The French Laundry looks nothing like a restaurant.

The Ultimate Indulgence

Dinner at the acclaimed French Laundry
may be the supreme dining experience.
This is one man's account of his
once-in-a-lifetime, $500 meal.

Most lovers of fine food know that the French Laundry is not a place where you have your clothes washed, but is one of the great restaurants of the world.

The only things that connect it to a real laundry are the old-fashioned clothespins that hold napkins together on your table and the cardboard bill, which looks like a laundry tag, presented at the end of the feast.

On a recent trip to California's Napa Valley, a friend and I dined at the French Laundry, located in the quiet town of Yountville. I had learned what a fabulous place it was by reading about it first in this food section. My guest had read about it in food and travel magazines.

The French Laundry does not look like a restaurant, but rather a two-story country home, with an immaculate yard and garden full of vibrantly colored flowers. Candles are positioned throughout the garden and are lit when darkness falls. The rustic cottage was built in 1900 as a saloon and brothel that later became a French steam laundry.

Before the meal, guests are served ahi tartare in tiny cones.

Reservations must be made two months in advance; call (707) 944-2380.

Although all 62 seats in the house will likely be filled during your visit, you'll never feel crowded or uncomfortable. In addition to the downstairs and upstairs dining rooms, there is an outdoor garden dining area and a private dining room.

Now, we were here for a dining experience, so there was no point in worrying about cost. Maitre d' Thomas Ross, of Bath, England, told us the nine-course tasting menu is what the French Laundry is all about. It is priced at $135.

Also offered are a five-course prix-fixe menu for $115 and a nine-course tasting of vegetables, also for $115. Prices are the same at lunch and dinner. The cost of beverages, an 18 percent gratuity and 8.25 percent tax are added to the bill. If you have a special bottle of wine you wish to bring in for dinner, the corkage fee is $50.

My guest and I visited on July 6 and were surprised to find three courses with Hawaii products on our nine-course tasting menu: Salad of Big Island Hearts of Palm, Celery Branch "Coulis" and Shaved Hazelnuts (Course 2); Sautéed Filet of Hawaiian Moi, Grilled King Trompette Mushrooms, Almond "Nougatine" and Emulsified Almond "Vinaigrette" (Course 3); and Maui Pineapple Sorbet with Toasted Coconut "Financier" (Course 8).

Proof of payment: The check comes in the form of a laundry tag. The total for this dinner for two was $498.41.

Apparently Thomas Keller, chef-owner of this legendary restaurant, has a soft spot in his heart for Hawaii. Isle chef Sam Choy told me that he was at French Laundry several weeks ago visiting Keller. I asked which menu he chose, and he said he just "ate in the kitchen."

Keller is extremely innovative when it comes to preparing dishes, all with top-quality ingredients. He has more than 100 purveyors and constantly demands their very best. His chefs and cooks are trained so well that even if he is not working on a particular night, his high standards prevail.

As we sipped a glass of wine, Ross described the courses and made wine suggestions. A half-bottle of chardonnay was recommended for the first half of our dinner and a half-bottle of merlot for the second.

In looking over the menu, Course 5 almost floored me: It was Pork and Beans. But this was not anything like the P&B from a supermarket can. Keller's version was described as "Slow-Braised Eden Farms Berkshire Pork Shoulder with a 'Ragout' of Summer Beans."

I never thought pork and beans could taste so good. The pork melted in my mouth.

PERJAPS THE best way to describe the meal would be to let the lengthy names of the dishes speak for themselves:

Course 1 was Oysters and Pearls "Sabayon" of Pearl Tapioca with Bagaduce Oysters and Iranian Osetra Caviar.

There was a second choice for Course 2. Instead of hearts of palm, my guest, a foie gras lover, went for the Moulard Duck Foie Gras au Torchon with "Confit" of Royal Blenheim Apricot and Toasted "Brioche." This foie gras course comes with a $20 supplement. My guest said it was worth it.

Course 4 was a Caesar salad, but nothing like a basic Caesar. The full name was Sweet Butter-Poached Maine Lobster with Roasted Hearts of Romaine Lettuce, "Confit" of Sweet Garlic, Parmesan "Croutons" and "Bottarga Emulsion."

Course 6 was Pan-Roasted Rib-Eye of Elysian Fields Farm Lamb served with "Ratatouille" and Herb-Scented "Panisse." I'm not a lamb lover, so I was given beef filet.

Course 7 was Montbriac -- Bing Cherry "Tartlette" and Micro-Cilantro Salad.

Course 9 was Valrhona Chocolate "Velours" with a Vermont Maple Syrup Custard and Maple Anglaise.

But it didn't end there. Chocolates, pastries and other sweets brought an end to a fabulous four-hour dining experience.

Thomas Keller is the chef-owner of the French Laundry.

The ambience was outstanding. There was a fireplace in the main dining room, the chairs were comfortable and there was plenty of room on the tables. As my guest said, "Seldom have I been in a restaurant where the ambience made you feel as if you were having a small intimate dinner in a home."

The service throughout was exceptional and would be difficult to surpass. Although quite formal, the staff was never patronizing or pretentious.

In some restaurants, waiters seem to think they are on stage and try to be clever. This is not the case at the French Laundry. Here, each server was a cut above those found in most other restaurants. They struck me as being as qualified as fine-dining restaurant managers. Every person who gave us attention made us feel totally comfortable.

As my guest said: "They were there to take care of us, never hovered over us. Things just seemed to magically appear without interrupting our conversation. The waiters seemed like chefs or future restaurant owners in training. When a waiter was asked a question, it was never, 'Oh, I don't know. Let me check.' They knew all the answers. And more than that, they really seemed to care."

After the feast, we took a half-hour walk and returned to the restaurant at midnight. We were offered a complimentary after-dinner drink as we waited for a taxi.

The bill for everything was just under $500. It's not a place that an average guy such as I can afford to patronize regularly, but it was a once-in-a-lifetime, incredible dining experience, an evening we will never forget.

And for those who do not want to pay the French Laundry's prices, Keller owns Bouchon, a bistro also in Yountville where entrée prices range from about $17 to $22. We had lunch there, and it was quite good. But for the superb and rare dining experience, it's the French Laundry.

Taste it yourself

Eric Ziebold, chef de cuisine at the French Laundry, brings a taste of that famed restaurant to town with a dinner Sept. 15 at Sunset Grill.

Ziebold has worked alongside chef Thomas Keller since joining the staff in 1996. His five-course menu: Chilled Salad of Kona Lobster with "Gazpacho" Sauce, Risotto with Forest Mushrooms and Castelmagno Cheese, Grilled Rib-Eye with "Stew" of Summer Beans, Arugula Salad with Aged Balsamic Vinegar, and Sommerset Peach Tart with Candied Almond Ice Cream.

Seatings begin at 5:30 p.m. Cost is $100. Call 521-4409.

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