Observations on Food in the Bay Area
The French Laundry
website - So I must admit I was perhaps somewhat intimidated by the knowledge of my impending meal here for a few days before it happened. French Laundry is, after all, considered one of the finest restaurants in the entire country - no small honor. Yet, I'd been
awaiting this dinner for years, and here it was!
Located in an obscure stone building with an exceptionally subtle sign in copper on the outer stone wall on the edge of town in Yountville, CA, the approach is anything but ostentatious, until you notice the line of cars you're parking behind: BMW, Mercedes, Lexus, Maserati...
We were greeted by the hostess as we entered the back yard/garden area, who knew who we were based on our arrival time (our dinner reservation was for 9:15pm on a Monday). We enjoyed a few minutes' relaxation in the 80-degree night air under the twilight while our table was made ready, and had time to peruse the enormous wine list. There are a few pages of wines by the glass, many pages of half-bottles, and an intimidating array of full bottles from all over (though I noticed to minor dismay that they only had one New Zealand Pinot Noir), with a significant focus on France (shocking, I know).
The first thing I noticed as I glanced around to see what I recognized (admittedly not much) was the magnitude of the markup. Judging by the bottles of Turley and Cayuse I recognized, it ranged anywhere from 200-500%. Now admittedly, Cayuse is virtually unavailable except to those on the winery's list, but bottles which sell for $65 were listed at $325, which strikes me as rather unnecessary, even for a restaurant whose sole dinner option is $210.
That minor rant aside, there were some few value options on the menu for those without Mad Cash to spend - many of the half bottles could be had for $40-60, and I even spotted a few full bottles (mostly white, like some German Rieslings) for around $60. By and large, however, the average full bottle price sat well above $100.
Soon, we were brought inside to sit, and informed that due to the heat they had relaxed their jacket requirement for the evening, and we gratefully entrusted ours to the hostess, as the building is not air conditioned. Inside, the dining is roughly divided into the upstairs, and 2 moderately sized rooms downstairs, of perhaps 8 tables apiece. The atmosphere is subdued, perhaps rustic-chic. Service is utterly professional, cheerful and friendly without being overly relaxed, and flawless. We were given our menus and a new copy of the wine list and left to peruse.
There are 2 menues - the 9 course chef's tasting menu, and the 9-course vegetable menu (note: 'vegetable' not simply 'vegetarian' as it emphasizes vegetables in each dish. There is a distinct lack of starch.). Both are $210. The tasting menu includes a few courses where one must select an option, one of which is foie gras for an additional $30. Among the 3 of us, we managed to have nearly everything available on the tasting menu, except the veal which serves 2.
They used to offer a wine pairing with each course for an additional $210 - this is no longer a listed option, however the sommelier is happy to construct a pairing for you at a given budget and with input as to your likes and dislikes, which we opted for - this way, we were able to enjoy 8 wines over the course of the evening with (likely) a much better pairing success and effort at calculation than we would have had were we to attempt to construct our own.
Enough introduction - you're here to read about food!
Mini Gougere - sorry, this is the only one I missed a photo of. About the size of a marble, this melt-in-your-mouth pastry/cheese blend was quite a starter. Rich in flavor yet light as air, it was a good setup for what we were beginning. If I were a cheese connoisseur, I might guess what was in it; instead I can only tell you it was rich, smooth, subtle, and complex all at once.
Salmon Tartare in an ice-cream cone - The only way to describe it. This was the first real "WOW" food moment. So smooth, rich, perfect, and complex in both flavor and texture, it was astounding. The melty smoothness of the tartare vs the crisp crunch of the cone; the light sweetness of the cone vs the rich, buttery salmon (and whatever else was in it). We'd have been happy eating nothing but an entire plate of these.
Wine 1 - Laurent Perrier "Brut" Tours-sur-Marne, 1997 – Light, bubbly, with crisp apple fruitiness. I’m not a champagne fan, but it was tasty champagne.
Oysters and Pearls - "Sabayon" of Pearl Tapioca with Beau Soleil Oysters and Russian Sevruga Caviar – Unexpectedly for all of us, this is a warm dish! It’s a very thick, very rich tapioca with an intense saltiness from the oysters and caviar, and a hint of fishiness as well. I found the oyster flavor to be almost indistinguishable from everything else, but I’m not a big oyster fan. The texture was a fun mixture of various sizes of soft round bits.
Wine 2 (for the Foie Gras) - Gaston Huet, Vouvray "Clos du Bourg" Demi-Sec, 2002 – sweet, but not at all of the intensity of sweetness one would find in a more traditional pairing like sauternes. It was more of a subtle sweetness that seemed almost dry due to a surprisingly strong stoney, mineral character. It worked wonderfully with the fatty richness of the foie gras.
Wine 3 - Brundlmayer Riesling "Zobinger Heiligenstein-Alte Reben", Kamptal, 2004 – perhaps 1% residual sugar at best, with very high acidity, this had the wonderful fruity backbone one expects of a Riesling, but with the faintest hint of sweet (especially after the dry champagne). It worked well with both the salad, and the fish.
Salad of Glazed Sunchokes - K&J Orchards Royal Blenheim Apricots, Toasted Pine Nuts, Mizuna Greens and Nicoise Olive Oil – I had but a small taste of the oil, which was incredibly rich and somewhat nutty, over a sunchoke. Light and pleasing.
Moulard Duck "Foie Gras au Torchon" - Medjool Dates, Pickled Ramps, "Frisee" Lettuce and Hazelnut "Nougatine" – Served with freshly toasted brioche bread, and 3 different kinds of salt (in the silver stands in the background). Wow number 2. Generally, I’ve not been overly impressed with foie gras in the past. This was a whole different beast from those previous experiences – perfectly smooth in texture, lightly salty, rich and a bit gamey without being too intense as foie gras often is. A complexity of flavor I can’t begin to describe accurately, so I won’t. But suffice it to say that it was magnificent on the bread, even more magnificent when mated with the nearly crystallized sugary sweetness of the date, and yet more astounding when followed with a splash of the Clos du Bourg, whose stony sweetness only enhanced it all further.
Sauteed Fillet of Pacific "Suzuki" - "Violette de Provence" Artichokes, "Piperade" and Fino Verde "Basil Pudding" – Absurdly fantastic. The fish, crispy on the bottom and easily flaked into tender moist perfection, was uber-fresh and great on its own. Then you add the piperade, which had the most intense and amazing fresh red pepper flavor I’ve ever experienced. Then you add the basil sauce, which was basically liquid fresh basil, but without the occasional sharpness of flavor. The artichokes weren’t as impressive as all that, but had a great just-cooked mix of softness and crispness. I’m just not an artichoke addict, otherwise I’m sure their flavor would have been otherworldly.
"Sashimi" of Japanese "Hamachi" - Jacobsen's Farm Galia Melon, Sweet Pepper and Fennel "Vinaigrette," Young Arugula and Shaved "Mojama" – I only got to sample a wee bit of the shaved Mojama, which is Spanish salt-cured tuna. Wow number 3. Take the best sushi-grade tuna you’ve ever had, multiply the intensity of flavor by at least 10x, then add a rich salty smokiness. Fantastic. My dining companions described the hamachi as good, but basically nothing more than a slab of hamachi sashimi, which you can many other places.
Wine 4 - Guigal Condrieu, Rhone France, 2004 – an enormous contrast with the crisp Riesling which preceded it, this was thick, oily, and almost buttery in flavor (though not at all malolactic), and with its solid oaky backbone reminded me strongly of both chardonnay and viognier. It was perfect with the light lobster and the richness of its vanilla sauce.
"Saffron Vanilla" - Maine Lobster Tail "Cuite Sous Vide," Wilted Arrowleaf Spinach and Saffron-Vanilla Emulsion – I must first specify that I’m not a lobster-nut, but my companions were. The lobster was a bit tough (took some effort to cut with a knife, and certainly didn’t flake apart) and they guessed it was overcooked. It certainly tasted fresh, though. The saffron-vanilla sauce, however, was the obscenely good highlight. This stuff could make anything delectable. Anything! The flash-fried spinach leaf on top was a fun contrast in crispiness to the softness of everything else, and the round ball of wilted spinach was flavorful and amazing when combined with the sauce.
Wine 5 - Bastide Blanche "Estagnol", Bandol, 2003 – an exceedingly dry, rather tannic red, this had the complexity of flavor in both fruit and earth that one expects out of the South of France. It was essentially undrinkable on its own, but it paired magically with both the poultry (amazingly) and the beef (oh, the sweet, sweet beef) that followed. Especially the beef. The tannins melted into nothing, leaving the dark, almost pruney, raisiny fruit and the incredible complexity to shine forth.
Four Story Hills Farm Milk-Fed "Cuisse de Poularde" - "Farci au Jambon Serrano et Sauge" with a "Fricassee" of Hen-of-the-Woods Mushrooms and Golden Corn Kernels – So that all translates to thigh of a young hen, stuffed with Serrano ham and sage, and the mushrooms were chanterelle. The first thing we noticed was that the corn was the sweetest, crispest, most flawlessly prepared individual kernels of corn any of us had ever experienced – Wow number 4. I grew up in Wisconsin; we’d drive a few miles to where local farmers would sell sweet corn on the street that they’d just picked minutes prior, take it back home, throw it in the pot and eat it within an hour of picking. Trust me when I say there’s no better way to eat corn. Somehow, these individual kernels were as good. I was gobsmackered. The mushrooms were a bit on the tough side, but had wonderful flavor, and the whole mix enhanced the meat very well. The bird/ham was rich and very mellow, with a light crispy skin around it adding an amazing richness and intensity, along with a great textural contrast with the meat it surrounded.
Snake River Farm "Calotte de Boeuf Grillee" - 48-Hour Braised Brisket, Glazed Pearl Onions, Baby Leeks, Truffled Yukon Gold Potato "Bouchons" and "Sauce Perigourdine" – Wow number 5. No. Uber-Wow. This went beyond a mere Wow. The slice of grilled beef could not have been more tender (with a crisp grilled edge), medium-rare, rich, melting, intense bit of marbled perfection. This was a true culinary orgasm. I don’t know how to describe this, other than that it just might be the most perfect piece of grilled meat I’ve ever had. I should note that Sauce Perigourdine basically means truffle sauce, which may have had something to do with this. The brisket was much less moist and melty, but of a whole different richness of flavor and quite tender. My only disappointment was with the potato, which I found uninteresting, but my dining companions fought over.
Wine 6 - Bert Simon Riesling "Serrig Wurzberg", Auslese, Gold-Kapsul, Mosel, 1989
Pleasant Ridge Reserve" - French Laundry Garden "Haricots Verts," Marinated Sungold Tomatoes and Taragon "Creme Fraiche" – The essential French cheese course. 2 cheeses, one richer and perhaps smokier and more intense than the other. Unfortunately, I’m not a cheese connoisseur, so I can’t describe them much better. They were quite good though.
Silverado Trail Strawberry Sorbet - "Pavlova" and Chantilly Cream – Imagine the sweetest, most perfect strawberry you’ve ever eaten. Then blend it, and freeze it, and that was the sorbet. Fantastic. And the fresh cream certainly didn’t hurt. Also accompanied by a perfectly executed meringue.
Wine 7 - Cossart Gordon, Bual, 10yr (Madeira) – I’d hoped for a vintage port, but with most of the blood that should have been feeding my brain instead diverted for emergency backup operations on my stomach, I thought of this too late to mention it to the sommelier. The Madeira was quite good, however, sweet and rich, and it worked very well with everything that followed…
Wine 8 - Toro Albala, Pedro Ximenez Gran Reserva, Montilla Moriles, 1971 – this was brought out for our female dining companion, and she very evilly consumed it all before I had a chance to sample its inky dark goodness. Apparently it was fantastic.
Valrhona Araguani Chocolate Tart - Caramel Ice Cream and Butterscotch "Crunch" – I’m not a butterscotch or caramel person, but while the crunch was not so interesting, the ice cream was fantastic. The tart? Dense. Rich. Dark, dark chocolate. Luscious. Did I mention rich?
Creme Brulee – This was served to the female member of our group, and had a thicker sugar crust than I prefer, but the custard was easily equal to any of the best crème brulee I’ve ever had.
Trifle – These appeared for myself and the other male member of our party. Rich, with a dark sponge cake within, and damn good. This was the point where my stomach really started complaining that it had fully run out of space, and continuing on this little eating adventure might not be the best course to take.
Cookies – I’ve forgotten their details, but they were crisp, thin, shaped like a dragonfly’s wings, sugary, and perhaps lightly cinnamon? Anyway, they were good.
Chocolate Covered Macadamia Nuts – It was a milk chocolate, unfortunately, as I’m a dark chocolate person, but you can’t really go wrong. Except when your stomach starts attempting to kick you from the inside.
Truffle selection – No, we weren’t done yet. They brought out the plates, and then a tray full of 8 different kinds of truffles for you to choose one. I selected a chocolate espresso, beat my stomach off with a bat, and enjoyed its rich deliciousness.
By the time dinner has finished, you’ve been eating for something in the neighborhood of 3 hours or more, and you’ve had no concept of how much time has passed. I recall glancing at my watch out of curiosity before the first of the dessert courses, and noticing with curiosity that it was somehow already 11:30. Nowhere have I been where the emphasis was so clearly on relaxed gustatory enjoyment to the exclusion of all else. There is a complete absence of any sense of hurry, and the staff does a flawless job of ensuring that any and all needs are taken care of, any and all glasses are always kept full, and the guests are always happy. They are supremely knowledgeable without any of the holier-than-thou attitude often encountered in high-priced establishments. Dishes for each course all arrive at the same time; new flatware is set out each time; the table is always kept clean with the nifty little crumb catchers. After a new course arrives, the head server for your table describes what's just been placed in front of you, and then leaves you to enjoy it.
This meal is an experience unlike nearly any other (certainly unlike any others I’ve experienced thus far), and while I don’t think I’ll repeat it, I’m definitely glad I did it.
Why won’t I repeat it, you ask? Well, while it was certainly fantastic in all regards, it’s rather obscenely expensive (our bill was a bit above $400/person. yeah.), and from speaking with a number of folks who’ve been in the past (including one of my companions that evening) it’s just not the same. Chef Keller is no longer the head chef, though I was told assured he stops in routinely to ensure that things are operating to his specifications and occasionally does a bit of cooking, and while this has not led to a decline in quality, it has led to a notably different approach. Keller was noted for his unusual creativity and “fun” food pairings – many dishes would extract a “this has WHAT and WHAT in it?!” sort of response, and then of course be fantastic. Now, as you’ll note above, there are virtually no truly unusual dishes – merely perfectly executed examples of more traditional fare. If I’m going to spend that much money on a meal, I’d like it to not only astound me with how good it is, but astound me with its creativity as well, and unfortunately that is no longer to be found here it would seem.
As a further note, on the off-nights (Sunday & Monday I believe) the new head chef (Corey Lee) is off, leaving the cooking to the sous-chef. Perhaps this was why the food was not more creative? Perhaps this was why the lobster was slightly overdone? I may never know. But you, perhaps planning a reservation, will want to keep this in mind.
But is it worth going? Well, if you’ve never been, and you’re nuts about food and the whole experience wrapped up with food, the answer is an unqualified yes. It’s worth it. For I doubt there are more than a handful of places in the entire country capable of an experience on par with The French Laundry. (and if nothing else, you can chuckle quietly to yourself at all the trophy wives)