A quest for the French Laundry
In planning a trip to dine at arguably the most celebrated restaurant on the West Coast -- the French Laundry, in the middle of the Napa wine country -- I never thought I would end up staying at a campground.
And not just any campground -- one that was “clothing optional.”
It’s not that I’m ashamed of my middle-aged body. Well, yes I am.
I’m also shallow enough to admit that it might be disconcerting to spend the better part of a weekend among nude bodies that did not exactly step out of the International Male or Victoria’s Secret catalogs.
My friends and I stayed there two months ago because I was on a budget, and the restaurant is expensive. It’s also very much the opposite of clothing optional; the dress code requests that men wear a sports coat. No jeans, tennis shoes or shorts.
Which is how four guys ended up, a couple of hours before dinner, running between the community showers and our campsite, getting cleaned up and putting on suits (real, not birthday).
I had been in charge of getting the French Laundry reservations, which are extremely difficult to come by. Normally you have to call the restaurant’s reservation line exactly two months ahead. For example, if you want to eat there Dec. 30, you phone Oct. 30 beginning at 10 a.m. The French Laundry has just 17 tables, and competition is fierce.
The first time I tried, I didn’t get through until 11:15 a.m. and was told that all seatings were taken.
Then I found a restaurant Web site, opentable.com, that offers two French Laundry reservations per evening. They also must be made two months in advance, starting at midnight.
I got ready at 11:30 p.m. by going to the Web site and filling out the online forms. The instant my clock flashed midnight, I clicked through to grab a Saturday night reservation.
(Hold on to this advice for a few weeks. French Laundry will close Jan. 1 for three to four months while the kitchen is expanded. Meanwhile, you can hope for a rare cancellation. Call  944-2380 to get on a waiting list.)
I left the accommodations for Friday and Saturday nights up to Northern California friends Dan and Ron. They live in Sausalito and planned to bring their friend Tim to complete our table.
The problem was that all the nearby places were booked. Besides, most of them wanted $250 or more per night.
Ron suggested camping at Harbin Hot Springs, about an hour north of the restaurant. The price was right: $35 apiece per day, including a membership fee that allowed access to mineral pools fed by hot springs, a large swimming pool, hot showers and drop-in classes, including three yoga sessions daily.
Massages and other spa treatments were extra. I booked the Ultimate Spa Package, a relatively inexpensive 2 1/2-hour blowout that included massage, scrub, body wrap, facial and hot-oil scalp treatment for $155.
Ron had been to Harbin years ago and said it was in a beautiful canyon setting. He recalled that the place was a bit New Agey but otherwise innocuous.
Ron insisted that he had warned me about the “clothing optional” part, but either he was mistaken or I had thought he said something like “boating optional.” Anyway, by the time I found out, it was too late to make other plans.
Exercising their option
I rode my motorcycle north Friday night to meet the group. The last 17 miles to Middletown are on twisty, two-lane California 29, which has steep, unprotected drop-offs.
It was a relief to reach Harbin’s main gate, which was staffed by a corpulent man who looked like a member of ZZ Top gone to seed. He was clothed, however, and helpful, providing guides to the 1,700-acre campground. We drove aimlessly in the dark, though, at one point passing domed, stucco buildings that seemed out of a Robert A. Heinlein science-fiction novel. (I later found out these are part of a “healing arts institute,” where massage is taught.)
We visited the bathrooms and showers (like all public facilities here, they were spotlessly clean and well maintained) and settled down for the night in a tent near a gurgling stream.
The next morning came the moment of truth, as people came stumbling out of their tents. With few exceptions, they wore at least some clothing. But eventually we wandered over by the pools, and this was truly Nakedville. There were campers of all shapes and sizes -- teens to seniors -- exercising their option. In the coed changing room (more like a shed-your-clothing room) I finally gave in. After all, if I had worn my swim trunks, I would have stood out more. So the four of us emerged wearing nothing but sunblock.
I quickly slipped into a mineral pool that was soothingly tepid. In these “meditation pools,” talking above a whisper was not allowed. Some in our pool were paired up to do a kind of slow-motion exercise called watsu that looked like a rehearsal for a synchronized swimming routine on the moon.
All in all, the ambience was nonthreatening. Additional signs warned that neither public sexual activity nor unwanted advances were permitted. Some people wore “quiet beads” that signaled they didn’t want to be whispered to. (We referred to them as Greta Garbo beads.) Crystals hung from a beautiful fig tree.
We tried to remain respectful of the New Age sensibilities, giggling only in private.
My spa package was pleasant, if not the best I’ve had. Cora, who administered my treatments, was good-humored and professional, engaging in only a bit of spiritual speak. By the time it was over, my joints were loose, my skin felt smooth, and I was ready for the French Laundry experience.
The Yountville restaurant was elegant without being stifling. The service was refined and somewhat formal (though never unctuous). And chef Thomas Keller’s food -- all 11-plus courses of it -- was spectacular. The four of us agreed it was the best restaurant meal of our lives.
As is tradition at the Laundry (as those in the know call it), the meal started with a healthy dollop of salmon tartare atop a crispy cone, with creme fraiche and chives hidden beneath. I could have been deliriously happy with encores of that, but there was so much more to come, including my favorites: a perfectly grilled piece of tuna atop “melted eggplant, sultanas, sultana syrup and a madras curry emulsion” and a small piece of lobster poached in butter, then served with a “confit of sweet garlic, Parmesan croutons and bottarga emulsion.” I didn’t know what the heck some of the ingredients were, but I was too busy holding those tastes in my mouth and memory to care.
The meal’s only glitch was the table next to us: a loud and obnoxious group that seemed to have mistaken the French Laundry for Hooters.
A delicious ending
After we and others complained to the assistant general manager, he approached the raucous table and quietly spoke to them. The table immediately settled down, and its well-dressed occupants stumbled out soon thereafter, announcing to the room that they resented our objections. They looked like embarrassed junior high schoolers after a visit to the vice principal’s office.
By the second half of our meal, we had the second floor to ourselves. Feeling like kings, we wandered around between courses, sometimes sitting out on a balcony under the stars with a view of Keller’s extensive garden. At one point I fell asleep out there, only to have Joe, our main waiter, gently shake me awake to say, “It’s time for creme brulee.”
The staff kept delaying our departure by insisting we try numerous desserts. By the time we were done, the kitchen was cleaned and empty. Joe, unaware that I work for The Times, offered us a tour. For us, the kitchen was more holy than any of the shrines at Harbin.
The next morning, I headed back to Los Angeles. But a bit of Harbin had sneaked into my consciousness. A few days later I was swimming laps in a public pool, and my trunks felt confining.
Then again, maybe it was the meal.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Budget for one
Expenses for this trip:
Chef’s tasting menu,
beverages, tax, tip $200.00
Harbin Hot Springs
Membership, two nights’ camping $70.00
2 1/2-hour treatment, tip $185.00
Other meals $62.04
Final tab $582.18
The French Laundry, 6640 Washington St., Yountville, CA 94599; (707) 944-2380, www.frenchlaundry.com.
Harbin Hot Springs, 18424 Harbin Springs Road (P.O. Box 782), Middletown, CA 95461; (800) 622-2477, www.harbin.org.
David Colker writes for the Home section.