Our French Laundry Adventure
On Sunday June 13, my husband Cecil and I found ourselves on a narrow street in the Yountville California home of The French Laundry. We were searching for a “handicapped” parking area. You see, we’re both octogenarians and not as spry as we were a couple years ago. We were, in fact, celebrating my 82nd year upon this planet.
Being the masculine man that he is, Cecil pulled into the two-car parking lot in the rear of the restaurant. I could see that both places were occupied by a BMW and another vehicle, and instinctively knew that these were exclusive VIP parking places—most probably belonging to the owner.
“You can’t park here Cecil,” I cautioned, “there are only two places, and neither is marked handicapped.”
“Nonsense,” came his reply as he continued into the driveway, essentially blocking the two vehicles from exiting the small lot. “I’ll just park next to this hedge. They’ll have room to get out.”
“This isn’t even the entrance,” I said.
“Well, we can get there from here,” he replied.
“I’m not getting out here. You’re not leaving enough space for those two cars to get out. I saw a couple of places across the street where we can park.”
“But that’s too far,” said my beloved, while backing his car into the street. He never lets me drive his “Mighty Honda Element,” as he thinks I’ll do something to harm it—such as drive at the posted speed limit instead of his accustomed ten or more degrees below it.
We drove to the end of the street, U-turned and parked across the street as I’d suggested. Exiting the car, Cecil noticed a group of four walking toward the main entrance around the corner.
“Let’s hurry,” he said, “or they’ll get a better table than us!”
I was already ahead of him crossing the street toward the rear entrance. A neatly suited, well-groomed young woman walking nearby paused, asking if she could help us.
“Yes,” I replied, “we have reservations and wonder if we can enter the restaurant from here. We’re a bit early as our reservations were for 4:15, and it’s 3:45 now.”
“No worries, this is the entrance to the kitchen, but I can lead you into the restaurant from here. Besides, It’s hot out here.”
She led us past several outdoor tables, eloquently decorated with tablecloths and place settings with the signature French Laundry napkins—each captured by a wooden clothespin—at the ready.
A dark-suited young man greeted us at the door and, after introductions, the two immediately escorted us to our table. The woman pulled the chair out from the table inviting me to sit. She then instructed me to pull out a small shelf, conveniently built into the chair, on which to place my purse.
Awaiting the champagne
To my left on an extended windowsill, sat a lovely bouquet of fresh flowers, dominated by calla lilies. On the adjacent wall, a lamp accentuating the lighted candle on the table added yet another bit of verve to this romantic setting. As we were being seated, the empty room began filling up with other patrons, including the group we’d observed outside. Menus were then provided.
Not to be ignored, jazz music drifted softly from discreetly placed speakers, and Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra and Doris Day interjected familiar lyrics to old favorites between instrumental standards by the likes of Myles Davis, Dave Brubeck and Coltrane. But where was my uncle Charles Mingus? Just a thought here.
It was fascinating to watch the slender, agile, young and articulate wait staff perform their duties. All were dressed in form fitting dark suits. The women wore pants suits, their hair pulled severely back into buns. A stairwell leading to an upstairs dining area and restrooms provided yet another bit of fascination: the staff seemingly orchestrated by an invisible choreographer, climbed the stairs in unison—usually a quartet—each bearing a different item for the upstairs guests.
Our eight-course meal began with flawless precision and elegant presentation. Just after selecting our courses, we ordered two glasses of champagne and followed the server’s recommendation of Gonet-Medeville, “Tradition,” 1 ER Cru Brut. The bubbly was so good that Cecil ordered a second glass, which mandated that I—not to be outdone—do the same.
The first course, “Oysters and Pearls” was “Sabayan” a sauce of egg yolks, wine, and savory seasonings with Island Creek Oysters and Regiis Ova Caviar was quickly devoured by Cecil. Not a fan of oysters or caviar, I surrendered my serving of the tiny creatures to my companion who found them “absolutely delicious.”
Course number two, Brandywine Tomato Soup, was a chilled dish seasoned with Nicosia Olives, Garden Cutting Celery and Armando Manni’s Olive Oil. Exquisite and not sharable! The soup was accompanied by Bread and Butter, a Parker House Roll and Diane St. Clair’s Animal Farm Butter.
Dungeness crab “En Gelee” comprised of Sweet Potato Puree, English Peas, Garden Turnips and Tomato Water Gelee was the third course. This was followed by Applewood Smoked Japanese Mackerel, Bantam Hen Egg “Terrine,” La Ratte Potato Puree, Sunflower Sprouts and Cucumber “Vierge”. Both courses conveyed outstanding artistic chef skills in presentation and flavor.
About this time a tall, slender man appeared and began visiting each table. Clad in white with a floor length apron, he cut quite a handsome figure. He slowly made his way around the room, chatting with guests. Impressed by the three stars imprinted near the hem of his apron, I took advantage of a rare photo op when he stopped at the adjacent table. When he stopped at our table, I chirped:
“Compliments to the chef! The food is excellent!”
“Thank you, I’m Thomas Keller.”
“You’re the Thomas Keller,” came my genuinely surprised response.
“Yes,” he replied. Cecil then took up the conversation revealing that he’d dined there many years ago when the restaurant belonged to the previous owners. Keller said he’d taken over the place in 1994, and confirmed Cecil’s observation that because he’d added a new kitchen the place was now larger than when owned by his predecessors.
Thomas Keller in his Michelin three star apron
The fifth course followed our encounter with Chef Keller. Devil’s Gulch Rabbit “Mortadella” Crispy Chickpea “Panisse,” Marinated Garden Squash, Zucchini “Pistou” and Spanish Caper “Gastrique” did not appeal to either of our palates. So we both chose the option which was Black Truffle and Ricotta “Agnolotti” Cheese Rind “Consomme” and Shaved Australian Black Winter Truffles. What Cecil did not seem to realize was that the “option” would add to the cost of an already costly meal. He later stated that I was worth the extra and it was, after all, my birthday and a “bucket list” occasion. In retrospect, the truffle removed from the box of truffles displayed by our server and skillfully shaved into the consommé by him was well worth the price.
“Chateaubriand” Of March Farms Veal Cornbread “Pain Perdu,” Brentwood Corn Salad, Wilted Arrowleaf Spinach and “Beurre Colbert” was my main course choice, while Cecil elected the option of “Charcoal Grilled Japanese Wagyu Caramelized Savoy cabbage, Nantes Carrots and Preserved Cabbage “bouillon”. He was fully aware of the extra cost for the option here.
Chateaubriand of March Farms Veal
Course number seven, “Gougere” Andante Dairy “Etude” and Australian Black Winter Truffle “Fondue” was “a musical medley,” informed our server.
The edible concert was followed by a stunningly beautiful birthday tribute. A large sparkling candle next to a cake on an oblong plate was brought to our table. The candle was reminiscent of those sparklers my mother used to give us kids on the Fourth of July. Regrettably, I was so surprised by this occurrence that I failed to capture it on camera.
“It’s not often that celebrants enjoy our cuisine on their actual birthdays or anniversaries,” said our server. The presentation dazzled the guests at nearby tables.
The meal ended with an Assortment of Desserts, consisting of Fruit, Ice Cream, Chocolate and Candies.
But my special day did not end with dessert. Affirming our desire to visit the kitchen, we were escorted into a huge kitchen dominated by stainless steel. Our attentions were captured by what seemed a multitude of chefs providing yet another visual feast. Masked and totally engrossed in preparing their specialties, they seemed unaware of our presence.
On leaving the restaurant through its front entrance, I was again surprised to see several people seated at the outside tables enjoying the ambience of the French Laundry from a different perspective.
Yes, I highly recommend The French Laundry for that singular once-in-a-lifetime adventure. So what if I forfeited an opportunity to fly to Paris? I’d already been there twice. The authentic French cuisine, unique ambiance and impeccable service provided at this iconic restaurant was worth it!
Kudos to Thomas Keller and his three-star Michelin restaurant. Thank you for an evening of elegance and enchantment.
With sincere gratitude,
Alicia Hugg Cutting
In the kitchen, chefs and suited server engrossed in their roles;
Alicia & Cecil simply intrigued
…and the icing on the cake…
My birthday menu autographed by Himself!
Note from Fine Dining Lovers website:
The Michelin stars rating systems is not based on customer reviews, but on undercover food experts or inspectors that assign to restaurants one star if it is ‘high quality quality cooking’, two star when it’s excellent cooking ‘worth a detour and three star when the restaurant demonstrates exceptional cuisine that is worth ‘a special journey.’
There are 14, 3-star restaurants in the U.S in 2020. Seven in California, five in New York State, one in Illinois and one in Washington D.C.
Thomas Kelleris the only chef on the list to have two restaurants with three stars, The French Laundry in California and Per Se in New York, both serve French cuisine.