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.
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 (f?-?nes) 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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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 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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Pomegranate Kernels, Butternut Squash Confit and Brown Butter Emulsion
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.
Swiss Chard, Medjool Date and Hobbs Bacon.
My wife’s cheese course was a Tomme Brulée, a sheep’s milk cheese made in France.
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.
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.
Caramelized Banana Cake and Toasted Pili Nuts.
I’m not a big fan of pistachios, but my wife loved her Pistachio 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.
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.
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.
Warm Brioche Doughnuts Rolled in Cinnamon and Sugar with a Cappuccino Semifreddo
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The French Laundry
6640 Washington St
Yountville, CA 94599 map