December 26, 2012

The French Laundry, April 16, 2012

The French Laundry is consistently on the list of the World's 50 Best Restaurants, and has been named the best restaurant in the world. Ruth Reichl said in The New York Times that it was "The most exciting place to eat in the United States." My sister and brother-in-law had learned about the restaurant and chef Thomas Keller during culinary school. Needless to say, we were beyond excited to actually get a chance to try it out ourselves. 

French Laundry gardens directly across the street from the restaurant

We were interested in eating there when we went to the Napa Valley four years ago, but it just wasn't a realistic option because of the cost and the two-months-ahead (to the day) reservation. When we were planning our trip to Napa this past April, we were seriously considering it, and Brenna and Cassidy decided they wanted to go badly enough that they gave Gordie and I the generous gift of dinner there for our birthdays this year! 

Leaving our house and very excited

When Thomas Keller opened The French Laundry there wasn't anything in Yountville, a small town in the Napa Valley. Now the town is full of gastronomic attractions, with Bouchon bistro just a few steps down the road, Bouchon Bakery next door, and other restaurants all within walking distance. 

Every day The French Laundry creates two nine-course tasting menus-- the chef's tasting menu and tasting of vegetables (the latter not completely vegetarian, but more focused on the vegetables). I chose the tasting of vegetables because I am so enamored with produce that has been raised and prepared well and wanted to see how they did that here and because-- even though I was willing to try a bite of anything at all served at The French Laundry-- I am not really into things like kanpachi belly, oysters, and sea urchin, which were featured on the other menu. Bren, Cass, and Gordie all chose the chef's tasting menu, so we got to see and try some of everything at our table. These pictures are the highlights from both of those menus. Each of the courses is a very small dish-- just a couple of bites. And while nine courses seems like quite a lot, they actually serve more like fourteen when you count the multiple amuse bouches, mignardises, selection of beautiful little rolls/breads brought out, and other little surprises sprinkled among the official nine courses. They say they don't repeat an ingredient throughout the entire meal (though there were, for example, English peas in a dish on both of the menus). About their philosophy, they say on their web site

"What we want you to experience is that sense of surprise when you taste something so new, so exciting, so comforting, so delicious, you think, 'Wow'-- and then it's gone. We want the peak of sensation on the palate to be all that you feel. So we serve a series of small courses meant to excite your mind, satisfy your appetite, and pique your curiosity. We want you to say, 'I wish I had just one more bite of that.' And then the next plate arrives and the same thing happens, but in a different way, a whole new flavor and feel and emotion." 

All I can say is it really was like that! This place was just amazing. It had a lot to live up to, and it exceeded those expectations. Not only was the food a complete delight for all of the senses, but the whole place just reeked of people full of passion for and having fun with what they were doing. Our waiter was adorable and sweet and welcoming and funny. This was clearly his career. When we asked if we might possibly have a copy of the menu, he gave it to us inside a classy large folder made just for the purpose. He invited us to see the kitchen at the end of our meal, which we were only too giddy to take him up on. He glowingly pointed out to us where different stations were and how the place functioned. He introduced us to the chef de cuisine, who charmed us (or at least me) with a handsome grin and a handshake. The kitchen was calm and orderly and sparkled with stainless steel. The sommelier, when we told him our budget for wine and asked if he could recommend something at about that range, did not blink. He was gracious all evening as he served us four different, excellently paired half bottles timed perfectly with our courses that comfortably fit within our budget. The multiple servers who visited our table when each course was brought out could barely contain their glee as they explained what each dish was and finished off our dishes tableside-- infusing a dish with Jasmine tea, cutting open a souffle, drizzling with caramel sauce from a silver pitcher. This was a place where everything was intentional, nothing was overlooked. It was hard to imagine a mistake ever being made here. We felt not only like we were eating a meal of a lifetime, in all its careful, artistic, knowledgeable preparation, but also so well taken care of, comfortable, celebrated, like they were just so happy we had come. Isn't that how you'd always like people to feel when you serve them dinner? I will always remember this meal as a sort of symbol of the perfect meal-- not something to ever really capture completely at home, but something to strive toward.

The meal:

Signature "Cornets"-- salmon tartare with sweet red onion creme fraiche (amuse)

"PB&J"-- Buckwheat "Sable," Young Fennel, Grapes, Virginia Peanuts and Verjus "Snow" (vegetables menu) (the quotes, capitalization, and wording are straight from the menu, minus lots of accents)

Signature "Oysters and Pearls"-- "Sabayon" of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and White Sturgeon Caviar (chef's menu). Our waiter said this is the one thing that is always on the menu.

Salad of Sacramento Delta Green Asparagus-- Cipollini Onions, Cornichon "Lamelles," Petite Mache and "Sauce Gribiche" (chef's menu)

Artichokes "En Barigoule"-- Black Trumpet Mushrooms, Petite Onions and Extra Virgin Olive Oil Powder (vegetables menu)

French Laundry Garden Celtuce-- "Tofu," Meiwa Kumquat, Red Radish, Garden Blossoms and Jasmine Tea (vegetables menu)

Shiso-Cured Kanpachi Belly-- Akita Komachi Rice, Michigan Sour Cherries, Hearts of Palm, Cucumber, Pine Nuts and Black Lychee Tea "Gastrique" (chef's menu)

Bantham Hen Egg "En Croute de Pommes de Terre"-- "Caponata," Genova Basil and Parmesan (vegetables menu). This was so delicious, definitely a favorite course.

Sweet Butter-Poached Maine Lobster "Fricassee"-- Hobbs' Bacon, Bulgur Wheat, Red Walnuts and Ramp Top "Pesto" (chef's menu)

Ash-Baked Holland White Asparagus-- Field Rhubard, Piedmont Hazelnuts, Komatsuna and Black Truffle Puree (vegetables menu)

Milk-Poached Four Story Hill Farm "Poularde"-- French Laundry Garden Beets, Shallot Ash and Stinging Nettles (chef's menu)

This was my other favorite course: English Pea Tortellini "Fume a La Minute"-- "Confit de Volaille," Snap Peas and "Creme de Moutarde" (vegetables menu)

Snake River Farms "Calotte de Boeuf Grillee"-- Hen-of-the-Woods Mushrooms, English Peas, Nantes Carrots and "Vinaigrette Bordelaise" (chef's menu)

"Grilled Cheese"-- "Comte Reserve," Perigord Truffle, Mache and French Laundry Garden "Piccalilli" (vegetables menu). Had a hint of very good cheesy scalloped potatoes.

"Ossau Iraty"-- "Panisse," Globe Artichoke, Jingle Bell Peppers, Arugula and Spanish Capers (chef's menu)

Meyer Lemon Sorbet-- Ricotta Pound Cake, Oxalis and "Meringue Flambee" (vegetables menu)

White Verjus Sorbet-- Toasted Oats and Red Grapes (chef's menu)

Coeur de Guanaja Chocolate "Souffle"-- Vanilla Ice Cream and "Sauce de Caramel Sale" (vegetables menu)

"Marjolaine"-- Praline Mousse, "Dacquoise," and Roasted Banana Sherbet (chef's menu)

Meyer Lemon "Parfait"-- Oregon Huckleberries, Sicilian Pistachios and Poppy Seed Ice Cream (chef's menu)

Signature Coffee and Doughnuts (mignardise) (one of several treats at the end of the meal not even listed in the nine courses on the menu). Thomas Keller tells the story of this dish's birth in The French Laundry Cookbook: he was miserable and poor working in L.A. and would every day get an old-fashioned doughnut and coffee at the S and K doughnut shop across the street and got the inspiration to serve "coffee and doughnuts" at a dinner. The "coffee" is a cappuccino semifreddo with hot steamed milk on top.

Chocolate-covered macadamia nuts (mignardise)

Various fun-flavored chocolate truffles (mignardise)

The French Laundry kitchen


  1. So what did Willem eat?

    1. He was in VT with his grandparents, so probably whatever his little heart desired. :)

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