Dinner at the French Laundry

We weren't sure how to approach our dinner at the French Laundry after all these years. I feared that my preference for la cucina povera and food that grabs my taste buds more than my mind would make even this untarnished institution -- consistently ranked one of the best, if not the best restaurant in the world -- a disappointment. I had been warned prior to this trip that my entire world view, at least with respect to food, was about to change. I hoped and feared that might be so.We went in knowing it would be an amazing experience, even if the food didn't move us. We needn't have worried: I would trade every prestigious restaurant meal I have ever had for another meal at the French Laundry. It really is that good. Start saving your dollars, or twenties, do whatever it takes to get a reservation, and get yourself to Yountville before anything changes.The French Laundry offers three prix fixe menus: a seven course dinner, a seven course tasting of vegetables, and a nine course Chef's tasting menu. All are the same price and offer the same amount of food, just with a different number of tastes. The four of us all decided to try the Chef's Tasting and the waiter kindly agreed to substitute the meat dishes with the corresponding plates from the vegetables menu for me. The gentlemen were somewhat daunted by the 76 page wine list, but the very gracious and surprisingly young sommelier read our tastes well and gave some excellent recommendations. Prepare for a long list of superlatives and high praise.First, a plate of small, heavenly light gruyere gougers. Then an "ice cream cone" with a tiny scoop of the most exquisite salmon tartare with red onions atop a tuile cone filled with crème fraiche. Delicious! Meanwhile, the first drink of the night was uncorked: a half bottle of NV Brut Blanc de Blancs from Michel Turgy that I would glady try again to go with our "Oysters and Pearls." "OYSTERS AND PEARLS""SABAYON OF PEARL TAPIOCA WITH PEARL POINT OYSTERSAND RUSSIAN SEVRUGA CAVIARWith a strong oyster aversion and no great love for caviar, I was concerned about this "signature" dish. It is the only thing on the menu that is never removed and, while certainly not my favorite, it did offer an intriguing mix of textures and flavors that I had no trouble polishing off.At this point Oren asked the sommelier how he felt about photography. He replied that he likes phographers, especially Herb Ritz, and had no problem if we wished to use our camera, so at least we have documentation of the remainder of the meal to compensate where my memory fails.

It was also about this time that the selection of breads first appeared with two kinds of butter: a house-salted European style in a round container and a sweet butter in a square. We each had the choice of a small, crusty epi (shaped like a chaff of wheat), a slice of sourdough, or a small ciabatta role. The bread tray came around often and none of us could resist that golden, slightly salty, oh so decadent butter in the round. so much so that they brought a second. You would think that it's a waste to eat bread in a place like the French Laundry, but honestly, it just tasted so divine! Not that it stopped me from enjoying every last morsel of the courses still to come. Next up was a choice of dishes paired with a half bottle of barely sweet, wonderfully delicious Herrenweg de Turckheim, Domaine Zind-Humbrecht Riesling from Alsace that I will be looking to add to our "cellar."

SALAD OF SHIMEJI MUSHROOMS,PICKELED PEARL ONIONS, GLAZED RAMP BULBS,FRENCH LAUNDRY GARDEN CHIVE BLOSSOMS AND GRATED "PETIT ACAPELLA"OR

"TORCHON" OF POACHED MOULARD DUCK FOIE GRAS,PICKLED RED MUSCAT GRAPES, JACOBSEN FARM CLEAR ALMONDS,"GASTRIQUE AU VERJUS" AND YOUNG PARSLEY LEAVESOren was the only one to order the foie gras and he looked like a happy man for his choice once we had resolved the first serving gaffe of the night, in which Joe was actually presented with the plate. The foie gras was served with a thick slice of airy brioche that was toasted all over to a perfect golden brown. Perhaps 5 minutes into this course, one of the many waiters quickly replaced the 1/3rd eaten slice with a fresh one, explaining that the Chef did not want him to have cold toast. We were all tempted to flag a waiter down a few minutes later to comment that the bread had gotten cold again, but we did manage to restraing ourselves.The rest of us were equally pleased, if slightly less amused, by our small serving of the most delicate, intense spring flavors that proved to be one of the biggest hits of the evening. The tiniest shaving of Petit Acapella added a richness to the earthy, almost meaty mushrooms.

Though I usually love white burgundies, the heat of 2003 intensified the fruit flavors and seems to have picked up more oak than I like in this Macon Pierreclos Premier Jus de Chavigne 2003, our most expensive bottle of the evening. Though it was a little more new world in style than I would have liked, it still went well with the next two courses.

MILK POACHED FILLET OF LINE-CAUGHT ATLANTIC HALIBUT,SACRAMENTO DELTA GREEN ASPARAGUS "SABAYON" AND BLACK PERIGORD TRUFFLESThis dish was presented with a dusting of fine black truffle powder on the side of the plate. I couldn't discern any added texture from the powder in my mouth, but it brought an intense burst of unusually rich but not particularly truffle-like flavor. This was truly the best fish I have ever tasted: it was so flaky and light. While it maintained its structure on the plate, it almost melted in the mouth. The truffles were handled with deft subtlety - there was none of the stinky feet aroma that sometimes comes with overdoing truffles or using lower quality tubers. Oren wasn't blown away by this course like the rest of us and we have since decided that his halibut may have actually been slightly undercooked, as it was still a bit pink and a little chewy in part. Still, a spectacular dish that I will be dreaming up for a long time to come.

SWEET BUTTER POACHED MAINE LOBSTER TAILWITH "PETIT POIS A LA FRANCAISE"The lobster tail was another standout and, as I had already had a enough wine to lower my fading vegetarian inhibitions, I was tremendously relieved that no one thought to substitute a more vegetarian-friendly alternative in my meal. The peas, in a rich and somewhat mysterious sauce (I think the waiter said it also included bacon?) popped in the mouth. The tiny lobster tail itself had a perfect texture and was tender and sweet. The dish was topped with a paper-thin bacon crisp that shattered under a fork and contributed just the right amount of salt. I would happily have stolen more from my table-mates, had their plates not been so well guarded.

 

At this point we were an hour and a half into the meal and moving on to our fourth wine, though we all wondered where the time had gone. I loved this next, surprisingly reasonable and versatile recommendation from the sommelier: the Flying Goat Cellars Pinot Noir, Dierberg Vineyards, Santa Maria Valley, 2003. Only 282 cases were produced but it appears to be available for purchase online.

CREAMED RAMP TOP "PIEROGIS",BRAISED SPRING ONIONS, CIPOLLINI ONION "RISSOLA", GLAZED RAMP BULBSWITH "SAUCE SOUBISE" AND CHIVE-INFUSED EXTRA VIRGIN OLIVE OILAnd for the rest of the table:

BREAST OF FOUR STORY HILLS FARMS "POULADE ET MOUSSEAUX FINES HERBS EN CREPINETTE",SLOW POACHED FRENCH PRUNES AND SUNCHOKE "PUREE"There was another mixup on who was having what when this course was served, this time with Oren's and my plates swaped. Once that was cleared up, the chicken was introduced as "reconstructed." I believe the waiter said something like that it had been cooked, had the skin removed, been stuffed with herbs, had a sauce made of chicken legs and other things, then all been re-assembled to form the final, very pretty and brightly flavored dish.

"FRICASEE" OF ROASTED MARBLE POTATOES,CALIFORNIA GREY MOREL MUSHROOMS, SPLIT ENGLISH PEASAND ENGLISH PEA "PUREE"We had our third serving mixup of the night on this course, but the plate did quickly make its way in front of me. These tiny potatoes and morels were absolutely delicious, though, as Kelly sagely pointed out from the dark side of the vegetarian fine dining divide, even the best vegetable dish sometimes can't compete with an amazing cut of meat. With no shortage of moral qualms, I may be starting to agree. Oren was getting full at this point and I couldn't bear to see a food so perfect go to waste, so I ended up thanking the cow and enjoying a good portion of the shockingly large cut of beef that Oren handed over forkful by forkful:

PAN ROASTED SIRLOIN OF SNAKE RIVER FARM PLATINUM "WAGYU",SAUTEED BROCCOLINI, SWEET CARROTS AND SPRING GARLICWITH "VINAIGRETTE JAPONAISE"I'll leave the photo buried away, but I'm told my expression was hilarious as I kept asking for more, muttering, "How could it taste so good?!" The note scrawled in my book adds further insult to years as a vegetarian: "meat is good!" Good is underlined three times.

"MORBIER""CONFIT" OF FIELD RHUBARB, BLACK PEPPER SHORTBREADAND CUTTING CELERY GREENSAt this point Oren was really too full to do more than taste the remaining dishes -- next time, there will be no wine tasting and possibly no breakfast beforehand. The rest of us enjoyed the unexpected but very tasty pairing of rhubarb with this strong cheese. We had the choice of a thin slice of slightly sweet, eggy bread densely packed with currants or a wheat bread -- I tried both and couldn't decide which I liked better. I was a little sad to see my bread plate with the rest of those slices and the remainder of my last epi whisked away with my cheese plate, but it seemed best to let it go.

BANANA SORBET,MUSCOVADO "GENOISE", BRAISED MAUI PINEAPPLE, MANGO "PATE DE FRUIT"AND A YOGURT CARAMEL "CROUSTILLANT"I'm not sure I've ever had an actual banana that tasted as banana-y as this sorbet. It came together nicely, though I can't say I loved it. The sweetness of the pate de fruit may have been a little much for me. I really am a fresh fruit, cream, and dark chocolate dessert sort of gal.

"TENTATION AU CHOCOLATE NOISETTE ET LAIT",MILK CHOCOLATE "CREMEUX", HAZELNUT "STREUSEL"WITH MADAGASCAR VANILLA ICE CREAM AND SWEETENED SALTY HAZELNUTSMy dark chocolate preference worked against this dish, though I did like it better than the previous one. The sweetened salty hazelnuts and sprinkling of fleur de sel on the chocolate, however, were both intriguing and addictive.Oddly, there seems to have been another miscommunication at this point in the meal, as a waiter began to pour cup of coffee for me after setting down one for Kelly. I had not actually ordered one and he quickly retreated.

 

By far my favorite desserts were the small creme brulee (for the ladies) and orange pot de creme (for the gentlemen) that came with the selection of house-made petits fours in the final Mignardises course. These extraordinarily rich custards had wonderfully silky and well-rounded egg, vanilla, and orange flavors.

 

Despite some minor mixups in who was having what, the four hours we spent at the French Laundry were by far the best dining experience of my life, a sentiment broadly echoed by the rest of the table. The setting was comfortable, the service gracious but still friendly and open, and the food was not to be believed. Each dish was truly unique and exciting. Chef Keller's brand of haute cuisine is truly peerless in its use of the finest, freshest ingredients prepared in the most thoughtful, slightly irreverent, yet still utterly delicious ways. We can't wait to go back.

The French Laundry 6640 Washington Street Yountville, CA 94599 (map) 707.944.2380