The French Laundry Day: A Full Report, no, A Manifesto, actually, just Part I

July 11, 2008 at 11:04 pm (bread, dessert, food, photography, restaurants, review)

On Wednesday, I gave my exit talk and I’m that much closer to finishing the Ph.D.  Thursday evening, to celebrate, we had reservations at The French Laundry.  Of course, I have to report on that.  The dinner went from 6:45 pm on Thursday evening to 12:15 am on Friday.  Five and a half hours!  So given all that, this will be a long post.  Another factor contributing to the longness of this post is that I’m in thesis writing mode.  But this experience deserves a whole thesis!  And not just because it was expensive.  And don’t worry, I took a ton of photos, so I’ll intersperse those throughout the text to liven it up.

french laundry sisters

Sisters at the French Laundry

If you’re planning to go to the French Laundry and you would like to be surprised I’d suggest skipping the “Hardware” section, possibly the “Atmosphere and Service” section.  If you’d like to have a complete tabula rasa going in, I’d also suggest skipping the “Philosophical Issues” section.  If you’re interested in the nitty gritty, check out the “Details” section.  If you like pottery and ceramics and design, the “Hardware” section is for you.  If you think I go on for too long about things you don’t care about and you’re just interested in the food, I talk about the food in the last few sections.  (Update: You can get some info in the last section of this post, “Food Highlights.” But you’ll also have to wait for Part II to be written.) If you want to hear about every last detail, you know what to do!

Me and my dashing date

Me and my dashing, squatting, date

Overall Impressions

I was pretty distracted by other things leading up to our trip to the French Laundry.  So I didn’t have that much time to imagine about what it would be like or set up expectations.  So given the fuzzy expectations that I did have, I would say that they were exceeded.  Almost everything, down to the last detail, made this a very pleasurable meal.  I was so stimulated – my taste buds, my nose, my hands, and most of all, my head.  So it was definitely worth the very high cost and I have no regrets about shelling out the huge chunk of money.  However, there were some things that I thought could be improved and I’ll mention those throughout the post.  Actually I should be more clear – everything was excellent.  But there were many things that were excellent and surprising and well-timed and well-thought out.  So the things that I’m saying could be improved are those things that are “just” excellent.  And seeing which things could be improved was valuable for me – I think I have an improved sense of my food and eating philosophy.

French Washboard and French Detergent

French Washboard and French Detergent

Atmosphere and Service

I was worried that the atmosphere and service would be pretentious and/or stuffy, and that I would feel uncomfortable.  However, every single person on the staff was so friendly and unassuming and nonjudgmental, and we even shared a few laughs.  It really felt like we were visiting a friend’s home.  We were seated on the 2nd floor towards the back of the restaurant, near a lovely corner window.  Actually, we were there for so long (We took longer than most of the other people there!  According to wikipedia, the average meal takes 3.5 – 4 hours, while ours was 5.5 hours.  Getting our money’s worth!) that it probably felt like we were at home.  We had five people in our party and when we first sat down, with no food on the table, it felt too spacious.  But as the food started arriving at the table, and we started getting more comfortable, it was actually really nice.  It was a circular table and the spacing made it feel like I was equidistant from all four other people.

This is really The French Laundry

This is really The French Laundry

I need to learn how to sit down in a chair when someone is pushing it in for you.  My short legs make it extra difficult.  This leads to my next topic – their very attentive service.  The service was almost like magic.  I never even thought about the level of water in my cup – there was always enough.  They always refolded the napkins whenever you got up.  When they brought each course out, they served the ladies first.  And all of us ladies received our plates at the exact same time.  That’s really smart because I think it forces you to focus on your own food as it arrives rather than get distracted by what other people are getting.  After you appreciate your own dish, you can then look around.  Then, for the gentlemen, there was a similar sort of procedure.  You’ll notice that I said that the service was “almost” like magic.  The reason it wasn’t magic was because you could see the servers starting to swarm around the table like sharks and it made me a little nervous.  It felt like the time I was scuba diving and there were some sea lions circling around us.  I get nervous easily.  Not only did they swarm (the staff), they made all these sideways glances at each other.  I know it was so that they could synchronize when they put the plates down.  But sideways glances are just going to look suspicious, no matter what the intended goal.  Actually, as the meal progressed, I felt less nervous and focused more on the food being set down in front of me.  I hope I can eventually feel as calm about the sea lions behaving like sharks.

Fresh Laundry Water

Fresh Laundry Water

My sister, Huei, is left handed.  We wondered whether they picked up on that and set her tea cup handle facing her left hand instead of her right hand.  They didn’t – she turned it herself.  We also wondered whether, when we received the folders with the evening’s menus (more about this in next section), whether the folders were customized to have that person’s selected menu on top.  They didn’t.  I’m not sharing these things to point out how their service was less than attentive.  I’m sharing these as evidence that our antennae were all up to notice and appreciate everything that they were doing.

Left-handed people can gesture with their right hand

Left-handed people can gesture with their right hand

Details about Meal (format, price)

They have a heavier, meatier “Chef’s Tasting Menu.”  And a lighter, more vegetably “Tasting of Vegetables.”  Each menu has 9 courses, and some of those courses have two options.  You pick a menu, and then for the courses with options, you pick one option.  Only the foie gras option – which Huei chose and savored – had an extra cost ($30).

A peek at the Chef's Tasting Menu

A peek at the Chef's Tasting Menu

Difficult decisions need to be made

Difficult decisions need to be made

You're only here once (probably), don't make the wrong choice!

You're only here once (probably), don't make the wrong choice!

During the meal, there were actually additional courses that weren’t listed in the menu.  The final tally, including all the “bread courses” (bread is key!) and all the various little treats (including what they gave us to take home), was 19 items per person.  Not including bread and not including little treats that were served along side other things, I think we ate 13 courses over those 5.5 hours.

There are various non-alcoholic beverages that are included (on the last page in the wine list).  I’ll talk about these beverages and the wine later on when I talk about the details of the food that we ate.

They come around several times with mini loaves of bread.  The first time, during the early courses, they gave us the same kind of bread.  For the middle, during the heaviest courses, they came out with a basket/tray of four different kinds of bread and we could each select one.  They came out a few times with this same selection.  And then for the cheese course, they came out with another selection of four different kinds of bread.

We asked to take a stroll during the middle of the meal.  We wound up taking it after the heaviest course and right before the cheese course.  That turned out to be a really good idea (See “Philosophical Issues”).

Time to back in!

Time to go back in!

After the cheese course, they offered us tea and coffee.  (No additional cost.)  They didn’t bring the tea/coffee menu out right away, and just asked us what we would like.  It was only after we showed some indecision that they brought out the menu.  They actually had a large and interesting selection of teas (no one was interested in coffee so we didn’t see the coffee menu), so it’s worth checking out the menu, even if they don’t bring it automatically.

Tea Menu - I don't think any of the teas we selected are in focus

Tea Menu - I don't think any of the teas we selected are in focus

We asked for copies of the menu (Chef’s Tasting and Tasting of Vegetables) and they provided that for us at the end of the meal.  They gave each of us a folder with both of the evening’s menus.

Don’t be afraid to ask the staff questions.  We asked about whether their famous donuts and coffee were available (we had heard rumors that they were discontinuing this dish and that we had to ask to receive).  We asked about getting copies of menus.  We asked about taking a stroll midway through the meal.  We also asked questions about various items on the menu that we were not familiar with.  I asked about various serving pieces and how they were made and what they were called (I’ll talk about these in the “Hardware” section).  And each time, I never felt like I shouldn’t have asked.  The questions were welcomed and answered fully.  I’m pretty critical about how people answer my questions (a lot of that is from going through the orals preparation process) and they all passed unconditionally.

The price is steep, but it includes gratuity.  It does not include tax.

Philosophical Issues

I noticed that I was really savoring each part of the experience – Every moment when food was on the table, I was either smelling deeply, tasting thoroughly, or thinking thoughtfully.  I’m sure that 1) knowing that I was to pay so much money and 2) expecting the food to be very special contributed to my wanting to appreciate every aspect of the meal.  And my heightened senses and awareness really enhanced the pleasure I got from the meal.  But I then realized that I can do this all the time – I don’t need a really expensive or really special meal to thoroughly sense and observe and think to improve my appreciation of a meal.  So this lesson was one of the biggest benefits that I got from this whole experience.  Maybe it’s obvious, but apparently I needed this experience last night to make me aware of these possibilities.

The French Laundry’s philosophy (explained to us at the start of the meal) about food is that each course should leave you wanting more.  And the desire for more of a course becomes applied to the next course that arrives.  My understanding is that they do this to heighten the experience.  I didn’t get this feeling during my meal.  I should disclose that I tend to like really small portions of food, so my response to the menu that I had may not have been normal.  Also, the women in our group all chose the more meaty course that is probably chosen by more men, while the men in our group chose the more vegetably course that is probably chosen by more women.  I’m not judging, I’m just putting that info out there before I go on.  The first few items were meant to be bites.  If I were not expecting a multi-course meal, I probably would have wanted to have more.  But because I knew that there was a lot of food ahead of me, I enjoyed those first few bites and eagerly awaited the upcoming courses.  I guess that, technically, I was left wanting more, but I don’t think that’s exactly what they mean.  For the next few courses, I thought that the portions were just right.  I was not left wanting more and I was not left feeling that I had too much.  As the courses got heavier and richer, I felt like the portions became way too large and I was not left wanting more.  In fact, I felt like I had too much – like four to five times too much.  These courses included two meat courses and the cheese course.  The sorbet course was small and just right but I wasn’t left feeling like I wanted more.  The dessert course was too large.  So at no point did I feel anything like what they were trying to achieve with their menu.  Maybe I should have eaten less of each dish?  Maybe they can customize the portions for people given their different satiety needs?  Or, more simply, I would just make the heavy courses A LOT smaller.  One last point about the flow of the entire menu… most of the items on the Tasting of Vegetables were lighter than the lightest things on the Chef’s Tasting menu.  And most of the items on the Chef’s Tasting menu were heavier than anything on the Tasting of Vegetables.  I think that they need to have a wider and more dynamic range of lightness and heaviness within each menu.

I’m usually really obsessed with the proportions of different components in each bite I take.  When I’m serving myself, I know what ratios I like and I’ll plate my food according to those ratios.  As I eat, there might be some local fluctuations, when I might experiment with different combinations and subsets of components.  But at the end of the meal, there is no extra amount of anything.  And I get really upset if someone (Mark!) takes a bite (huge bites!) of my food and disrupts the ratios.  And when I eat at restaurants, I’ll often have to just eat with the ratios that I like and I take any remaining unbalanced components home to eat as an unbalanced lunch the next day.  I’m very consious of unbalanced food.  Okay, you can either think that I am really crazy or I take my food really seriously.  It doesn’t matter which one.  I’m sharing all this to illustrate how thoughtfully the food at the French Laundry was prepared.  For most of the courses, I didn’t have to think at all about the ratios on my plate.  That issue didn’t even cross my mind.  I just ate and enjoyed the food and at the end, everything was all gone at the same time.  I only realized this because I noticed that for multiple successive courses, I would finish eating that course with a bite that was as well balanced as the first bite that I took!  Even the amount of sauce was just the right amount!  Often, after you eat everything on your plate at a restaurant, there will be a big pond of sauce left.  Not here.  And if you think about how small the portions are and how much harder it would be to calibrate sauces for such small portions, it’s even more amazing!  So I said “most” of the courses.  The two meat courses and the cheese course were the only ones where I didn’t reach ratio nirvana.  I suspect that the cheese course was off balance because I was thrown off by the two meat courses prior to the cheese course.  Maybe this all means that I’m not really good at eating meat.  Not only did I find that the meat courses were too large, I also wound up with things out of whack as I was finishing up these plates.

Hardware

I told you!  I was really thinking about each part of the experience!  So I feel like I should share all of it.  The dishes were amazing.  I don’t mean the food dishes – I mean the dishes dishes.  As I was falling asleep last night, I wasn’t thinking about the food.  I was thinking about a plate.  The sorbet on the Tasting of Vegetables menu was served in this wide plate.  From the rim, the plate curved in slowly, then rose up more quickly to form a lip near the center.  And in the center was a small bowl-shaped area in which the sorbet and accompaniments were arranged.  However, the rim wasn’t constant all the way around – the rim was flattened in one direction.  If the bowl in the center were a lake in the center of a smooth volcanic crater, the indentation in the rim would be where the water would flow from the lake and down the mountain.  Except it wasn’t a mountain outside of the crater, it was another larger crater.  So everything was in equilibrium.  It was brilliant and amazing and beautiful.  The photo does not accurately capture the plate because photos are static and this plate is dynamic.

Mind blowing plate

Mind blowing plate

Other highlights among the serving pieces:

There were other large plates that had various indentations and waves and ridges and ledges in them.  All were beautiful.  You’ll have to pay attention when I get to talking in more detail about the food.

At the end of the meal, they served us macadamia nuts dipped in chocolate-caramel.  These were nothing like those ubiquitous Hawaiian chocolate-covered macadamia nuts.  I’ll get to more on the food later.  The lidded pot was so perfectly balanced and shaped.  I may have a lidded pot fetish.  The lid was so delicate, but at the same time, it felt like just the right shape and just the right weight as you lifted it.  I spent about 5 minutes just removing and replacing the lid.  I couldn’t figure out whether it was molded or whether it was thrown.  The lid has some figures in relief and the shape is really delicate, which makes me think that it was molded.  But you never know – there are people with Jenni fingers!  I asked and they didn’t know.  But they did elaborate on additional details about the pot.

Delicate lidded pot

Delicate lidded pot

The textures on many of the plates was so beautiful.  Sometimes, they were thin rings.  Sometimes, there would be a small grid pattern.  The lines were all very thin, and if you weren’t looking carefully, the plates would seem smooth and flat.  Many of the plates were quite large and portions were very small and sitting in the middle.  I think that accentuates the lightness of a course.  In fact, there was a general trend – the lighter the course, the larger the plate.  So I think the fine and delicate textures help to keep the large plates from feeling too empty.  Pay attention when we get to the courses.  Don’t worry, I’ll get to it!

The butter dishes were nice as well, especially the ceramic butter dish.  They were both quite heavy and substantial.  It felt really good to hold them and lift them.  The ceramic one had a small indentation where the egg yolk sized mound of butter sat.  Then it curved up and out from that indentation.  The key feature was the thickness.  Imagine a small plate for butter, but then make it 1 inch thick.  So your fingers fit nicely around it so it’s more comfortable to hold.  The heaviness gives it substance.  And the curves are so visually pleasing.  I forgot to take pictures of the butter dishes individually, so you’re now getting a preview of some of the food.  You big cheaters!

Metal butter dish is in top right

Metal butter dish is in top right

Focus on the ceramic dish in the top middle

Focus on the ceramic dish in the top middle

Some of us had pot du cremes (pots du creme?).  They were served in these small cups with two small rings on either side near the lip so that you could hold the cup with your thumb and forefinger in each ring.  The rings helped to give more texture to what your hand feels as it holds the cup.  And it also makes it more secure and balanced in your hand.

Pay attention to the pot, not the du creme!

Pay attention to the pot, not the du creme!

They have these tea strainers that look like little mini skillets with a mini bucket/sieve hanging over it.  The bucket swings.  So you swing the skillet to the side while you pour tea through the bucket to catch the extra leaves.  And when you’re done pouring, you swing the skillet back underneath the bucket to catch the drips.  Awesome!  I asked one of the tea pourers what this device was called.  “Strainer.”

"Tea Strainer"

"Strainer"

Other fun table items:

The bill!  Shaped like a laundromat ticket/claim check.  I fuzzed out the amounts.  It felt weird to leave it in focus.  I’m such a prude.

I'd like to pick up my laundry

I'd like to pick up my laundry

The pen was amazing.  Piecing together bits from different people’s memories (got to Waterford M-something-oui-something) and finishing with some online sleuthing, it determined that it was a Waterford Marquis.  I think it made signing the bill a lot more pleasant.  See, they’re so thoughtful, down to literally the last detail of the experience.

Items that could be improved:

I love teapots.  There are some really amazingly mindblowing teapots.  The ones that held our tea weren’t very exciting.  Metal.  Fairly standardly typical shape.

The chairs curved in so that some of our shoulders didn’t fit when we leaned back.  Instead, some of us had to drape one arm over the back of the chair in order to lean back.  My shoulders barely fit and it was uncomfortably tight.  So I didn’t lean back at any time during the whole meal.  But it actually didn’t wind up being too tiring or difficult or uncomfortable.  Maybe because of the seats of the chairs?  So, really, yay for the chairs?

Food Highlights

The sauces were all super flavorful.  I have no idea how they can intensify the flavor without changing the flavor profile (like making it something taste more caramelized or burned or less bright).  There was one sauce made from nicoise olives where one drop was more intense than a couple of olives together.   My mind is blown.

They get many of their vegetables from their garden.  So they’re seasonal and amazingly flavorful.  And many of them are miniature!  So cute.  And perfect for the portion sizes.  You can get a whole carrot or a whole snap pea without disrupting the balance of a dish.

I was blown away by what they can do with their knives.  There were a number of dishes that included a really finely diced component – vegetables or salmon.  They were so small, maybe only a little more than a millimeter.  But they were all exact cubes.  And they were all exactly the same sized exact cubes.  Not only could you see that, but you really felt the precise and uniform shapes on your tongue.  And they were firm, while being smaller than caviar!  Rather than improve his knife skills, Mark thinks it’s a better idea to use some sort of funnel/colander contraption.  I think you’d wind up with a big mush.

Custom-made French Laundry Chopping Machine

Custom-made French Laundry Chopping Machine

Tonight was the first time I had a foam.  I found it to be like mini and light and less salty caviar.  I wonder whether that was was the original foamers were going for.  Anyway, it was Fun!

Many of the fruits and vegetables (cucumbers, melons) were “compressed.”  I wound up asking what that meant.  They put the fruits and vegetables in sous-vide bags and then compress them by sucking air out. They explained that this was discovered by accident when they sucked too much air out when they were packing some fruits and/or vegetables.  They arrived at the table looking like jewels or like a gelee – translucent and shiny.  Their flavors were very intense, but I don’t know if that’s from the compression or from being made from really intensely flavored fruit.  The textures were the most interesting part.  They were at the same time crispier and more, for the lack of a better word, mushy than what the uncompressed version tasted like.  Maybe the compression was breaking down the cells, but at the same time or afterwards, the “global” structure gets reset or made more rigid from the pressure of the bag?

Okay, this post is getting way too long.  This needs to be broken down into Part I and Part II.  We’ll see how Part II goes… there may be a need for a Part III.  I will describe the menus and dishes in more detail in Part II.  Really.  We had to wait for 5.5 hours to finish the meal.  You can wait to hear about the whole meal.

Or, when I update this post, you can just click to link to Part II. Update: There’s also a Part III.  Wow, I’m crazy – there’s also a Part IV.

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4 Comments

  1. The French Laundry Day: The Manifesto, Part II « Babbling Blueberry said,

    […] Part I […]

  2. The French Laundry Day: The Manifesto, Part III « Babbling Blueberry said,

    […] 13, 2008 at 5:43 pm (bread, dessert, food, ice cream, restaurants, review) Part I Part […]

  3. Some quick reviews « Babbling Blueberry said,

    […] insights and thinking to the author really fits with how, not reading this philosophy beforehand, I responded to the French Laundry experience.  They really spent the time to balance the flavors and portion sizes, and they took great care […]

  4. Tim said,

    I know you wrote this a few years ago but I’m about to go to the French Laundry and I really enjoyed reading your post!

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