Tuesday, November 13, 2012

the french laundry - yountville, ca

6640 washington street
yountville, ca 94599

after an extraordinary experience at chef thomas keller's per se in new york city this past january, i knew that a visit to his wine country flagship would happen eventually, but the fact that it occurred this year was certainly unplanned. our november trip was originally suppose to be a return to boston, and while some fine dining was on the agenda, the impetus was attending a pair of bruin's games. when september rolled around and it was time to start banging out the details for our trip, an nhl lockout was impending, and as such we made the descion to scrap the boston trip and that is when i got the idea to make napa valley our destination. the vacation was to be three nights, and while dinners two and three were quite difficult to commit to, meal number one was an easy choice.

for those who may not know, the french laundry just might be the most iconic restaurant in the united states. opened by chef thomas keller in 1994, the restaurant has twice been named best in the world by restaurant magazine (2003 and 2004), and has been awarded the full three star rating by michelin since the guide debuted in the bay area in 2006. the cuisine can be described as french with american influences, and most of the produce served comes from the restaurant's garden across the street. while he still the restaurant's head chef, keller's role in the restaurants day to day happenings has lessened over the last decade. the restaurant's current chef de cuisine is timothy hollingsworth, a young man of just 32 who never attended culinary school and worked his way up in the restaurant over a seven year period.
although not quite as easy as making the descion to dine at the french laundry, securing our reservation was not nearly as difficult as i expected, and technically i succeeded twice in the same day. tables are released two months to the day, and i began calling right at 10am pst when the reservation line opened. as i dialed and redialed, i was also refreshing opentable, and after about ten minutes a 5pm opening for four popped up. with my credit card number already in the copy/paste queue i quickly made a few clicks and the reservation was ours. elated but not completely satisfied, i kept calling as 5pm was far from an optimal time, and at roughly 10:30am pst i got through and was offered 9pm or 9:15pm. opting for 9pm, my earlier reservation was cancelled and we were all set.
after a long day of travel from st. louis and some great bites in the mission district, we made the twenty minute drive from our downtown napa located hotel to yountville where the restaurant is located. although it was dark on our way to dinner, we made the same drive a few other times during our trip, and the scenery is breathtaking. arriving in the small town of just 2900, we found the restaurant with ease and parked on a side street a block or two away. approaching the 100 year old building that was originally built as a saloon and was later home to a french steam laundry was a surreal experience, and pulling open that famous blue door felt like a dream. as we were led into the dining room, i was a bit surprised at how close together the tables were, and was happy when the hostess made a right turn into a small alcove revealing a relatively private table set for four.

after settling in, our captain guillaume greeted us and brought everybody up to speed on the menu format. speaking with a heavy french accent, guillaume was very professional yet quite humorous, immediately making us feel very comfortable. i was put in charge of the wine for the evening and made three selections by the glass throughout the course of the meal.
like all meals at both the french laundry and per se, our first bites were the famous gougeres. light and slightly crisp on the outside, these are absolutely bursting with creamy mornay that immediately coats the palate with intense flavor. while i would love to eat several of these, i think that the fact that each guest is allowed just one really heightens the experience.
arriving alongside the gougere was the other always present pre-meal bite. this is a black pepper cone filled with creme fraiche and topped with salmon tartare. likely more well known than the gougere, this is a great two biter with the tangy cream fraiche and slightly spicy cone pairing beautifully with the mild salmon.
while the two offerings above are likely known and anticipated by most french laundry and per se diners, chef keller's oysters and pearls is far and away his most celebrated creation. listed on the menu as a sabayon of pearl tapioca with island creek oysters and white sturgeon caviar, this dish blew my mind when i first sampled it in new york earlier this year. served with a mother of pearl spoon, this dish is sweet, creamy, salty, and just completely wonderful all the way around. interestingly, i read recently that chef keller has never actually tasted oysters and pearls before, saying that "you don't have to stick your hands in a fire to know it's hot."
with the restaurant's signature behind us, a duo of butters (unsalted from california and salted from vermont) arrived along with the first bread of the night. pictured above is a warm pan au lait roll baked down the street at keller's bouchon bakery.
traditionally at both the french laundry and per se, course two is a salad course with an optional foie gras course available at a supplementary charge. however, now that california has banned foie, another luxurious supplement is often offered. on this night it was a white truffle risotto that was available. as good as that sounded, the $150 price tag led us to what you see above, a salad of hawaiian hearts of palm with a buckwheat chip, beets, flowering quince, and chrysanthemum. 
for our fish course, we were served a fillet of hamachi with yuzu puree, petite radishes, perilla and black sesame. this may have been the course of the night for me as well as one of the best fish preparations i have ever had. the hamachi's exterior was wonderfully crisp while the inside was rich and buttery. additionally, the tartness of the yuzu really made this dish pop. words cannot describe how good this course was. on a trip that included more than 30 multi-star michelin dishes, this is the one i can still taste the most vividly.
after the hamachi, a bread basket was brought to the table, and i of course had i sample one piece of each. there was a pretzel, a baguette, a sour dough, and a multigrain. all were excellent with the pretzel and baguette being my two favorites. another round was offered later in the meal and i gladly partook.
course four is typically lobster of some sort, but on this night it was scallops that were served. this was a nice surprise for me as i generally prefer scallops over lobster. sourced from new bedford, massachusetts, the scallop was plated with watercress panade, sunchokes, sand pear, piedmont hazelbuts, and jus d'echalote. this was another success, although i had to be careful not to mix too much of the rich jus with the scallop so as not to mask the bivalve's natural sweetness.
moving along to the meat course, next to arrive was salmon creek farms pork belly with a quail egg, salsify, pole beans, pickled pearl onions, grilled frisee, and salsa verde. while the flavors here were spot on, this was probably my least favorite of the savory courses as the belly was a bit more lean than i typically prefer.
to close out the savories, carrie and i both had the calotte de boeuf grillee sourced from snake river farms in boise, idaho. this was actually the same cut of meat we enjoyed at per se in january, and just like in new york, the wagyu rib cap was cooked to a perfect medium rare and absolutely bursting with rich beefy flavor. also on the plate was a lovely black trumpet "pain perdu" along with nantes carrots, baby leeks, and sauce madre.
with the savory courses now merely a fond memory, an onion roll was delivered to pair with the upcoming cheese course.
the night's cheese course was a sheep's milk cheese called hudson flower with fuyu persimmon, tardivo radicchio, english walnut, and arugula. this was nice but not overly memorable. 
before our proper desserts arrived, we we served a blood orange "mimosa" as a palette cleanser. featuring champagne granite, muscovado streusel, and fresh cream serbert, this was definitely a refreshing pop of flavors that helped to focus our mind towards the sweets to come.
for the proper dessert course, diners typically have the choice of two offerings, one based on chocolate and the other featuring  fruit. i selected the chocolate torte with pearson farm pecans, cinnamon whip, and banana ice cream. the torte itself was hidden under a thin layer of something crispy (i can't recall what) and was remarkably rich in flavor and dense in texture. 
we were next presented with a tray of truffles from which to choose. my selections were salted caramel and brown sugar.
after the truffles was keller's final signature dish, coffee and doughnuts. this is a coffee semifreddo served with cinnamon sugar doughnut holes. the warm doughnut holes were nicely crisp on the outside with a soft interior, and were quite tasty. the real star of the dish, however, was the coffee semifreddo. the semi-frozen mousse was of great texture and had a nice balanced coffee flavor being neither too bitter nor too sweet.
as a final treat, a bowl of candied nuts (macadamia i believe) arrived. as full as i was at this point, i had a hard time leaving these alone.
as a take home gift, we each received a small tin of shortbread cookies. these sweet and salty cookies were great to nibble on the next morning before breakfast.

and now for the big question...did the french laundry live up to both the hype that surrounds it as well as my personal expectations? absolutely. with that said, i will note that while i went into the meal expecting greatness, i knew that the restaurant was not there to reinvent the wheel. unlike past meals at alinea and eleven madison park as well as what i would experience the next two nights at meadowood and benu, the cuisine at the french laundry was relatively safe and completely straightforward. each dish arrived on a traditional service piece, featured mostly familiar ingredients, and needed no explanation as to how it should be eaten. as much as i enjoy the theatrics and off the wall flavor combinations of the places listed above, at the end of the day the main reason i go to restaurants is for great tasting food, and in that sense the french laundry provided me with some of the best bites of my life. while some have commented that the french laundry may be falling behind a bit when compared to more progressive restaurants, i feel that there is definitively still a place for this type of cuisine in the fine dining world, and hope the restaurant remains true to its roots going forward.
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  1. Hi Patrick,
    Great post!
    I secured a lunch reservation at TFL this morning for when we are back in Napa in March. I am very excited.
    I am off to read your Meadowood post now....

  2. thanks for the comment, you will love tfl!