September 6

Oysters and Pearls at The French Laundry

11  comments

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.


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  1. I guess that I am a Middle-American schlub, but give me a chunk of Cheddar and a pork chop any day. For me, the Oysters and Pearls would be pearls before swine. Glad that you enjoyed Napa.

    COMMENT from MD EADES: Most days of the week (heck, most days of my life) a chunk of cheddar and a good pork chop would do me fine. Well, maybe throw in a glass of wine. But it’s really nice to experience something so completely out of the ordinary every now and then.

  2. Thank you for this review. What an expensive adventure! How did your friends feel about TFL for their anniversary celebration?

    COMMENT from MD EADES: They loved it and actually had thought it would cost even more than it did. It is more than expensive enough, if you ask me, but basically I looked upon it as a once in a lifetime experience.

  3. I’m afraid I have to be with Dr. Mike on this one. Short of a disposable income that would make a few national budgets go hide under a rock in embarrassment, I can’t see paying $240 for one of *any* meal. 🙂

  4. I’d say the oysters are probably Olympias or Kumamotos based on the size. Yummy, both of them, the Oly’s can be a bit more mineral-y. If you have trouble finding any, let me know – I live about 5 minutes from the outlet store of Washington’s largest shellfish producer and would be happy to ship some to you.

    COMMENT from MD EADES: Thanks! If I can’t find them, I will certainly give you a shout.

  5. Restaurants in London will charge as much as that for a meal, and just now looking in the Michelin red guide for France, I and dh found two star restaurants charging around €180 for a meal…so you didn’t do badly. We could never afford a meal like that but it sounds divine and a very special experience, and as though it was excellent cooking. The wine was very overpriced though !

    Anne

    COMMENT from MD EADES: I agree that while pricey, the food wasn’t obscenely overpriced. Even at $6 a bite, they were really really wonderful bites. The wine cost was beyond ridiculous, though.

  6. My husband and I ate at the French Laundry three years ago. When I made the reservations (I lucked out and just called; I didn’t know anything about waiting until a precise time) I advised the reservation taker that we didn’t drink–my husband is a recovering alcoholic but I didn’t offer that information–and she said “no problem.” When we got there, we were pleased that TFL offered some delectable nectars and ciders to go with our meal. At that time prix fixe was about $210 per person and we paid an additional $80 for the juices–not as bad as the wines but still, eighty bucks for juice. It was still a memorable meal and we appreciated that they weren’t trying to shove the wine list down our throats.

  7. Glad you enjoyed your dinner at TFL, I had dinner there recently as well, celebrating my wife’s 40th birthday. We had a great time, with dinner clocking in at almost 4.5 hours! However, I had a very different experience with regards to the wine. With four of us sharing a total of four bottles of wine, our total only ended up around $350. We found the Sommelier extremely helpful and sensitive to our desire to keep our “bar tab” to a reasonable level.

    Regards,

    Dan

    COMMENT from MD EADES: Glad you had such a lovely experience. The food is just amazing. But you must have had a different wine list; the night we were dining, their least expensive wine on the list was $125 and four of those would have set us back $500…plus tip. Maybe it changes. Maybe we hit a bad night. Maybe we missed some great value wines. We’ll have to request the helpful Sommelier next time.

  8. My husband and I did a chef’s tasting menu once — it was only about half the price of TFL and the food was quite impressive (plus the wines were reasonably priced)– but I didn’t find the event particularly enjoyable. I love good food and I love to cook but for me being at table is more about companionship and having a good time — good food merely adds spice to the whole event. There was something too pretentious and showy about the chef’s tastings format with its extremely artistic little bites of food and the amount of (I thought ostentatious)preparation and display on the part of the wait staff that made the whole performance very uncomfortable (they had fancy little brushes in silver cases that they flourished between courses to get rid of crumbs). I know I ate a lot over the course of about three hours, but I left the table feeling hungry.

  9. We dined with a party of ten in Sept. 2006 and 2007. At our 2007 seating they forgot the promised birthday cake and 5 of the 9 dishes were the same as the previous year. When we emailed and asked them to vary the menu, Thomas Keller called us personally and said, “If you don’t like what I serve, don’t come.” We cancelled and will now dine at Gary Danko’s in S.F., a much better restaurant. French Laundry is SO not worth what they charge you.

  10. Dr. Eades, I have been reading your husband’s blog and just started reading yours as well, so I apologize for the late response on this French Laundry post.

    I was very surprised by the statement that there is no wine on TFL’s list below $125, as that did not accord with my memory of dining there. I went to TFL’s website to look, and their current 104-page wine list (as of December 2008, which I am fairly sure is very similar to the September list) has quite a number of wines under that price. Chosen at random, there is a Chianti for $65, a Rioja for $45, a Loire Valley burgundy for $40. Wines by the glass begin at $11. They also have an extensive selection of half bottles, with several in the $30-$45 range. Perhaps whoever did the wine ordering was just overwhelmed by the size of the list?

    I’m also a bit surprised that your friend Debbie did not know the cost of dining there, since she did know the drill about calling two months in advance. The price doesn’t change that much from year to year, and the menu and price are available on the website and in every review and most amateur postings about TFL.

    The meal and wine prices are high, but they do include service, so the effective cost of the meal is $200 with a 20% tip.

    It’s not for everyone, no doubt. Besides the expense, the menu is fixed, and they don’t make course substitutions for a party of diners (though I believe they will work with a diner who has allergies). They also don’t have a liquor license (I read one woman’s blog wherein she castigated them for not providing her with a Bloody Mary for dinner).

    I have no connection with the restaurant. I just think it’s such an incredible and unique experience that I wouldn’t want someone to be put off by thinking TFL is gouging people who want wine.

    COMMENT from MD EADES: If there was such a list, our server didn’t give it to us that night. And if indeed I have erred, my apologies. That said, I did aver that except for the outrageous price of wine, the food and experience were worth the treasure. And I still do.

  11. My husband and I dined at TFL this weekend. I, too, was completely turned off by the outrageous prices on the wine list. It’s not just that the wines were expensive, but that they were way over priced. It seemed like the cheapest bottle of red was about $300. Crazy! But the food and presentation where terrific. Several courses blew me away and there were maybe two that were just so-so. Anyway, the tab for 4 people came to $2500. We were there for about 4 hours. We figured we paid about $10 a minute for the pleasure. It was worth it, but I think the next time I go, I’ll take a favorite wine and pony up the $75 corkage fee.

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