First, more pictures here!
Ryan and I are very lucky people — earlier this week two friends invited us to The French Laundry with them for Saturday’s lunch.
We arrived almost half an hour early for our reservation at 1pm, so we wandered to the Laundry’s garden and admired the stonework structure of the restaurant. At 1, we were promptly seated in a cozy, 4-person round table in the back corner of the restaurant on the first floor, with a small window nearby. I became excited just from hearing the lunch conversation from the other patrons and seeing the staff bustle to and from the kitchen.
We started off with a 2008 Schramsberg blanc de blanc, which The French Laundry selects yearly from the Calistoga winery. It was very nice and dry, but crisp enough and well balanced, a good way to begin our meal.
We started off small, literally, with the gougeres of Gruyere. A nice pop of cheese, warm and oozy, the very best of goldfish crackers and all things cheesy.
Next were the two most famous Laundry courses, and staples to their menu. We had the Scottish salmon tartare cornets with creme fraiche, chive, and a black sesame tuile. Two sumptuous bites, served at almost room temperature, so the salmon was soft, seaful, and matched the thickness of the creme fraiche, with a bit of crisp and visual appeal to round it out. Also, beautiful silver stands.
Of course, The French Laundry experience wouldn’t be complete with the oysters and pearls, a “sabayon” of pearl tapioca with Island Creek oysters and white sturgeon caviar, cooked in a butter sauce. This, the cornets, and the Japanese wagyu were probably my favorites of the day. The oyster had the much-loved ocean flavor, tempered with the butter sauce, and seaful caviar flavor. The tapioca pearl added some starch and a bit of a soft, bouncy texture. The butter really brought together the flavors of the ocean and land. It was served with a Mother-of-Pearl spoon, very smart and cheeky.
Around this point our sommelier came by and inquired about our wine preference for our meal. We gave her an idea of the wines we preferred, and she tactfully picked out two half bottles after we finished the champagne — a half bottle of 2010 Riesling Kabinett from Selbach-Oster, which she brought out next, and a half bottle of 2010 pinot noir from Copain, in Anderson Valley. She was very smart about picking wines to suit us, without overwhelming our wallets or palates with full bottles. It’s always wonderful to have a sommelier who knows her audience.
After was our first bread, the butter roll. It was served with a selection of two butters, Andante Dairy from Sonoma County, and Animal Farm salted butter from Orwell, Vermont. At first, when I spread the salted butter on the roll, I thought it was too salty, but then its slight nuttiness came through and really enhanced the buttery fluffy roll. It was a win for me, so I had it with the rest of the bread during the meal. The roll itself had an eggwash on top that made a pleasantly and slightly crisp crust, with a pillowy interior.
Next was the chilled Haas avocado soup with pickled green tomato fried in potato flake, marinated peppers, and romaine lettuce. I haven’t had too many chilled soups, and for some reason, they’ve all been green, but this was a very interesting flavor combination. It almost reminded me of the Mexican food flavors I find comforting — the fat from avocado, small hint of lime, and a bit of roasted pepper, but in a very refined form. I especially love seeing the presentation of the soup components before the soup itself is poured in. The soup portion was very rich and was quite filling, despite the serving size in the photo.
While we waited for our next course, I admired the silverware and glassware, along with our souvenir clothes pin, which makes several appearances later!
Another bread course followed, with our choice of pretzel roll, baguette, sourdough, and multigrain rolls. I opted for the pretzel roll, as I love pretzels but had never tried its roll form before. It had a nice, dense crust and a thick starchy interior, very much like a pretzel, but almost a crust of a bagel, as if it had been dipped in lye. The sprinkled sea salt on top added to the pretzel-ness of it all, and while small, the roll provided a very satisfying bites.
After this was the confit fillet of Japanese hamachi, with English cucumber, Tokyo turnips, poached field rhubarb, perilla and black sesame. The Asian flavor palate, brought by the black sesame sauce, cracker, and hamachi was very tasty. The hamachi was dense and textured and was soft and served warm. It provided a nice mix of texture with the crisp cracker, poached rhubarb, and sesame sauce. The rhubarb added a good tartness and a slight crunch.
Next was another roll. This time I chose a multigrain roll, which had interested me earlier. This was denser than the butter roll, but less so than the pretzel roll. It was pleasantly nutty and rich, especially when paired with the salted butter, which added a hint of a cheesy flavor.
Then, we had the sweet butter-poached Maine lobster tail, with Holland white asparagus, preserved green strawberries, red radish, oyster lettuce, and pink peppercorn yogurt. I wrangled a bit with the knife when cutting this lobster, I’ll tell you that now. In all, the lobster was warm, tender, and extremely fresh. The tart strawberries tasted almost like a dessert. The lobster contrasted well with the radish and white asparagus, which rounded out the protein, and the radishes and yogurt added a bit of tartness to cleanse the palate, which balanced the buttery lobster.
Now was time for the quail leg and Copain pinot noir. We had a Wolfe Ranch “cuisse de caille” with Tunisian couscous, cauliflower, Marcona almonds, sultanas, cilantro, and Madras curry jus. The quail had a crisp thin skin, and juicy meat. The couscous and other components had a distinct Moroccan tagine flavor, and the tiny cauliflower hidden in the couscous added a bit of crunch to the fluffy couscous. The pinot was delicious, with a nose and mouth of earth and grit. It needed to air, but was tasty even in the beginning.
Then came the last bread round. I had the sourdough, which had slightly darker dough, perhaps a bit of whole wheat dough was mixed in. It had a satisfying thick crust, and had a great sourness too it that wasn’t too pronounced, but was enough to clearly remind you of what you were eating!
The next course I ordered was the Japanese wagyu with quail egg, potato mille-faille, creamed arrowleaf spinach, spring onions, and morels. Imagine steak and eggs at The French Laundry! The wagyu was mind-blowing. So tender, rich, and fatty, with a crisp crust, and was proportioned to showcase the richness of the meat and its depth of flavor. I’m not a big meat eater, but I knew this restaurant would draw me in. Needless to say, It was one of my favorite courses. The meat literally melted in my mouth, and while the portion doesn’t look terribly large, it was so rich and flavorful that I got full quickly and enlisted Ryan to help, who was all too obliging. The poached egg added a nice thickness to the Bordelaise sauce, and the potato was wonderful. It was sliced extremely thinly, then packed together and deep fried, and evoked the essence of hash browns. The morels were, well, morels — earthy, soft, tender, and wonderful with red meat. By this point the pinot had aired out a bit, and had a bit more light fruit and less earth, and really brought together all the meat and vegetable flavors.
Next came my least favorite course, honestly. It was an Andante Dairy acapella of goat cheese, ramp top pain perdu, sweet garden carrots, Medjool dates and mustard frills. By this point I was very stuffed, and a large platter of strong goat cheese wasn’t what I wanted. The cheese was tasty, but I’m also not a huge carrot fan (aside from Gather’s carrot soup, in Berkeley), so I wasn’t blown away.
After digesting for a bit, we had the Verjus blanc, with Jasmine tea ice cream, demi-sec grapes, and caramel crisp on top. I don’t usually go for Jasmine tea ice cream when I eat ice cream in general, preferring mint chocolate, vanilla bean, pistachio, or some dark chocolate variant, but this tea ice cream was incredible. Not too much tannic tea flavor, but the caramel crisp and grapes brought in different sugary flavors that surprised me. The foam also liaisoned the ice cream and caramel crisp.
Then came the dark treacle with Devil’s Food cake, Valrhona chocolate “marquise,” Lyle’s golden syrup, Marshall Farms burnt honey ice cream, and gelee treacle. I love the play on textures when it comes to desserts. This had a dark, dense chocolate fudgy cake with burnt honey ice cream, which has become a favorite of mine in tasting menus. The foam was airy and added visual interest with the gelee treacle. I loved the play on round and angular shapes, as well as on color and texture. And, I love chocolate, so this was a win.
After digesting a bit, Ryan and I ordered cappuccinos while Brian and Kristine had espresso and coffee. The cappuccino was tasty, but the foam was too dense and thick in my opinion, and overpowered the coffee component. Still, it was a nice way to wind down the meal.
Well, I thought the meal was over, but it wasn’t. Next came a feast for the eyes. We selected from seven different chocolate truffles: peanut butter and jelly, brown sugar, white chocolate with sherry and lime ganache, hazelnut praline, passionfruit, mint, and salted caramel. I chose the peanut butter and jelly, hazelnut praline, and salted caramel, mostly because I love chocolate with nuts and also because I don’t usually like fruit with chocolate.
As if this wasn’t enough, we also had doughnuts: bite-sized, fluffy, and rolled in sugar. How could I ever have doughnuts again after tasting these? Actually, I know I’ll have other donuts again, but not for a long while. I had two, and these disappeared from the bowl very quickly.
And, just about my favorite sweet of the night — roasted macadamia nuts that were carmelized, dipped in chocolate, and dusted with powder sugar. Their preparation takes about 48 hours total, and these were a burst of flavor in one tiny bite. And, there’s a reason we had a bowl; one wasn’t enough. I was in awe every time I popped another in my mouth. They were nutty, but not too strong in macadamia flavor as they were carmelized, and the chocolate added a smoothness to the nuts that wasn’t too sweet. The powdered sugar teased the palate. Of course, Ryan stole one from the bowl before I could get a picture, so there’s a hole on top!
We ate these with a coffee mousse, which was smooth, slightly dense, and perfect with the macadamia nuts.
Final thoughts: The French Laundry is a very special place. The decor was reminiscent of its laundry history, and the garden patio outside was tranquil and private, with comfortable patio furniture you could curl up in with a nice glass of wine. The structure itself had beautiful stonework with wood-framed windows and soft lighting. I felt like I was in a wealthy friend’s home for a “casual” dinner party. The atmosphere itself had a distinct, comforting dinner party feel, with the easy conversation from neighboring patrons, the clatter of silverware against porcelain, and the bustle of wait staff as they served our meals. I was a lot more relaxed than I expected I would be, and it was a very pleasant surprise.
The food was also amazing. My favorites of the day were the salmon cornets, oysters and pears, and Japanese wagyu. My least favorite was really the goat cheese acapella, as it was simply too much cheese and too much flavor after such an intense beef dish, especially since the meal was winding down and I was stuffed. The service was attentive and top-notch, although almost a bit too worried about being perfect, but the presentation and farewell, as well as our take-out box of chocolates I hadn’t finished, really impressed me.
The French Laundry is not a place to visit only once. I drank in as much as I could of the food, atmosphere, and wine, but there is an extra dimension I know I’m not seeing yet. Perhaps it’s because I wasn’t ready to go just yet, maybe I had to visit another Thomas Keller restaurant first, such as Bouchon. At any rate, this is a restaurant I’ll grow into over time, and it’s very different from other comparably-priced restaurants we’ve tried, like Saison. Saison is fresh, new, and a younger rival, with complex gastronomic dishes and rich flavors, and beautifully paired wines that will surprise you with their modest price. The French Laundry is almost its older brother, seasoned and experienced, calm and sure of itself, with nothing to prove. It just is. I loved Saison the two times I went, and they really were milestone experiences for me, and The French Laundry is now one of those milestones as well. I could almost say I’m ok not returning to Saison, but The French Laundry isn’t a restaurant I’ll eat once or twice at and then be happy moving on. It’s to me the way Chez Panisse Cafe was to me a few years ago, and is in some way, now — a thoughtful restaurant that’s warm, welcoming, with a hidden dimension in its food preparation, technique, and quest for perfection, that will keep me coming back for more. I think that as I get older and eat at more restaurants, I still won’t forget this place.
I also have to say that this meal wouldn’t have been as wonderful as it was if not for my trusty Midori Traveler’s Notebook and Namiki Falcon!