This post is the first of a series I will be making over the next weeks and months about some of the most memorable food experiences of my life. The one described below is perhaps the peak of these experiences so far, but I thought I would talk about it first as it is the most recent and among the most exquisite. The need for a venue to rave about this experience was actually the main inspiration behind this blog.
Last week I had the privilege of dining at Thomas Keller’s world-famous 16-table restaurant in Napa Valley, The French Laundry. If I had to summarize the experience in one word (ok three), I would say, oh dear Lord.
I have to preface this by saying that I went in with EXCEEDINGLY high expectations. I had read and heard so many rave reviews about this place for so many years, that I began drooling the minute I was able to secure a table for 4 on October 25th. Two months is a long time to drool over a prospective meal. So the bar was set pretty high before I even walked through the door, and I have to say that the experience not only met but exceeded my expectations. And ever since, I have been trying to put my finger on what it was exactly that made it so special. No, the food was not gold crusted or sprinkled with fairy dust, and no, there were no potions or magic spells in sight, but the experience was indeed magical. Not only was the 9-course chef’s tasting menu and the smattering of additional amuse-bouches beforehand and dessert bites afterward absolutely delectable (both visually and taste-wise), but the service was truly beyond impeccable.
I have to admit that the main negative thing I had heard about The French Laundry before going was that the servers tend to be snooty and pretentious, but that was not true of my experience at all. There may have been an occasional server who was a tad too-serious-for-life, but everyone we interacted with was very friendly, attentive without being overbearing, and very knowledgeable about the menu. The sommelier in particular was very impressive and knowledgeable about the restaurant’s extensive wine collection of approx. 2500 bottles, and had a sense of humor to go with it. He did a great job at pairing our dish selections with complementary wines, and, may I add, he was perhaps a bit too generous as I had to ask him to slow down! The service as a whole was so well-orchestrated to the point of being almost psychic. It helps that there were about as many staff members in the restaurant as there were guests. It was like being part of a seamless, perfectly timed culinary theater.
As for the food..wow oh wow. I opted for the chef’s tasting menu, but it was a tough choice because the “tasting of vegetables” menu from the restaurant’s garden looked equally enticing. Both menus offered 9 courses, and on each, some courses offered a choice between two dishes. The images displayed on this post are all of the dishes I personally had.
We were first served two off-menu amuse-bouches: a cream and gruyère cheese-filled gougère (an airy pastry puff), followed by a a savory waffle cone with black sesame incorporated into the batter, filled with red onion crème fraîche and topped with Scottish salmon tartare like a scoop of ice cream. (I forgot to take pictures of these, so I borrowed the ones below from chowhound discussion threads)
Next up was the first course listed on the menu, (1) “oysters and pearls,” a buttery, creamy “sabayon” of tapioca pearls with oysters and sturgeon caviar (complete with a cute mother of pearl spoon!), followed by a tiny (2) salad of roasted salsify (a starchy root) with pear and pistachio puree, then a (3) kanpachi tartare, presented as a “deconstructed sushi roll,” accompanied by rice with dried beef tataki, as well as mille-feuille of sorts, composed of nori (seaweed), very thin layers of tamago (omlette) and more fish.
Next came the (4) lobster, by far the best part of the meal in my opinion (and lobster is not usually my favorite). Delicious butter-poached pieces of Maine lobster topped with a “cloud” of vanilla-y buttery foam, and accompanied by a single Brussels sprout and a leaf of Kale. At this point, I could have died happy. But the dishes kept coming.
Next up was a (5) quail drumstick stuffed with sweetbread (luckily I had somehow missed this part on the menu, and didn’t find out until the next day) with green olives on a bed of sauteed pine nuts. The last of the meat courses was (6) venison done 3 ways (sausage, and 2 cuts of steak) with a pumpkin sauce, cranberries and mushrooms (sorry- forgot to take a picture of this one!)
Next came three rounds of dessert, beginning with a plate of (7) Reblochon cheese with mini broccoli florets, chestnuts and pomegranate reduction, followed by a zesty (8) verjus sorbet (verjus is a tart grape juice made by pressing unripe grapes) on a bed of crushed candied cashews with mint and grapes, and finally -my second-favorite part of the meal- a (9) caramelized white chocolate “namelaka” that tasted like that most decadent, succulent butterscotch you’ll ever have, accompanied by fig, hazelnuts and fig sorbet. Although that was the sweet conclusion to the menu items, little did we know that it was not the end.
The servers then brought out a selection of small mignardises, the amuse-bouche equivalent of desserts. First came some hand-made truffle chocolates in interesting and surprising flavors: olive oil, peanut butter, cherry, lemon and hazelnut (as you can see below, we were so eager to dig in to these delights that a few are missing from the picture!). Finally, the closing act was a little cup of espresso “semifreddo” (a semi-frozen espresso ice-cream) coupled with a plateful of mini donut bites to share.
Oh and I almost forgot. The meal was accompanied by round after round of delicious bread rolls sourced from the Bouchon bakery just down the street, and a selection of local and Vermont butters. YUM.
We were each then sent home with a cute little bag of sugar-topped shortbread cookies, wrapped in a blue ribbon with The French Laundry’s signature clothes peg logo.. such a great way to bring some of the magic of the experience home.
So…the overall verdict? What an experience! While I won’t exactly become a regular (only a few people can afford this kind of luxury on a regular basis!), I can honestly say that it was a thoroughly enjoyable and truly unique evening. I’ve heard so many people describe it as “a great experience but quite overrated,” which I guess it could be if you go in expecting to find the Holy Grail. There is so much hype surrounding The French Laundry – not helped by how difficult it is to get a table – that some people visit expecting Keller to conjure up new ingredients or flavors previously unknown to mankind. Obviously, these people are then disappointed to discover that it is “just” food. Like I said earlier in this post..no, the food was not gold-plated or sprinkled with fairy dust, and no, it certainly was not an exotic import from Mars. It was food. Normal food from planet Earth. But as far as food goes, it was as fine as food could be. In fact, if I had one complaint, it would be that I wish Keller had chosen more “commonplace” ingredients for some of the dishes on the menu. Quail, venison and oysters are fantastic, but I wish he had put chicken on my plate and demonstrated what outstanding things he can make out of this slightly more everyday ingredient. I have to admit I get a bit of food envy whenever I go on the restaurant’s website and find chicken, beef or lamb on today’s menu (the tasting menus change a little bit every day). Nonetheless, the food was still the star of the evening; fantastically fresh and interesting ingredients combined or presented in surprising ways, and executed with mastery. And yes, I understand that you can find fantastic food in many other places and pay far less for it, but The French Laundry is not The French Laundry only because it serves fantastic food. It is a package deal, and -admittedly- it is also the ultimate elite club that you get a kick from finally being a part of. It promises deliciously imaginative food from a world-class chef, top-notch wine pairings, spectacular service that makes you feel like a million bucks, and astronomical prices; and on each of these counts it definitely delivers.
In good health,
P.S. To get a reservation, you need to call 2 months to the date that you wish to dine at The French Laundry. Reservation lines open at 10am PST, but due to the tiny capacity of the restaurant, it is likely to become fully booked as early as 10:15. I called incessantly for multiple days in a row starting at 9:30am PST or even earlier, and kept trying until I eventually got through on the fifth day. Redial is your best friend. Or, if you have an AMEX black or platinum card, you can use the concierge service to get in!