6640 Washington Street
Yountville, CA 94599
What can I say about The French Laundry that hasn't already been said. Thomas Keller is a living legend in the food community and The French Laundry is the crown jewel in his restaurant empire. The restaurant has received three Michelin stars since 2006 (when they started rating San Francisco) and merits a place in any conversation about the world's top restaurants.
Keller opened The French Laundry in 1994, purchasing the one-time French steam laundry from the former mayor of Yountville who originally renovated the building into a restaurant. The restaurant specializes in French cuisine with contemporary American influences and has produced a veritable laundry list of famous alumni. The current chef de cuisine is Timothy Hollingsworth and both his predecessors Eric Ziebold (CityZen) and Corey Lee (Benu) have gone onto great success of their own. Other noteworthy alums include: Grant Achatz (Alinea), Ron Siegel (The Dining Room), and René Redzepi (Noma). Having heard whispers that the restaurant had lost a step with the departure of Corey Lee, I was curious to see for myself if there was any truth to the rumors especially as I had dined at Benu the previous evening.
Considering the restaurant's renown, it comes as no surprise that reservations are exceedingly difficult to come by and they are typically booked two months in advance. Given that my trip was fairly last minute I figured there was no way I'd get a Friday night reservation to French Laundry with only 4 days notice, certainly not on the weekend before Valentines Day. Still I called the restaurant and was delighted to discover they a party of two had just canceled earlier in the day; sometimes it's better to be lucky than good.
AMUSE 01: GOUGÈRES
Rich and cheesy, these airy cheese puffs almost feel too simple to serve as a prologue for one of the world's most vaunted culinary experiences.
AMUSE 02: SCOTTISH SALMON CORONETS
Like the Gougéres, the salmon coronets are yet another staple of the French Laundry experience. Reminiscent to Wolfgang Puck's signature starter, the slick oiliness of the fish is subtly accentuated by the crisp buttery cone
AMUSE 03: TURNIP PANNA COTTA - Scallop Ceviche and English Cucumber
The final canape consisted of a spoonful of creamy smooth custard, slightly savory with a tinge of root vegetable sweetness augmented by a refreshing note of cucumber on the finish.
01a: "OYSTERS AND PEARLS" - "Sabayon" of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and White Sturgeon Caviar
It is somehow fitting that the tasting menu begins with Keller's most celebrated dish, Oysters and Pearls. Two perfectly formed poached oysters "pearls" come in a custard infused with oyster trimmings. A generous dollop of caviar finishes the dish with a salty emphasis that deepens and magnifies the flavor of fresh shellfish.
01b: DUNGENESS CRAB - Eureka Lemon, Asian Pear, Black Pepper Melba, and White Sturgeon Caviar
Where the previous dish was designed to be enjoyed as a cohesive harmonious whole this dish is all about contrast. With Oysters and Pearls, the caviar plays a complimentary role, augmenting the natural essence of the oyster. In this course, the caviar initially overwhelms the crab's natural sweetness and only when the juicy Asian pear comes into play does the crustacean's flavor become apparent.
02a: MOULARD DUCK "FOIE GRAS EN TERRINE" - Meiwa Kumquats, Belgian Endive, Beets, Marcona Almonds and Oxalis
My first taste of Keller's terrine was an epiphany, not only opening my eyes to the wonders of cold foie gras but to this day remains the single finest piece of fatty liver that I've ever tasted. Against such memories this foie was almost doomed to be a disappointment. While the texture and flavor of the liver itself was still among the best I've ever tasted, think sweet butter tinged with the essence of offal, the accompaniments, particularly the kumquats and endive were a bit forward.
02b: "JARDINIÈRE DE LÉGUMES D'HIVER" - French Laundry Garden Vegetables, Black Winter Truffle, and "Fines Herbes Ravigote"
Given my propensity for meat, I've been surprised by how much I enjoy Gargouillou. The minimalist presentation keeps the focus on the vegetables while the sheer variety makes for a vivid interplay of taste and texture. This was no different though I thought the dish could have done with more variety on the plate to to give the dish a bit more complexity.
03a: TARTARE OF EARSHELL CLAM - Hawaiian Hearts of Palm, Compressed Cucumber, Pickled Ginger
Apparently Ear Shell Clam is just another name for abalone though this is the first I've heard it used. If this is indeed abalone much of the foot and epipodium has been trimmed away resulting in pristine white cubes of pure muscle tissue. The texture differs from typical abalone, meaty with a supple snap rather than dense and crunchy. The accompaniments are well-suited to the mild flavor of the clam, providing a light vegetal overtone accented by pinpricks of heat from the ginger.
03b: SAUTÈED FILLET OF MEDITERRANEAN LUBINA - Firefly Squid, Yukon Gold Potato, Broccolini, Olives and "Sauce Romesco"
The alternative to the clam was a piece of impeccably sautéed Lubina or Sea Bass. The mild luscious flesh comes paired with an expressive Sauce Romesco accented by a dark salty inflection from the squid. The potatoes and bitter vegetables enhance the Mediterranean feel of the dish whilst adding a satisfying rustic appeal.
04: SWEET BUTTER-POACHED MAINE LOBSTER TAIL - Sunchoke, Piedmont Hazelnuts, Scallion Salad and Coffee-Chocolate Emulsion
The poached lobster from my previous visit remains the best lobster I've ever eaten. With that in mind, I was looking forward to another incredible experience and the kitchen did not disappoint. The lobster is absolutely flawless: snappy, succulent, and exuding the sublime quintessence of fresh shellfish. Though the sunchoke was a bit blunt, I quite enjoyed the lively freshness of the scallion as well as the intriguing savory-sweet earthiness of the coffee-chocolate emulsion.
05a: "CŒUR DE VEAU" - Green Garlic "en Feuille de Bric," Romaine Lettuce, Radishes and Bottarga Emulsion
I wouldn't normally think a veal heart sandwich would be very well received but this was the single most complete dish of the night, with every element playing an indispensable role. The heart itself is deceptively innocuous, with a robust beefy flavor and texture reminiscent of pastrami, I would have been hard pressed to identify it correctly. The "bread" is a thin wrapping of crispy Feuille de Bric infused with the fragrance of garlic. The Bottarga (fish roe) emulsion was unexpectedly effective, reminiscent of umami mayo, it a luxuriously deep savoriness to the heart. Meanwhile the lettuce and radish added a countervailing bitterness to balance the heft of the emulsion.
05b: DEVIL'S GULCH RANCH RABBIT SIRLOIN - Hobbs' Bacon, Steel Cut Oats, Celery and "Jus de Cassis"
Though I would have rather had another serving of the veal heart, I appreciated the rabbit as well. The incredibly lean dense sirloin remains remarkably tender and the mild flavor lends itself well to the flavor of the bacon. I don't often have oats with savory food, but they were quite effective here, similar to a risotto but with more substance. The dish finishes with the palpable iron tang of offal which adds an unexpected wrinkle that keeps the dish interesting.
06: ELYSIAN FIELDS FARM LAMB RIB-EYE - Artichokes, Cauliflower, Nantes Carrots, Fava Bean Tendrils and Spanish Capers
Last time around, I found the intensely gamy flavor of the lamb somewhat disconcerting. This time around I found the rustic gravitas of the lamb quite to my liking. But as good as the loin was it paled against the ribette; darkly sweet and braised to an almost gelatinous texture the ribette was like piece of meat candy.
07: BEECHER'S "FLAGSHIP RESERVE" - Corn "Fritter," Sour Michigan Cherries, Swiss Chard and Dijon Mustard
Don't expect to find a cart here, Keller is a fan of the composed cheese course. Instead of the typical slabs of cheese with preserves and bread the kitchen builds an entire course with the cheese as its focus. The cheese is a white cheddar, open air-aged to give it a higher salt content and more concentrated flavor. The result is an almost ham like smokiness when paired with the sharp bracing tang of the Dijon.
08: MARSHALL FARM'S WILDFLOWER HONEY SORBET - Chilled Hibiscus-Pink Peppercorn "Consommé," Poached Rhubarb and Basil Seeds
Delectably sweet with a distinctly floral undertone, the sorbet completely captures the essence of honey. In some ways, I found this startlingly similar to the Intermezzo at Benu that I had the previous evening. The heft of the unabashedly sweet sorbet is balanced by tart rhubarb as well as a vegetal component, in this case basil seeds and a floral hibiscus soup.
09a: "DÉLICE AU CHOCOLAT À LA MENTHE" - Crispy Feuilletine, Mast Brothers Cocoa Nibs, Brown Cardamom, and French Laundry Garden Mint Ice Cream
I didn't expect to favor the chocolate dessert but this was absolutely superb. The elegant base of chocolate is readily apparent and imbued resonant note of pure green mint. The thin crisp feuilletine, a French sugar crisp commonly mixed into chocolate, provides the perfect contrast to the decadently smooth texture of the chocolate. Perhaps the best mint chocolate I've ever tasted.
09b: LEMONGRASS "CRÉMEUX" - Shiso Gelée, Sicilian Pistachio, Lemon "Granité," and Granny Smith Apples
This reminded me of a dessert of one of Jordan Kahn which shouldn't be a surprise considering Chef Kahn got his start at Laundry. The Lemongrass and Shiso provides an aromatic herbaceous levity to go with sweet floral bouquet from the lemon and apple. Savory, sweet, and refreshing this multifaceted dessert appeals on many levels.
10: "COFFEE AND DOUGHNUTS"
No meal at French Laundry would be complete without the iconic Coffee and Doughnuts. The dish combines the time-honored blue-collar breakfast duo in the form of bittersweet espresso ice cream and freshly prepared donut holes. The dessert is not the most elaborate, but the flavors of this classic pairing are delicious nonetheless.
11: CHOCOLATE COVERED MACADAMIAS
The French Laundry does nothing by half measures and that holds true even for the mignardises. On this night, they began with a small bowl of macadamias covered in a hard shell of chocolate and caramel. Thoroughly sweet and crunchy, I effortlessly polished off the entire serving.
12: CHOCOLATES - Apple Cider, Coffee, Hazelnut, Peanut Butter, Banana, Cherry
Though the meal didn't include the tin of candies, we did get a selection of six house made chocolates. Though they were all superb the apple cider and cherry were particularly impressive.
As for the supposed decline in the kitchen, I for one, didn't find anything to support the rumors. Chef Hollingsworth has been at the French Laundry since 2002, rising from Commis to his current position as CdC. In addition Chef Hollingsworth represented the United States at the 2009 Bocuse d'Or World Cuisine Contest, earning sixth place and equaling the best performance of the U.S. in the contest to date.
In the end, there isn't any experience quite like The French Laundry. While the food isn't necessarily the most daring, the dishes are thoughtfully composed and the obsessive attention to detail is evident in every plate. The restaurant is meticulous about maintaining the highest standards in the quality of the produce as well as technical execution. This philosophy extends to the front of the house with a waitstaff prides itself on impeccable service. It is almost as if the entire staff has made it their mission to provide each and every diner with the best culinary experience of their lives. For anyone wondering if they should try the restaurant, it isn't a matter of "if you should" but "if you can." If you are lucky enough to get reservations, I strongly urge you to take them or better yet give them to me.
Monday, March 14, 2011
6640 Washington Street