A Meal to Die For -- If You're Lucky


By Thane Peterson The pressure was on, and Jim Sergent knew it. Two years ago, he and his wife-to-be were planning to spend their honeymoon in California, and they wanted to splurge on a big meal at the incredibly exclusive French Laundry in the little town of Yountville in the Napa Valley, north of San Francisco. Jim, a design coordinator at USA Today in Washington, was delegated the difficult task of getting a reservation.

Two months to the day in advance, he started calling the reservation desk the moment it opened. The line was busy, and for a second he considered just waiting a half hour and calling back. "Then I started to realize that if I didn't get a place, it was going to be big trouble," he recalls. Soon, he was frantically punching the numbers in, over and over. He finally got through after 45 minutes of nonstop dialing. He got the last reservation -- dinner at 9:45 pm. "He almost failed," his wife Jennifer says. "I told him you have to keep pushing redial."

The Sergents' experience is pretty much typical of the anxiety people go through to get a table at French Laundry, which serves lunch on weekends, but otherwise offers just dinner, seven days a week. "It's a little ridiculous how hard it is to get in there," says Polly Winograd, public relations manager at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. "No, actually, it's very ridiculous."

START NOW. French Laundry's lure is the innovative cooking style of Thomas Keller, 45, who could prove to be the most influential American chef of his generation. Keller is scheduled to open a second restaurant in New York City early in 2004. Planning that project seems likely to increasingly distract this perfectionist. If you want to experience the French Laundry at its best, I'd suggest planning a visit now.

You must book by phone exactly two months in advance -- and the phone lines are immediately jammed at the stroke of 10 a.m. California time, when the reservations start being taken. Every table is booked within 15 or 20 minutes, and the waiting list in case someone cancels is long.

I haven't yet been able to score a table there, but the many people I've spoken to who have all say intensity is one of the keys to Keller's success. He has no formal training -- he fell into cooking professionally in his early 20s when his mother asked him to take over as chef at a yacht club she was running in Florida. However, he prepared himself for opening his own restaurant by serving apprenticeships at some of the world's top restaurants, including Taillevant in Paris and La Reserve in New York.

TOMATO SORBETS. Keller's cooking is known for its humor and daringly imaginative use of ingredients. The tastes are strong and assertive. This is rich food, served in many small courses that are heavy on foie gras, caviar, and other artery-clogging ingredients. If you're the type who likes to nibble on a green salad, this isn't the place for you.

French Laundry offers three basic menus: a vegetarian prix fixe ($80), a five-course prix fixe ($105), and the multicourse chef's tasting menu at $120. What's in each menu changes daily, according to the season and what fresh ingredients are available. Keller's reputation comes from his penchant for offering dishes that aren't what they seem to be. His signature starter dish is "ice cream cones" that are actually miniature cones filled with salmon tartare and red onion crème fraiche. Pierce Carson, food and wine editor with the Napa Valley Register newspaper, still marvels at being served three different tomato sorbets, each with an entirely different and distinctive flavor.

Indeed, pleasure not profit seems to rule at the French Laundry, although a meal there will run you several hundred dollars, including a bottle or two of wine. The restaurant has only 17 tables and can serve just 62 people at a time, says general manager Laura Cunningham. And, since working your way through one of Keller's elaborate prix fixe menus takes up to four hours, there's not much turnover. By contrast, restaurants like Le Cirque or Daniel in New York might serve 300 people per meal.

"FINEST DINING." Food lovers almost universally rave about the French Laundry. It came in No. 3 on Gourmet magazine's list of the top 50 U.S. eateries last year, but some rival chefs said privately they thought it should have been first. "It's the finest dining I've ever had in this country," says Erle Martin, president of Niebaum-Coppola winery. Even Patricia Wells, the food writer for the International Herald Tribune who has been reviewing France's finest restaurants for two decades, gave French Laundry a rave when she wrote about it in late January.

For a better idea of what the food is like, check out Keller's French Laundry Cookbook, or sample menus at the restaurant's Web site, www.sterba.com/yountville/frenchlaundry. You can also read Wells's review in the archives at www.patriciawells.com.

Keller remains devoted to his craft, to the exclusion of almost everything else. Here's how he described himself in an interview last year with the Portland Oregonian: "I've never been married, I don't have children, I don't have a social life. I've never owned my own home. I never think about clothes and cars. I bought a car [a BMW] in 1977, and I still own it. But you have to understand that while I was in New York, it sat in a garage for 10 years."

LET ME IN, PLEASE. So, if you're a passionate foodie who just has to try Keller's cooking, how can you get a table? After all, even celebrities don't necessarily get a break at this restaurant. When Chelsea Clinton got a table at the French Laundry, one of her Stanford professors got on the horn and kept a finger on the redial button, the restaurant says.

Well-placed locals have a tough time, too. "I know the general manager pretty well," says Niebaum-Coppola's Martin, when asked how he gets a reservation. "But that's a little like saying you can get into the White House because you know Dick Cheney."

General manager Cunningham says the restaurant is less busy from January through March. If you're planning a tour of Napa Valley anyway, you can always just stop by and ask if the restaurant has any cancellations that it hasn't been able to fill. I know a San Francisco financial analyst who once got right in and had what she recalls was a "spectacular" meal.

PACKAGE DEAL. If all else fails and you have money to burn, the closest thing to a sure-fire way of getting a table is to spend a night or two in a top hotel in the vicinity. If you book your room well ahead of time in a place like the Vintage Inn in Yountville, the concierge can usually get you a table by sending someone over to the restaurant to book a place for you -- two months in advance, of course.

That'll cost you $300 or $400 per night per room, plus a nice tip for the concierge. But, hey, I figure a party of four isn't likely to get out of the French Laundry for less than $600 or $700, including wine. What's an extra few hundred dollars if it gets you into the most exclusive restaurant in the world? Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BusinessWeek Online


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