13 Comments October 14, 2011

The French Laundry

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6640 Washington Street, Yountville, CA, Official Website

My last experience at the French Laundry was in August, 2011. But before I share my most recent meal under the current chef de cuisine Timothy Hollingsworth, I wanted to share an older experience based on notes and photos from 2007 while the restaurant was still under Corey Lee. Stay tuned for the second report.

My journey at The French Laundry began with a trip through the garden. With an hour to spare before our reservation, we explored the autumn-colored late-season tomatoes practically falling off their vines in ripeness. I turned to my left and noticed, in shock, a farmer pruning the vines and discarding these perfect tomatoes. “We’re clearing the vines out today, want some tomatoes?” he asked. That may have been the fasted I’d ever ran looking for a bag; as I knew, The French Laundry grows and has access to some of the finest ingredients in the world.

During the first decade of the restaurant’s operation, Chef Thomas Keller melded California’s impeccable ingredient quality with innovative fine dining. The restaurant has won numerous awards and accolades, arguably making it the most famous restaurant in the country. We hoped to find the same inspiration that made the restaurant famous now that chef Keller is no longer in the kitchen. Our meal overall tasted very good, but it felt uninspired.

I loaded up three shopping bags with the freshest and sweetest tomatoes I’d ever seen. Onlookers thought I had a bit too much to drink, ravaging the tomato vines in a suit with a garbage bag. These three hefty bags of heirloom tomatoes made it to my car, back to my hotel, and on the plane with me to New York the following day. You should have seen the faces of TSA as bags of tomatoes passed through the X-Ray machines.

We brushed the dirt off our shoes and walked across the street to the restaurant.

Our table was a quiet one on the first floor in the corner of a hundred-year old house. The dining room was dimly lit and romantic with nothing but whispers and the clanking of utensils and glassware to be heard. We ordered a glass of champagne and settled in for our first course.

Gruyère gougères – Warm cheese puffs piped with Mornay sauce. These were generously salted and went nicely with a crisp glass of champagne.

Salmon cornets – Small cones of raw salmon tartar in a sesame tuile with sweet red onion crème fraîche. Our waiter asked us to pick a cone from the specially made holder; we ate it in our hand like a savory ice cream cone. These cones were outstanding, a balance of a sweet nutty tuile with fatty salmon and light vegetal crème fraîche.

Soupe de musquée de provence with kakai pumpkin seeds - A thick, creamy pumpkin soup with crunchy bits of pumpkin seeds. The flavor of the soup was earthy and rich. I liked the idea of a textural contrast, but the hard, shiny surface of the pumpkin seeds made for too stark of a contrast; the broth just slid off the sides without integrating.

Paired with a Schramsberg Vineyards, “J. Schram,” California, 1999

Oysters and Pearls – A sabayon of pearl tapioca with beau soleil oysters and white sturgeon caviar. This Thomas Keller classic is always on the menu at both Per Se and The French Laundry. This incredibly rich, buttery hollandaise-like sauce works great with the cold briny caviar and plump oysters. The remarkable thing about this dish is that it is always identical. After having this dish about a dozen times now between Per Se and The French Laundry, I don’t think I have ever noticed a difference. It is always a great way to begin a meal.

Sashimi of pacific kahala – Thin slices of Applewood smoked kahala served with blis maple syrup. Our waiter brought us a covered glass with thin cuts of kahala, and when the cover was lifted a small cloud of Applewood smoke was released. This was a dish where the puff of smoke smelled better than the fish tasted, or did not taste for that matter. The fish was relatively flavorless by itself. A dash of soy sauce may have helped to extract some of the flavors.

White truffle custard - Served in an egg shell with a ragoût of Perigord white truffle. This wasn’t a very fragrant dish despite the inclusion of white truffles, instead, the truffle added a mushroom-like earthiness to the custard that was addictive. After three bites the egg was hollow; we wanted more.

I generally don’t comment on wine pairings because I think they’re more about the experience of drinking wine with friends than enhancing the flavor of each course. However, this is one of the two best wine pairings I have ever had. The sweetness of the fruity, fortified wine really contrasted against the salty, earthiness of the truffles. The net effect was a stronger truffle flavor, as if eating this dish through a magnifying glass. The sommelier should win an award for this combination.

Paired with a Barbeito, Sercial, Madeira, Portugal 1978

Air-cured wagyu with 100-year-old balsamic vinegar - Thin, translucent slices of heavily marbleized wagyu beef garnished with arugula leaves, toasted pine nuts, and sweet, syrupy aged vinegar. This was the oldest vinegar I had ever tasted. I can only imagine the size of the original barrel. (I’ve heard rumors that 500L reduces to 1L in 75 years.) This was a composed meat course that I really enjoyed; the air drying of the fatty beef really helped to concentrate its flavor while reducing the fatty feeling in the mouth. That being said, I couldn’t help but notice a glaring sterility on the plate. The modernization of such a rustic dish somehow made it seem less appealing.

Paired with Naia, Verdejo, “Naiades,” Rueda, Spain, 2005

The French Laundry had held off on bread service due to our request for an extended tasting. But how can one say no to a buttery, shiny, caramel-colored bread such as this?

Hand-cut tagliatelle – Served with parmigiano reggiano and shaved burgundy white truffles. This was the highlight course of the night, and likely of all the meals I’ve had at Thomas Keller restaurants. This dish was straightforward and delicious: flour, egg, butter, parmigiano-reggiano cheese, white truffles, salt, and pepper. That’s it. The white truffles were unbelievably fragrant. This dish is proof that simple is sometimes better.

Paired with a Tor, Chardonnay, “Durell Vineyard,” Sonoma, 2004

Columbia river sturgeon confit à la minute – Served with potato rissolée, english cucumber, pickled pearl onions, sorrel, salmon roe, and dill crème fraîche. I love fish; it’s my favorite food. But a 6-bite chunk of white fish in the middle of an extended tasting, especially after a shaved white truffle course, is just boring. The best part of this dish was everything around the fish, the way the pickled onion interacted with the salmon roe and fruit. A good dish on its own, the river sturgeon was a let down after some of the other courses.

Paired with a Schloss Gobelsburg, “Renner,” Grüner Veltliner, Kamptal, Austria 2005

Sweet butter-poached Maine lobster mitts - Served over sautéed foie gras, hazelnuts, sunchoke purée, and a coffee-chocolate emulsion. This was another incredible dish, a surf and turf of lobster and foie gras. The liver was creamy, buttery, sweet while the lobster well-salted and also buttery. The coffee-chocolate emulsion gave off a slight bitterness which made the foie taste even sweeter (much in the same way that grapefruit can enhance foie gras’s sweetness as well). The ground roasted hazelnuts added a perfect textural contrast against the soft meats. This was a delicious, decadent course.

Paired with a Spencer Roloson, Viognier, “Noble Vineyard,” Knights Valley, 2005

The lobster and foie gras was also served with a selection of six different salts: sal gris, fleur de sel, black lava, himalayan, and local salts. It was fun to try the different salts, each with varying salinity and minerality. Our waiter left the salt tray on the table for us to enjoy with bread service.

Scottish red-legged partridge - Served with glazed chestnuts, caramelized splendor apples and spiced bread purée. I loved how the salty, crispy skin really brought out the flavor of the partridge. I really liked this course, but again, something about the course felt very sterile.

Paired with a Brewer Clifton, Pinot Noir, “Rio Vista,” Santa Rita Hills, 2005

Rib-eye of Elysian Fields farm lamb “plat de côte braisée” - Served with toasted pearl barley, niçoise olives, sweet peppers, and baby artichokes. This course was proportionally inconsistent with the other courses: 10-bites of meat in a tasting of this size induces palate fatigue. The meat itself was cooked very nicely with a uniform doneness throughout the interior and a lightly singed caramel skin. The meat was juicy and earthy, indicative of the cattle’s grass diet. This dish would have worked much better as part of an à la carte menu, but it weighed down the meal and was overshadowed by the tagliatelle and foie gras – lobster dishes.

Paired with Ridge, “Home Ranch,” Cabernet Sauvignon / Merlot / Petit Verdot, Santa Cruz Mountains 2002

Tomme brûlée - Torched sheep’s milk cheese with a gratin of broccolini and sauce mornay. Both Per Se and French Laundry serve a cheese course but it’s always composed, usually paired with cooked or raw vegetables. This cheese from France’s Basque region was earthy and nutty. There was nothing particularly wrong with this course, but I’m a simple guy: I like my cheese, and a lot of it, by itself. Heck, I don’t even put it on bread.

Persian lime sorbet - A light citrus sorbet served with coconut granité. This refreshing course cleansed the palate, especially the oils from the warm cheese from the composed cheese course.

Coffee and Doughnuts - A Thomas Keller signature: cinnamon-sugared doughnuts with a “cappuccino semi-freddo.” Like oysters and pearls, the kitchens of Per Se and The French Laundry have the production of this dish down to a science. It is always consistent, always delicious. The cappuccino semi-freddo had a texture of a pot de crème with a fluffy mouse up top. It had the distinct taste of coffee without having much of the oxidized flavor coffee-flavored products sometimes have. Its sweetness was just right. This was delicious. The doughnuts were served hot.

Paired with a Domaine Fontanel, Rivesaltes Ambré, 1997

S’mores - Peanut butter parfait, caramel délice and sauce à la Guimauve flambée. The best part of this dessert was the salted peanut butter with its brittle-like sandiness. This dish was a bit of a stretch from a s’more, perhaps the connection is the “guimauve flambée” or burnt marshmallow.

Paired with a Kiralyudvar, Tokaji, “Cuvee Ilona,” Hungary, 2001

Mignardises - We finished the meal with a parade of sweets including marzipan, pumpkin pâtes de fruit, and small macarons.

Then came a vanilla bean pot de crème with a thin layer of sweet strawberry preserve at the bottom.

Last, a selection of chocolate truffles. These truffles were absolutely delicious, but at this point in the meal I was very full. I wish I could have put a few of them in a box to bring home.

I enjoyed the meal. There was nothing particularly wrong with it. In fact, it was technically flawless and well-executed. The ingredient quality was impeccable. The service was some of the best I’ve experienced in a restaurant. Given the lengths we’d travelled to eat here, our waiter made us comfortable and kept us laughing throughout the evening. The sommelier was incredible. But something still felt like something was missing.

I couldn’t put my finger on it until a few days after, at which point the problem with the meal became quite obvious and glaring: there wasn’t much character.  While this works for dishes that never change, like oysters and pearls, the salmon cornets, and coffee and doughnuts, once the assembly line went off track everything else felt impersonal and disconnected: like a museum tour of what fine dining should be, disconnected from time and place.

Would I go back? Absolutely. But I’d be driven more by the romantic idea of eating in Napa in an old house with friends over a long dinner with great wine. The restaurant does one seating for lunch and one for dinner, so diners are almost never rushed. After the meal the courtyard is open to continue the conversation, lasting long into the night. The French Laundry, for me, is more about the experience than it is the food, and while that’s not something I look for in a restaurant, there are times when the experience is what’s important.

Open thoughts:

  • Must Thomas Keller to be in the kitchen to maintain the same quality of food?
  • How important is the non-food experience when factoring in enjoyment of a meal?
  • Is soul a prerequisite for good food?
  • How much freedom is Corey Lee given to explore his own concepts?

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11 Comments

  • Kung Food PandaOctober 14, 2011 at 1:02 pm

    Hey Adam, was the extended tasting menu only 2-3 more courses compared to the regular tasting? If you don’t mind me asking, how much more was the price? Thanks!

  • AdamOctober 14, 2011 at 1:04 pm

    The meal was about $500 per person, including wines. We’d requested the extended tasting but they really only added 2-3 extra courses. On the other hand, I’ve had the extended tasting at Per Se which is $450 without wine, and that’s a 25-course marathon.

  • Kung Food PandaOctober 14, 2011 at 6:14 pm

    For me, I’d rather have a 25 course tasting and add wine during the course of the meal. Even though the meal as a whole, Per Se wasn’t my favorite, if we’re only focusing on the food, it was top notch. The hand cut tagliatelle looks fantastic and the oyster and pearls was such a fantastic dish when I tried it.

  • AdamOctober 14, 2011 at 8:59 pm

    You mean add a bottle of wine? Or have a 25-course tasting with a different wine pairing for each course? Both Per Se and French Laundry don’t do wine pairings. If you go with a group of 5 or more, you can basically split a bottle for each course which is the equivalent, though significantly more expensive.

    Agreed — Oysters and Pearls and the tagliatelle were two of the highlights for me.

  • Kung Food PandaOctober 15, 2011 at 4:13 am

    Oh, I meant getting a few glasses of wine/cocktail throughout the meal. With Per Se I just had some cocktails with the tasting. I agree, when you can get 5-6 people, sharing a bottle is the optimal option.

  • Kung Food PandaOctober 15, 2011 at 4:17 am

    Hmm, been having trouble with the comments earlier, so I hope I’m not sending in duplicates.

    I meant I tend to order a few glasses of wine or cocktails throughout the meal. One of the best wine pairings I’ve had was at Alinea. I guess I prefer food over wine.

  • CohenOctober 15, 2011 at 6:33 am

    My take on your thoughts 2 and 3:
    2. I would think very important. The overall experience would include the ambience, service, lighting (it must upset especially food photographers like you to no end if the restaurant makes you eat in the dark), table and glassware and wine list. Any of the above missing significantly and you’d be better off eating at home
    3. I believe that fine dining is a unique communication between the chef and his diner, and that any meal which doesn’t bring out the personality of the chef and/or his philosophy of life/food would be, as you described it, a sterile experience no matter how technically brilliant the food is. It’s the difference between listening to music performed live and from a CD.

  • RodneyNovember 8, 2011 at 1:11 pm

    Hey Adam, those photos are ridiculous! So amazing. Can I ask: 1) what settings you shot at? 2) Did you tell them that you were going to be doing photography during the meal…did they discourage it at all? I did some food photography at the restaurant at Meadowood this summer and it just felt awkward for such a nice place. But I really wanted to capture the beautiful dishes!

  • Linda MoniqueDecember 20, 2011 at 2:37 am

    Amazing pics. Interesting to see the differences between the actual restaurant and the pop-up Keller did at Harrods in London- http://thefooddesigner.wordpress.com/2011/11/22/french-laundry-pop-up/
    Still, I don’t think you can replicate the original version of French Laundry anywhere else in the world!

  • AdamDecember 30, 2011 at 2:18 am

    @Rodney: Thanks. I shot these with a Canon 5d mark II, 35mm lens, mostly in f/4 at 1600ISO. They didn’t seem to mind the photography, but I didn’t use flash and didn’t point the camera at other diners. I think they’re used to it.

    @Linda: Thanks for sharing that link — nice pictures!

  • chefSeptember 9, 2012 at 9:56 am

    I worked at per se for a year and the staff is very loyal to chef keller and take alot of pride in what they do. We also worked on a policing each other system so if you decide to cut corners there is noway to hide.

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