Note: I deliberately kept the resolution of the photos pretty high. Depending on your internet speed, some time may be required to download all of the photos in this review.
Ordinarily, the process is really simple. I visit a restaurant, shoot my photos, and on the drive home, I basically have a good idea of what I think, the words I plan to use and how I intend to frame a restaurant review. It’s just a matter of when I choose to write it, but it’s pretty cut and clear.
But none of those restaurants are The French Laundry.
Reviewing The French Laundry is…daunting.
This ain’t my first rodeo.
I’ve eaten at The French Laundry three times and know what to expect on my visit; this restaurant set the bar for virtually everything I’ve tasted since my first visit some eight years ago. My first visit was when Chef Corey Lee was heading up the kitchen in 2006 (with Chef Keller present, I believe), my second visit was in 2009 with Chef Tim Hollingsworth at the helm, and this visit would be my first with Chef David Breeden, who took over in 2013. I believe Chef Keller no longer cooks at all personally, but his mark is on everything at The French Laundry.
I have received more emails with “Have you been to French Laundry?” or “Where’s your review of French Laundry?” than any other topic on San Francisco Food. It was due time to go back and get photos. After recently trying the only other restaurant in California to receive three Michelin stars, The Restaurant at Meadowood, I felt compelled to go back and finally write a review of The French Laundry.
You see, prior to this last visit, I’d only been to The French Laundry for dinners and the dimly lit, romantic dining room was entirely too dark. In turn, every single photo I have ever taken at The French Laundry was…how to put this…horrifying.
Much like how daunting it is to review a restaurant of this caliber, even worse is the prospect of posting subpar photos of the food here — it was much better for me to never post a review than to post those photos, and to post a review of the food at The French Laundry without photos was a disservice and disgrace, too.
I visited The French Laundry for lunch this time, specifically for the purpose of this review. It was bright enough because I requested window-side seating — and now, I have the photos.
Oh, the things I do for you guys! :-P
So what’s the problem?
When you start to craft a review about what may be the world’s finest restaurant, you begin to feel inadequate with your words. There are flavors and emotions that the food here evokes that make all the words in my vocabulary seem inadequate; I’m sure there is a word–I just don’t know it. There are gastronomical occurrences during this meal I can’t convey accurately. There are cooking techniques and complexities here that go far beyond my cooking experience or culinary knowledge, even.
So unlike most any other restaurant in the world, I find that I’m slightly reticent and wholly intimidated by the prospect of writing this review, despite having returned to The French Laundry this time just to get photographs for this review.
But one must do what one must do — so, without further adieu, let’s move on. There’s some ground to cover before we get to the food!
Reservations at The French Laundry
It’s known worldwide that reservations at The French Laundry are hard to come by. There are stories out there of people living on the phone for days in a row to request a reservation. There are sites, many of them actually, devoted solely to acquiring this much coveted reservation.
Single Restaurant Reservation
People keep asking me if I get to go because they make a special reservation for me because of this website — and let me be clear: NO.
Unless my first name is Barack and last name is Obama, or Anthony Bourdain, it’s not going to work like this.
I have only one tip on this matter–which is also why I don’t have a hard time getting a reservation at The French Laundry: be free to go whenever something opens up. If they say a 9pm on Tuesday is available, I go at 9pm. If you see a Friday lunch spot open up — you take the day off and go then. When The French Laundry tells you a spot is available, you switch your entire schedule around to make sure you get there. If you don’t have this freedom, then it’s infinitely tougher, obviously.
For your convenience, enter a time and date in the Opentable box to the right; keep the date as it is and look for a reservation for four people with the time set to 7:30PM. Customarily, probably because this is such a popular restaurant for dates (which would be two people), four tops are easier to come by than two tops, so make sure you have friends who are set to go with you. Input a date until it shows “Find Next Available”. Once you click that, it will show you the next possible dates for The French Laundry — and more often than not, it will be the same week, due to cancellations.
There you go. That’s how you go to The French Laundry. Not surprisingly, you will need to input your credit card information to complete a reservation.
Entering The French Laundry
If you haven’t been to The French Laundry before, you might be taken aback by the structure itself. It’s like someone’s gorgeous little house from the outside that you would hardly take a glance at while driving by. We’ve come to expect expensive meals to be served in outlandishly lavish surroundings–and French Laundry isn’t that. Every inch of this place is actually perfectly kept, but from the street, you’re more likely to notice Thomas Keller’s enormous farm and greenhouse across the street than you would the restaurant building itself.
Once you stroll into the courtyard, you see a few areas with outdoor seating for guests to lounge. I’m not sure if they have wine service here, but how wonderful that would be on a nice Napa day!
When you enter the blue door, you’re in a small reception area. From the guestbook to the wine glass display to the lovely seating in the waiting “area” with a huge floral display with fresh flowers, there’s not a nook in this room that hasn’t been given meticulous attention, but in appearance, it’s quite simple.
There will almost never be a wait unless you’re ridiculously early. There is no bar inside The French Laundry that serves you drinks; when you check in, you’ll be taken to your table.
At your table, you’ll find the above setup, with the signature clothespin and big cloth napkin. I love the dinnerware used at The French Laundry; the gorgeous plates are large and designed by Thomas Keller to showcase the food. Yet each item really holds its own even with beautiful food on it. The collection is available here.
The Wines at The French Laundry
The last couple of times that I went to The French Laundry, they brought out a huge book for the wine list. It may have been the most massive wine “book” I have ever laid eyes on and you can’t help but look at the sommelier and say, “Help….me!”
This time, I noticed they had gone digital and the wine list was in tablet form. That said, I wasn’t planning on drinking as this was just a day trip, and I didn’t want to gorge on wine while Mr. K, who would have to drive us back immediately after lunch, was sans wine.
There are some exorbitantly priced wines on the wine list at The French Laundry, but don’t write it off just yet.
If you look through the pages, a very nice bottle of wine can be had for well under $200 at The French Laundry, and taking great comfort that if they stock it at The French Laundry, you can rest assured that it’s a pretty fantastic wine. After the first two courses, I couldn’t help myself — I was compelled to order a glass of wine–and I requested a buttery white wine. Our server opened a bottle a 2012 Louis Michel Montee de Tonnerre white Burgundy wine to pour me a glass — and it was delightful! With each sip and pairing it with the food, I was growing resentful that I wasn’t spending the night in the area so I could drink to my heart’s content!
The entire wine list is available to view here. As you can see, the price range is very wide. If you let your server or sommelier know, there is an amazing wine to experience during a meal at The French Laundry.
You can easily research some wines prior to your visit so as to make an informed decision about which bottle you choose, but for the ultimate experience, give the sommelier your budget (be honest!) and let him make a recommendation that would go best with the menu for that day, it really does elevate your experience to unimaginable heights.
Unlike some other fine dining establishments, perhaps because they are located in the beautiful and wine-savvy Napa Valley, The French Laundry does allow you to bring your own bottle of wine. They used to have a very fair price of $50 for corkage; I just learned on this visit that corkage is a whopping $150!
I have maybe three bottles that can warrant that kind of corkage, and none of them would be ready to open before 2025. With wines, I am not willing to pay anyone, even The French Laundry, more then 25% of the current retail value of the wine.
Buy your bottle there.
The Menu Choices at The French Laundry
I made a vow the last time I was at The French Laundry: the next time I come here, I would try the “Tasting of Vegetables” menu. It’s an equal number of courses, but caters specifically to vegetarians. Looking out at The French Laundry Garden across the street, if there’s one place where I’ll pay a fortune to try only vegetables, it will be here.
“On my next visit, no matter what, I’m going to try the vegetarian tasting menu!” I had declared in 2009.
“On my next visit, no matter what, I’m going to try the vegetarian tasting menu!” I declared.
Besides, whoever goes with me can get the Chef’s Tasting Menu and we…can…share, right?
Fast forward to 2014, and I’m looking at this menu–same folder, same paper, and even the same fonts. The idea was the Mr. K would have the Chef’s Tasting Menu, and I’d have the Tasting of Vegetables. After all, I was visiting for the SOLE purpose of reviewing The French Laundry. Looking at it, I wanted to feel a bit of “been there, done that” in regards to the Chef’s Tasting Menu and looked at the vegetarian menu at The French Laundry.
I could provide a comprehensive review of both menus!
I could get photos of both offerings!
It will be wonderful!
Sure, the “Tasting of Vegetables” read beautifully with “Coddled Bantam Hen Egg with Sacramento Delta Asparagus, Garden Radishes, Watercress, “Pommes Maxim’s” and “Hollandaise Fumee”.
Sure, the “Morel Mushroom Agnolotti with Wilted Ramps, English Peas, Parmesan Cream and Crispy Shallots” was something I’d love, and the French Laundry Garden Carrots with Garbanzo Bean “Croquette”, Sultana Puree, Cilantro Shoots and Sweet Carrot Vinaigrette” might make me love carrots. If anyone makes me love carrots, it will be the chefs of French Laundry….
But tell me – how does any meat-loving human being in their right mind pick those over “Sweet Butter-poached Maine Lobster with Applewood Smoked Bacon, Hen Egg “Gnocchi”, Sacramento Delta Asparagus, Fava Beans and “Paloise Mousseline”? Or Charcoal-Grilled Japanese Wagyu?
Yes, I caved. Yes, my plan failed. Yes, I couldn’t resist and had the Chef’s Tasting Menu, too. Besides, I doubt I have any vegetarians who even read this site given how much meat I write about. (That made me feel better about this decision.)
Furthermore, there were three supplements on the menu, which I believe is one more than was available on my previous visits, not to mention each supplement having gone up in cost. There was a Royal Kaluga Caviar $75 supplement, but nothing–and I mean NOTHING–was going to make me replace what I already knew was the first course of “Oysters and Pearls”. There was a $100 supplement for the salad course consisting of a Ravioli Au Pied de Cochon, which had me at “Hen Egg” and “Black Winter Truffles”. I also opted for the aforementioned Japanese Wagyu, which was also a $100 supplement.
Mr. K stayed with the regular menu. If I wasn’t going to be able to review the vegetable menu, then I could at least taste everything on the Chef’s Tasting Menu since he would receive all the courses without the supplements.
Keep in mind that before I even took a single bite of food, my portion of this food investment would be $495.
So, shall we finally take a look at the food now? Come along!
The Food at The French Laundry
The amuse bouche selection from kitchens across the world may change daily, or from time-to-time, but each visit to The French Laundry has started off with this dish for me. And believe me, I am not complaining. It’s a ridiculously cute beginning to what may be most people’s most expensive meal at $295 per person. A cone with something orange on top!
The inside of this sesame tuile “cone” is filled with a delectable red onion creme fraiche–a deep creamy flavor balanced perfectly with red onions to give it a refreshing twist. Topped with a tartare of salmon belly, which I noticed was more finely chopped this time versus previous visits, you’ll find that each bite of this little serving yields fascinating different flavors of fish, olive oil and lemon. By the time you get to the creme fraiche portion, you begin wondering just how uncouth it really would be to ask for another.
There are cheese puffs, and then there’s The French Laundry amuse bouche Gruyère cheese gougères. The cheese and creaminess is embedded into the entire puff, offering a consistent cheese flavor and intense bread aromas with each bite. One for each person, and the meal is about to begin. The two amuse bouche gives merely glimpse into what’s about to come, and you can’t help but get excited.
If I get up and leave right after this course, I would still leave happy. This one course takes you on a fascinating journey of flavor, intertwining sweet, salty, creamy, and several textures into each bite. On this last visit, it was served with Island Creek Oysters that were as plump as could be, and one bite into it, you were overtaken by the sweet and milky flavors that emerged. The White Sturgeon Caviar shown is not your regular caviar.
I suppose you have to be a real caviar connoisseur or The French Laundry to access this kind of caviar. If you took one little bite, you’d know. It’s not the typical salty and crunchy caviar; it’s a lingering flavor, almost sweet, accented by the saltiness, with a whiff of the sea. Impossible to describe, and near impossible to put down.
The French Laundry serves this dish with a “mother of pearl” spoon, made of oyster shells. Not only is it actually efficient in scooping up the food, but it’s attention to these kinds of details that make The French Laundry amazing: this spoon prevents the caviar from reacting to any kind of metal and changing the flavor into something metallic.
The creamy sabayon with tapioca is breathtakingly good, coming in second only to the ever-so-lightly cooked oyster and caviar. The mixture works wonderfully each and every time. On my second visit to The French Laundry, I splurged for the caviar supplement — and will never, ever do that again, not unless I can have both courses.
This, folks, is perfection in a bowl.
Two butters were served to our table. One was a fresh butter from Vermont, and another was from a farm local to The French Laundry. There was a small sprinkling of salt on the Vermont butter, but I suddenly missed the 312,645 varieties of salt that The French Laundry used to give you….perhaps it was with the foie gras? Both butters were rich and delicious but I, personally, need more salt on each bite. Compared to some fresh butters in Paris where thoughts of throwing down the entire stick down the gullet entered my mind, I didn’t think the butter was particularly great at The French Laundry. I’m racking my brain wondering if I felt like this on previous visits, but I can’t recall.
Ironically, I’ve always told folks that the service at The French Laundry is such that if I whisper, “I wish it had a little more salt,” the servers read your mind and come with two million kinds of salt from every continent, but alas, there was no such miracle on this trip. I’ll get into that later.
The bread service, naturally, is from Bouchon, a bakery down the street that is also owned by Chef Thomas Keller. All of the breads are great; I started off with the croissant and later also tried the sourdough roll. You can’t really tell from the lower photo, but let me tell you just how buttery that croissant was! It felt like it should be dripping, except that all of the butter was perfectly contained in the bread—and my fingers. It should be outlawed to put more butter on that thing, but…. but…. I had to taste the butter!
We received our second course, a salad of Hawaiian Hearts of Peach Palm, which consisted of roasted beets, Belgian endives, navel oranges and drops of a pistachio puree. It was gorgeous to look at, the freshness of each ingredient was remarkable, and the flavors melded nicely together to create a vegetable medley in your mouth of sweet, and the kind of sweet that only a fresh vegetable can yield, and nice seasoning. The puree lent a slightly deeper note that was necessary.
But it paled in comparison to the supplement I received.
Every single pasta I’ve ever had at The French Laundry has blown my mind. Just when you think you can cook a mean pasta, the pasta at French Laundry elevates what “fresh pasta” means and redefines how it should be cooked in your mind. The ravioli course was no different. A truly al dente pasta was filled with hen egg yolk and pork trotters, topped with fresh peas and slivers of romaine hearts with a “Parmigiano-Reggiano”. Tableside, the server then started grating truffles onto the plate.
She grated…and grated…and grated. Just when I was starting to think if she was waiting on me to say “when”, she finally stopped, leaving a trail of undescribable truffle aroma. That’s the thing about truffles; even if you love it, I dare you to try and explain it accurately so that someone else can imagine it. It’s not a scent or flavor that the human mind can conjure up without having tasted it. It would matter very little what was in that ravioli — once the server was done grating truffles, it became clear why this was a $100 supplement.
I shared half of my ravioli with Mr. K, partially because I’m nice, and partially because this dish was rich. VERY RICH. It’s only one over medium-sized ravioli, but with the yolk and truffles pervading your senses, it “feels” rich. It was perfect for two people to share, and actually, having access to the previously shown salad was good, as it broke up the richness.
At about this time, the bread service continues. This time, as mentioned, I opted for the sourdough, second from the right. But we all know Bouchon makes great bread.
I was telling Mr. K prior to our visit here that what makes The French Laundry worthwhile in cost and experience is that the food catapults outside what normal folks can imagine.
So often, for those of us who aren’t chefs by trade but can cook a great variety of things, eating out is a constant battle. For me, personally, I eat out to experience flavors and cooking styles that I can’t easily replicate at home. Thankfully, in a city like San Francisco or New York City, the choices are vast, but where I will begin to dislike a restaurant is when what they cook and how they cook it is something I do, or can easily do at home in my own kitchen. If I wanted food I can cook myself that tastes like yours or better than yours, I’d have cooked at home.
Now, at The French Laundry, as I was telling Mr. K, I am not ashamed to admit I don’t have a clue how to make most of the things they bring out just by looking at it or tasting it. I know what this is because the menu said so, but (1) I have not tasted a Dover sole like that in my life, and (2) how is that thing made?!
Granted, it’s partially the ingredients. The average cook doesn’t have access to the quality that The French Laundry offers. The Dover sole served here is most likely Solea vulgaris, a variety of sole not available in our oceans, which would explain how this “Dover Sole” was nothing like the “Dover Sole” I have regularly cooked. It was light but moist, buttery but not oily.
(Incidentally, this dish was amazing with the white Burgundy I had ordered.)
Then again, it’s not just the ingredients. I’ve bought Maine lobsters regularly, but my lobster didn’t quite come out like this, our fifth course for the day. Dishes like this one are the ones where the cost of eating at The French Laundry gets justified.
With the mousseline sauce laid down, you take one bite of this dish and it’s classically what I’ve come to expect from The French Laundry. In the majority of the food here, it’s not about complex flavors but rather, mixing up simple, clean, fresh and beautiful flavors to create something complex. There are no messy sauces where the intention of the sauce is skewed; each ingredient serves a purpose and somehow, each ingredient shines. On this dish, I can’t even say the lobster was my favorite, and nowhere else can I really say a stalk of asparagus rivaled the flavor of lobster. Nowhere else can I claim that the soft and slightly chewy texture of the gnocchi was equivalent to the nice, juicy bite of fresh lobster.
As a huge fan of Liberty Farm Ducks, and I attend many dinners that they are involved in, I was excited to see what The French Laundry does with the topnotch duck from this farm. The fattiness of this duck was astounding as a thick layer of fat on the outside, nicely colored and flavored. The meat was tender and juicy, and had nicely absorbed the honey flavors. The vegetable garnishes were, of course, mind-blowingly delicious. The beurre rouge was almost unnecessary in this dish; it held its own perfectly fine without it.
The skin’s crispiness was ideal, without going into a Chinese-like crunchiness, with the oils wonderfully going into the meat itself. As you can see, the meat was cooked perfectly from top to bottom. I’m not sure if this is sous vide with a sear on the skin, but it sure looks like it.
The lamb from the tasting menu arrived. Cooked to a beautiful pink, it was as moist as you could imagine.
The gaminess typically associated with lamb was nearly extinct, making it suitable for any palate. It’s amazing how tender this cut of meat was, and the flavors shined nicely. The addition of the tomato confit provided a nice balance to the meat plus vegetables, making it familiar to any palate.
But neither this lamb nor any meat on this side of the planet outside of Japan or Argentina could hold a candle to the supplement course that arrived at the same time.
Take a look at this below:
No words. I have no words to describe this.
One bite of this steak and I, no joke, had to stop, put my utensils down and savor that one bite like it was the last bite I’d ever get.
I am sorry to say that I have no details regarding how the latke tasted because for about 10 minutes, I thought of nothing else in this life except that steak. One bite into it and I knew I had never tasted anything close to this kind of a steak in my life. I’ve come close at Yakiniku Hiroshi in Honolulu, which was some outstanding Wagyu meat, but it wasn’t this good. I’ve had what I consider to be the world’s best steaks in Argentina, but this….
This was beyond steak. This was another beast entirely.
I stopped our server asking what grade of meat this was and his answer of “A10” answered it all. He then explained that the highest grade available for import to the United States is A10. The highest grade of beef is A13 and apparently, Japan does not export the top tier beef so they can serve it in-country only.
If I were to ding this steak, it would be for not even tasting like steak. It was more reminiscent of the highest grade pure butter than steak. When you put a slice into your mouth and hold it there, you can actually feel the marbling melt into your tongue! The meat actually had to be cooked to a near medium to ensure that each line of fat intertwined into the meat actually cooked. Without any exaggeration, I daresay that this cut was equal parts fat and meat.
ABSOLUTELY DIVINE. (I find myself getting happy again, just looking at the photos.)
Understanding that nothing in this world will outshine that steak, we inevitably moved to the next course at The French Laundry — a Soumaintrain cheese course. The croutons you see are made from a bread called “Pain de Campagne” — an old-world-esque French bread that has a slightly sour taste to it. The Soumaintrain cheese itself was pretty good, rich and creamy — if not a bit pungent for my taste. But this might be the one dish where I was left scratching my head. It didn’t taste bad but the combination was bizarre. The mushrooms a la Grecque were done nicely with lingering flavors, but between those, the cheese and coriander seeds, I was surprised — no, shocked — that the usual symphony of flavors didn’t happen.
Perhaps what I needed was a crisp wine to break the fight up — who knows, but this course didn’t work for me. I watched a table of three get served this course after me, and had to turn my head to laugh uncontrollably when I was observing the expressions on their faces because they all looked at each other after one bite and gave an ever-so-slight headshake, with one putting her utensil down immediately. We did finish ours — it wasn’t actually bad — but it was the first dish where we would have declined, had we been offered more.
The Desserts at The French Laundry
Customarily, I have always liked the desserts less at The French Laundry than the appetizers and main courses. With one or two exceptions over the years — and all were ice creams or sorbets of sorts, the level of mastery in flavors shown in the main courses have been missing in the desserts. They’ve always been beautiful, but they don’t hit the mark like all of the other courses do. Keep in mind, also, that I am not really a dessert person. It has to be pretty spectacular for me to say so.
The first dessert that came out, what was to be one of many, was a strawberry mascarpone with fresh strawberries and basil. It was gorgeous to look at and who doesn’t love the syrupy filling pour out, but it was maybe the least sensual course of the night. The textures were “plasticky”, and while you half expect a mochi-like give, it crunched to a break. Furthermore, all you really taste is strawberries and sugar. The strawberries were delicious, and overall, it was fine for many restaurants, but for The French Laundry, it was subpar for sure.
Just as I was thinking the desserts would dismay yet again, out comes this concoction. It played to the aforementioned strength at The French Laundry — keeping flavors clean, clear and distinctly separate but all dancing on your palate. I’m not even a fan of sherbert and this yogurt exemplified everything a dessert should be. I’d love to know where this yogurt is from, because I could eat this one all day long. It was creamy and slightly tart, and slightly sweet, and the remainder of the sweet was provided by the maple tart below. Together, it was a gorgeous play on light and heavy, sweet and sour.
Yes, this is dessert #3. Keep in mind that both Mr. K and I are receiving our own. To say we’re full by this time is an understatement. It’s also approaching the third hour we’ve been there. While I was taking these shots, I heard Mr. K say, “Yum, this is like….a $100 Kit Kat bar!” When I took a bite, I couldn’t help but laugh because he’s right; it’s Kit Kat, upgraded by 100x with top quality chocolate that was just the right amount of sweetness. The texture of the chocolate portion was much like velvet.
This was a very good dessert that Mr. K enjoyed a lot more than I did; I let him finish it after one bite. It would be a fine dessert anywhere that people would enjoy, but for the second time on this day, it didn’t fit in with the creativity and finesse so clearly shown in other dishes. Granted, I understand people have different chefs for dessert vs. entrees and stations are manned by different folks, but from the presentation to the overall “wow” factor, I thought it was just an okay dessert.
Mignardises at the French Laundry
Given that the last “course” was three different desserts — did you think you were done?
Oh, no…not at The French Laundry. Now come the regular mignardises — sweet “after-dinner” treats they give their guests. First up was the gorgeous French Laundry branded wooden box that opens up to show a gorgeous selection of truffles. We picked one each, though I’ve picked more than one before because our server insisted we take more on previous visits. The truffles were good, but they didn’t redefine what a truffle should be, and call me picky, but for everything else, that is what The French Laundry does.
Up next was the “coffee and doughnuts” course. The coffee is actually a cappuccino semifreddo — much like soft frozen coffee ice cream under the foam. It’s rich and completely flavorful, with a pleasant whipped texture keeping the semifreddo light and airy. I’ve had this one on every visit and no matter how full, you find room for it.
Also presented with the “coffee and doughnuts” are chocolate covered macadamia nuts. We had one each — and again, the chocolate was delicious, and the nuts are…well, macadamia nuts. Large, but still plain. Each piece required two bites, so as you have some idea of size.
Just in case you’re still wanting for sweets, housemade macarons are presented. The banana nutella yellow macarons, if you like macarons, were nicely flavored with a nice crunch and an airy, weightless texture within. The coconut passionfruit one was not a favorite. That being said, I am not someone who understands what the big deal about macarons is, and have yet to try one that I thought was worthwhile, including these.
And finally, you get the sugar covered donuts. These are light and delicious with cup of real coffee, which I had on previous visits. But as it’s served with the semifreddo “coffee”, you’re on your own if you didn’t order coffee service. On their own, it’s a bit dry for me, but taste-wise, they were quite delicious.
And that, folks, was the end of the food journey at The French Laundry.
But there’s more to talk about….because, you know, this review isn’t long enough already.
The Service at The French Laundry
During my first dinner at The French Laundry, I realized that they set the bar for outstanding service. If you were a guest and if you were seated, you were the center of their attention. Because the dining rooms are rather quiet and nobody is usually obnoxiously loud, we do tend to whisper during the meal. But most notably, if I whispered that I’d have rather have had a spoon than a fork, it was seconds before a pristine fork would be offered to me. If I commented that it was a tad bland, as mentioned before, a huge variety of salts would be presented to me, or someone would offer to take it back to the kitchen immediately (for which there was no need). Exemplary service was an understatement; French Laundry gave new meaning to service.
Most impressive was that this same level of service was offered to me, the table across from me who came shabbily dressed, the table across the room of people who were obviously well-known, etc. At what was one of the most expensive restaurants in the world at that time, they treated each table and each guest like royalty.
On this visit, from the host to our server, you couldn’t really find any fault. Our server was actually great and humorous. But overall, that exquisite, incomparable level of service was not to be found. I’m not sure if it was because it was lunch and not dinner, as I was told they have 16 staff for lunch, and then a different 16 staff members would service dinner. But there were several staff members who came by to present a dish, and I couldn’t help but notice that our “thank you” was not met with any reply. And those folks did it the same way with the couple next to our table, as well as a table of three across from us.
And that, for anyone who has ever visited The French Laundry in years prior, is not something that happens at The French Laundry.
Overall Summary of The French Laundry
At the time of this writing, a meal at The French Laundry runs $295 per person without any wine, and without any of the supplements, of which there were three on the day I went back. Service, however, is included. You can always tip more should you feel inclined to do so, but it’s not necessary.
But let’s think about this. For my lunch, had I opted for all three supplements in hopes of elevating the quality of my experience, my meal would have been $570 — for my own portion.
$570 for one person!
When I first visited The French Laundry in 2006, it was $210 per person with supplements ranging from $30-100 if I recall correctly — and the $30 was for amazing foie gras. On my next visit a couple of years later, it was $240, and I believe supplements were about $50-100. Now, nearly 4.5 years since my last visit, it’s $295 with three supplements with the lowest-priced supplement being $75 and the remainder being $100 each. These aren’t additions; they are replacements to what was actually planned for that course.
At this point, a meal at The French Laundry is still worth the cost in my opinion. It’s hovering dangerously close to where it would no longer be worthwhile for me, a person who has already visited, to go again. But if you haven’t been, then even at this price, I would definitely recommend that you plan a special trip around a dinner at The French Laundry. Any higher than this, and I’m not sure that experiencing “the best salmon ever” or “the world’s greatest steak” is really worth more than $570 if you’re at all concerned about cost.
Other than the slight yet discernible change in service, I might be insane but I could swear there was a course or two more between meals on my prior visits, including a sorbet served solely for the purpose of cleansing the palate, which was missing on this day. This could also be the reason why an ordinarily almost four hour meal ended just minutes shy of three hours.
Our total bill for the meal was $883.44 which included 2 Chef’s Tasting Menus at $295 per person, two $100 supplements that I had requested for the ravioli and steak (oh, that was still worth it!), my one glass of wine at $28.00 per serving, and tax. Again, service is included, which actually makes it considerably less painful.
NOTE: Do check your bill as our original bill included the full bottle of wine whereas I only had one glass. We caught it and it was quickly fixed, but definitely check your bill. I think people have a tendency to think it’s going to be expensive, and just hand a credit card over when the bill reads $800 or $900, not realizing that the difference is a whole bottle of wine.
Eating at The French Laundry consists of a lot of “first-time” experiences. The whole thing is a gastronomic experience, which is what justifies the cost. There’s good reason why this restaurant is on so many people’s bucket lists, and I daresay it’s worth it.
If it’s just about one or two things on the menu, even I can’t justify this spend. But it’s about having your palate wake up to new flavors and new expectations with each bite of every course. Just when you think it can’t get better, at The French Laundry — it does. That said, while this course after course elevation trend halted pretty quickly at the cheese and desserts for this meal, prior to that, all six courses made me rethink that specific protein or vegetable, yet again.
Even days after the meal, I get dreamy thinking about the oyster and pearls course, and I swear, I really do get happy just looking at the A10 Wagyu steak photo. That alone was enough to make this meal worthwhile.
As the only other California restaurant that has three Michelin stars, I’d opt for a meal at The French Laundry any day before The Restaurant at Meadowood. The two are not in the same class — not even close! You can read my review of The Restaurant at Meadowood and see for yourself.
The French Laundry is located at 6640 Washington St., Yountville, CA. Their hours, menu and history can be found on their website.
Service: 9.2/10 — down from what I’d have said was a perfect 10 previously
Food: 9.9/10 — except desserts, which were inconsistent
Addictive Factor: 9/10 — minus half a point for excessive price
Overall Rating: 9.6/10
Grace Keh is the author of "Food Lovers' Guide to San Francisco" and the critic, editor and photographer behind San Francisco Food. In her regular day job, she consults for corporate clients in marketing and event strategy. Once the sun sets, she's on the hunt for great food in what she considers to be one of the world's greatest cities, San Francisco.