On the foodie scale, John and I fall somewhere in the middle. We’ve purposefully been to some amazing restaurants, we always try new, trendy places and we love to cook at home. But we also like to eat food we can pronounce.
In all honesty, I almost asked John if we could cancel our reservations at French Laundry, get room service and have my MIL watch the baby while we took a nap. This trip, like all other trips in our future, was exhausting, and I’ve been trying to kick a sore throat for two weeks.
But I knew John would divorce me if I tried to bail on this once in a lifetime chance to stamp our foodie card, so I put on my favorite, stretchiest (which turned out to be key) dress and my birthday Manolos, and we left a screaming baby for an interesting Uber to dinner. (Our Uber driver was a wine maker, whose wine sold at the French laundry for 1,200$ a bottle).
You can’t walk into the French laundry day-of unless you’re a celebrity. And even then you might get turned away. You can’t call for a reservation until at least one month out. They don’t even take reservations in house, the have a service down the street. This is one of the most exclusive restaurants in America, a Thomas Keller restaurant with 3 Michelin stars. Really, it’s not a restaurant, it’s a destination food experience.
Every night for dinner they stagger the reservations 15 minutes starting at 5:30 pm. In true form, the Sweets were one of the first reservations, and only one other couple was seated in the dimly lit, sparsely decorated cottage.
I immediately felt out of place. It was quiet to the point of being uncomfortable, and I was trying to grasp at any sort of etiquette I’d learned from Girl Scouts. Pinkies up. Elbows off the table. Speak when spoken to.
(Side Note: Please excuse quality of pictures, I felt like I was the bad kid breaking the rules having my phone out so I would sneak a picture when one of our 12 waiters wasn’t in attendance.)
Our waiter brought over a thick covered wine list (which turned out to be an iPad). They’re known for having nearly every kind of requested wine, from Napa to Australia, and apparently every kind of beer, because John promptly ordered the hard to come by Pliny the Elder. I panicked and had the waiter’s choice, a buttery white at about 35$ a glass.
Every night there are two chef’s tasting options, a vegetarian on the left of the single fold menu and a carnivore selection on the right. You choose one or the other, I went with the left because I knew John would go for the right. Each menu is 9 different courses starting with appetizers and ending with desserts.
The restuarant began to fill up before our first course arrived, and with the increase in patrons came an exponential increase in servers. We had at least 3 people waiting on our table before our appetizers–melted gouda cream puff and a cheese filled wafer rolled into a cone.
I’m going to sound like a snob, but I’m going to say it anway. It’s hard to be impressed by restuarants. Chef’s are always trying to jump on the latest food craze (chicken, waffles and kale anyone?), and, while most places we eat are good, or even great, I can’t remember the last time I had something that was MIND BLOWING.
Then we had the melted gouda cream puffs.
This was just the start of what I’m just going to call the best meal we’ll ever have. The cream puff was so perfect, both crispy and soft, and the cheese had just the tiniest bit of bite, I could have eaten 40 of them. Which, when I told that to our waiter, finally broke the ice.
The rest of the meal came in slow waves over the course of three hours. As the restuarant and wine glasses continued to fill, the uncomfortable silence turned into muted laughter and low converstaions, easing our feelings of being out of place, and allowing us to enjoy the experience of the artistic, creative and undeniably perfect food that appeared in tiered platters, one after another, until we could barely lift our forks out of fatigue and fullness.
I chronicled my meal in hastily snapped pictures, and John also took a few. They hardly do justice to the presentation, flavor, intricacy and incredible thought that goes into each ingredient and each dish.
The Vegetable Tasting Menu
Course 1: Watsonville Artichoke Soup
The Verdict: The frothy, tangy soup was hand poured over a base of tender vegetables by our second waiter. It was incredibly rich and delicious, I don’t think I could have eaten more than this small pour.
Course 2: Celery Salad
The Verdict: The cream filled celery sticks were a sophisticated take on ants on a log, and surprisingly refreshing. I wasn’t sure how to eat the celery, so I cut it into small bits with my fork and knife. I can’t imagine another time when I’ll find pickled onions and kumquats on one plate, but they somehow completed this strange salad and rounded out the richness of the first course.
Course 3: Hibiscus Poached Rhubarb
The Verdict: Course 3 was basically dessert. The sweet, fresh rhubarb and crisp wafers tasted just like homemade pie.
Course 4: Soft Poached Bantam Hen Egg
The Verdict: I actually don’t like poached eggs at all, but the un-poached part, the accompanying sauce and the crisp crackers, made up for the gooeyness that usually turns my stomach. I loved the addition of broccoli into the sauce, it was, in essence, a luxurious cream of broccoli soup.
Course 5: Hand cut Tagliatelle (with Truffles)
The Verdict: I almost didn’t go for this dish because it had a “supplement cost” which turned my stomach more than the poached egg. It also turned out to be the highlight of the meal, both in presentation and in the fact that I’ll likely never see truffles in this quantity again. The announcement for this course was by far the most elaborate, a new (yes, another) waiter came out with a locked box, when opened, displayed two giant and fragrant truffles. The French Laundry picks and chooses the best truffles in the world. My pasta came bare, and the waiter shaved the truffle over the top. (I had a hard time believing they were actual truffles and not blue corn chips…look at them). Truffles are so rich, it was almost impossible to finish the dish, but they’re also such a delicacy and so delicious, it was impossible to leave any on the plate.
Course 6: Garden Carrot “Fricassee”
The Verdict: I could have done with out this course. I needed a break after the truffle display, and a few minutes to digest. This course was a little too filling at the end of a deceivingly giant meal, but it also could have stood alone as a main course at a different, less elaborate restaurant. It was still one of the most delicious things I’ve ever eaten.
Course 7: Cabot Clothbound Cheddar
The Verdict: A simple cheese plate to clear your palate. John and I actually switched on this one, he got soft cheeses and I knew he preferred hard, pungent cheddar. It was the perfect segway to the main event.
Final Course: Dessert
The Verdict: The waitress described this as the grand finale fireworks show. I want you to scroll down through the next three pictures, and imagine being so full you’re actually worried you might rip the zipper on your dress, and then dessert comes. And then keeps coming. And then your entire table is filled with tiny dishes of gorgeous sweets from apple crisp to macrons to tiny cinnamon donuts. The food looked and tasted like it had taken all day to create. We didn’t come close to finishing it. My favorite was the fancy version of frozen hot chocolate. And the donuts.
By the end of the meal we were friends with our original waiter, knew his life story, had convinced him to come to Charleston to try our favorite restuarants and gossiped about the other “awkward” waitstaff. He offered us a tour of the kitchen, which we couldn’t refuse, so we made our way out of the dining area, down a long hall, into a surprisingly small and incredibly hot kitchen swarming with chefs and wait staff and directors orchestrating the French Laundry experience.
We also got a to-go bag filled with truffles (the chocolate kind) and sugar cookies in case we needed a snack on our Uber home.