We were recently invited to join our friends, Mike and Debbie, to celebrate their anniversary with a weekend of wine tasting and golf in Napa. The acme of the trip–the clincher that made me instantly agree to join them the second Deb’s email hit my inbox–was dinner at Thomas Keller’s French Laundry, about which veteran readers of my darling husband’s blog have already heard an earful…or two.
While we’ve enjoyed lots of great meals in wonderful restaurants, cafes, and bistros in many trips to Napa (since it’s not far off the I-80 path we regularly travel between Santa Barbara and Tahoe) we’ve never planned far enough in advance to get reservations for TFL. The reservation drill, according to Debbie, is that you must call exactly 2 months in advance of the day you wish to dine and hope that the reservation and phone gods are with you. The first time, she hit redial for an hour and a half before having to finally give up. The next week, she recruited 3 of her employees to help her and all four of them hit redial for another hour and a half before one of them finally got through and was able to secure a table for 4.
Going in, you know it’s going to be expensive. You’ve heard that it is and you expect a stiff tariff. But it still sort of takes your breath away. (Though it’s less, per person I’ve heard, than a few of the toniest Vegas establishments.)
Upon being seated, the wait staff presents you with the menu, embossed with the signature French Laundry clothespin. Some courses offer a choice between two different dishes, but basically, the menu gives you only two alternative tracks: the Chef’s Tasting menu, which runs the gamut of every wonderful meaty, fishy, and fowly thing and the Vegetable Tasting, which is mostly veggie with a couple of choices that include some fish, though always juxtaposed against a purely vegetarian alternative choice.
The fish slip in on that track, I guess, because the so-called beady-eyed vegetarians, who eschew dining on charismatic mega-fauna (aka cows, sheep, deer, elk, bison, etc. ) will bend their principles to eat members of the animal or fish kingdom (i.e., chicken and fish) that have the genetic misfortune to possess beady-eyes, rather than big, brown Bambi eyes. Based on that philosophy, one can only speculate about the pig, which has neither Bambi eyes, nor exactly beady ones. Whatever; they usually eschew dining on pig as well.
At the bottom of the menu–under each track–you’re informed that the dinner is $240 per person prix fixe, service included. But not libations.
Debbie didn’t ask the price when she called (it was a landmark celebration and price wasn’t the object, after all) and they didn’t offer to enlighten her, which to my way of thinking, they should have. Or at the very least, they should send a nice email, confirming your reservation, and subtly informing you that you have limited choices in selection and that dining there is a prix fixe affair at a cost of $240 per person before wine, and giving you 24 hours to cancel your reservation without penalty if you so choose. It would be the fair and honorable thing to do to be sure that people know exactly what they’ve signed up to buy. Most would still come, but others might opt out and ought to be given the chance to do so. Some folks, who didn’t ask the cost and weren’t told, might really get blindsided and once seated feel obligated to stay, even at a price they could ill afford. (The $100 per person cancellation fee might also figure into their decision to stay and dine, since they’d be in for nearly half the price for none of the fun, if they chose to cut and run.)
Pricey though it is, even after the fact, I can see the value (about $6 a bite) in the incredible amount of skilled culinary labor that goes into each dish. Every one is a work of art, played out in delicious flavors, on a pure white porcelain canvas. The preparations begin early in the day, with under chefs out in the garden across the street at 8 o’clock in the morning, harvesting tender veggies and fragrant herbs for the night’s meal.
Where I parted ways with TFL was in their wine list, which to my mind was obscenely overpriced. There wasn’t a wine on the list under $125, a few in the $160 to $180 range, a few more in the $200s and $300s, but far and away most of the wines were $300 to $1000 per bottle and one was $6600.
I was once told, by a NY Times food writer/restaurant reviewer, that the rule of thumb for appropriate pricing of a wine list was that however extensive it might be, however far into the realm of phenomenally expensive wines it might wish to go, about one-third of its wines should be priced at or below the cost of the most expensive entree on the menu. Of course a fixed menu, such as TFL, doesn’t price the entree, so it’s a slightly different calculus. If one assumes the entree represents approximately one-half the food cost of a meal (with the salad, appetizer, and dessert making up the other half) then the ‘entree’ of the meal at TFL would run $120.
There was nothing on their quite extensive, shockingly expensive wine list at or below that price. And there was but one bottle that I can recall on their lengthy list that was close. You can’t tell me that they can’t find a dozen delicious wines, practically at their back door, that they would be able to sell at a fair price and still make money on. They’re in Napa, for crying out loud!
We ultimately chose a bottle of Peter Michael wine that I believe retails for about $160. Having been in the restaurant biz years ago, I suspect they got it for less than half of that and probably less than that. We paid $285 for the bottle, as I recall, which is a pretty nice mark up from the $80 or less that it likely cost them. But the wine is not what you go to TFL for.
The food is extraordinary and you can’t get a meal of equivalent beauty anywhere else in Napa that I know of. The wine, on the other hand, is the same bottle whether poured at TFL or down the street at Bistro Jeanty, which also has delicious food. It just costs a whole lot more pop the cork and pour it in the former, apparently. And for my money, the overblown pricing of their wine list mars the overall experience. It feels purely and simply like a gouge and totally unworthy of an establishment of this caliber.
But dining at TFL is not even just about the food that’s offered, which to me (and Mike and I disagree on this point) was quite spectacular, but how it’s offered. It’s not so much about eating, as the experience: every course plated to utter perfection, each a work of art, visually and in its combinations of taste and texture.
From the amuse bouche of teeny crispy cornets filled with tuna tartare to the hand-dipped truffles and chocolates that finished the meal, the execution was perfection itself.
But for me, the outstanding course of the evening–perhaps the single most delectable bites of food I’ve ever eaten in my entire life–was the Oysters and Pearls.
On a bed of warm, creamy, large-pearl tapioca–savory, not sweet–two tiny, succulent oysters lay on one side of a quenelle of black caviar. And not a small quenelle, either, a pretty healthy portion. The balance of salty caviar against the savory tapioca imparted a delicate sweetness to the tender, perfectly cooked oysters.
I could have had four of these and nothing else and gone away happy!
This recipe is in The French Laundry Cookbook, which is in my cookbook library in Santa Barbara. I plan to give it a whirl someday, though getting those tiny, tender oysters may prove a challenge.
So we’ve been, now, on a pilgrimage to the famed Laundry, the Mecca of French Haute Cuisine in Napa. Would we go back? Mike says ‘no’! I say, probably so, though I’d likely take my own wine and pay the corkage fee (which is steep) next time.