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May 20, 2012 05:08 AM

Pardon if this is played out here: Spring 2012 update on French Laundry?

I haven't seen any current conversation about French Laundry, and was wondering if any of you hounders had been back recently, and any thoughts? I went in 2007 or so. I didn't see any recent threads on this. Pardon me if I am missing them....... I wouldn't mind seeing a *VERY* up to date thread return in Google, where most seem 2008 or 2009. This is dense with questions, but I would love others who search google, but don't add content like us, to be able to see something "fresh".

Having just returned from France, where we ate at approx 5 or 6 spots that were comparable, I think we are shifting some of the budget from the trip (we did very well planning for years! yay!) and treating ourselves to Keller's spot. I really think my wife needs to eat there, to compare and understand what's going on here (I am amazed how much our little Marin up through Sonoma/Napa is like a Provence, Cote D'azur.... the topography not as mesmerizing or grand, but the culture and cuisine is more akin to anywhere else in the US??). I also think my wife needs to eat there because I doubt we will be able to do anything like this ever again... or at least for a long time. We saved for years for this trip. =)

SO.... I would love your opinions and thoughts. My questions:

1) Budget: $500 for two, approx, save wine pairing (is there a pairing?), but I assume apres-tif, two half bottles, digestif... coffee, etc... Is budgeting $1000 a fair assessment?

2) I know they stopped automatically doing the doughnuts... but can you still ask at the beginning of the meal?

3) Grat is included, but what % is that added gratuity at? What is the expectation at the end of the meal... is it 5 - 10 % as in France, as a true commentary on service? Or is it an added 2% if the autograt is at 18%??

4) Reservations: tables released 60 days out? I note Open Table doesn't ever have any tables listed... is there a day of the week of month that is better? Or just call? At Frenchie in Paris (wonderful but I am not comparing the two, only the difficulty in getting a rez) - we walked up and got sat because they book 3 months out, and therefore have cancellations because it's untenable to hold that many for so long. Does FL have last minute cancellations (unlikely.... I know)? We live about an hour south, and assume a weekend drive to make reservations in person is the best bet? Any advice in this department would help.

Thanks so much for suffering my curiosity.... it's a once in a lifetime thing, so I wanted to do a little research... we are beside ourselves in this day and age to be able to consider it, and sort of feel weird being able to do it. But your comments are welcome.

Pic is not relevant. Sort of. It's my wife in a Provencal plateau, in the tiny village of Buoux. Yay. The food there was devastating, as we don't know if we can ever "go back"...

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  1. I have a reservation one week from today and will share my thoughts shortly thereafter. To 4), yes 60 days out; and in contrast to Per Se, it isn't just a matter of calling right at 10am and waiting on hold for 25-30 minutes before getting put through to a reservationist. Rather, I had to call 4-5 times per minute for ~45 minutes before I finally made it through and even then all they had left was an 11:15am lunch reservation. Since I live in the Midwest, making a reservation in person wasn't an option.

    13 Replies
      1. re: Robert Lauriston

        Thank you both. I would say "enjoy" to degust.... but you will. You will. Be excited. =) If you aren't an impossible person, I doubt you could build it up too much? Maybe that's just me, but I am quite simple. CHEERS TO YOU and enjoy....

        Robert.. thanks for the linky. I do have to admit, that thread just made me feel weird. The concept of two pasta dishes being "wrong", then being consumed... it's just bizarre. How can you eat something and expect the restaurant to be able to comprehend or do anything about it. You finished the course, it's time to move on. The confusion about "service" being a one way street is wrong. If you demand excellence at those prices, you take the responsibility to know what you like, know what is right or wrong, and then help the restaurant understand this. If the pasta wasn't right, you sit there and don't eat it, repeatedly informing service to fix it. Period.

        What expectation should a restaurant have, or what ability, to resolve a situation, if the course is consumed? It's as much a patron's responsibility to guide service as it is the restaurant. At least, in that situation. I know portions are diminutive in accordance with the greater scope of the entire coursed menu... but if you eat it, you shouldn't expect the restaurant to be able to do anything about it???? It's not like one is a passive onlooker to experience. Experience takes both sides of the coin, everyone is responsible....

        It would be like drinking a bottle of wine, then saying you didn't like it. It seems a bit absurd to me?

        =) Cheers. It did remind me lunch might be a smarter move... I think that's the way we will do most of Europe next time. Chateau Eze's lunch in south of France was identical menu to dinner at 50% the cost.

      2. re: degustingdiary

        So frustrating. I dialed two phones for 40 minutes prior to getting through, only to find them fully committed for July 30th by 10.35a. Also there were no options July 29th (obviously). I am on a waitlist, and honestly... it just seems so undignified a methodology for booking a place like this. It isn't like we are teeny boppers trying to score tickets to a concert. Or are we?

        But our trip hinges on being able to eat there, so it looks like we will be cancelling Bardessono, our reservation for dinner at Lucy, etc. I imagine the money they lose from us not being in Yountville is inconsequential in the grand scope, but it's interesting... we work hard to escape and vacation without stress. The process of trying to freak out and book a hotly contested table is completely opposite the type of energy we want to explore in prepping for a vacation. I am pretty sure this slight, inconsequential experience is digging away at any desire to participate in the hip fine dining food craze. Just a bad taste in my mouth. Of course, those with reservations are unlikely to share this opinion, and are just exhilarated by the adrenalin of it all.....

        but there must be a better way.

        1. re: unclefishbits

          Sorry to hear that, unclefishbits. I'm still working on the write-ups from my trip, but what I will say is that we had 20+ courses at benu, TFL and The Restaurant at Meadowood, and while the first two were great, I find myself absolutely smitten by what Chef Kostow is doing with vegetables. We did the chef's menu in their dining room, but when we went to thank Chef Kostow after dinner, the counter seemed like it would make for a really special evening.

          1. re: unclefishbits

            There's nothing hip about the French Laundry. It's a pillar of the old-school Michelin establishment and the fundamental aesthetic of overindulging in luxury foods as status display dates back to the Edwardian era.

            1. re: Robert Lauriston

              Whoa, tell us how you really feel, Robert. LOL

              1. re: Robert Lauriston


                have you eaten at the French Laundry?

                i saw Ruth's post get removed which said you hadn't?

                1. re: drewskiSF

                  Not since Thomas Keller bought it.

                  Despite my lack of enthusiasm for that style, I do eat that way once in a long while, but I'd try Saison, Commis, Atelier Crenn, and Coi and go back to Manresa before getting around to the French Laundry.

                  1. re: drewskiSF

                    There's this teensy line that's crossed when a person has never dined at a restaurant yet strongly criticizes it in writing as if he had.

                    Without having dined at FL, one has no idea of what a meal is really like. No knowledge of how much food you think it is vs. how much food it really is. No idea of how rich vs. un-rich the food is. And the entire Gestalt of the meal -- a sensual, visceral ride of tasting, seeing, and experiencing, of which the food is only a part -- is lost on that person.

                    Having dined there several times, I would say nothing is "status display" -- the tiny courses are quietly elegant. Luxury foods are tiny notes throughout the meal and not of a quantity that could accurately be described as "overindulging." The meal is a
                    stunning sequence of tiny courses, each like a jewel.

                    I understand how one can hear other people describe their meal at the FL, and form an impression based on that. And that one could be turned off tasting menus because of feeling too full in the past. And that one would choose other restaurants of the same calibre to try before this one.

                    It's just the never-have-been-there-but-will-write-a-damning-opinion-as-if-I-had thing.

                    1. re: maria lorraine

                      It's so funny... I am broke. I have no status. My wife and I choose how our money is spent in the most decidedly conscious way... we don't have cars that cost $500 a month. We don't have memberships or club fees. We don't carry any debt, or buy things we don't need... no TV's, work out equipment, no shopping or mindless tech. We don't spend money until something is broken, etc.

                      We save all our money to spend on travel, responsibly. Saying "responsibly" means always spending money where the experience outshines the cost. You know that divine moment when you get a bill, no matter how large, and you understand the value, and the worth, of that service.... and it is more than worth it. Completely justified? That's what my first experience at FL was for me. Four nights at a bad four seasons, 2 nights in the sweltering heat of an Italian summer... none of that is worth it to us. But one good, extremely ridiculously priced meal that we have to save for for months over months.... we don't bat an eyelash. When the food and experience are at that level, then I seriously consider that worthwhile....

                      There's a difference between the concept of "costly", and the concept of "value". I am not sure if the costly French Laundry has "value" to everyone, but it really will for my wife and I.

                      And the point is, we are the opposite of elite, rich, a "scene", etc. We just choose to spend our money in a drastically different way than most people. But to not have experienced it does taint the review.....

                      1. re: unclefishbits

                        I'm not trying to discourage anyone from eating at the French Laundry if they want to, I just thought it might cheer up unclefishbits to know that an obsessed local foodie who can easily afford to eat there doesn't care enough to get around to it.

                        If people who go to those places regularly gave it top marks I might feel differently, but while that might have been true a few years ago I don't often hear it today:


                        1. re: Robert Lauriston

                          I have to agree with this to an extent... I ate there in January and while there were elements of the meal that it would be an understatement to call memorable, I was put off by the sheer cost of the evening. I had the extended tasting menu and was not quoted a cost but was merely given a range and told it was at the whim of Chef Hollingsworth. Of course the final bill ended up being at the high end of the range. I do not regret going there once but I don't imagine I will ever return (unless it's on someone else's dime).

                          1. re: gourmandish

                            Well said. I can't imagine a local foodie who wouldn't be curious enough to eat there, honestly.... but it's a fine point. And honestly, I don't know if I could handle gaffes at that price... and there are always gaffes, it's a human condition. =) We'll see it works out someday. I thought it would be fun to call off a rotary phone today to try to get a rez. You will be happy to know that also did not work.

            2. IIRC they only put two tables on Open Table for dinner, and maybe only one for lunch. If you have a credit card with concierge service (a Visa signature or AmEx), you might want to request that they try to make the reservation for you. The third option is booking one of the hotels in Yountville and asking them to book a table for you. Good luck!

              7 Replies
              1. re: Ruth Lafler

                Ruth... brilliant. Bardessono does an affordable sunday night supper rate. I think that is a brilliant idea for a gastronomique weekend. =)

                1. re: unclefishbits

                  Yes, the "Lucy" restaurant at Bardesonno does offer that Sunday night prix fixe but please don't ever consider it in the slightest to be a substitute for the French Laundry.

                  Bardessono has a lovely garden from which to draw -- the food is highly fresh and locally sourced, but it's something on a Chez Panisse-wannabe level, and nowhere near the quality of FL.

                  Complaints/Expectations: When I read a complaint about FL or an FL-type restaurant, I always run it through a mental filter to ascertain if the complaint sounds legitimate, or if a minor error was made worse by the diner's poor communication skills, or, if the complainer appears to be a habitual nitpicker. I try to figure out the diner's expectations. Was he expecting El Bulli when eating at FL and then wondered what the fuss is all about? The expectation was the error, not the food.

                  If you need to experience FL's stylized "country inn" experience full of both whimsy and drama, then scratch that itch and go snare your res. Or head to Cyrus, in Healdsburg, similar to FL but with slightly more edge and modern touches. Another option, Meadowood in St. Helena, is a dichotomy of quiet elegance and screamingly innovative ingredient sourcing. Bear in mind, none of these restos are innovative in food wizardry (molecular chemistry) like El Bulli or Alinea. Make your choice based on the menus and your location and reviews and comments. Get the res, now, though.

                  Having said all that, I feel you may be overlooking other splendid candidates for your gastronomique weekend. in Napa, your restaurant choices could range from Morimoto for executional brilliance and flavor (my current favorite), to a gourmet picnic with wine overlooking vineyards at a winery, to exploring the food truck scene for delicious casual Mexican or amazing chicken sandwiches. After all, gastronomy explores the entire range of deliciousness, from haute cuisine to "peasant" food.

                  A dinner that skillfully pairs food and wine (since you're in wine country), is probably in order for a traveled gastronome like yourself (this could be the FL-type meal or one at a winery). Northern Californian wine country cannot offer you French food like that of France, or Italian food like that of Italy, but it can offer you the best of Northern California's plethora of raw ingredients played out in a variety of ethnic expressions. I could go on and on, but those are my initial thoughts.

                  1. re: maria lorraine

                    My friend had opened Meadowood at 2 stars, and I haven't been, just like I haven't been back to Murray, because I want to experience him... not others. =) But I will certainly put Meadowood on the short list.

                    I was speaking of Bardessono's Sunday night as a nice simple night at the hotel, for a two night stint, Monday being French Laundry. I would never compare the two.... service and food at Bardessono isn't meant to compare, and it's just fine. It's actually quite simple and nice.... the staff is casual, etc. We had the sous chef come out while we were eating at Bardessono.. she was a delight. No pretention, just passion for food, an a total "where I got it" dork like us. Not the silly "local" nonsense... just excited about discoveries from places that make great food. Local is good, but since Portlandia hit the nail on the head, I am highly conscious of not sounding pedantic. =)

                    The new study about organic is well timed... organic is marketed to death, and wildly misleading. It's about chemicals, not about some bloated concept of "organic".

                    Organic makes you a jerk, study finds. ha

                    Buying an organic veggie from south america is NOT better than buying a conventional carrot from Petaluma. Period. It's amazing how easily swayed people are, and I am getting tired of marketing destroying thoughtful concepts.

                    but I am grumpy about social media and marketing today. =)

                    Also... I miss Martini House. A lot.

                    Also... I am not ashamed to admit I enjoyed Royal Oak at Silverado VERY much and wish more people did table side caeser. =)

                    1. re: unclefishbits

                      Sounds as if you have a fairly good handle on what's going on in the established restaurant scene in Napa Valley. I know you like what you like. I'd still urge you to explore some alternate unabashed flavor options. I know you're dealing with a wife, and will have to make decisions as a team. Good luck to you -- have a wonderful time.

                      1. re: maria lorraine

                        Very kind, and quite astute about partnership & marriage. It's taken me some time to defer completely to wifey, as a team negotiates, even when I know I am walking into a bloodbath. =) Against all external advice in Paris, she was determined to try a spot, and I bit my lip. I will save colorful words for later, but it was *not good*. =) Give and take, but egalitarianism means everything is discussed, and the romantic notion of a surprise isn't always how it exists in reality.

                        Your list was very refreshing to me, because it didn't list Ad Hoc or Brix or whatever. ha... thank you. It's copy and pasted and saved. Cheers!

                    1. re: maria lorraine

                      I cannot thank you enough for that. I do not canonize Bauer by any means, but his review is on par with my past experience. I was meant to stay at bardessono, if I got the FL rez, but as I didn't, we prolly won't stay or dine at Lucy either. Whatever the case, That review is poison.

                2. I noticed same week reservations were easier to come by in January & February on Opentable.

                  1 Reply
                  1. Finally finished my write-up (photos are on my blog):

                    I've been in enough restaurants to know that some use cameras to get a sense of when to fire the next course. But this was different. 'Twas the course after Oysters and Pearls and all through the dining room, not a runner/server/or captain was in sight. Savoring the textural playground of Santa Barbara uni, English cucumber, avocado and chili threads, my brother--staring down into his bowl--asked, "Do you know what that creamy white layer is?" "Not sure," I responded.

                    A couple minutes later, with all of us having nearly repristinated our plates, a server whose name I never managed to ascertain walked over to clear our plates, but before doing so said mischievously, "That white layer was a ginger panna cotta."

                    Those zones of privacy the Warren Court identified in Griswald v. Connecticut don't apply in The French Laundry, and I'm glad they don't because it's the front-of-house's job to anticipate and to accommodate--within reason, of course--the diner's requests. And that's exactly what they did for just shy of six hours.

                    To say the staff at The French Laundry were gracious hosts would be stating the obvious. But occasionally the obvious needs stating. They were more generous than they needed to be, especially since we were first-time diners. In the process, they set an impossibly high standard for my return visit to Per Se two weeks from now.

                    But my feelings toward the restaurant weren't always so effusive.

                    This is not Per Se, I thought, after spending 45 minutes on the phone, calling 4-5 times a minute to secure an 11:15am lunch reservation. And the curt reservationist didn't bother to ask about dietary restrictions, special occasions and couldn't guarantee an extended tasting menu, but instead said it would be up to the chef on the day of our meal, adding needless uncertainty to our trip (yet when we sat down, Andrew, our captain, greeted us without menus and said the kitchen would be cooking for us).

                    And then there were the inaugural canapés: the gougère seemed colder than Per Se's with too much choux pastry and not enough mornay, and the cornet cone seemed thicker than I remember, partially masking the tartare.

                    From there, however, the expectations one brings into a three-star Michelin, perennial San Pellegrino Top 100 establishment started to not only get met, but to get surpassed one plate after another. The oysters and pearls were overturn-the-furniture-in-your-head good, with a bowl of sabayon so bottomless it was as if shoveling decadence into my mouth would eventually yield to the earth's core. Chef Hollingsworth, who happened to be slicing diaphanous pieces of green tomato in preparation for the impending dinner service when we ambled off to the kitchen to thank him, and his small army of cooks don't just make memorable dishes; they make you forget about your surroundings, forget about the cumbrous reservation system and convince you to return before your meal is even close to over just to see what they'll do next.

                    The truth is there were about a dozen courses that merit a dissertation-length paean, as each successive set of plates confronts you with something unprecedentedly delicious:

                    An amalgam of textures and temperatures of beet that would daunt even the most dexterous of kitchens.

                    Gnocchi, swiftly and surreally engulfed by a swarm of black truffles, which in turn delicately alert your olfactory that something inimitable is about to happen.

                    A comprehension-defying elision of squab breast and sausage dusted tableside (by maitre d' and raconteur Larry Nadeau) with pulverized duck crackling and fleur de sel.

                    The sensual adventure of grilled Snake River Farms ribeye -- the blushing piece of beef was beautiful and salty and madly grand, coaxing out of each of us a soft, irrepressible purr.

                    And on it went. In the end, though, the faultless service and the kitchen's close-to-perfect execution must be experienced to be believed.


                    1. "We live about an hour south, and assume a weekend drive to make reservations in person is the best bet? "

                      I was told they no longer accept walk-up reservations made in person (60 days out of course). I was told by someone who worked in reservations that local inns would send worker bees to the restaurant to snag reservations for future guests and that this got out of hand, so to be fair they simply quit taking walk-up requests.

                      They close down for a while, I think around Christmas, and it can be much easier to get a reservation right after they open. We scored in early February one year, IIRC.

                      Meadowood is really good too, we hit both places back-to-back and the two most memorable dishes were from Meadowood, though of course the scope and ambiance were better at FL.

                      6 Replies
                      1. re: willyum

                        Were you at meadowood when it was Joe Humphrey? Or within the last two or three years? Just wondering... =)

                        I am quite over it. robert's comment up top is true, but it's worth it. There are plenty of places to go and I can spend my money, and less of it. It will happen when the timing is right.

                        Funny story.... my parents were hanging out one Sunday afternoon on the Peninsula, and my mom made a joke about calling French Laundry and going for dinner that very night. Everyone was making fun, and she actually called as a joke (oh I have the number right here....)

                        they picked up, said they had just had a cancellation, and if they were able to arrive within two hours it was their reservation. They hadn't planned or budgeted, but after a miraculous and bizarre event such as that, they decided to go and pay for it later.... =)

                        fun stories in booking expensive restaurants! =)

                        1. re: unclefishbits

                          "Were you at meadowood when it was Joe Humphrey? Or within the last two or three years? Just wondering... =)"

                          February 2011 IIRC ... Christopher Kostow was the chef, I believe this was shortly after they were bumped up to 3 Michelin stars.

                          And not long before they raised the prices substantially :)

                          1. re: unclefishbits

                            I'm not surprised at all by your story of last minute FL avail. I see FL on hackertable somewhat regularly. Always last minute stuff. Like right now there is a table for 4 for tonight if you want to eat at 915. . .

                            1. re: rubadubgdub

                              Has anyone seen TFL available on hackertable and then successfully clicked through to secure the reservation?

                              1. re: Frosty Melon

                                HT is just a scrape of OpenTable so it should work fine. I've successfully reserved at Chez Panisse using HT.

                                1. re: rubadubgdub

                                  Well my friends this hackertable is quite interesting.... wild.