of us! We knew we had another dessert to come...
Strawberries and Custard: This was the course I was looking forward to most, but came at the worst possible time. I'm dying. When it was put down I had a little chuckle, as it looked very similar to a dessert I had eaten at Northcote a few years ago. It stuck in my mind because it was incredible! Nigel Haworth obviously thought the same. He must have used this as his inspiration... It was just what the doctor ordered. Sorbet, chewy meringue and tart lemon custard to perk me right up! I enjoyed every mouthful, despite being on death's door five minutes previously. Total dessert warrior.
Chocolates: When our waiter appeared with a magnificent box of chocolates, I was torn between 'Ooh they are shiny and beautiful!' and 'Noooo! They will surely kill you!' We picked a Bounty style one and a peanut butter and jelly one. It's a good job we only picked one each, otherwise I am sure we would be deceased by now.
Petit Fours: I actually laughed out loud when I saw these appear with our coffees. I was again made to choose between feeling like I was about to burst and the utter gluttony that besieges me when I see a doughnut. Two doughnuts and a chocolate macadamia nut later, I was vowing never to eat again.
I hear Thomas Keller is now preparing for life as a retired man. Something tells me he won't be taking up crown green bowls or stamp collecting.
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