Thursday, November 12, 2020

ABRAMS Dinner Party Spotlight: 99 Things I Love to Eat #foodielife #journaling #foodietravel #thefrenchlaundry #bucketlistdining #destinationdining

I hope you've been enjoying the ABRAMS Books Fall cookbook and food collection that I've been sharing as part of their Dinner Party blogger group. It's definitely been a delicious and eye-opening experience for me so far. Today, I'm sharing a book...but it's not a cookbook. The guided journal 99 Things I Love to Eat provides hours of foodie fun for food lovers! Every page contains one of 99 comprehensive 
food-related prompts and lists to complete. Some prompts look back at past food experiences and memories...while others provide inspiration for future culinary adventures. This journal is a perfect way for food lovers to document their past -- and their future -- cooking and baking, eating, and travel adventures! Today, I'm sharing my personal response to Prompt 49 in the journal: The Fanciest Restaurant I've Ever Dined In. The answer to this prompt was easy! It's our memorable 2016 "bucket list" dinner at iconic dining destination The French Laundry in California's Napa Valley. Chef Thomas Keller's critically acclaimed fine-dining restaurant is among the best restaurants not only in the U.S., but in the entire world.

 Just scoring a coveted dinner restaurant takes a patience...and a little luck too. I'm so excited to share our dining experience at The French Laundry with you! 
We had a vacation planned to San Francisco and Napa Valley, so we decided that dinner at The French Laundry had to be part of our agenda. Then? We set out to score a reservation. At that time, reservations were only made by phone exactly 30 days in advance. The restaurant seats just 60 people, so there's a limited number of reservations available for each evening. We were staying in Napa for two nights, so we had two chances to score a reservation. The first day, Michael and I literally redialed the reservation line 1oo+ times each before getting through. That day, we made it to the reservation waitlist. The second day, we repeated our calling strategy...but this time the phone rang a few minutes sooner. We scored a reservation for our five-person group for November 15, 2016. We were elated...and relieved! 

The evening of our dinner reservation, we drove from our hotel in Napa to The French Laundry in nearby Yountville. We parked on a nearby street and walked a few blocks to the restaurant. The French Laundry is housed inside a quaint stone cottage that feels more like dining in someone's home than a typical restaurant. There's lots of lush landscaping and a beautiful courtyard entrance. 
Here's a bit of background information about the building's fascinating history from the restaurant's website:

The French Laundry, a 1,600 square-foot structure constructed of river rock and timbers, was built as a saloon in 1900 by a Scottish stonemason. The building later served as a residence, and during the 1920s operated as a French steam laundry. In 1978, town mayor Don Schmitt and his wife Sally renovated the structure into a restaurant, which Keller then purchased in 1994.

There's also a large garden directly across the street from the restaurant that grows seasonal vegetables and herbs used in the kitchen. 
We were excited to find a perfect spot for a group photo to commemorate our visit -- a garden alcove directly above The French Laundry's sign! We asked a young woman standing nearby to take a picture of our group...which resulted in an unexpected twist to our story! As background, our reservation was for five people...but my friend in San Francisco couldn't make it last minute. Making small talk, we asked the young woman taking our picture if she had a reservation at The French Laundry that night too. She told us she was on the wait list that night, so she was on her way to a different restaurant. The four of us exchanged knowing glances, smiled, and nodded. We told the young woman -- Jess -- that a person on our reservation couldn't make it last minute. That meant we had an extra seat at our table...if she didn't mind dining with four crazy Texans! She immediately and enthusiastically accepted and joined us as we made our way inside. What followed was an evening of amazing food...and equally amazing company!

Upon entering, we were warmly greeted and shown to our table inside the elegant, cozy dining room. Next came the menu, which came presented inside a folder. The French Laundry's signature clothespin logo is prominent during your entire meal...starting with the menu. Rather than ordering a la carte, a daily nine-course prix fixe Chef's Tasting Menu is served to all diners. For vegetarians, they also offer a Vegetable Tasting Menu. While we waited for the first course to arrive, we sipped bottled water and enjoyed the Salmon Tartare Cornet amuse bouche served to everyone arriving at The French Laundry. It consists of a miniature crispy cone filled with crème fraiche and chives, then topped with salmon tartar. The combination of flavors and textures was very intriguing...and it was a great teaser for the nine dinner courses to come!
Over the next two-and-a-half hours, we enjoyed nine courses of perfectly cooked, beautifully plated food -- including dessert. Each course is just a few bites...according to Chef Keller, it's just enough to leave you wishing for "just one more bite." To my knowledge, the first course is the same every night: the iconic Oysters and Pearls. This decadent dish features creamy, warm pearled tapioca served with a perfectly poached oyster and a quenelle of caviar. Swoon! From there, we enjoyed courses that included seafood, vegetables, beef, and lamb. We also enjoyed an over-the-top bread course served with butter and a variety of finishing salts to sprinkle on top, as well as a pre-dessert cheese course. As this photo shows, every course was as pretty to look at as it was to eat.
The pacing of our meal was spot on -- like a perfectly choreographed dance. We didn't feel rushed, but we never had to wonder when the next course would arrive. Our servers were attentive and knowledgeable! 
Our dinner was capped off by a dessert tasting so delicious that I didn't take time to snap any pictures. Just prior the check being presented, a server came by our table with a wooden tray of beautiful handmade chocolate truffles to select from. We were so stuffed by then that we couldn't eat another bite, so our server packed our truffles in a decorative box to enjoy later! The key to enjoying your dining experience at The French Laundry is to not fret over unfamiliar ingredients or menu descriptions. Put yourself in the kitchen's very capable hands and enjoy every delicious bite brought to your table!

One of the most common questions people have when they hear we've dined at The French Laundry is, "! But, isn't that expensive?!?!?" To be honest? The answer is a definite yes! When we dined in 2016, the total price tag for Michael and I was just shy of $700, including tax and gratuity. Yes, it was a huge financial splurge for us. That said? I have zero regrets! Our French Laundry dining experience was worth EVERY penny we set aside that Summer to make this culinary bucket list meal a reality. It was a once-in-a-lifetime dining experience from the the the service. When our server found out we were food and travel writers, we also received a brief tour of the new kitchen, which was under construction at the time. 

As we dined, we also got to know our new friend Jess. The five of us actually had quite a bit in common -- so the conversation flowed nicely the entire evening! In my experience, people who love good food and travel are very interesting people. At the end of the evening, we exchanged e-mails and social contacts, and we've stayed in contact over the past four years. We even managed to meet up for dinner a second time when we vacationed in New York the following year. Meeting Jess was one of the best parts of our experience at The French Laundry!

Thank you to 99 Foods That I Love to Eat for including this thought-provoking prompt. That to-the-point prompt sent me down a delicious memory lane remembering one of the best food nights of our lives at The French Laundry. There are some nights that are perfect that you don't want them to end. Our evening at The French Laundry was one of those memorable nights that you never forget. So...what's the fanciest restaurant YOU'VE ever dined in? Leave me a comment below to share...we're always looking for great restaurants to add to our "must try" list for upcoming post-COVID travels!

Disclosure: I received a review copy of 99 Foods That I Love to Eat as part of ABRAMS Books' 2020-21 Dinner Party Blog Group. All opinions shared are solely my own.

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