Napa Valley dining: Flavour fit for the gods

By Jesse Mulligan

Jesse Mulligan experiences destination dining at its finest - and most expensive.

The three-star Michelin rated French Laundry in Napa Valley produces much of its own produce.
The three-star Michelin rated French Laundry in Napa Valley produces much of its own produce.

To reserve a table at The French Laundry in Napa Valley, you must pick up the phone and call precisely two months ahead of the day you wish to dine, from 10am local time.

You will hear a busy signal, at which point you should hang up and redial. You can expect to do this up to 400 times. Eventually, if you're lucky, you'll get a voice message requesting that you hold.

The wait is around 15 minutes before a real person picks up. When you ask that person for a table, she will tell you that you are too late.

If that sounds like something you'd enjoy doing from your home in New Zealand over successive mornings at 5am, then perhaps a meal at The French Laundry is for you.

It was named Best Restaurant in the World on the San Pellegrino list in 2003 and 2004. It has three Michelin stars - literally a destination restaurant, according to that famous system of separating the very, very, very good from the very, very good.

Owner Thomas Keller is the most famous name in American food. When you tell locals you're going to the Laundry they say "Ah ... Thomas Keller," like you've said you're going to church and they're saying "Ah ... God."

Like God, he's too busy in New York and Beverly Hills to spend much time in the Napa Valley these days, but his ghost is in everything.

The first thing you see when you arrive at the restaurant is tourists out front, taking photos of themselves next to the sign.

There are more of them across the road, in the open garden where much of the Laundry's produce is grown.

"Look, this is me next to a small brass sign. This is my girlfriend next to a giant artichoke thistle. Then we went across the road and spent $3500 on lunch."

Well, there were seven of us.

The French Laundry has twice been named Best Restaurant in the World on the San Pellegrino list. Photo / Bloomberg News
The French Laundry has twice been named Best Restaurant in the World on the San Pellegrino list. Photo / Bloomberg News

The price of the compulsory degustation is US$270 (all prices US herein), with one or two more expensive substitutions permitted. This cost includes your tip (that might not sound generous, but it saved us about $400).

Water is complimentary, but wine is extra. Red starts at $28 a glass.

You can bring your own, as long as it's not on their 2700-bottle list. Corkage is $75 a bottle. Maximum one bottle a couple.

Are you getting the idea? It's expensive. Toe-curlingly, throat-constrictingly, sphincter-tighteningly expensive.

Is it worth it?

That depends on whether you think a single food event could ever be worth $400 a head. I do, but then I'm a restaurant reviewer.

You might pay $400 to sit front row at a Rolling Stones concert, or to watch the Rugby World Cup final, or to continue living in your three-bedroom house in Avondale this week. Everyone needs a hobby.

What you inarguably get is one of the best food service experiences on the planet.

There are waiters everywhere and nowhere. Your water glass is never empty but you don't see it being refilled.

Seven dishes are delivered in five seconds by four staff members, then one of them describes the dish while the others vanish. Maybe they're hiding behind him in single file.

Of course, when food is taken this seriously, things can get a bit silly.

Like when they tell you to "use your bread as a vehicle" for the foie gras.

Or when you ask them if they do wine matching and they reply that the sommelier prefers not to use that sort of "verbiage", but instead enjoys taking their guests on "a journey".

You know that they believe it, but still they'll laugh happily along with you if you gently take the piss.

And the food? Of course, it's perfect.

Sweet butter poached lobster tail with grapefruit, hazelnut and black winter truffle. Cured suckling pig with Asian pear, Tokyo turnips and pickled walnut puree.

Bright, chilled carrot soup with medjool dates, hearts of palm and a lemon verbena "cloud" ... How much of this stuff do you want? It's boring to read but it's heaven to eat.

The foie gras arrived with your choice of three different salts, although a blog I had read said to expect eight. What a f***ing dump.

Lunch lasted five hours, with a 30-minute break in the middle when the nanny delivered our 4-month-old daughter for breastfeeding.

Yes, we think they'll remember us.

At 4.30pm we received a bill and a ribbon-tied bag of TFL shortbread. And then a new staff member approached, but this one was older, greyer, ghostly.

It was Thomas Keller, in town by chance. Regulars later told us they'd never before seen him in the restaurant. We chatted for a while - what do you mean, what did we talk about? What would you talk about with Mick Jagger?

Thomas Keller, owner and chef of French Laundry.
Thomas Keller, owner and chef of French Laundry.

We said a bunch of stupid stuff and he humoured us with some banal pleasantries, it's not the point.

And at the end he leaned in to our table and whispered "because I love New Zealand, you all get to dine for free today".

But you know already that's not true, because nobody thinks New Zealanders are special anymore; the world is crawling with us - distinguishable mainly for our sense of entitlement to gushing praise.

Luckily I have someone else to pay my bill: the Travel editor of the New Zealand Herald. But only if he enjoys my verbiage.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies direct to Los Angeles daily.

Further information: See frenchlaundry.com or napavalley.com.

- NZ Herald

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