The very moment MW and I decided on San Francisco and Napa as destinations for our vacation, I immediately began
Ever since Keller purchased The French Laundry from Don and Sally Schmidt in 1994 it has become the marquee restaurant for the western half of the country. So how did I get reservations? I considered making a reservation at one of the Yountville hotels and asking their concierge to assist me (after hearing they saved one reservation per evening), but ultimately thought it was too pricey a risk; the restaurant stopped allowing walk-in reservations a few years ago and I had no luck with OpenTable, having to wake up at 3 am each night only to see no tables were available. Like everybody else... I waited exactly two months to the date and began a series of calling and redialing on three phones exactly at 1 pm Eastern Standard Time since their phone lines open at 10 am Pacific Standard Time. There I sat, hearing nothing but busy signals for over 25 minutes, until...ring ring followed by "Hello, you've reached The French Laundry, this is Jane Doe speaking, how may I help you?" Five minutes later and I had my dinner reservations on my first attempt, foodie rapture enveloped me, Hallelujah!
I dislike using superlatives such as "the best," understanding that food is incredibly subjective. However, the single greatest meal I had ever experienced was my dinner at Per Se in the summer of 2009. From the elegant dining room, the flawlessly prepared food and our wonderful server, the entire evening was perfect. Looking back, my only regret was that some of Keller's "signature" dishes were not on the menu that evening, such as his infamous "Oysters and Pearls." A few days before our reservation, I came across some discussion boards and a food blog talking about an extended tasting menu available upon request at both, Per Se and The French Laundry. Already having experienced the nine course tasting menu, I called The French Laundry and left a message inquiring about the availability of an extended tasting menu. Almost immediately my call was returned where I was explained the menus logistics: availability pending the chef's discretion, consisting of anywhere between 15-20 courses and costing anywhere between $x-$y. I told the receptionist that we had no food allergies and trusted recent James Beard Award winning chef, Timothy Hollingsworth's decisions regarding the meal.
We arrived at The French Laundry a good ten minutes early. Compared to most restaurants in New York, there were no crowds of people or lines waiting for the doors to open. Instead, this mecca for foodies everywhere sat undisturbed on the corner of Washington Street in the sleepy town of Yountville, just north of Napa. Originally built in the 1900's as a saloon, it was later used as a French steam laundry during prohibition, hence earning its name. Walking into the beautiful courtyard, we immediately saw the famous "blue doors," looking far more natural here than in the middle of the Time Warner Center at Per Se, but inspiring nonetheless. Before the doors opened, we observed a member of the kitchen staff walk across the street and pick some herbs from The French Laundry garden to bring back for service that night-- talk about local ingredients.
The doors were opened and we walked into the lounge with the other diners. The lounge was decorated in dark brown tones and next to a plush couch we spotted Keller's three cookbooks on the coffee and corner tables. The hostess called our names and escorted us to our table, but made a detour to a different part of the restaurant from the main dining rooms. In that moment, I knew we were in for a special treat. We were led to an intimate room on the side and were given the best table in the restaurant, complete with a skylight over our heads which allowed plenty of light. My excitement growing, I noticed that we had champagne flutes instead of the typical wine glasses at our table. Our incredible server for the evening came over and introduced himself to us and told us we were in for a special treat as chef Hollingsworth had prepared an incredible meal for us.
The restaurant was much larger than I imagined. In addition to the room where we were seated, there was a main dining room on the ground floor as well as another dining room upstairs. Stone walls, white linens and custom lamps radiating warm tones created an inviting and comfortable atmosphere. The napkins on our plate were held by a clothespin with The French Laundry logo printed on it, an homage to the restaurant's past. To whet our appetites, MW and I were treated to a complimentary glass of René Geoffroy, "Cuvée Empreinte," Cumières, Premier Cru (MV). A wonderful start to the meal, the champagne was well-balanced and refreshing, the effervescent bubbles helped awaken our palettes after a busy first day in California.
As with our experience at Per Se, service was as incredible as the food-- something I look forward to and have come to expect from a Keller restaurant. Efficient without even the slightest trace of pretentiousness, every question we asked was answered and every request we had honored to the best of the staff's ability, a true testament to the restaurant. I take note of this because of the stuffy service I have unfortunately experienced at restaurants sometimes mentioned in the same breath as The French Laundry. The service, and our server in particular at Per Se, was influential in our anticipation of our meal at The French Laundry-- and service here was equally as good.
Having requested an extended tasting menu, we were not presented with any menus, as our server explained that our meal would be a mixture between the familiar and the unknown, given our experience at Per Se. Out first was a familiar and always welcome sight, Keller's famous Warm Gruyère Cheese Gougères, Pâte à Choux filled with Aged Gruyère. Straight from the oven and still warm, the rich gruèyre filling captured the essence of the cheese and matched wonderfully with the champagne.
The next amuse bouche was also familiar, Salmon "Cornets," Salmon Tartare with Sweet Red Onion Crème Fraîche in Sesame Cornets. Legend has it that Keller's inspiration for these came after eating an ice cream cone at Baskin Robbins. Delicately smooth salmon tartar and crème fraîche with a crunchy sesame cornet, quite possibly the perfect bite.
Our first course was a Chilled English Pea Soup with Nantes Carrots, Andante Dairy Yogurt, Mint and Madras Curry. Waitstaff presented us with bowls containing the individual components before pouring the soup table side, a reoccurring theme throughout the meal. Upon my first bite I immediately tasted the sweetness of the peas, but with each bite thereafter I kept discovering more flavors, transforming this soup into a surprisingly complex dish. The tangy yogurt flavor with just a hint of curry juxtaposed with the sweetness of the peas and carrot was wonderful.
My eyes perked up after the waitstaff replaced our dishes with a mother of pearl spoon for the following course, was I finally about to eat Keller's signature "Oysters and Pearls?" Sure enough, our waiter announced the next course was indeed “Oysters and Pearls," a "Sabayon" of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and White Sturgeon Caviar. Like oceanic grenades, these "trimmed" oysters exploded with a briny rush that was balanced with the creamy tapioca "sabayon" and seasoned perfectly with the salty caviar. I explained to our server that I was especially excited for this dish since it was not featured at our dinner at Per Se, where we were given a delicious Cauliflower Panna Cotta with Caviar instead. He explained that they typically serve the panna cotta for lunch services and was glad that we both enjoyed the dish.
Our next course was easily the most interesting dish of the evening. First, chopsticks were placed on our table, a utensil I was unaware the French Laundry having. Next, we were given glass bowls filled with smoke before the lids were removed. The smoke cleared revealing a Sashimi of Kona Kampachi with Pickled Savoy Cabbage, Blis Maple Syrup and Applewood Smoke. The kanpachi had the faintest smokey flavor which paired very well with the sweet and crunchy cabbage.
The following dish of Japanese Sea Eel with Akita Komachi Rice, Miso, Hass Avocado, Cucumber, Perilla and Ginger "Aigre-Doux" reminded me of a deconstructed sushi roll. As a big fan of eel I was very fond of this course. We were told the eel was wild and contained a good amount of fat, creating a velvety texture. I was thoroughly impressed with the seasoning of the medium grain Akita Komachi rice, finding it exceptionally balanced with the creamy avocado cut with the perilla and spicy ginger.
Before proceeding, the sommelier arrived to assist us in ordering some wine. Unlike many of the best restaurants, The French Laundry does not offer a wine pairing program. Instead, we opted for a half bottle of the Zind-Humbrecht, Riesling, "Clos Saint Urbain - Rangen de Thann," Grand Cru (2006). This was an exceptional riesling, with good acidity, pairing beautifully with the majority of our early courses.
Next was a another Keller signature dish, the Hen Egg Custard with a Ragoût of Pèrigord Truffles and Chive Chip. I initially saw this dish at our previous dinner at Per Se and was excited to see it brought to our table. Presented in a hollowed out egg shell, the smooth custard was topped with a ragoût of pèrigord truffles. The creamy custard mellowed the earthy truffle and had me savoring each bite.
At this point, we were presented with two types of butter: an Unsalted Goat’s Milk Butter from Andante Diary (Petaluma, CA) and a Whipped Salted Cow’s Milk Butter from Animal Farm (Orwell, VT). As with everything else at The French Laundry, this butter surpassed any butter I've eaten. My favorite was the whipped salted cow's milk butter from Animal Farm in Middlebury, Vermont. I remember having the same butter at Per Se and being told that Diane St. Clair's butter from her Jersey cows are the only salted butter Keller serves at his restaurants. The unsalted goat's milk butter from Andante Dairy from nearby Petaluma, California tasted so fresh you could taste the grass the goat's ate.
To accompany these butters we were given a Pain Au Lait. The pain au lait was soft and chewy with a burst of even more butter in the center. As the meal progressed, a server with a bread basket containing four different varieties appeared: French Baguette, Multi Grain, Sourdough and Pretzel. For the sake of this blog I sampled each type of bread. All of the bread was cooked down the road at Bouchon Bakery and tasted good. MW's favorite of the lot was the baguette with it's super crusty exterior and chewy middle, while I preferred the slightly sweet pretzel bread.
Normally at both Per Se and The French Laundry, diners have to chose between the salad course or a foie gras option. Obviously MW and I both opted for the foie when we ate at Per Se, so it was refreshing to see a Salad of Sacramento Delta Asparagus with "Gribiche," Frisèe Lettuce and Garden Blossoms. This dish offered a nice contrast in textures as the sweet asparagus had been lightly deep fried on one end and married well with the sauce gribiche.
Multiple serves approached the table to present the pasta course of Hand-Cut "Tagliatelle" with Black Truffles from Provence. One of the servers presented a beautiful black truffle and after letting us inspect it, began shaving it with a microplane over the bed of the pasta, creating the most intoxicating aroma of freshly grated truffle. Although the flavor of the truffle was not overpowering, it's fragrance persisted with each bite of the perfectly al dente pasta.
The fish course was "Sole Vèronique" with Green Grapes, Sultana Raisins, Parsley Shoots and Verjus Emulsion. While the sole was mild in flavor, the stuffing of sweet sultana raisins, parsley shoots and bread complimented it nicely. However, the most memorable aspect of this dish, oddly enough, was the texture Hollingsworth was able to coax from the sole-- simultaneously firm and delicate it was the perfect consistency.
Once again, Keller flashed his playful side for the lobster course, which he called a "Caesar Salad" with Sweet Butter-Poached Maine Lobster “Mitts,” Romaine Lettuce, Green Garlic “Pain Perdu” and "Bottarga di Muggine." As our server shaved the bottarga di muggine over our plates, he explained how its addition to the dish was to help mimic the anchovy flavor common in a caesar salad dressing. Words cannot describe how sinfully good the butter-poached lobster "mitts" were. However, Keller was only partially successful if his ultimate goal with the dish was to mimic the flavors of a caesar salad. In any case, I'd gladly use any excuse to eat more of his butter-poached lobster. Sensing we needed a breather, our server suggested that we take the remainder of our wine and take a stroll through the garden across the street. On our way to the garden there sat Thomas Keller sharing a bottle of wine with a small group in the courtyard, another highlight to an already incredible meal.
After walking through the garden and taking in a beautiful sunset, MW and I returned to our table where we selected a half bottle of the Martinelli, Pinot Noir, "Bondi Home Ranch-Water Trough Vineyard," Green Valley (2007). Another spot on selection from the sommelier, this pinot noir had enough body to hold up to the richer proteins we were about to eat.
First up was the "Aiguillette" of Liberty Farm Peking Duck with Smoked Moulard Duck "Foie Gras," Cèpe Mushrooms, French Laundry Garden Vegetables and Duck Consummè. Yet another table side preparation as servers first poured the duck consummè into the bowls before another server started shaving a lobe of frozen foie gras over the bowl with a microplane. On second thought, "Duck to the Third Degree" may have been a more appropriate name for this dish, which combined a perfectly cooked piece of duck with the rich consummè and finished with the melting foie on top. An ingenious approach to a poultry course utilizing as much of the bird as possible with the sophisticated refinement you would come to expect from Keller.
Our next course was a Snake River Farms "Calotte de Beouf Grillèe" with Hand-Rolled Russet Potato “Gnocchi,” White Asparagus, Ramp "Mousseline," Watercress and "Sauce Bordelaise." Keller sources all of his beef from Snake River Farms, which he believes produces some of the best American Wagyu Beef in the country. A bold statement made shockingly clear after a single bite. Though not the best single piece of beef I've ever eaten, (the best being the Kobe beef I had in Japan), this was one of the best composed plates of food of the entire meal. This dish of "meat and potatoes" hit the bulls eye on the comfort scale. Mouthwateringly tender and unctuous, the beef was bursting with a rich minerally flavor, making the exquisitely executed boderlaise seem almost like too much of a good thing.
As if the last course was not heart-stoppingly good enough, our server noticed they had forgot our foie gras course and within a seconds a server approached our table with a tray of six different salts for us to enjoy: a Hawaiian Black Salt from Hanapepe Island, a Jurassic Pink Salt from Copper Mines in Montana, Est. 30 Million Years Old, a Hawaiian Red Salt from Malawi Island, a Japanese Sea Salt from the Seto-Uchi Inland Sea, a Fleur de Sel from Paris, France and a Sel Gris from Brittney, France. Our server explained that all of these salts were given to Keller as gifts and they usually bring out a selection of three for diners, but chose six in our case for our enjoyment, how can you say "no" to that?
The actual foie gras course was a Moulard Duck "Foie Gras en Terrine" with Young Fennel, Rainier Cherries, Arugula and Duck Consummè. I must preface this by saying the foie we ate at Per Se was the best I've had, ever...and this dish only reenforced what I already knew, Keller's foie gras is a masterpiece. What sets this foie apart from the rest is the smooth consistency, balance of flavors with sweetness from the cherries, herbaceous notes from the fennel and a savory hint from the consummè. Served alongside with the foie was a piece of toasted brioche, still warm and just like our meal at Per Se, the brioche was replaced mid-course to ensure we had warm brioche for the duration of the foie. This is but one example of why the service at Keller's restaurants are second to none, and in my opinion, slightly better than that of the oft-mentioned Union Square Hospitality Group of Danny Meyer.
Three types of bread were available for the cheese course: a Raisin Bread, a Country French Bread and a Walnut Bread. Both MW and I selected a piece of the raisin and walnut bread to accompany the Andante Dairy "Cavatina" with a Sicilian Pistachio "Gènoise," Royal Blenheim Apricot "Chiboust," Fennel Bulb and Arugula. A goat's milk cheese covered with vegetable ash to assist in rind formation, this soft yet surprisingly mild cheese with a salty bite was a revelation when combined with the sweet pistachio gènoise and apricot chiboust.
Moving on to the desserts, we first had a Meyer Lemon Sorbet with Silverado Trail Strawberries and Black Pepper Gelèe. The tartness of the refreshing sorbet was a nice palette cleanser and was tempered by the sweetness of the strawberries. The sorbet sat atop a shortbread cookies and when each component was combined, reminded me of a haute rendition of strawberry shortcake.
Next was Keller's most famous desserts, "Coffee and Doughnuts," Cinnamon-Sugared Doughnuts and a “Cappuccino Semifreddo.” We first enjoyed this "off-the-menu" dessert (usually available upon request) at Per Se, when our gracious server brought it out for us sans request, specifically telling us that we had visit The French Laundry and how this was one Keller's "signature" dishes. Somehow this dish tasted even better than I remembered it. The doughnuts were still piping hot and perfectly fried, lacking the faintest semblance of the greasy (but tasty) doughnut taste we're accustomed to eating. However, for me it was all about the cappuccino semifreddo, which approached absurdity it was so good. The intensely-flavored coffee semifreddo, teetered between an ice cream and a pudding, topped with whipped cream managed to blow my mind, even though I knew what to expect.
Before our next dessert, MW ordered a Mint Tea. A quick note, all non-alcoholic beverages at Per Se and The French Laundry are included in the fixed price. The next dessert was a Valrohna Chocolate "Marquise" with a Marcona Almond Sherbet, Graham Cracker and Tennessee Cask Whiskey. I enjoyed the chocolate marquise which was dense and rich, thankfully the whiskey gelèe was potent and acted as a digestif, which we sorely needed at this point.
However, chef Hollingsworth had other plans, sending out one last morsel for us, a Mandarin Tart with Orange Marmalade and a Shortbread Cookie. At this point, even I was starting to overdose on food, but from what I can remember the tart was rich and as with everything else served that evening, delicious.
Having sensed we were stuffed beyond belief, our server arranged a take home bag filled with "Mignardises" which included: Shortbread Cookies, Hazelnut Dragèes, and a box of assorted house-made chocolates (Peanut Butter, Thai Coffee and Cardamom, Salted Caramel, Banana, Dark Chocolate and Black Pepper). He also invited us to the kitchen to look around and meet chef Hollingsworth and chef Keller. They both signed personalized copies of our incredible meal and even took a picture or two with us before departing!
One of Keller's most famous quotes is, "It's all about the finesse." From impeccably welcoming and attentive service to the most restrained yet refined food, Keller is true to his words. If dining out is the new form of entertainment and chefs are our modern-day rock stars, then it would be only fair to compare Thomas Keller as the biggest and brightest of them all. Despite early failures, Keller persevered and was able to spearhead a revolution in American cuisine. Along the way he has influenced some of the best and brightest chefs his alumni list reads like a who's who of the culinary world and include the likes of: Grant Achtaz of Alinea, Rob Evans of Hugo's and Duckfat and Ron Siegel of The Dining Room at the Ritz Carlton, just to name a few. "Ask and thou shalt receive," and that is precisely what I did. I challenged chef Hollingsworth and Keller to craft us an incredible meal and they went well beyond the call of duty, giving us a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The French Laundry
6640 Washington Street
Yountville, CA 94599
To see all our pics please click the flickr link.