French Laundry (Yountville)

6640 Washington Street
Yountville, CA 94599

5 Second Summary:
Price Range- 9-course price fixe $250 including service
Ambiance- Superlative French elegance
Cuisine- French, New American
Hits- Technical perfection, ethereal ingredients from the restaurant’s culinary garden, gilt-edged service
Misses- Not much is a miss at this level of perfection, but the drawbacks are (A) you can fully expect to wait for a reservation (B) while you’re waiting, start shaking down the couch cushions because the meal will cost you a pretty penny!
French Laundry is what happens when the country’s uttermost Culinary Perfectionist assembles a staff of other culinary perfectionists and attentively cultivates their food OCD.  It’s otherworldly, actually, to have what must be so many type-A cooks confined to a single space.  One gets the sense of neurosurgeon precision, a humming machine that purrs as each cog falls squarely -and without fail- into its matched groove.
If El Bulli is Mecca, French Laundry is the Dome of the Rock.  It is a place to which one makes pilgrimage, a place one calls precisely two months ahead (to the calendar date), dialing, hanging up, and redialing with the desperate zeal of a teenager trying to win concert tickets.  In that split-second between the last tone and cavernous silence, you pray that this time the busy signal will relent to the sweet whisper of a ring followed by a human voice.  It is the type of reservation one confirms first… and then books airfare and hotel.  And should one be so fortunate as to secure a table during the autumn harvest, it would be blasphemy not to go.
So begins my narrative with The French Laundry.  Twenty minutes shy of our first day of summer vacation, my friend Jesse and I ducked out of the annual, end-of-year barbecue to be the first on line for signed copies of Chef Keller’s Ad Hoc at Home cookbook.  The closest Keller comes to Cooking for Dummies, this thick volume has recipes that can be followed by ordinary mortals (like me) who might not be able to tell the saucier from the potager, people without a rotovap in their kitchens.
Not surprisingly, Chef Keller showed up precisely on time.  He was meticulously dressed, nary a hair out of place.  The gaggle of food groupies rubbernecked as Keller did ordinary things like remove his pristine suede jacket and pull out his chair.  After waiting dutifully, exchanging pleasantries, and getting our books signed, the three adjectives that came to mind were precise, well-dressed, and arrogant. Chef Keller knew he was, well, Chef Thomas Keller.   As the story goes, all Thomas Keller kitchen folk wear blue aprons (traditionally reserved for those lower in the French kitchen hierarchy) prior to service in the humble spirit of reminding oneself to be a lifelong learner.  As an outsider, I can’t say for sure, but my sense is that this turn of tradition derives more from Keller’s relentless drive for perfection and ambitious spirit rather than true humility.  Then again, if the sun rose and set on my culinary empire, I’m sure I’d have trouble getting my head through the door.  Everything about the man operated with a hum of clockwork.  His over-the-top commitment to “doing it right”  makes Martha Stewart look like Snookie.
After chatting for a few minutes, Chef Keller generously took my Flavor Profiles business card and inquired about my plans to visit The French Laundry.  He wrote my intended visit dates on the back of the card and pocketed it.  I was dizzy with fifteen full seconds’ worth of self-importance and drove home, verbally rehearsing the apologia I would present to my fiance to convince him that our life simply could not continue without flying out to Napa in October.
The apologia proved persuasive, the phone rang on day two of my inveterate dialing, our flights confirmed, and a Healdsburg hotel contracted… all centering around a four-hour lunch date on October 9, 2010.  On the heels of our wedding and an exquisite Thai honeymoon, we indulged ourselves further, traveling with our friends Tommy and Sarah, a recently engaged couple who share our love of food and drink.
Few things on earth are more pristine than Sonoma in October, and the bucolic drive on Route 128 from Sonoma to Yountville gradually mellowed my jaded New Yorker-ness.  By the time we reached The French Laundry’s proprietary garden, I was in love, ready to throw my shoes in the gutter and run barefoot in the grass.  New York be damned.
Our table was in a charming grotto with a view of the wine cellar, and we began the meal with a champagne toast to Tommy and Sarah’s engagement.
We were greeted with a variety of Bouchon breads: homey pretzel roll, campana wheat/sourdough, multigrain, French baguette, and a soft, buttery pain au lait (milk bread) finished with Britain’s finest, Maldon sea salt.
Even the butter options were decadent: an unsalted local Sonoma butter or salted butter from yet another culinary perfectionist, Diane St. Clair’s Vermont-based Animal Farm Dairy.

unsalted, local Sonoma butter

a taste of home: salted butter from the East Coast

Chef’s signature amuse bouche, cornets of Atlantic salmon tartare with red onion and creme fraiche in a black sesame seed tuille, playfully teased us with temperature.  Rather like a little salmon ice cream cone, it went from cold to delightfully and immediately warm.
First Course
Next came the official first course, a cauliflower “panna cotta” with Island Creek oyster glaze and California sturgeon caviar served with a nonreactive mother-of-pearl spoon to allow the caviar’s fragile salt to develop unperturbed.  Once again, a playful dish.  The visual resembled a creamy panna cotta, the caviar like a blackberry garnish.  How charmingly naughty… it’s like eating dessert first! With the decadently creamy caviar course, we were treated to a tale by our host, Nicolas.  Once upon a time, a cheeky patron ordered Chardonnay with his caviar, a mismatch that Chef Keller promptly refused: “Tell him I’ll make him something else.”  OCD much? And yet, it’s this perfectionism upon which culinary sovereignty was built.

not your mother's mother of pearl

Second Course

I had the salad of Marble Garden new crop potatoes cooked confit with perfect bite and garnished with fines herbes (parsley, chive, tarragon, chervil).  They were accompanied by a sliver of Burgundy truffle, pickled pearl onion, waffled chips, celery branch, and bitter frisee from the French Laundry garden.  Once again, a beautiful balance of cream and salt.
My husband, however, ordered the foie gras supplement in lieu of the new potato salad.  Although I tasted his foie gras, I’m way too haunted by the awful rumors (which may or may not be unfounded) to order it myself.  The foie gras was prepared au torchon, or poached in a towel, with with a cross-continental combination of Hosui pear relish, Tokyo turnips, English walnuts, and white honey mustard.  Perfectly round, it was also intensely smooth and creamy without any mineral taste to it.  The pear relish was, by contrast, very sweet.
Also served at this time was a thick slice of toasted Bouchon Bakery brioche, which I’ve since recreated in my own kitchen (thank you, Ad Hoc cookbook!) with finishing salts hand-harvested from Brittany, another white deep ocean salt from the Philippines, and Jurassic salt extracted from Montana copper mines.
Third Course

Next came the fish course. I had grilled Spanish mackerel with sunchokes, toasted Marcona almonds, crispy artichokes, sweet Jingle Bell peppers, romesco, and arugula.   Here was a delightful interchange of salt (the crisp skin) and sweet (peppers and the ocean-y fish flesh).
Rich had sauteed filet of Mediterranean daurade with razor clams, eggplant puree, squash, piquillo peppers, pimenton sauce, cilantro, and garlic “nuage” (French for cloud), basically a foam.  The quotation marks on the menu showed Keller’s penchant for playing with names.
Fourth Course: Truffle Supplement
My husband and I (by the time our reservation came to fruition, we were married) agreed to go big or go home, which meant that we were willing to drop a mortgage payment to make the most of this once-in-a-lifetime experience.  Accordingly, we ordered pretty much every supplement on the menu.  At $2,100 per kilo (which translated into a $100 per person supplement), the Pyrenees black truffles (p.s. they looked like white truffles to me, but what do I know?) stored in a climate-controlled box, made the defining —nay, the climactic— dish of the entire experience.
Let me say this before I get into the truffle course.  Prior to October 9, I was truffle-wary… and truffle-weary.  Truffle oil is the unfortunate culinary cliche of our time, but truffles themselves are an entirely different matter.  For the skeptics, let’s try a simple analogy.  Truffle oil is to truffle as grape Robitussen is to concord grapes.  Are you with me here??? I had not truly lived until I absorbed this Southern French flavor: refined, complex, and earthy, the flavor enhanced with melted brown butter.  If God has a taste, it would be… yes, I’m going there… truffle.  If you caught an accidental mouthful of God’s sleeve as he rushed by you on line outside the Pearly Gates, his sleeve would most definitely taste like truffle.  We each opted for our truffles shaved atop a different preparation.  I had gnocchi, Rich and Tommy had tagliatelle pasta, and Sarah had polenta.  My gnocchi were absolute perfection, light with perfect bite to them.  My toes positively curled in my shoes… easily one of my top five dishes of all time and the most memorable of the afternoon.

pre-truffled gnocchi

post-truffled gnocchi

Nicolas shaves truffles onto my husband's tagliatelle

Sarah's truffled polenta

Fifth Course

The next course was a choice between sea scallop (Sarah), poularde (me), and veal tongue (Rich).  We’ll start with the New Bedford sea scallop –perfectly pan seared- with Hobbs’ bacon, “soubise” (which is a bechamel-based sauce with pureed onions, but since it wasn’t my dish, I couldn’t really figure out why it was in quotation marks), chanterelle mushrooms, brussel sprouts, and “sauce Noilly Prat” (Noilly Prat is a dry Marseilles vermouth).  I only tasted a small forkful Sarah’s dish, so I felt a bit like I had missed out on some private joke.  The scallop, however, was no laughing matter.  At one point, I glanced over from Sarah, who -head in hands- could only describe it with punctuated admiration.  “I. can’t. even. handle. myself,” she met my eye briefly and resumed Nirvana.
My Four Story Hill Farm poularde en persillade” (seasoned with parsley, herbs, garlic, oil, and vinegar) was breaded with brioche crumbs and served over an autumn pole bean cassoulet (slow-cooked, southern French bean stew usually with a meat base) and thyme jus. It was absolutely and utterly soft.
Rich’s Marcho Farms veal tongue was served with a sweet, baby corn panade (a thick, moist, doughy paste usually used to bind ingredients), a subric of ramp tops (in a subric, vegetables are julienned and diced to 1-2mm, molded in a cream-based mixture, and cooked in a water bath), and Little John’s farm lettuces.  The subric absolutely melted in my mouth.  My lousy photo really does the dish no justice.
Sixth Course
Our meat course was a gorgeously tender Elysian Fields Farm lamb saddle (essentially a loin cut), salty ribettes with curried carrot puree, quinoa for texture, super-sweet Medjool dates, fennel, and preserved Meyer lemon.  Just look at the color here… easily the most beautiful dish of the afternoon.
Seventh Course
Our cheese course was a Forsterkase (Swiss cow’s milk cheese), very salty and buttery, with a rolled buckwheat crepe, Royal Blenheim apricots, black truffle coulis (a thick French sauce), red beets, and berry-flavored sorrel.
At this point, we also had a sweet, nutty black currant pain rustique with toasted walnut.  It had the currants’ reddish-purple color and incredible flavor.
Eighth Course

Dessert began with a cold, creamy philo gold apple “sorbet” (the farmers, we were told, were actually the former owners of The French Laundry) in a glass of spiced cider that was not sweet at all and was topped with a thick apple foam.  Its lack of sweetness was a welcome accompaniment to the crisp apple “croquette,” quite like a cinnamon-dusted beignet, with its sugary crust, served with poached prune.

Ninth Course

My dessert choice was called “peanut butter and chocolate,” presumably the inspiration for the dish: a peanut butter mousseline (peanut butter lightened via air bubbles with whipped cream) filled with caramel and rolled in candied peanut, maple toffee, and chocolate ganache with a Gros Michel banana sorbet.  It was beautifully balanced.

My husband had the Straus Family cream (local, organic, sustainable) “genoise” (sponge cake) with caramelized Jacobsen’s Farm figs (local from Yountville), lemon curd, yogurt, and fig leaf ice cream.  Pictured below is Sarah’s dessert, which had the added bonus of a congratulatory engagement wish from the kitchen.

Although not on the menu, we also got a delectable baklava tart with pistachio slivers.  The flavors were clean and creamy.

Finally, came the mignardises, bite-sized desserts or petit fours. One of my absolute favorites was the violet tuilles.

Then came smoky, roasted chocolate macadamias.

Finally, the housemade truffles, starting from top left, clockwise: white chocolate (blessedly not too sweet), dark chocolate cherry (almost prune-y), salty praline, passion fruit, peanut butter, and espresso.

We were promptly packed off with a parting gift, signature shortbread cookies wrapped in clear cellophane with a blue and silver ribbon.   We were welcomed into the kitchen, where the staff was preparing for family meal between services.  The absolutely immaculate kitchen (I expected no less) had a large flat-screen television with live feed to the Per Se kitchen in New York.  Like fond, dotty tourists, we waved to the cooks back at home, where it was 8pm and the middle of the dinner rush, but the perfectionists there were too busy wow-ing the New York crowd to even looked up at the screen.

We lingered in the courtyard,soaking in the California sun, not wanting the afternoon to end.

How would I describe the overall experience? Technically brilliant. Each dish had so many components, and there were steps upon meticulous steps required to layer flavor and texture.  I could almost imagine Keller in the kitchen demanding each cook, “Do it right.  Do it with love.”

In a darkened office just off the kitchen, I had taken notice of a silver plaque.  Engraved on it were the words “what would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?”  Here was Chef Keller in a nutshell— and, likely, the very justification for his success.  Perhaps what initially seemed like arrogance is just one man’s stubborn refusal to fail.  In our strange American food culture -marked by confusion and complacency- someone so ardent and conscientious, someone who refuses to rest on his culinary laurels, is bound to attract the best and brightest.  It’s no wonder that brilliant chefs train under Keller; his contribution to American food culture is immeasurable, and without him, who would propel the next generation of culinary perfectionists?

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