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Destination Restaurant Review: The French Laundry

Happy Friday, all!  I’ve got a special guest post today for everyone from Mark, who visited this blog and has since been swapping travel stories with me offline.  This guy travels a lot and if there’s something I never tire of hearing, it’s travel stories!  Anyway, last weekend he went to my absolute favorite restaurant ever (like, EVER), The French Laundry, and in all his gastronomical stupor agreed to write a review of his experience.  For anyone who is a fine dining elite (or wannabe elite), French Laundry needs no introduction.  For everyone else, this restaurant is one of the creme de la creme of restaurants in the U.S.  Reservations are so coveted, the process reminds me of frantically dialing a radio station to win concert tickets (although Mark seems to have gotten lucky here).  But, this isn’t just a meal.  It’s a Wine Country experience to revel in.  If you’re curious what hype is about, sit back, relax, and grab a bib.  You just might drool.

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I’m super excited!  No, not because I just went to The French Laundry.  I’m excited to write a guest entry to this neat blog that Diana’s got going!  I lack the eloquence in prose, so bear with me as I hope to do this site justice.

President’s day weekend 2013.  Seattle, my hometown, hasn’t seen sun since the year before (quite literally almost).  What better way to get away from the constant gray than to head to Napa valley for a long weekend of wine tasting, and foodie fun?

Going to The French Laundry was kind of last minute, so the usual strategy of placing 300 calls 2 months to the second at 10:00:00am wasn’t going to work.  I called and gave them the 2 evenings we would be in town and basically said either day works for dinner.  No secret Amex Platinum tricks, no fancy hotel in Napa help, no voodoo dance performed.  I made reservations at Ad Hoc and Terra, as I didn’t hold out much hope.  To my surprise, I got a call on Thursday evening (2/14 – Valentine’s day), and we are in at 5:30pm the coming Sunday!  I’ve been told the early reservations are better because dinner takes 4 hours so if you get in at 9pm (which is their latest reservation time) you aren’t leaving until past 1am.

Skipping past the fabulous wine tasting experiences, it’s now Sunday and we are quite excited to finally try this iconic restaurant.  Sure we’ve had Michelin star places, even Michelin 3 star places, but we’ve always had a love for Napa, and The French Laundry has always been one of those distinguished establishments in our mind.

We arrive about 10 minutes early and take the obligatory photos of the front porch and signage.  There are more tourist taking photos of it than diners.

We are greeted and escorted upstairs.  There are a total of 18 tables at the restaurant I believe, plus a couple of private rooms.  We get comfortable, and ready for the journey ahead!

The building, the décor, the settings are all cozy, homey, and definitely the opposite of restaurants in, say, New York where opulence reigns.

We were briefed in detail of the choices on the menu.  Made our selections on 3 choices to be had and off we went.  The sommelier came by and helped us select a couple of bottles of wine: 2010 Domaine Huet Clos du Bourg Vouvray Sec, and 2007 Karl Lawrence Cabernet Sauvignon

(The menu signed by the chef de cuisine – Timothy Hollingsworth)

I would recommend starting with a sparkling wine/champagne but since none of us were big fans of sparkling wine we passed on that and went straight to a yummy Huet.

For the Amuse Bouche, we were given a pastry filled with Gruyere cheese, and a classic FL dish – the Salmon Cornet.

Both were really tasty but tiny as expected.  Certainly sets up the meal well.

At this time another interesting note that illustrates the level of service at this place:  I got a cup of ice still water with lemon wedges.  The lemon wedges came out, I took a couple of pieces, and 10 minutes later they took it away and replaced with new wedges because (the ever slightest) ‘dry lemon wedge’ is just unacceptable.  Another 10 minutes later they gave me a new cup of ice and more new lemon wedges because ‘who wouldn’t want fresh ice’? Is it a little over the top? Perhaps. But it’s the attention to the minute details that creates the separation.

Onward with the journey – Course 1: Oysters and Pearls:  Sabayon of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and White Sturgeon Caviar.  I could’ve had Ossetra Caviar if I wanted to pay $75 more. I didn’t because I’m not really a huge fan of caviar in general.

Well damn – the dish was one of the “hits” of the night.  The oyster had such immense flavor.  The caviar and tapioca plays along with unique textures.  I asked the wife if I can some of hers… sadly no.

The FL menu changes daily in its entirety.  Also no ingredient is repeated throughout the menu, so if you see a cucumber on one dish, you won’t see it again in another.  However, this dish is the exception as it has stayed due to popular demand as the opening course of the chef’s tasting menu.

After course one, we’re given a selection of bread.  These are made by the bakery at Buchon (another Thomas Keller joint nearby).  Two types of butter, one is unsalted from a dairy farm in Petaluma, CA.  Another is salted butter from another dairy farm location that escapes me.  It was interesting that they know where the milk that makes the butter comes from.  It really takes discipline to not stuff yourself right there and then with the different bread choices!

Now the absolute highlight of the meal for me.  Course 2.

A quick aside here:  Normally an option for a supplement here is the Foie Gras (terrine, torchon, whatever method of cooking).  However, since July 2012, the state of California has banned foie sales! Too bad as I was looking forward to it, but in retrospect, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

Course 2 is a Salad of Toyo Turnips.  Wait what? Turnips? Salad? What’s the alternative?  Musquee de Provence “Porridge” – Sicilian pistachios and shaved black winter truffle from Paraguay – Sold!

Quick aside: my wife had the salad, and to me it was a miss on this menu.  It was well plated, and had interesting flavors but it’s a salad, and I guess I lack appreciation for great salads.

Back to my truffle dish.

OMFG. This was amazing.  See the pictures below for the presentation of it.  I have not seen black truffles that large, and shavings larger than the US Quarter.  What did this taste like – rich texture, earthy and aromatic.  Heavenly really.

The photo above shows the dish as plated and presented at first.  Then they haul out a humidity-controlled box of whole truffles, and slices of it get shaved onto the plate.

This is the end result. It really makes you want to lick the plate. It’s that good…

After the truffle dish comes Course 3: Sautéed Filet of Atlantic Cod: Tamarind Glazed Eggplant, San Marzano Tomato Chutney

I thought the fish was well cooked but I think I was on a food high from the truffle so the dish just tasted ‘good’ if not ‘very good’, but not mind blowing.  Although I’d say I could eat those glazed eggplants all day.

(Took a bite before realizing I didn’t have a photo yet – oops!)

Course 4: “Caesar Salad” – well this is boring. Or not!  Poached Maine Lobster, Romaine lettuce, and Garlic Melba and Bottargo di Muggine.

This would have been the best dish if not for the truffle.  I’ve had Maine lobster since I was 9 since I used to live on the east coast of Canada.  Holy mother the lobster was poached to perfection.  Simple dish, but truly executed to perfection.  I can use another serving of that lobster!

At this point we were feeling a tad full, so we told our server to slow the pace down a bit, and requested a tour of the kitchen.  The timing was perfect, the kitchen was humming along but not overwhelmed.  We were able to get photos with the chef, and had about 10 minutes in there where they explained what duties each station performed, etc.  It kind of reminded me of Hell’s Kitchen, only infinitely cleaner and more organized. There’s even a live feed of the kitchen going to Per Se in New York, and vice versa – we can see the feed of the kitchen at Per Se!

Here’s Tim Hollingsworth at the plating table:

Back at the table – more fresh ice, lemons, napkins, etc.

Course 5: Poached Poularde from the Four Story Hill Farm.

Poularde is basically a young hen that’s fattened.  The piece served is the breast, and it’s wonderfully tender, juicy and packed with flavors.  The “jambonette” cornbread complemented it well with a shift in texture.  I would say this was a very good dish. Not the stunners in course 1, 2, and 4, but most excellent.

Course 6: last savory dish!

Herb-Roasted Elysian Fields Farm Lamb Rib-Eye.

Yet another excellent dish with extraordinary tenderness in the meat.  The small piece of carrot was unusually sweet, and the Bordelaise sauce matched the meat and gave it a bit of a sweet/salty contrast.  I also want to say by now the Karl Lawrence Cab was singing after having been decanted for a couple of hours.  This, of course, is why I picked this wine, and it paired superbly.  I’m reminded that I need to pick up some Karl Lawrence cabs for my cellar as 2009 is unfortunately their last vintage.

Another side note of service.  One dinner companion does not like lamb or beef (which was a supplement choice).  Once the server saw the lamb was only partially eaten, he asked if everything was satisfactory.  We mentioned that the person doesn’t eat lamb and therefore only a small bite was taken.  Not a problem! “Can we bring you something else? Pork belly? Pasta? Anything you like!”  She settled on pasta and within 3 minutes the dish was beautifully presented.  Cheese filled pasta. I wish she went for pork belly so I could have tried some! 😉

Course 7: Cheese course – Brebis Pyrenees.  It was a sheep milk cheese.

I’m just not a huge fan of eating cheese in the middle of a meal.  I can do cheese, some prosciutto with some wine, but I don’t quite get cheese as a ‘course’.  So a miss for me, but others seemed to like it.

Moving right along.  It’s past the 3-hour mark now, but though there is a pause between each course, the movement and pace is almost symphonic.  Dish on, dish eaten, dish off, silverware replaced, wine/water replenished, dish on, and so forth.  You never felt like you were waiting for something, and you were also never feeling rushed at any point.

Course 8: Palate refresher – a Pomegranate “Soda” – Jasmine tea ice cream, with Shortbread.  Wow. Can I have another one please? Pretty please.  It was stunning.  My wife and I looked at each other, hoping the other person didn’t like it – nope. Not gonna happen.

This was a highlight near the end of the meal.

Course 9: Last official course on the menu. A choice of Passion Fruit Swiss Roll with chocolate creameux, with banana ice cream or Princess Cake – a fruit cake with Cara Cara Orange Sorbet.

I picked the chocolate; another person picked the princess cake.  Mine was really good, although the princess cake looked tasty too.   The uniqueness of the dish comes in the cream inside the chocolate roll.  The texture/flavor was as unique as I’ve had in a dessert.   I wouldn’t say this is as mind-blowing good as the dish before, but it was a solid result.

So what’s left?  A few things.

Mignardises – as common in French meals, some chocolate truffles were presented beautifully in a box.  I picked a handful of hazelnut, mint, peanut butter, etc.  Each would be awesome if I wasn’t already stuffed to the brim.

I think they realize this as well so they actually give you a box of all the flavors of truffles to go when you leave. More on this later.

One more unannounced classic dish:

Fried Doughnut Balls with Coffee ice cream topped with Crème fraîche.

Apparently these doughnut balls were on their a-la-carte menu before, and then moved onto their tasting menus.  They were removed for a while and became a ‘secret’ dish if you asked for them.  However, since so many guests requested these they decided to bring these back as an unannounced dish.  I’m sure for those who’ve eaten here before this brings back fond memories.

By the way, these were darn good!  I ate 3 of them even though I was stuffed.  Couldn’t resist, had to dig deeper for the stomach space.

Oh, and finally as if you weren’t going to explode from all the food you ate, here’s some powder sugar covered chocolate almonds.  You get a bag of these in your ‘goodie bag’ as well.

After all is said and done, you get a bag with little tins of short bread cookies (used in course 8), along with a box of chocolate truffles, and a bag of chocolate almonds.  You also get to keep your napkin holder as a souvenir.  We requested and received signed copies of the menu which is dated Feb 17, 2013.

If you include the doughnut ball as a course, excluding the chocolates/amuse, I’d say there were 10 ‘courses’.

–       1 was mind blowing – the black truffle course, of course.

–       3 were extraordinary and exceeded all expectations – the oyster/pearls, the lobster, the Pomegranate soda.  Leaves you longing for more.

–       4 were very good to excellent and certainly worth the money – the cod, the poularde, the lamb, the doughnut balls.

–       1 was a miss for me – the cheese course.

Another miss would’ve been the salad but since I swapped it for the truffle dish, it ended up being the course of the night.

All in the meal was $270 + tax per person (tip is included), plus wine.  Is it expensive? Well, heck ya.  You can feed a family for a week with that.   But if you judge the French Laundry based purely on $$ value, you would never want to come here. 🙂  If you come for the culinary destination and gastronomical journey, then it’s well worth the fare.

Hope you enjoyed the read, and thanks Diana for having me here!

The French Laundry
6640 Washington St.
Yountville, CA
Dinner nightly from 5:30pm – 9:30pm
Lunch on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from 11am-1pm

Tel: +1-707-944-2380

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Mark - February 22, 2013 - 10:21 am

Wooohoo! I can now tell my grand kids I’ve made it!

Is this kinda like the equivalent of having your piece exhibited at the NYC MOMA?

Just Wanderlust - February 22, 2013 - 2:25 pm

LOL. I wish it were equivalent to that! It’s probably more like having your drawing up on your mom’s fridge. 😉 But you know, we all gotta start somewhere (me especially!). Thanks for the write up!

christopher - February 23, 2013 - 12:02 am

Excellent. Enjoyed this very much. I’d love to know if The French Laundry would have been able to accommodate a gluten-free diet.

Just Wanderlust - February 23, 2013 - 5:12 pm

That’s a good question… My guess is that they should be able to since they do accommodate diet restrictions but it’d be best to call and find out.

Ag - February 23, 2013 - 7:10 pm

Beautiful write-up Mark! One day my stomach will lead me there!

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