No, I take that back. The French Laundry should not, ever, have to share headline space with anything else.
So this post is about The French Laundry.
If you haven’t heard of it, The French Laundry, located in Yountsville (a bit north of Napa), is one of the finest restaurants in the world – many say THE finest restaurant in the world. It has only sixteen tables, and it’s damn hard to get reservations – you have to make reservations two months in advance, and you have to be lucky enough to be one of the first callers to get into the queue, before the tables all vaporize.
Mike and I were fortunate enough to get reservations two months ago, and while dropping $300+ per plate on a meal may not be the most intuitively obvious thing to do the day after getting laid off, I was not about to miss the opportunity. I’ve eaten at The French Laundry three or four times in the past, and all I can say is that Chef Keller talks to God. It is not simply good food; it’s food conceived and executed beyond perfection. Every aspect, from texture to flavor to high notes to low notes, is wonderfully put together and presented. And the food has a sense of humor.
Anyway, there we were in Yountsville, ordering from the nine-course tasting menu.
The first thing to appear in front of us was salmon tartare cornets: creamy salmon tartare, onion custard creme, in a tuile with black sesame seeds sprinkled on it. The salmon and the oh-so-smooth custard were perfectly offset by the crunchiness of the tuile; the black sesame seeds added a slight nuttiness. The presentation was hilarious: a little salmon ice-cream-cone. And it was GOOD.
Next to appear was the only menu item that stays the same every day (the rest of the menu changes daily): “Oysters and Pearls”, a sabayon of pearl tapioca with Beau Soleil oysters and white sturgeon caviar.
Imagine a creamy seafood custard, perfectly smooth, in which are buried little balls of tapioca, adding a little texture to the custard. Next, add a little spoonful of black caviar, glistening, rich, creamy sturgeon eggs, salty and smooth. Finally, top it off with a pair of tiny, pea-sized oysters, tender enough to practically melt into the custard. It was wonderfully, velvety tasty, and Mike and I both lingered over the tiny dish.
Next up was the “Moulard Duck ‘Foie Gras en Terrine'”, i.e. duck foie gras in a terrine. It came with a muscat grape gelee, tiny little Tokyo turnips, a few stems of watercress, and huckleberry sauce. It also arrived with not one, not two, but three different kinds of salt: one was a plain white salt whose provenance I don’t remember, one was gray Fleur de Sel (a salt of renowned flavor, made in France), and the third – intriguingly enough – was a pink salt, which (the server explained) came out of a Montana copper mine.
The foie gras terrine was fantastic – I would never in a million years have thought of pairing it with huckleberry and muscat grape, but spooned together and spread over brioche toast (“the best toast I’ve ever had,” said Mike), it was fantastic. (I am rapidly running out of superlatives, so forgive me if I repeat myself.) The service was wonderfully smooth as well – I had just started pacing myself so I wouldn’t run out of brioche toast before I ran out of terrine, but as soon as Mike finished his, another appeared as if by magic. After that I stopped worrying.
A word on the service at The French Laundry: hospitable. Often, when you go to really high-end restaurants, the service comes with an attitude. None whatsoever here: just warm, friendly hospitality – great pride in their food, but also great concern that your evening there be just as magical as you had anticipated. Our server was knowledgeable, gentle, and warm – whether he was explaining the menu or helping us choose a wine pairing. I liked him a lot.
Next on the menu (for me) was a Tartare of Atlantic Bluefin Tuna. (Mike got the Chanterelle Mushroom-Encrusted Halibut, with Brentwood Golden Corn and Garden Lovage Broth. I tasted it; it might be even better than the tartare, with the intense corn essence and the chanterelle offsetting the halibut.) This involved 1/4″ cubes of tuna tartare, a thin drizzle of onion-flavored homemade mayonnaise, tiny little cherry tomatoes, tiny bits of celery, and some herbs to make it a “salad”. I’ve now run entirely out of superlatives, so let’s just say it was, well, good. Damn good.
Next on the menu was sweet butter-poached Maine Lobster Tail, with figs, fennel, arugula, and pistachio emulsion. The lobster tail was perfectly cooked – tender throughout, which lobster usually isn’t. If you cook it in water, it tends to get dried out and tough, because it gets heated too hot. Cooking it in butter, though, keeps it tender. The combination of figs, fennel, and arugula with the lobster was great – the figs had been lightly roasted, so were completely tender throughout.
I forgot to mention the wine! Our waiter had recommended a Riesling to go with the foie gras terrine, and since Mike and I know virtually nothing about wines, we went with his recommendation. It was wonderful – unfortunately I don’t have the vocabulary to talk about it properly, but it was the best sweet wine I’ve ever had. Mike went on to have a glass of something else (I’ve forgotten what), which was excellent as well.
Anyway, next on the menu was the Marcho Farm Calf’s Brain Poele, with Yukon Gold potatoes, Spanish capers, parsley shoots, and brown butter-lemon sauce. Thomas Keller likes working with organ meats, because, as he says (paraphrasing), “Any fool can broil a steak. You can cook a steak and you haven’t added anything to it. But to take a less-than-prime cut, something that might be discarded, and make something of it, now that’s something…” The calf’s brain was perfectly creamy, browned outside – Mike compared the texture to the best silken tofu, but it tasted much much better than tofu, of course. The potatoes were roasted just enough to have a little crunch, with a sprinkling of salt to make them intensely essence of potato. I have no idea how they managed to make potatoes taste so sophisticated and potato-ey, but they did it. I think they just cooked it perfectly.
I’ll skip over the lamb ribeye and the cheese course (the latter notable for featuring a strawberry compote that I WANT TO KNOW HOW THEY DID IT, DAMMIT! – the perfect essence of strawberry, I want the recipe so I can put it into jam). The second-from-last item on the menu was the grape sorbet – atop a financier (light cake) with raisins, and a foam made from verjus (pressed green grapes). It was perfectly-textured, smooth, melting, and, well, excellent.
Somewhere around here Mike had to get up to use the bathroom, and reported (upon his return) that the lampshades had a sense of humor as well! On each of the frosted-glass lampshades was a set of universal laundry-care symbols: a stylized iron, a triangle with an x through it to indicate “no bleach”, and one more which I’ve forgotten. Well, it is The French Laundry, after all. (Our napkins also came with a French Laundry clothespin.)
The final official item on the tasting menu was a choice between “Delice au chocolat et a la menthe” or the “Glace aux noyaux d’abricots”. I chose the latter, Mike the former. I’ll leave him to rave about the mint chocolate dessert (if he so chooses) – I was too busy drooling over the apricot dish. It was a spoonful of the most incredibly intensely flavored apricot sorbet (made with dried apricots for greater flavor) over a mild apricot-kernel ice cream (which tasted faintly of almonds), with little cubes of something cakely and slightly crunchy – streusel perhaps? Whatever it was, it was divinely wonderful.
Finally, as we were winding down, they appeared with a series of small cakes and custards – the “mignardises” to end the meal. I got a creme brulee, Mike got something else creamy and delicious (I was too busy going into ecstasies over mine to notice what he got 🙂 ). At the very end, our server reappeared with a tray of chocolates, five different kinds – and a collection of white and dark chocolate truffles, marzipan diamonds, and fruit pates. I, needless to say, had to taste all five kinds of chocolates. Four of them were “merely” world-class chocolates (says someone who’s gone all over the globe tasting chocolates), but the fifth one, a peanut butter truffle, took my breath away. Intensely peanutty, incredibly smooth, it tasted like pure essence of peanut melded with pure essence of chocolate – what a Reese’s peanut butter cup was meant to be. I have now decided that I must do a peanut butter truffle this year – if it is possible to make one that good, I must try it. I will do some test runs over the next few weeks with different peanut butters to see if I can come within touching distance of that truffle. If I can, my life will be complete.
After the meal was done, we took a brief tour of the kitchen. It was bustling, but amazingly clean – they had pans hanging up and even the bottoms of the pans were clean! I wish I could have seen more. I would give my eyeteeth to be an apprentice in that kitchen for half a day.
At any rate, that is the end of the French Laundry food porn – the food was excellent, and the experience well worth the $350 or so it cost for each of us. (Oddly, I do not consider most $80/plate restaurants worth the price of admission, but I do consider The French Laundry worth its asking price.) I wouldn’t eat there every day, but for Very Special Occasions, there is no finer place.
Meow! *purr purr purr*