It started with me being buck naked in the St. George distillery and ended with a drunk guy in a garden groping my shoulder and demanding to know “just what exactly the fuck is going on here?!” In between, we had dinner at the French Laundry.
As with all of our trips to world-class restaurants, this one started on a rainy day. Our reservations on Friday May 1st weren’t until 8:45pm, so we filled the in-between time with various adventuring around the Bay area.
Some locals had scared the crap out of us with traffic horror stories and had gone on in detail about how it could conceivably take eleven and half hours to get from Alameda to Yountville, the home of the French Laundry. We tried to split the difference with a dose of realism and traffic reports but still managed to arrive a good hour or more early.
A sign of good things to come.
Yountville is a pristine little village just north of Napa. Driving through its small streets is like running a Twilight Zone gauntlet of amazing restaurants. In a few short blocks you pass Ad Hoc, Redd’s, Bouchon, Bouchon Bakery, Étoile, Bottega, and of course the Laundry itself. I think the town of 3,000 is aiming for one fine-dining establishment per person.
To wile away the last of the time and dampen the anticipation, we strolled through a small grocery store/market were I calmed myself by buying a jar of local baby beet pickles. What? That doesn’t work for you?
Outside the French Laundry.
Being unable to stand it any longer, we showed up 15 minutes early. The hostess was very nice and led us to a little seating area stocked with books by Thomas Keller. I hadn’t seen his recent opus on sous vide cookery so I thumbed through it while listening to a tipsy lady, deep in discussion with a solicitous staff, trying very hard to determine which umbrella may or may not be hers. Hilarious.
We were quickly seated in a small upstairs room with only two other tables- one was a four top with a party atmosphere and the other was a painfully awkward couple who may or may not have been on a first date.
What an adorable clothespin.
Our menus arrived and in short order we opted for the Chef’s Tasting Menu over the Tasting of Vegetables. Both looked incredible but we figured traditional was a good start.
Our waiter, Bob, was a Flemish dynamo. He wished Rachel a happy birthday (a theme that would continue through most of our interactions with the staff), took our order and magically disappeared. Within moments two amuse bouche arrived, the famous Salmon Cornets and two tiny Gougères filled with cheesy Sauce Mornay.
I’ve seen the Cornets for so long now that it almost seemed surreal to pluck one out of its silver stand, undress it of its little napkin and nibble away. They’re perfect previews because they combine whimsical and delicious, two of my favorite things.
I think the gougères are Keller’s attempt to keep the food tied to the traditional. Nothing fancy or showy here, just classic French snackies. While I appreciated the counterpoint I didn’t really care for the dish. Pâte à choux isn’t so tasty by itself and the sauce mornay seemed a little pasty. Still fun though.
Bob returned to give us a heads up about the approach of their resident wine expert. This is when I got into a highflying, Lucha Libre-style wrestling match with the sommelier. He seemed like a nice enough guy, but we just couldn’t get on the same page. I would explain the types of wine we generally like and then point discreetly at a price, noting that we were interested in something in that range.
The laundry theme was subtly but thoroughly integrated.
He would describe an excellent wine and then point to a $600 bottle. I would chuckle good-naturedly and explain that while that sounded fabulous, we were really thinking something in this range. He would describe a wine and point to a $400 bottle. I put him in a headlock.
Hair mussed and sweating heavily he said, “Look, I don’t know your taste. Why don’t you just look over the menu and I’ll come back later.” Fine. And for the record, he never came back.
Undeterred, I ordered a couple of glasses of the 2005 Schramsberg Vineyards Blanc de Blancs, just in time for the arrival of Oysters and Pearls, another French Laundry staple.
Both bowls hit our table at the same moment, then the waitress pulled off the tiny porcelain domes to reveal two plump Island Creek oysters and a generous mound of California Sturgeon caviar swimming in a stunning tapioca custard. It was rich, creamy and salty. Eating this, I finally knew what it must be like to be a famous rapper. Only tapping the little bone spoon on my platinum grill could have been more pimp.
When the bowls had been whisked away, a lady bearing a tray of gorgeous, caramel colored rolls appeared. She told us that all the baked goods were made at the Bouchon Bakery and then parceled a couple out to us. With the rolls came two types of butter, a salted, almost white butter from Vermont, and an unsalted, intensely yellow one from just a few miles up the street. Mmmm…butter…
The asparagus was amazing. It had been trimmed and then cooked sous vide with milk until it was perfectly tender. The sweet orange and the tangy apple-mintiness of the perilla really drew out the asparagus flavor. I was surprised by the tasty, concentrated sesame essence from the little smear of white sauce that almost blended into the plate.
You try photographing in the dark while shoving delicious French food in your mouth and holding a glass of wine, then see if you can nail the focus every time. Just sayin'.
We had to pay a supplement for the torchon, but my momma taught me never to turn down foie gras at the French Laundry. The precise little disk of liver was topped with diminutive balls of acutely fresh and flavorful strawberry and turnip. Pistachio added a nice crunch as did the three types of finishing salt that came in separate, tiny silver bowls (fleur de sel, sel gris and Jurassic pink if you're counting.)
I couldn’t identify the sauce, but after a little harassing Bob revealed that it was a Balsamic xanthan gum based emulsion that the kitchen called a “bloop.” The menu said it was Black Truffle Puree but the flavor was so mild I’m not sure who to believe. Weird.
Accompanying the delicate and meticulously wrought foie was a huge, decadent hunk of toasted brioche. The dichotomy between the two seemed odd at first but I think the bread served to remind you that while the dish may seem fussy, ultimately it’s a dish of outright indulgence, an exercise in hedonism. (A server even “refreshed” our brioche after we had only managed to eat less than half of it.)
Moving past the appetizers and into the fish courses, we were brought a Sautéed Fillet of Pacific Moi and a Tartare of Earshell Clam.
The Moi, a fish I wasn’t familiar with, was served with Hearts of Peach Palm, Beech Mushrooms and Broccolini. The lot of it sat on a little puddle of Sauce Japonaise. The fish was perfectly cooked, its über-crisp skin cracking to reveal a light, flaky, white flesh. The hearts of palm had an incredible texture (I’m betting sous vide again) and the sauce provided a nice pop of sweet umami.
I wasn’t crazy about the presentation. It was ok, but I felt like I’ve seen very similar style at decidedly less awesome places. A little too homey for me.
The tartare, on the other hand, I wanted to frame and hang on my wall. It was stunning. The impossibly tender clam came sliced in broad sheets and lacked even a hint of chewiness. A lovely and fragrant Ginger and Granny Smith Apple Foam accentuated the dish. Adding to the gilding were Trout Roe, Flowers straight from the French Laundry gardens, and the most delicious, practically microscopic, Red Radishes I’ve ever seen. The small mounds of brunoised apple didn’t hurt either.
Our next course steered us wildly to the East with a Lobster Curry. The butter-poached lobster “mitts” (how cute is that?) sat perched on a fragrant pile of Basmati Rice and Sauce Biryani fortified by Sultana Raisins. Best. Curry. Ever. The sauce was sweet and had a heady blend of spices like garam masala and such. Small shoots of cilantro garnished the top.
My favorite part of this dish was the incredible Green Almonds. Bob informed us that the first ones of the season had just arrived that morning and the season only lasts 3-4 weeks. Score. The tender little kernels were translucent and almost entirely gelatinous with a little crisp around the edges. They tasted bright and tangy and only very subtly of actual almond.
For what it’s worth, the pairing of this dish with our 2006 Hubert Lamy, Puligny Montrachet made me cry a little. Far and away the best Chardonnay of my short Chardonnay drinking life.
Since we finished off the white with the last of the seafood, we decided to order a split of a Burgundy, the 2004 Louis Jadot, "Clos des Ursules," 1er Cru. It came just in time for the heavier courses and yes, it kicked ass.
“Fricassée” of Liberty Farm Pekin Duck was the first of the meats to make an appearance. The supple cubes of duck were surprising and pleasing with their strong flavor, sporting hints of liver and iron. I like when duck tastes like it wasn’t raised in a box. It was interesting how the skin wasn’t crisp, but remained pleasant, lacking any signs of flaccid fattiness.
The Nantes Carrots, Garlic Scapes and Wildflower Honey Sauce were all quite nice as well, but I really loved the tart, firm cubes of Eggplant Confit (I smell another visit from the sous vide fairy.) Again though, the plating didn’t wow me. It came off as a bit of a jumble.
Next, we both had the Elysian Field Farm Lamb Rib-Eye “En Persillade.” (We could have tried a Kuroge Beef Sirloin as well, but the hundred dollar supplement just wasn’t screaming my name.) The lamb was cooked sous vide (sound familiar?) with parsley and garlic and then finished with a super light coating of mustard before being rolled in brioche crumbs. Perfect.
The “Cassoulet” of Spring Beans from the garden across the street were some of the tastiest beans that have ever been in my mouth. The buttery blend of fava, green beans, and several unidentified other varieties added a nice vegetabley earthiness. I liked the San Marzano Compote as well; think of a dense, rusty, gourmet ketchup. This dish was French countryside done right.
Our cheese course may have changed my life. It was relatively simple, at least when compared with some of the other dishes. What arrived was a Tomme du Berger, cut into fat batons and accompanied by Asian Pear, Fennel, tiny leaves of Watercress and a healthy smear of another xanthan gum emulsion, this one made from Blis Maple Syrup.
The washed rind tomme was fantastic. It’s an unctuous, semi-soft blend of sheep and goat milk that falls on the refined side of barnyardy and sports a piquant tang. The pear was compressed (sous vide for the win!) to intensify its flavor and texture, while the candied brunoise of fennel brought a hint of anise to the party.
A little bit closer now.
My previous experiences with cheese courses (drool…) have always involved more than one cheese. The point seemed to be to compare and savor different cheeses in relation to one another. How silly I was.
The chefs at the French Laundry approached the cheese just like any other protein. It’s a dish featuring the cheese, exactly like the duck or the lamb or the fish. The other components worked to highlight the creamy, cheesy goodness which itself was portioned judiciously. How have I missed this?
I almost forgot to mention the excellent breads that accompanied the cheese. The silver-tray-bearing, baked goods lady returned with a tempting variety. After much internal debate I opted for a slice of the currant bread and a slice of the walnut. Is it wrong to eat huge pats of sweet Vermont butter with your cheese?
Kicking off the desert courses was an Andante Dairy Yogurt Sherbet with an Oatmeal Sablé and a Royal Blenheim Apricot Gelée. This dish totally reminded me of the fun breakfast courses that Heston Blumenthal served at the end of his meals at the Fat Duck, except all California and healthy. You know, start the day with yogurt, granola and fruit.
Unfortunately, it was boring. The yogurt sherbet was great but the cookie was too hard and tasted like a cinnamon snack bar. The apricot goo was ok. Overall- meh.
Next though, came an awesome and delicious birthday surprise. The Chocolate Gâteau with Praline Bavarois came out bearing the most adorable little chocolate ‘Happy Birthday ‘ plaque.
I've got to learn how to do this.
The dish was delicious, heightened by the entirely too cool Caramelized Gros Michel Banana rings. The super rich and smooth Hazelnut Sorbet didn’t hurt its cause either.
With the gâteau came a Parfait au Citron. This was a citrus powerhouse backed up by Candied Buddha’s Hand, a Biscotti Tuile and Lemon Snow. I love citron so this was right up my alley. My only complaint would be that the snow made the crispy tuile go all soggy super-fast like.
Just when I thought I could see the light at the end of the long bacchanalian tunnel, Bob appeared to set me straight. In his arms he cradled a silver tower of who-knows-what. He set it down and started rotating the different layers in various directions like some sort of confectionary Gobot.
He called them mignardises and the sheer number blew my mind. I had forgotten that Keller’s philosophy was “generosity to a fault and then a little more generosity.”
I can’t remember them all, but the highlights included a tiny meringue, a black olive financier, a huckleberry shortbread and a sweet/savory salt caramel. The tiny bites ran the gamut from fantastic to forgettable but it was fun working my way through them.
The huckleberry shortbread.
With the desert tower came two frosted silver trays and an array of chocolate truffles. You could take as many as you liked, but we decided that one of each of the six was probably more than enough (how restrained of us.)
The flavors were brown butter, yogurt, lime, coconut, caramel, and peanut butter. I put a hurtin’ on all but the coconut, which just isn’t a favorite of mine.
A peek behind the curtain.
Tapping into my gastronomic stamina, I was feeling pretty proud of myself. By this time, the wifey had fully bowed out and was trying to recoup with some coffee.
Bob returned and I saw his eyes go wide. He recovered quickly with an inhale and a small lick of his lips, “Wow. Um. You appear to have eaten them all. Normally, our guests try a few and then we box up the rest to take home.”
I’m in it for the long haul Bob.
Everyone has to leave the French Laundry with something and their traditional parting gifts are little sacks of buttery shortbread cookies. In addition to these, Rachel was presented with an adorable bag of chocolate bars wrapped in blue foil and embossed with the iconic French Laundry clothespin. Thanks guys!
The meal was certainly one for reflection. I’ve had a lot of mixed emotions about the whole experience. Without a doubt it was one of the best dinners of my life. At the same time, the Laundry has set a high bar and the brand has a lot to live up to. Many people more knowledgeable than me have debated the cost-benefit analysis of a meal here, but here’s what I think.
The French Laundry is one of the world’s premier restaurants, possessed of practically flawless execution, a deep respect for ingredients and their quality, and an amazing ability to produce innovative menus on a daily basis.
However, while a great restaurant doesn’t have to be run by a single passionate chef with an infectious vision, all of the restaurants that I’ve been to that crackle with energy and leave you feeling that little shimmer of magic are the focused dream of an individual.
No detail was too small.
I bet that’s what the French Laundry was like all those years Keller was at the helm. It’s not that any more. Like a wonderful song that loses something in the recording, a little of the vivacity slips into formula and a bit of noise creeps in at the edges.
To be fair, it is a strange time to dine there. Cory Lee, the Chef de Cuisine for almost five years is leaving, and we’re in the middle of the transition time between his tenure and the new hand on the reins, Timothy Hollingsworth. Allowances should be made.
The floral arrangement that ate Tokyo.
I am profoundly pleased to have finally eaten here. I learned a lot and had an amazing time. I’d be more than happy to go back if you’d like to buy me a meal. I’ll even do lunch.
The French Laundry
6640 Washington St
Yountville, CA 94599