Thursday, December 06, 2007

A Night to Remember: Dinner at the French Laundry

Sometimes, things just work out.

One of those times happened to Karen and me recently. Taking advantage of the Thanksgiving weekend, we decided to head up with Napa Valley for a few days. Since we don't usually stay up in Wine Country more than a single night, we thought that it would be fun to see if we could land a coveted reservation at the French Laundry (6640 Washington Street, Yountville; 707-944-2380). Owned by world-renown chef Thomas Keller, this 62 seat restaurant is recognized as one of the premier dining establishments in the world. Landing a table during the dinner hours in this tony Yountville restaurant is extremely difficult. In fact, there are web pages dedicated to doling out advice on how to get such a reservation.

So, a couple of days before Thanksgiving, I picked up the phone and called the reservation line at the French Laundry. When the receptionist answered, I told her that we going to come up with Napa for a long weekend and was wondering if we could get ourselves on the waiting list for each of those nights, with the hope that someone might cancel on a two-top during one of those evenings. Boy, was I surprised when I heard that there actually was a table for two available on Saturday night! I took advantage of this good fortune and immediately booked that open table. We were going to the French Laundry!

Arriving 15 minutes early for our 9pm reservation, we waited in the foyer of the rustic brick building, perusing the Bouchon and French Laundry cookbooks on the coffee table. After a few minutes, the host called our names and led us through the dining room to our seats. We sat down at the table, taking in the environment as we looked around the room. On the table in front of us was a neatly pleated napkin, on which was clipped a French Laundry clothespin.

Our dinner commenced with a couple of amuse bouche dishes. The first dish was warm Gruyère gougères, small savory pastries filled with cheese:

The second amuse bouche were a pair of ice-cream cone shaped salmon cornets with filled with crème fraîche. The cone was crunchy and its texture contrasted nicely with the minced salmon and silky crème fraîche.

At the French Laundry, you have the choice of two menus: the chef's tasting menu and the "tasting of vegetables" menu. (As I understand, there is also an unpublished 20 course tasting menu, but that needs to be ordered in advance.) Since it was the first visit to the French Laundry for both of us, we decided to order the chef's tasting menu.

The first course of the nine course tasting menu was the classic Keller dish "Oysters and Pearls", a sabayon of pearl tapioca with Beau Soleil oysters and white sturgeon caviar. The dish was wonderful. The texture of the tapioca contrasted nicely with that of the sabayon, and the oysters and caviar provided a perfect amount of briny flavor. We enjoyed this fabulous course with a flute of Pierre Gimonnet, a classic pairing of champagne and caviar.

For the next course, we had a choice. We could have had the hearts of palm salad, but we opted for the Moulard duck "foie gras au torchon" with stewed Oregon huckleberries, Tokyo turnips, spiced bread crumbs, and Garden Mâche, which was available with an additional $30 charge. If you follow our food adventures in this blog, you'll know that both Karen and I are huge fans of foie gras. Without a doubt, this was the single best foie gras dish that we've ever eaten. It was absolutely phenomenal. The foie gras was served with three different types of salt: a grey salt from the Brittany region of France, a Japanese sea salt, and a "Jurassic" salt from Montana, each with a different flavor and coarseness. Served with a side of toasted brioche from the Bouchon bakery just a couple of blocks down Washington Street, the dish was a meal in itself.

One very nice touch: in the middle of this decadent course, one of the servers came by to refresh our accompanying brioche with a hot slice of freshly toasted bread. The wine director steered us to a 2006 Yves Cuilleron Blanc "Roussilliere", which paired fabulously with the foie gras.

Next came the first of the fish courses. For this course, we had a choice of two different dishes, so Karen and I ordered one of each. I order the "Tartare" of Kona Kahala with cauliflower fleurettes, toasted Marcona almonds, Satsuma mandarins, and mizuna greens. I have to say that I was a bit underwhelmed by this course, especially after the two previous dishes, both of which were simply stunning. I was expecting some bold flavors, but this dish was a bit flat in my opinion.

Karen went with the line-caught Atlantic striped bass with glazed sunchokes, wilted Arrowleaf spinach, San Marzano tomato compote, and niçoise olives. This dish was pretty good, much better than my choice of fish. For this course and the next, we enjoyed a glass of Spencer Roloson viognier, which again was a great pairing suggested by the wine director.

Our second fish course was the fantastic sweet butter poached Maine lobster tail with caramelized cippolini onions, sugar snap peas, Yukon Gold "Pommes Maxims", and "Mousseline Bearnaise". This dish was as good as it looks. The lobster was perfectly cooked and buttery, especially with the luxurious Bearnaise sauce. The potato crisp was crisp and savory, but a bit difficult with eat with a fork and knife.

After the two fish courses came the meat courses. The first meat that came out of the kitchen was the all-day braised Kurobuta pork belly with grilled hearts of romaine lettuce, celeriac purée, and Périgold truffle glaze. The pork belly was succulent and fall-apart tender. The purée was a nice complement to the rich pork, but the romaine lettuce seemed a bit out of place on this plate. To go with this course and the following one, we had a glass of 2005 Brewer Clifton pinot noir. The wine was again quite good, a testament to the fine skills of our sommelier.

Our second meat course was a herb roasted saddle of Elysian Fields Farm lamb with globe artichokes, Nantes carrots, golden chanterelle mushrooms, and sweet garlic "jus". We could have opted for a course of Wagyu beef in place of the lamb, but the $100 supplemental charge seemed a bit steep to me. The lamb was amazing tender and quite flavorful. I enjoyed this dish very much, but I think that Karen was a little less impressed.

After finishing the lamb course, both of us were getting pretty full. We had finished all of the main courses, so we were now heading into the desserts. Our first dessert course was a cheese plate: "Petit Sapin" with Royal Blenhein apricots, red beet relish, and arugula leaves. I was not expecting a soft cheese for this course, but I liked it. I think that Karen enjoyed this dish as well, even with the beet relish.

Next came a palate cleaning feijoa sorbet with Maui pineapple relish and angel cake. The sorbet was very refreshing and the angel cake was very light. Given the heaviness of the previous courses, this was a welcome dish to enjoy at this point in our meal.

The last of the nine courses on the menu gave us two options for dessert. As it is our habit, we picked one of each course. I chose the "Charlotte aux Poires et aux Dates" with Bartlett pear sorbet, "Japonais", candied hazelnuts, and pear coulis. Like the previous sorbet dish, I like this dish quite a lot. At this point in the meal, I was definitely okay with enjoying some lighter dessert fare, and this dessert was lighter than it appeared.

Karen picked the "S'Mores" with cashew nut "Parfait", caramel "Délice", and "Sauce a la Guimauve brûlée". As with the corresponding dessert during our last dinner at Manresa, I wasn't a huge fan of the S'more, but that's probably more of a reflection of my personal preference than anything bad about this dessert.

With the last of the nine courses, we were finished with our dinner. Oh wait. We still had the mignardises.

After clearing away the dessert plates, the waiter brought me a Meyer lemon pot au crème and set a Tahitian vanilla crème brûlée before Karen.

After those two desserts were cleared away, we were completely stuffed. But there was more yet to come. Next came a little bowl of chocolate caramel macadamia nuts and some olive financier cookies (not pictured).

Next, we were presented with a huge platter of chocolates. On the suggestion of our waiter, we picked one of each type of chocolate for a total of six. It was six chocolates more than I should have eaten - now we were completely stuffed.

At this point, our waiter asked me for my camera so that he could take a photo of the two of us to commemorate the occasion. Here's a photo of two very sated diners:

Last, but not least, about a quarter past midnight, came our final mignardises course: a gold box filled with pâtes de fruit and other petit fours. I managed to try each of them, somehow finding a tiny bit of open space in my stomach.

Of course, such opulance does not come without a price, and a hefty one at that. Here's the damage:


As a final treat, our waiter presented us with some shortbread cookies to take home, courtesy of their pastry chef.

The service that we received that evening was impeccable. It was perhaps the cleanest and best executed service that I've ever experienced at a restaurant. The pacing of our meal was superb and we were never lacking for attention. Throughout our dinner, the waitstaff cleared our empty plates as soon as we finished our food and kept our water glasses full with complementary bottles of Hildon still water.

The members of the waitstaff were obviously well-practiced, delivering top-notch service throughout the evening with spot-on precision. It seemed like each of their movement were deliberate, well-thought out, and completely choreographed. Our main server was quite friendly, but it was not the personalized-type service that we've enjoyed at other restaurants, such as Frasca and Chapeau, though I don't think that either of us would have expected that type of atmosphere at a restaurant like the French Laundry.

All in all, we had a fabulous meal. It was definitely one of the best meals that I've ever enjoyed at a restaurant. Everything was there: spectacular food and flawless service in a luxurious setting. But, on the other hand, neither Karen or I thought that the food was far superior to that of Manresa, where we've enjoyed a couple of fabulous dinners at a much lower price point. In fact, we both thought that the food was, in fact, quite comparable. While the service at the French Laundry was superior to Manresa, I'm not convinced that it justifies the difference in price. So, did we enjoy our dinner? Absolutely - it was a fabulous dinner, perhaps a once in a lifetime opportunity to dine at one of the best restaurants in the world. Would we go back? Maybe (and really just maybe), though it wouldn't be any time soon, especially with Manresa just a short drive away.


Nick said...

Sounds pretty swank! But dude, that's like an entire month's grocery bill.

Loren said...

Nick, it's more like three months' of bills for me... Yes, it was a splurge, but we figured that there probably wouldn't be many other opportunities for us to dine there. As I mentioned, it's probably a once in a lifetime event for us.

Charlotte said...

Looks like a wonderful, once-in-a-lifetime experience, Loren. Glad to hear you two enjoyed yourselves. One day when I visit SF and Napa Valley, maybe I will have the delight of visiting the French Laundry.

Loren said...

Charlotte, hopefully we'll see you out in the Bay Area soon!

MO said...

Nice review and photos! I had similar feelings about a visit to Keller's Per Se last year. It was an amazing experience, but I still preferred the tasting menu I had at Manresa earlier that year (particularly given the difference in price). Further, my better half and I are regulars at Frasca Food & Wine in Boulder, so I'm spoiled rotten by their stupendous service and cuisine.

Loren said...

Mo: Thanks! Karen and I enjoyed a fabulous dinner at Frasca a couple of years ago. Bobby Stuckey and his team are simply amazing. That dining experience really opened my eyes to how phenomenal service can elevate a meal to a spectacular, out of this world experience.

MO said...

Your spot-on Frasca review is how I initially found your blog, so I should have commented before now. Your tastes seem to align with ours (and we love noshing in the Bay Area when we can get out there to visit friends), so I figure your blog is a good one to keep an eye on. If you two are ever in the Boulder area again, let me know. (I’ve now made my e-mail address visible on Blogger in my profile, and hopefully it won’t result in too much spam.) We would love to buy you a glass of wine at Frasca.

BTW, if you get a chance, check out Bobby's and Lachlan's wine Scarpetta:
It is available in retail shops and restaurants as well.