The French Laundry

by arnold on December 12, 2008

It’s pretty obvious from the content of this site that I’m a big fan of Thomas Keller, and up until this week, we had enjoyed every level of the Keller empire (Ad Hoc, Bouchon, Bouchon Bakery and cookbooks) except for his crown jewel—The French Laundry.

The French Laundry

Despite all the cooking and eating that I chronicle on this blog, I hardly see myself as an authority on food. If anything, I have a lot to learn about food, especially on the higher end of the spectrum, so each dining experience is an opportunity to glean some knowledge about what I’m eating and how it was prepared. This made my approach to this meal simple—trust the chef and enjoy the experience.

There’s a sign in The French Laundry kitchen that reads:

fi-nesse (fə-ˈnes) noun: Refinement and delicacy of performance, execution or artisanship.

This describes the entire French Laundry experience perfectly, and it’s reflected in everything at occurs once you walk in the door. The restaurant itself was warm and inviting, especially since it was around 40F when we arrived in Yountville, and maitre d’ Larry Nadeau made us feel right at home. The staff was friendly and professional without being snooty, and our server, Guillaume, guided us through every stage of the meal.

Branding is ImportantYou gotta love the clothespin.

Larry came by our table after we were seated and offered us some champagne. My wife doesn’t drink and I wasn’t planning on drinking either, so we politely refused. He came back a few minutes later and said he wanted us “to start our meal with something bubbly” and presented us with a bottle Sonoma Sparkler Organic Apple Cider. We’re big fans of Sonoma Sparkler, so Larry poured us a pair of flutes, and my wife and I toasted her upcoming birthday, Christmas, and probably our next anniversary. :)

The French Laundry’s tasting menus epitomize the perfect marriage of food, art, and technology. Some might find the technological aspects of food preparation to be sterile or cold, but modern advances in cooking that enhance or improve the end product fascinate me. My wife and I decided beforehand that we would order from separate tasting menus. I had the Chef’s Tasting Menu and she had the Tasting of Vegetables, so the pictures and descriptions that follow will crossover between the two.

(It should be noted that though Keller was in town and on the premises, Chef de Cuisine Corey Lee is in charge of the kitchen’s day-to-day activities. It says a lot about Lee’s skills when an obsessive perfectionist like Thomas Keller is willing to give him control of his flagship restaurant.)

Amuse-Bouche

Every meal starts with the same two amuse-bouches. First were the mini Gruyére Gougéres (cheese puffs) that are light as air and disappear once you pop them in your mouth.

Gruyére GougéresGruyére Gougéres
Light as air.

The cornets that arrived next are one of French Laundry signatures and are his play on an ice cream cone. I received the classic salmon tartare cornet and my wife’s was vegetable-based, but we can’t remember what was in it. We both loved our respective cornets, and were also equally impressed with the delicate tuile cone.

CornetsCornets
Keller loves the whimsy.

Before our starter courses arrived, Guillaume asked us if we wanted to something to drink aside from water. My wife had been nursing a cough and requested green tea as I mulled over my non-alcoholic options. I decided not to inquire about a non-alcoholic pairing because I really didn’t want to drink that much soda. I settled on a GuS Dry Crimson Grape soda that wasn’t overly sweet like the artificially flavored grape indulgences I normally crave (i.e. Crush, Jolly Rancher, Dimetapp), and it complemented the food nicely.

Starter Courses

The first course on the Chef’s Tasting Menu is the iconic “Oysters and Pearls.” This is another whimsical Thomas Keller classic that featured a Sabayon of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and White Sturgeon Caviar. This was my first time eating caviar and I can’t think of a better way to be introduced to it. On its own, the caviar was nice and had a subtle briny flavor to it. But when eaten with the oysters and the sabayon, you understand why this has been on the menu for years.

Oysters and Pearls“Oysters and Pearls”
“Sabayon” of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and White Sturgeon Caviar

The Vegetable tasting menu started with Compressed Fuji Apples. If you’re wondering how apples are compressed, they are simply placed in a plastic bag and sealed in a chamber vacuum to a specific pressure in order to compress and change the texture of the fruit.

Compressed Fuji ApplesCompressed Fuji Apples
Cauliflower, Red Radish and Mint “Aigre-Doux.”

Instead of the salad, I opted for the Moulard Duck “Foie Gras en Terrine” supplement. I’m not a big foie gras fanatic, but I’ve never had it in this form, so I had to give it a try. The terrine was smooth and rich and was the consistency of butter…duck liver butter. It was served with a thick slice of perfect brioche toast that’s replaced as your eating to ensure that you always have a warm piece of bread. In fact, my initial serving of toast was replaced before I had a chance to try it because I was too busy taking this picture:

Moulard Duck Foie Gras En TerrineMoulard Duck “Foie Gras En Terrine”
Yukon Gold Potato Confit, Vidalia Onion Relish,
Black Winter Truffle, and French Prune Purée

The terrine was unsalted, so it was served with three different salts. The most meaningful one to me was an Ilocano salt from the Philippines. You read that right…The Philippines is officially represented at The French Laundry! The other two salts were a grey French sea salt from Brittany and a pink Jurassic salt from Montana that’s estimated to be around 40 million years old. I thought the terrine was great on its own, but it was interesting to try it with different seasonings, as well as sample the salts on their own. Of the three, I preferred the Ilocano salt because it was a lot milder than the other two; the Jurassic salt was incredibly strong.

Salt Three WaysSalt Three Ways
Clockwise from top left, Philippine, French, and Jurassic.

My wife’s second course was a lovely K&J Orchard Chestnut Soup that was smooth and delicious. A perfect winter soup.

K&J Orchard Chestnut SoupK&J Orchard Chestnut Soup
Persimmon Relish and Black Truffle Coulis.

I closed out the first third of my meal by choosing the Sautéed Fillet of Japanese Suzuki over the Tartare of Pacific Kanpachi. I loved the crispy skin and the gastrique complemented the fish nicely.

Sautéed Fillet of Japanese SuzukiSautéed Fillet of Japanese Suzuki
Parsnip, Asian Pear, Sicilian Pistachio, Arugula and Piment d’Espelette Gastrique

My wife’s third course was Roasted Belgian Endive. Those little yellow balls on the plate are bananas.

Roasted Belgian EndiveRoasted Belgian Endive
Cashews, Gros Michel Bananas, Cilantro and Black Tea-Curry Gastrique

As we moved into the middle courses of our meal, I had finished my grape soda, and Guillaume asked me if I wanted another. After a brief discussion, we agreed that a Capt’n Eli’s Root Beer would pair nicely with the heavier dishes that were forthcoming.

Middle Courses

My first middle course was the Caesar Salad. This might sound pedestrian for The French Laundry, but not when you discover that the centerpiece of this Caesar salad was a butter-poached Maine lobster tail served with caramelized heart of romaine lettuce, sweet garlic melba, and freshly shaved bottarga di muggine for the salty kick anchovies normally provide. After the terrine, this was probably the richest dish of the night.

Caesar Salad“Caesar Salad”
Maine Lobster Tail “Pochée au Beurre Doux” with Caramelized Heart of Romaine Lettuce,
Sweet Garlic “Melba” and “Bottarga di Muggine”

The next vegetable course was Grilled Matsutake Mushrooms. I’m not really into matsutakes, but my wife liked this dish a lot, especially the satsuma mandarins.

Grilled Matsutake MushroomsGrilled Matsutake Mushrooms
Satsuma Mandarins, Pickled Pearl Onions, Turnips, Mizuna and Pine Nut Purée

Next, I chose the Confit de Coer de Veau (veal heart) over the “Augillette” of Liberty Farm Pekin Duck because…well, when was I ever going to eat veal heart ever again? The heart was shaved into thin slices and reminded me of a really good pastrami that would go great in a sandwich with sauerkraut and mustard. I would definitely order this again.

Confit de Coer de VeauConfit de Coer de Veau
Flowering Quince, K & J Orchard Chestnuts, Brussels Sprouts and Honey-Clove Sauce

My wife’s Chickpea Croquette was really good but seriously, this might be the most expensive falafel on the planet.

Chickpea CroquetteChickpea “Croquette”
Sweet Peppers, English Cucumbers, Sesame Seed Yogurt and Eggplant Confit

The Snake River Farms “Calotte de Boeuf Grilée” was the ribeye cap cooked sous vide to a perfect medium rare and then barely grilled to produce an extremely succulent piece of meat. It was so good that I almost dropped my fork when I put this in my mouth. This was my favorite dish of the night, and now I’m thinking of the making a version of it for Christmas dinner.

Calotte de Beouf GrilléeSnake River Farms “Calotte de Boeuf Grilée”
Bluefoot Mushrooms, French Laundry Garden Tokyo Turnips, Pea Tendrils and “Sauce Japonaise”

My wife’s butternut squash tortellini nearly matched the richness of the beef. The butternut squash confit was extremely smooth and the whole tortellini melted in my mouth on contact.

Butternut Squash TortelliniButternut Squash “Tortellini”
Pomegranate Kernels, Butternut Squash Confit and Brown Butter Emulsion

Cheese Course

I never really paid attention to cheese until I started eating at Ad Hoc, where the third course of every dinner there is a cheese course. I’ve been able to try a wide variety of cheeses since then.

I had a cow’s milk cheese from Adante Dairy called “Cadence” that was served with Swiss Chard, Medjool Date and Hobbs� Bacon. I like the combination of all the elements on the plate but was most fascinated by how they made the bacon so flat, thin and crispy. Guillaume told us the bacon was baked between sheets of paper and with a weight on top to keep the bacon flat.

Adante Dairy CadenceAdante Dairy “Cadence”
Swiss Chard, Medjool Date and Hobbs Bacon.

My wife’s cheese course was a Tomme Brulée, a sheep’s milk cheese made in France.

Tomme Brulée“Tomme Brulée”
Globe Artichoke, Cipollini Onion, Frisée Lettuce and San Marzano Tomato Compote

By the time we hit dessert, we were both really full, but I was feeling it more because my dishes were much heavier than my wife’s. I think my tie came off at this point.

Dessert Course

My first dessert was the Napa Valley Feijoa Sorbet with Caramelized Banana Cake and Toasted Pili Nuts (Pili nuts are also from the Philippines! Hat tip: Theda and my mom). Feijoa is a pineapple guava fruit and the sorbet went nicely with the banana cake.

Napa Valley Feijoa Sorbet Napa Valley Feijoa Sorbet Caramelized Banana Cake and Toasted Pili Nuts.

I’m not a big fan of pistachios, but my wife loved her Pistachio Ice Cream.

Pistachio Ice CreamPistachio Ice Cream
Whipped Mascarpone and Pistachio Biscotti.

My second dessert was the Jivara-Caramel Roulade, a delicate chocolate-caramel mousse that’s rolled in chocolate shavings. It’s so soft and light, and I have no idea how they get this to keep its tubular shape. It was served with a creamy pumpkin sherbet, pumpkin “croutons” and chocolate shavings.

Jivara-Caramel RouladeJivara-Caramel “Roulade”
Musquée de Provence Sherbet, Pumpkin Crouton and Chocolate “Dentelle”

My wife had Sweet Rice Beignets, which were dense and chewy, but the pear-wasabi sorbet sounded intimidating. When you put in your mouth, you could feel the wasabi’s intense heat rising dangerously to the forefront, but it quickly subsided and finished smooth with a mild heat.

Sweet Rice BeignetsSweet Rice Beignets
Asian Pear-Wasabi Sorbet, Caramelized Ginger, Medjool Dates and Pear “Sabayon”

Coffee and Doughnuts are another French Laundry signature, but they aren’t on the menu. I saw them being delivered to the other tables in the dining room and asked Guillaume about their availability just before the cheese course. He came back a couple minutes later and said that the doughnuts were proofing and that he would bring them out after our dessert courses.

I love how this dish is plated, and it’s a perfect and playful dessert. A warm brioche doughnut hole is placed in the hole of the doughnut below it to create a sort of doughnut nipple. The coffee is actually a cappuccino mousse topped with foam and served in a demitasse.

Coffee and Donuts“Coffee and Doughnuts”
Warm Brioche Doughnuts Rolled in Cinnamon and Sugar with a Cappuccino Semifreddo

“Mignardises”

Dessert put us both over the top and we were hurting (in a good way). When Guillaume, arrived with an assortment of candies, we just looked at them and pondered our next move. We ended up having a couple pieces and had the rest packed up to take home.

Mignardises


Assorted CandiesAssorted Candies

The Damage

The hand-written bill arrives on a laundry tag, another novel way to follow through on the theme. Since we didn’t drink any wine, the damage was kept to a minimum. :) Service is included, but we added a little extra on top.

The Damage

Before we left into the night, Guillaume presented us with a copy of our menus along with some shortbread cookies to take home. The cookies were great for breakfast the next morning.

Shortbread CookiesTFL Shortbread Cookies

I really wanted to ask about a kitchen tour, but my wife was really tired and still had work to finish, and she wanted to go home. I’ve been making her feel guilty about this ever since. I guess we’ll have to come back in the spring or summer. :-)

When we first arrived, I had my copy of Keller’s new sous-vide cookbook “Under Pressure” in tow and asked Larry if it was possible to get him to sign it. Larry wasn’t sure if Keller would be around, but he would do his best. As we were leaving, he said that Thomas wasn’t around but there were some already-signed copies on hand and swapped books with me.

Time and Temperature“It’s all about time and temperature”—Thomas Keller

Final Thoughts

Dinner at The French Laundry isn’t an ordinary meal and shouldn’t be viewed in that context. It’s a culinary event that’s magnified in significance because it’s considered one of the world’s best restaurants and is owned by Thomas Keller, one of the world’s great chefs. When you factor in the degree of difficulty required to get a reservation and the price per person, expectations are set extraordinarily high, and many people would consider anything less than perfection to be a major failure.

For me, dining at The French Laundry is an incredible privilege, a luxury I never thought I’d be able to enjoy or afford. I hesitate to use superlatives like “best meal ever” because every meal needs to be put in its proper context. I can say with complete confidence that dinner at The French Laundry is the most decadent culinary experience I’ve ever had.

Once in a lifetime? Not if I can help it.

INFORMATION
The French Laundry
6640 Washington St
Yountville, CA 94599 map
707.944.2380
5 stars
French Laundry on Urbanspoon

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{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

AJ December 12, 2008 at 4:13 pm

A very well-written, and more importantly, an honest account of your experience! I see far too many self-anointed “expert” foodies out there who do nothing but go into dinners like this and seek out flaws. All in the name of trying to prove their own expertise…

Unlike all of them, you’ve let us know where you come from and given an honest take on the meal itself. Your more humble perspective is refreshing…and much needed.

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susannah December 12, 2008 at 4:15 pm

I love this review! So glad you were able to make it out there.

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XaiaX December 12, 2008 at 5:01 pm

I’m laughing at my own reaction to the price. I figured it would be high, I saw it, and thought “Egads!”, then realized I had dinner once that consisted of 2 steaks, which cost about the same.

So I really have no room to complain. ;)

Not sure about the seafood though, I wish I liked that sort of thing.

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Theda E December 12, 2008 at 6:54 pm

Arnold,

The PI was doubly represented. The toasted Pili nuts are from the Philippines, in particular, the Bicol region where my parents are from. :)

Theda

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Ajith December 12, 2008 at 6:58 pm

Lovely pictures and very well written! I’m going to make it a mission to dine at “The French Laundry”

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Arnold December 12, 2008 at 9:42 pm

@Theda: Yeah, my mom just called and scolded me for not knowing about the Pili nuts since I’m “from the Philippines.” I had to gently remind her that I was born in the U.S. :-)

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Salty Mouth December 13, 2008 at 1:54 pm

Beautiful photos. I too love that Filipino salt “is represented at the French Laundry.” Now if only Keller would give a small-scale Seattle duo a try. I hand-craft an array of flakey, coarse Fleur de Sel salts that run the gamut of infused flavors such as Coconut Garam Masala, Pineapple Cumin Chili, Bloody Mary, Nicoise Olive, Lavender Rosemary, Vanilla, Almond Cardamom, Soy, and Apple 5-Spice.

If ever so inclined, take a peak: http://www.secretsalts.com

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Arnold E. December 13, 2008 at 7:13 pm

Arnold, great review of your French Laundry experience!! You definitely didn’t disappoint us! I have to start saving up now…

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Paul Reiter December 13, 2008 at 11:25 pm

I’m so glad you and were wife were able to finally experience this restaurant. I enjoyed reading the review. I hope one day I can take my wife there.

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Arnold December 13, 2008 at 11:33 pm

@Salty Mouth: Your salts look really cool.

@Arnold E.: Yes…save now and start dialing. :)

@Paul: Ditch the kids and start driving to Yountville! :-)

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Chaime December 14, 2008 at 10:30 am

I have been anxiously waiting to read this, and you finally posted it! Such a great post, and the pictures + you describing the food makes me want to go here even sooner! Thank you :)

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Marvin December 14, 2008 at 2:37 pm

Awesome review Arnold! And I actually have a giant bag of Ilocano sea salt from my last trip there, it’s so awesome that it’s at the French Laundry. And pili nuts too!

One of these days, I’ll hopefully get up to the French Laundry. You are very lucky indeed.

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Paul Reiter December 14, 2008 at 2:44 pm

I had a quick question that I’ve always wanted to ask you. Are restaurants fine with you taking pictures of their courses/desserts? Do you ask them beforehand if it is okay? Which brings me to another question. What type of camera do you use for the photos? I just got a Canon Rebel XSi and I love it but I can’t imagine whipping it out during a dinner service. :) Keep the great reviews coming. We’ll keep reading them and silently salavating.

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Arnold December 14, 2008 at 3:13 pm

@Marvin: Ah…you got it from the source. I think it’s funny that the Ilocano salt is a premium ingredient sold at high-end food stores.

@Paul: I’ve never really had a problem with restaurants and picture taking. If we’re lucky enough to go for lunch or an early dinner in the summer, a lot of times there’s enough natural light so we don’t need the flash. The only place I’ve been to that “forbids” it is Maru…in Valencia of all places. I managed to get some pics there with my iPhone (no flash, less conspicous).

We don’t have a high-end camera, but we’ve been looking to upgrade for awhile. Currently, I use a point-and-shoot Canon A540. It’s pretty small, so it’s not too obnoxious. The macro mode works really well, but if I have problems focusing, I just back up a bit and then crop the picture down later. I had to do a lot of that with these French Laundry pics. :)

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Nessim December 26, 2008 at 2:33 pm

Very nice report, Arnold. Don’t make your lady feel bad about the kitchen tour; this way your memory will be all about the food in the dining room. Plus, always save something for next time! Also what’s up with no mention of the water service. You know that the Nordaq “Fresh” water is the bomb diggity!

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Anna March 16, 2009 at 5:25 am

Wow! Truly food as art.

Thank you so much for this detailed and warm description of what was evidently a pretty spectacular experience. The food looks exquisite, and I’m sure tasted the same.

I had to LOL at your description of the replacement of the toast to ensure that it was always warm. I’ve been to some pretty fancy restaurants in my time, but nowhere that provided *that* kind of service. It sounds like a truly amazing place. I shall evidently have to make sure I have made the FL reservation BEFORE I book hotels and flights next time I come to SF. ;)

The bill looks truly eye-watering, but given the experience you described, also completely justified.

BTW, exactly how far in advance did you have to book? Do they do the thing where they just open up bookings 4 weeks ahead and you have to be on the phone the minute the restaurant opens? Or do you have to book months in advance? Could you get a reservation at a reasonable time?

Thanks again for your insightful commentary.

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Arnold March 21, 2009 at 1:16 pm

@Anna: Thanks for reading and the kind words. I actually got really lucky on Opentable.com and got my reservation 6 days before we went. I probably could have worked a connection or two, but I didn’t want to be “that guy,” if you know what I mean. :-) Hope you come to California soon!

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Experience Hawaii Like a Local June 25, 2009 at 2:16 am

I found your site while looking for stuff to do while in Hawaii. Cool stuff, glad I stumbled across you.

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Michelle July 4, 2009 at 1:49 pm

Arnold: Love the blog entry!!! One of the most beautiful, well-written available. Love the no-nonsense, humble approach. My bridesmaid nick-named Queen-Bee (; got us reservations the week before our wedding this September and it is something we have been dreaming about doing since our teens (10+ years).
We’re going on a weeknight, Tuesday at 8:000pm. Can you give us some fashion advice? We don’t want to be over-dressed. Also, were photographs welcome, and were many diners photographing, or were you the only one?

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Anakorpa December 3, 2009 at 4:48 pm

You supplemented foie, but they forgot to charged you for it? It’s $30 add on to the $240.

Or did you get comped?

Nice pics!

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pfilmls3 January 18, 2012 at 8:43 am

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