5 Comments October 16, 2011

The French Laundry Revisited


6640 Washington Street, Yountville, CA, Official Website

If there’s one thing Thomas Keller taught us during his 10-day pop up in at Harrod’s London, it’s that The French Laundry brand is fundamentally not connected to time and place. Whether the restaurant be in Napa, New York, or the basement of a department store in London, the dishes are the same. And this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because it means that Chef Keller is a good teacher, one who is able to teach his staff how to reproduce his dishes with enough accuracy that they can be prepared anywhere. But it also means that the dishes will never feel spontaneous and whimsical, and it’s difficult for them to convey chef Keller’s inspiration.

It was four years since my last visit to the French Laundry. Since then, Chef de Cuisine Corey Lee left and opened San Francisco’s Benu, with Timothy Hollingsworth taking his place. It’s an interesting situation being the chef de cuisine at a restaurant of this caliber where the executive chef no longer cooks. On the one hand it’s an incredible opportunity for a chef to propel his career, but unfortunately, the dishes still have to further the concepts and passions set forth by someone else: Thomas Keller.

Sometimes there’s synergy between an executive chef and a chef de cuisine, and at other times, a discontinuity. While I’ve never been lucky enough to eat dishes prepared by Thomas Keller, Chef Hollingsworth comes close to what I’d imagine chef Keller’s cooking to be: precise and composed. My last meal was delicious, but it felt sterile and soulless. This time around it was better: there were glimpses into chef Hollingsworth’s inspirations.

This was my first time at French Laundry for lunch service, and the dining room felt very different. Candle light was replaced by bright sunlight pouring in through the windows. The mood was more casual, the ambience lighter and more approachable. It felt less intense.

Our meal started with an iPad, holding an electronic copy of the restaurant’s wine list. Having simply heard that the restaurant handed iPads to diners to choose their wines I might have thought it was gimmicky, but it was actually really helpful. For the first time I could search through a wine menu and filter by the grapes I liked.

Our meal started with a glass of champagne and some small snacks.

Warm gougères - Piping hot puff pastries of cheese, with a generous helping of salt to really focus the flavor.

Salmon cornets – “Grab a cornet and eat it in two bites,” our waiter instructed us. There’s a reason these black sesame cones filled with salmon, dill, and red onion crème fraîche are always on the menu: they’re delicious.

Oysters and Pearls - A sabayon of pearl tapioca with Island Creek oysters and a generous dollop of white sturgeon caviar. This is a very rich dish that is unbelievable every time. My friend the ulterior epicure likens the texture of the sabayon to “warm mayonaise.” While he has a point about the dish’s creaminess, for me the refreshing brininess of the caviar really helps cut through the fatty mouthfeel of the butter. The 3-bite portioning also helps, although I would have no problem eating three of these. This course remains one of my favorites of Thomas Keller.

Royal Ossetra Caviar, Compressed Summer Melon, Nasturtium and Black Pepper Crème Fraîche – This was a dish that was far prettier than it was tasty. In fact, it looked like the ingredients were chosen for their aesthetic value rather than their flavor: what did the mealy flavors of the flowers contribute to the dish? The melon helped bring out the minerality of the caviar, but everything else on the plate was mere decoration, or at least I didn’t get it.

Moulard Duck Foie Gras “En Terrine,” French Laundry Garden Strawberries, Cucumber, Young Coconut and Greek Basil – This was the first time I didn’t like one of The French Laundry or Per Se’s foie gras dishes. This was really disappointing. The golden, buttered brioche was warm, rich, and perfect — it was even replaced half-way through the course. But the liver itself was flavorless tasting like dense whipped cream. The basil seeds looked great on the plate, but they really didn’t add anything to this dish either. The two supplemental courses I was the most excited for: the ossetra caviar and the foie gras, were the most disappointing of the afternoon.

A little bit down from the previous two courses, we splurged and ordered a white burgundy, a 2006 Puligny-Montrachet 1re Cru Les Folatières. This was a younger sister of one of my favorite white burgundies, one that we ordered at El Bullí in 2010. Its flavor was of apricot and honey. This marked the point where our meal took a turn for the better.

Spanish Mackerel “En Escabèche,” Heirloom Tomatoes, Crispy Artichokes, Mizuna and Pine Nut Vinaigrette – A bowl of mackerel and colored vegetables. The strength of the mackerel helped it stand up to the fried artichokes. This was a dish about textures, every bite was a different combination of crunchy and smooth. I thought this course was brilliant.

Atlantic Cod “Confit à la Minute,” Summer Squash, Toybox Tomatoes, Parsley and Sweet Garlic Cream - A large filet of atlantic cod wrapped in squash with tomatoes and garlic cream. The cod itself was pretty flavorless, but the squash helped add a bit of vegetal flavor and texture. The tomatoes added a hint of acidity. This dish was about everything except the fish.

Sweet Butter-Poached Maine Lobster Tail, Fennel Bulb, Mission Fig, Marcona Almonds and Aged Balsamic Vinegar – Supple chunks of sweet lobster claw over sweet corn with fig. The real highlight of this dish was the crunch of the sweet corn with the richness of the salty butter. The lobster claws were a bonus. The fennel and marcona almonds didn’t add much to this dish, but the corn and lobster was so fantastic I really enjoyed this course.

Devil’s Gulch Ranch “Épaule de Lapin,” Black Eyed Peas, Arrowleaf Spinach, Glazed Bing Cherry and Black Truffle-Maple Jus - Making the transition from fish to meat came a small rabbit loin  glazed in a black truffle and maple jus. This was a heartier dish served in a small portion which left us wanting more. This was a great course.

Smoked Liberty Farm Pekin Duck Breast, Royal Blenheim Apricot Purée, Romano Beans, Mustard Frills and Turnip “‘Mostarda” - Thin slices of thick-skinned duck with a fruity apricot purée to contrast against the duck’s fat. I would have liked that the skin be a little bit crispier to give some textural contrast, but the doneness was perfect — almost like a piece of lean tuna. Really liked this course.

Snake River Farms “Calotte de Bœuf Grillée,” Dill Pasta, Red Beets, Horseradish Mousse, Roasted Shallot and “Sauce Borscht” – A gorgeous, beet-read cut of grilled beef served over a “borscht” sauce. The acidity from the vinegar in the sauce really made this dish, cutting through the fatty mouthfeel of the beautifully marbleized meat. The beef was uniformly rare with a paper thin crispy surface from where it touched the grill that gave it just a hint of char. This was a great dish.

Before the cheese course and desserts, we stepped onto the patio and took a 45-minute break. The weather was absolutely perfect.

“Comté Reserve,” Eggplant, Sultana Raisins, Marcona Almonds, Frisée and Red Snapper Essence – For this composed cheese course, slices of 24-month aged comté were wedged between small eggplant and patches of frisée. I love comté; I really didn’t understand everything else on the plate. It just seemed arbitrary. Call me a purist, but I like comté by itself.

“Caramélia Chocolate “Crèmeux,” Gros Michel Banana, Georgia Peanuts, “Dentelle” and Salted Popcorn Ice Cream – A cylinder of sweet milk chocolate mousse contrasted against salty popcorn ice cream and caramel. This was a great dessert, really a balance of sweet and savory. The peanuts and crispy caramel layer added a textural contrast making this one of the few chocolate desserts I have enjoyed.

“Nectarine Melba,” Sicilian Pistachio “Pain de Gênes,” Andante Dairy Yogurt, “Biscotti,” and Raspberry Sorbet – A delicate pistachio cake crowned with slices of ripe nectarine. To the side was a biscotti crumble and a raspberry sorbet. This dessert was fruity, sweet, and full of color.

Coffee and Doughnuts - A Thomas Keller signature: cinnamon-sugared doughnut holes with a “cappuccino semi-freddo.” This dessert is always available at both Per Se and The French Laundry and with good reason: it’s one of the best. Simple balls of deep-fried dough coated in in cinnamon and sugar.

After coffee & doughnuts, we ordered some real coffee. Too bad there were no more doughnuts.

Mignardises – A selection of chocolates: (clockwise) olive oil, meyer lemon, peanut butter and jelly, michigan cherry, hazelnut, and ginger.

At the end of the meal we took a walk into the kitchen where Chef Hollingsworth and team were preparing for dinner service. The tone in the kitchen was remarkable: no yelling or shouting, everything was in order and the staff focused, calm, and collected. It felt like an operating room in its precision with Chef Hollingsworth its chief surgeon.

Would I go back? Absolutely. Chef Hollingsworth made the French Laundry worth re-visiting. But right now, it would be mostly for the experience, the service, and the way the restaurant allows diners to spend a relaxing meal with friends. The service is flawless, the wine list nonpareil, and the Napa valley gorgeous. The meal was good — better than my experiences under chef Corey Lee, but it still lacked that spark that I can only imagine existed when chef Keller was in the kitchen. As Chef Hollingsworth grows, he’ll be able to direct more of the restaurant’s culinary vision, hopefully pouring some of his own passion into the cuisine.

Open thoughts:

  • How has the French Laundry changed since Thomas Keller stopped cooking?
  • What are some differences you’ve noticed between chefs Corey Lee and Timothy Hollingsworth?
  • How does chef Corey Lee’s cuisine at Benu compare to his cuisine at The French Laundry?
  • Is it necessary for a restaurant to convey time and place?

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  • CohenOctober 16, 2011 at 8:56 pm

    Would you not have preferred that they bring the cheese trolley out instead of serving some prepared cheese course with cheese which you may or may not like? I personally have never had a really good prepared cheese course before. I’d rather they bring out the cheese and let me choose instead.

  • AdamOctober 16, 2011 at 8:57 pm

    Completely agree; exactly. I love cheese. I don’t like distracting it with other flavors, especially when they seem random. If it’s a really, really soft cheese I’ll put it on a baguette but usually I just like it by itself. I’ve never liked a composed cheese course.

  • John MondayOctober 17, 2011 at 12:29 pm

    California was right to pass a law banning the cruel force-feeding of ducks for foie gras. Even California’s sole foie gras factory farm supported passing the law! See http://www.humanesociety.org/CAFoieGras for more info.

  • Rick R.January 8, 2012 at 3:16 pm

    Question: Why tiny little food on grandiose big plates? I’d much prefer big plates heaped high with mountains of food, myself. And what’s with little squirts of some liquid randomly squirted on the plate? Give me a 28oz rare Bison steak, and a baked tater swimming in butter and onions any day! (& some fresh biscuits to sop up the liquid.)
    This has been one man’s opinion.

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