First of all, I’ll apologize for the quality of the pictures; some are dark, muddy, underdeveloped. Some pics I’ve had to tweak ‘in post’ to give you a decent idea of what the dish looked like. Like most elegant restaurants the lighting at The French Laundry is pleasantly muted, which makes it hard to get good food shots.
But you’ll see I got some decent photos of our entire dining experience. Because it IS an EXPERIENCE and not just a meal. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime meal (although this was my second visit) and as such it’s a roller-coaster of sensations; it’s so over-the-top that the meal bludgeons you with a seemingly unending array of supreme tastes. Each dish is immaculately conceived and executed. Each dish is designed with taste and sight and smell in mind. Every nuanced aspect of the meal shows the care and consideration that marks Thomas Keller as one of America’s most revered chefs.
|Their iconic clothespin and napkin fold.|
The meal was truly astonishing. A standard tasting menu (and there are only tasting menus, nothing is a la carte) is nine courses, but Regina and I, along with my coworkers Virginia and Cezar, had a special VIP menu of 16 courses with well-chosen wines. Cezar, Virginia, and I had just completed a rigorous five-day course at the Laundry. I was in the Culinary Programme, and my friends learned about service. The culmination of our class was a remarkable meal of unparalleled excellence.
Which is not to say that I LOVED everything I ate, or that everything rose to the level expected from a three Michelin-starred restaurant. But the food was creative and always interesting. Detailed and very, very specific. I’ll walk you through the meal.
First a glass of fantastic champagne. Sorry I can’t recall the producer or the vintage. The wines were all spectacular, but I can’t recall all we had. In brief, in this order: Champagne, Sancerre, Riesling, Meursault, some French red (Rhone variatel I believe.), a big California meritage, and a fantastic Sauternes.
The initial bit of food was a tiny gougere, a savory profiterole stuffed with melted gruyere cheese. It was perfect, a single delicious morsel of goodness.
|A little gougere filled with gruyere.|
Next up was their signature salmon cornet; finely ground sushi-grade salmon tempered with a bit of smoked salmon, chives, and lemon oil. A quenelle of this salmon is formed and perched atop a tiny, crispy ‘ice cream cone’ filled with creme fraiche seasoned with a bit of minced shallot. This lovely canape is perfect and a delight.
|The French Laundry’s signature salmon cornet.|
|Chilled Cantaloupe Soup|
The first course of the written menu was Chilled Cantaloupe Soup with Bayonne Ham and Mint. The server poured the chilled soup into a small bowl lined with a mint gelee. The soup represented a burst of pure fruit flavor — sweet and luscious. When I dragged my spoon along the bottom of the bowl the mint jelly melded gently with the soup, preventing the sweetness from being cloying. As did the single leaf of fresh spearmint and the tiny sliver of salty ham. The single bit of ham was a surprise note that gave this simple and direct dish complexity and depth.
|“Oysters and Pearls”|
Another signature dish is the “Oysters and Pearls”, consisting of two tiny, trimmed Island Creek Oysters (from Massachusetts) barely cooked in a vermouth beurre blanc layered over a “sabayon” of tiny pearl tapioca. A quenelle of cold white sturgeon caviar balances perfectly with the warm creaminess of the rest of the dish. This dish is a model of perfection and not so easy to duplicate exactly. I’ve tried and the results lacked the elegance of Keller’s original. While in my Culinary Programme I assisted in trimming the oysters; I had to shuck the oysters carefully and then trim very precisely with tiny scissors all around “the pearl” of the oyster, which is the rounded, plump part in the center. Trimming away the mantle and all the other fringe bits of the oyster is challenging as you don’t want to puncture the flesh of the “pearl.” It was, frankly, a pain in the ass! The efforts undertaken to make each and every dish perfect is on display in the attention to detail of this very specific and perfect dish.
|Almond ice cream over plums with a tiny rice cracker.|
Since Cezar doesn’t eat shellfish the servers brought him a tiny treat in lieu of the oyster appetizer. A tiny scoop of perfect almond ice cream over a sorbetto of plum, with a sliver of red plum and a tiny mince of Asian Pear. It was a lovely, simple thing with a palate-cleansing appeal.
|“Tataki” of Big Eye Tuna.|
The next dish was billed as a “Tataki” of Big Eye Tuna with Bartlett Pear, Fairytale Eggplant, Broccoli, and Pili Nut. Served on a heavy wooden block lined with silver, the dish was lovely to behold but I felt the parts (all exquisite) did not equal a greater whole. The marinated and seared tuna had a delicious silkiness about it, but the marinating (as well as the smears of sweetened soy and mirin sauce) obfuscated the essential sweet flavor of good rare tuna. The crisp, panko-crusted dice of fried eggplant were tasty, the broccoli lent a nice herbaceous bitterness, the slices of pear sweetened in Asian pear juice were lovely and delicious, and the Pili nut (like a flavorful Indonesian almond) added much-needed crunch. But the dish as a whole was unfocused.
|Custard of truffles and egg.|
Not unfocused at all was the Hen Egg Custard with a Ragout of Perigord Truffles. Creamy, unctuous, robust with the flavor of the lovely, earthy fungus, this dish was a slam-dunk. Luscious and crazy-good.
|Slow-cooked brisket with apple-wood smoke.|
The next dish was a remarkable thing: BBQ Brisket “Fumee a la Minute”. The chefs cook Wagyu Brisket sous vide for twelve hours and then crisp the beefy nugget, serve it on a mound of horseradish creme, and top it with two tiny cippolini onion rings crusted with panko. It’s served in a tiny, glass-domed dish that they fill with apple-wood smoke via a mechanized pipe. In the kitchen I was surprised to see that they used the same sort of pipe that I witnessed (or perhaps even smoked from) being used by my stoner buddies in college. When I duplicated this dish at home I bought an identical pipe from a head shop in Culver City.
Anyway, when the dish was brought and the dome was lifted, a small cloud of aromatic smoke wafted up into my face. A trace of smoke lingered on my palate as I ate the tiny, delicious morsel of beef. It was heavenly. The sauce was perfect and the cute little onion rings divine. A great dish. Surprising, interactive, fun, tasty.
|Tiny onion rings perched akimbo atop “smoked beef” with a horseradish cream.|
|A lovely Viennoise roll.|
At this point they brought out bread and butter. Perfect little Viennoise rolls, tiny baguettes, lovely pretzel rolls, and whole grain rolls. They were all perfect and great with two kinds of butter. One from a farm in Petaluma and another from a Vermont Creamery.
|A delightful salad.|
Next up was the “Jardiniere de Legumes d’Ete” with “Fines Herbs”. It’s basically a salad, composed of tiny, perfectly trimmed vegetables mostly from their own garden across the street. A baby carrot, half a radish, shavings of red carrot, a sliver or two of romano beans, a single cucumber blossom, a tiny tree of broccolini, a smear of black truffle puree, and a simple little vinaigrette with herbs. Every bite was fresh and delicious. And the plate was absolutely gorgeous, although my pic doesn’t really do it justice.
|Australian black truffles shaved over tagliatelle.|
A small pile of fresh tagliatelle pasta was tossed in a bit of butter and cream and over the top was shaved a ridiculous quantity of fantastic black truffles from Australia. Two servers talked about how this one guy in Australia inoculated 45 hazelnut trees with truffle spores from France and for the past few years he’s produced these remarkable truffles full of flavor. They certainly were excellent and more robust than the black summer truffles you’d get right now from Europe. The dish was simple and excellent: the pasta was superb and the truffles were profound, earthy, and rich. So fantastic!
Cezar is not a fan of truffles, so I ate his portion too! Silly guy.
|A phenomenal white wine! One of many wines.|
|Lovely cod wrapped in zucchini blossoms.|
The fish course came next: Atlantic Cod “Confit a la Minute” with Squid, Jingle Bell Peppers, Romano Beans, and Pimenton. The impeccably fresh cod is wrapped with scallop mousse and then with the petals of zucchini blossoms. It’s formed into a log and poached in plastic wrap until just set. Slices are then cut for a single order and then the fish is butter-poached until just cooked through. The disc of fish is set atop a puree of yellow pepper with thin slices of baby bell peppers and romano beans. A single leaf of wild arugula and a tiny fried zucchini blossom complete the tableau. This dish was mild, tender, and lovely.
Cezar eschewed the fish and so our server gave him a fun, interesting dish of roasted beet. The baby beet is crusted with vegetable ash from a local farm. The ash is formed with egg whites and flour (probably) and made into a little boulder around the beet. The whole thing is roasted, cracked open table-side, and then the tender beet is sliced like a tiny roast. The beet is placed on a plate with baby vegetables. Cezar’s dish was surprising and fun, but I’m glad I got my cod!
|Delicious lobster tail but overcooked. Coffee-chocolate sauce did not really work.|
The lobster course was next: a Butter-poached Lobster Tail with Black Misson Fig, Piedmont Hazelnuts, and Coffee-Chocolate Emulsion. A mixed bag, this dish. I really wanted to like it (especially since I’d assisted in killing some fifty lobsters that week), but I’ve cooked much more tender lobster for certain, and frequently. And the coffee-chocolate sauce simply did not work. The fig was good, as was the crispy hazelnut dust, but the whole thing was underwhelming, especially for dedicated lobster junkies like Regina and me.
|Our first red wine glass was ludicrously large.|
|Foie Gras Mille-Crepe|
The next dish was also a trifle disappointing. Moulard Duck “Foie Gras Mille-Crepe” with Sea Urchin, Buckwheat Crepe, Pickled Cherry, and Almond Sherbert. The foie gras was layered with crepes and then cut into little slabs. The sea urchin on top was spectacular and the foie itself was delightful. But the dish felt crowded and without a focal point. The pickled cherries were good but lacked the zeal of good, fresh cherries. We all agreed it was our least favorite dish.
|The duck breast was superb.|
|The best of the “main” courses.|
Up next was the beef course and it was unanimously agreed to be a winner! Snake River Farms “Calotte de Boeuf Grillee” with Bone Marrow Pudding, Chantarelle Mushrooms, Tokyo Turnips, Potato, Watercress, and “Mignonette Bordelaise”. Whew, the description alone is a mouthful! The calotte is an unusual cut of beef, since it’s usually part of a beef rib roast, being the super-tender, outer cap of fat-riddled meat that fringes the meaty “eye” adjacent to the ribs. It’s not easy (or cheap) to get the calotte trimmed off the ribeye, but I’m sure that Chef Keller has a special arrangement with Snake River Farms, who have an established reputation for excellent domestic Wagyu cattle.
Wagyu beef is renowned for being especially tender and fatty. This was no exception; it was deliciously grilled a perfectly moist and pink medium-rare. The Bordelaise sauce was a lovely accent but remained unobtrusive, allowing the fantastic steak to shine. The baby turnips were sweet and tender, the dollops of marrow pudding seductive. The dish was utterly beguiling, and I wanted more! This was a killer dish and a great way to end the parade of savory main courses.
|A playful cheese course, but kinda dull.|
We were feeling pretty well annihilated by this point, simply wrung out by the excessive richness of the menu, but we girded ourselves for the final salvo(s). Cheese was next, an excellent Cavatina from Andante Dairy, somewhat let down by its pedestrian accoutrements. The ash-rind has been trimmed away, revealing a mild, slightly dry but tender goat cheese, somewhat chevre-like. But the Belgian waffle that accompanied it was nice but only just. The elegant pistachios were pleasant, but the slivers of strawberry added little. Regina felt the dish would have benefited from a drizzle of honey. I was thinking quince paste or jam or something. Oh, well.
|I barely remember this dish.|
We had a couple of simple but very refreshing dessert courses. A Santa Rosa Plum Sorbet was nice, sitting on a tiny nest ground black sesame seeds. But I have virtually no recollection of the rest of the dish, and my dark picture revealed nothing. That was followed by a Lemon-Lime “Float”, essentially a perfectly nuanced and direct granita-type slush with lemongrass & verjus. It was 100% refreshing and I’d recommend it to all my friends!
|Simple float of lemongrass & verjus granite was very refreshing!|
Finally, finally the real dessert! Which was a Tinoori Chocolate Mousse with Gros Michel Banana, Georgia Peanuts and Salted Popcorn Ice Cream. We ate it, we loved it. By this time we had all achieved sensory overload. Our logic chips were all fried! I can recall nothing of this dish except that it was great!
|Tinoori Chocolate Mousse.|
|A fantastic sauterne, the name of which I haven’t the foggiest.|
Except there was more! I had a perfect espresso, followed by chocolate-candied macadamia nuts, followed by beautiful mignardises, little perfect chocolates and four excellent shortbread cookies in a cute cellophane bag.
|Even the coffee cup was a lovely thing.|
|Little bowl of candied mac nuts.|
But then, naturally, there was another course, the “Coffee and Donuts”, a coffee semifreddo with a fried brioche “donut hole”, This is such a fun, silly, cute dessert, but it was completely lost on us by this time. Pretty much felled by wine, fats, and overall excess this barely registered. Things were disintegrating fast. Not quite Fear and Loathing in Yountville, but close.
To be fair, the “coffee and donuts” was great, but Jeez, enough already!
|Coffee and Donuts.|
|We didn’t even touch the chocolates!|
This meal was by turns miraculous, surprising, magical, overbearing, oppressive, delightful, satisfying, maddening, and yes, delicious. The French Laundry is a remarkable place. It’s definitely worth a visit, perhaps once every few years.The craft and care is very much in evidence. And the constant searching for perfection. And the soul. Nobody tries this hard for nothing.