A few months ago, I received the call that every food addict traveling to the West Coast crosses their fingers, waiting for with suspended animation: I had secured my French Laundry reservation. Or rather, through a network of wonderful and interesting people, one was secured on my behalf. The date was set, the dining partner secured, and all was a go. Like a 7-year-old the night before her first visit to Disneyland, I waited in breathless anticipation for the next 2 months. Fortunately, the night before the actual dinner was filled with enough foie gras to induce a comatose state long enough for a good night's sleep.
We went to Yountville in the day and took a few nice pictures of the outside of the restaurant, their lovely little patio, and the garden (mostly harvested) across the street:
Although it was mid-November, it was 80 degrees that day - too hot to have our morning coffee sitting outside.
For the purposes of preserving my sanity, I have eliminated all of the absurd quotation marks from the menu - when did this whole thing start, anyway? Is or is not the pork belly on lentil ragout? Why is it on a "ragout" with "lardons"? Is it bacon cut into batons? Indeed, it is. But I digress. Let's get it on. . .
The first thing one notices about the French Laundry is that the exterior is meticulously manicured. There isn't a dead flower or gravel pebble out of place. My dining companion mentioned that she had the urge to throw a cigarette butt onto the gravel walkway that surrounds the building, just to see how long it took before it was soundly whisked away.
The building is quiet and unassuming on the outside, where you feel free to stroll a little through their outdoor dining area:
(alas, by the time we arrived it had cooled a bit, although they still had the tables set with candles, making you feel welcome) and peek into the kitchen through the many windows:
Once inside, we were a little taken aback by the silence. Granted, our reservation was for 6:30 on a Tuesday, but one walks into a little lobby/bar area and is greeted with only the whisper of one's skirt. There is no background music, only the hush of genteel conversation and the occasional clink of silverware.
The wine list at the French Laundry is so extensive that if Husband and I ever have the opportunity to visit together, I will bring him to the restaurant 2 hours ahead of time and park him in the lobby, where he will be instructed to peruse the list at his leisure, so that by the time we get to dinner, he can focus his attention on his lovely wife, and not the lovely wine list. The list comes in a leather-bound binder, and contains 80 card-stock pages (they use very nice paper at the French Laundry), with about 30 selections per page. The list is intuitively constructed, beginning with half bottle selections, and then continuing on an extensive world tour of wines. We began with a glass each of champagne - Shraumsberg? Funny that now I can't remember (I knew I should have written this the day I got back), as champagne is usually the one wine I remember above all others.
Here's one thing about the wine list at the French Laundry: yes, there are an intimidating number of selections, and yes, some of them are priced outside of my range (or the range of myself and several friends combined), but there are many selections for under $100 a bottle. Here's a secret about most sommeliers - while they do pride themselves on their ability to secure allocations of fabulous, hard-to-find wines and vintages, and to offer verticals (consecutive vintages) of the best the world has to offer, most sommeliers also pride themselves in searching out great values.
Here's a tip if you are unsure of what to order and don't want to feel misled or intimidated by the sommelier or server. Point to a few selections that are in your price range and ask for some suggestions. The server should take the que you've given and should stay within $10 or so of the range you offered.
We selected a half bottle of Dr. Lossen Riesling ($45), the bottling a French Laundry exclusive and perhaps one of the best Rieslings I have ever had (and, Riesling being the queen of grapes, I've had a few). For the heartier courses in the meal, we selected 2001 Edmonds St. John's Wylie Fenaughty, a great syrah from a great guy, Steve Edmonds (more on him at another time).
One of our many servers (there seemed to be about 5 - the guy who talked to us about food, the guy who talked to us about wine, one person who ran the food, another to refresh our memories by describing the dishes after the food runner set them down, and then later, a coffee boy who came out of nowhere to offer us coffee and then disappeared forever, along with our coffee).
First off came the champagne, accompanied by gougeres (little savory puff pastries, typically made with Gruyere or other cheese), still hot from the oven; next up, the ubiquitous smoked salmon cone - I say ubiquitous as though it's everywhere, but what I guess I mean is the trademark smoked salmon cone, far more delicious than I might have imagined. (I tried to make these once, from the French Laundry cookbook, and let's just say that I didn't succeed the way Thomas Keller's lackeys did.
We opted for menu two, although the next morning we decried our decision for not choosing - at least one of us - the seasonal menu or the vegetable menu. We were caught up in a moment, I guess, and were powerless to turn down the server's suggestion that we choose a particular menu. The menu we chose had many of the French Laundry "standards" (and I do use the quotations with tongue firmly planted in cheek), including "Oysters and Pearls."
First of all, a note about pictures: I really did not find it appropriate to take pictures; although I have a tiny camera and don't believe in using a flash, it has a distracting red sensor beam and takes forever to capture an image in low light. There were 3 other tables near us, and servers everywhere, and I just couldn't take the pictures. I apologize to all of you who are waiting to see the pictures, but the best I can offer you is a link to Pim's French Laundry birthday lunch - she had the advantage of being relatively famous and dining with French Laundry regulars.
The only picture I took was of the Oysters and Pearls; Sabayon (custard) of Pearl Tapioca with Beau Soleil Oysters and Russian Sevruga Caviar. Salty, creamy and delicious, this was like a savory dessert. In retrospect, it reminds of of the way Chef Kimura of Kihachi matched the textures of custard with soft cod roe. Here, Keller matches the textures of tapioca and caviar, marrying them with a comforting and savory custard.
Next up, Warm Salad of French Laundry Garden Beets, Yukon Gold Potato Bouchons, Wild Arugula and Whole Grand Mustard Aigre Doux (a sweet and sour sauce). The perfect fall dish, all of the beets and potatoes turned perfectly into little ovals, the arugula appropriately peppery.
There was a choice here, for $45, to select the risotto with shaved while truffles from Alba; I probably should have splurged (even more), and had them, since I don't plan to be in Alba in the Autumn anytime in the foreseeable future, but alas. A few tables around me did get the truffles, however, which included a presentation of the truffle box, the truffles inside, and the dramatic shaving thereof. This supplement to the menu seemed to also include an extra course of Keller's famed truffled custard in egg cups with the potato crisp sticking out the top, which looked exactly as it does in the cookbook. I have to admit to being a wee bit jealous.
Sauteed Fillet of Gulf Coast Redfish, with Globe Artichokes, Fennel Bulb, Sweet Pepper Tapenade and Bouillabaisse Reduction. Again, a nice seasonal dish; the fish expertly seared, all other ingredients in perfect harmony.
Now came the bread service, which consisted of fun little miniature versions of the bread sold at the Bouchon bakery. Tiny little baguettes were all lined up on a tray and served with wonderful butter.
Caesar Salad (here is one place where the quotations belong, as this dish resembles a Caesar salad as much as I resemble Pamela Anderson, that being we are both female): Maine Lobster Tail Pochee sous Vide (Sous Vide is a French method of cooking whereby the item to be cooked is placed in a vacuum-sealed plastic pouch and then gently poached, which allows for no loss of flavor or volume) with Caramelized Heart of Romaine Lettuce, Sweet Garlic-Parmesan Crouton and Bottarga (dried, salted mullet roe) Emulsion. This also came with an at-table grating of bottarga, which added an intense saltiness that matched the dish perfectly.
Crispy Pave of Hobb's Shore Poitrine de Porc, Ragout of French Green Lentils, Applewood Smoked Bacon Lardons and Spiced Musqee de Provence Pumpkin Veloute. My only disappointment of the evening, as pork belly is one my "favorite things I never get to eat." Everything here, the lentil ragout and the pumpkin sauce, was really nice, except the pork belly, which had the texture of something that has been braised way too long - the meat becomes dry and almost crumbly. It seemed strange that something typically so succulently layered between fat ribbons could be so dry and mealy. This dish, sadly, was a miss, but the next almost made up for it.
Snake River Farm Caloote de Boeuf Grillee, Stir-Fry of Maitake Mushrooms, Scallions, Pea Tendrils and Crepes Juliennes with Sauce Japnonaise and Freshly Grated Marin County Wasabi. Reading the menu, I guess this might have truly been my first fresh wasabi experience, although wasabi is in quotations, so who can really know for sure. I didn't experience any scathing wasabiness, so it must have been used very judiciously. Made from American Kobe beef, this was truly the best piece of beef I have ever eaten, and made me rethink my prior feelings about Kobe, which I felt to be a little too chewy for my tastes, not justifying the price tag. This dish was absolutely perfect, and I doubt I will ever be able to eat steak in a restaurant again; not really a steak, the cut was the upper rib eye, which had been grilled in a larger piece and then sliced, it was cooked to a perfect medium rare. The stir-fry underneath, fully of interesting textures such as the crepe ribbons, and my favorite, maitake mushrooms, provided a lovely and composed foundation to showcase the flavor of the well-salted meat. Divine.
It was time for cheese; Pleasant Ridge Reserve (an aged raw milk farmhouse cheese from Wisconsin) Wildflower Honey Mead-Poached Sierra Beauty Apples, Telicherry Peppercorn Shortbread and Cutting Celery Greens. Here again, a study in perfect harmony and a well-thought-out cheese course. The shortbread was a great alternative to crostini or crackers, and the seasonality of the rustic, sharp cheese matched perfectly the poached apple and celery greens.
Barker's Feijoa (pineapple guava) Sorbet Aux Agrumes D'Automne et Feuille de Bric Croquante (with autumn citrus and a layered sweet crisp). Here, a study in citrus fruits was more than just sorbet, including a small gellee, flavored intensely with grapefruit. I reminded me that I keep meaning to make some fruit gellees (think of a really great soft gumdrop).
Valrhona Chocolate Dome, Wildflower Honey-Sicilian Pistachio Nougat Blanc, Cocoa Nib Coulis and Cerceaux de Sugre (curlicue of sugar). An indulgent chocolate dessert with a crisp sugar ring, a rich nougat filling, everything put in its place, however, by the cocoa nib (unsweetened nibs of cocoa beans) coulis.
We were coming to a close, and our check was presented with the Mignardises, a tray of cute little sweet things, here all chocolates in all shapes, sizes and flavors. We both selected the rosemary scented dark chocolate and were very pleased. This reminded me that I keep meaning to make chocolates. . .
As we were leaving, the hostess presented us with keepsake menus, tucked in a little presentation folder with a clothespin embossed on the front; I managed to wrangle two out of her, because I had promised to bring menus back for Chef.
All in all, it's hard to write about dining at the French Laundry - I couldn't take pictures, I couldn't really whip out my notebook and start jotting down taste sensations, and as yet, I don't have a super-cool spy styled recording pen. Thus, one has to rely on memories only, and one has been plied with much wine and food, causing a certain amount of dining befuddlement.
I hope to return one of these days, hopefully in the summer when I can take half the meal outside. I think the best way to dine at the French Laundry is a way that very few people can do - become a regular. The whole dinner had a very "food-tourist" feel that smacked of a less-than-genuine experience. I don't think there's a way to overcome that feeling at this point of the French Laundry's existence, but when you become familiar with chefs in restaurants about town, you always get the best experience, something I love about certain restaurants in Columbus.
Info: The French Laundry 6640 Washington St Yountville, CA 707.944.2390.