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Restaurants: The French Laundry, Yountville, CA

At the quiet corner of Washington Street and Creek Street in the peaceful Northern California town of Yountville resides hallowed gastronomic terrain. No, even though this is the heart of the most revered Wine Country in the New World, this intersection is not the home of coveted Cabernet Sauvignon terroir. Go a mile north to Oakville for that and pay a visit to the To Kalon Vineyard. A babbling creek can be found at the intersection, where an iron bridge running along Washington Street crosses the creek, but the creek itself doesn’t exactly have prized Copper River salmon swimming upstream.

Take Creek Street and walk directly across Washington Street to witness an immaculate garden. It is not a marvel of hedge trimming à la Hampton Court or a masterful oasis of harmony à la Ryõan-ji in Kyoto. However, the garden is equal parts architectural marvel and tranquil oasis, where beets and tarragon bask in the 300 days of fresh California sunshine so adored by the grapes growing on vineyards dotting every hillside for miles in every direction.

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Across from this garden is its owner, the esteemed anchor of this intersection. Hollywood and Vine. Times Square. The corner in Winslow, Arizona. They are the iconic intersections of our common vernacular. Washington and Creek is the most iconic of intersections for gastronomy purposes.

A five-minute stroll along Washington Street beyond the commercial heart of Yountville leads to this intersection, where since 1978 The French Laundry has resided as the most mythical name in restaurants. Much as with the tectonic plates of its California terroir, this is where dining culture plates collide. The Old World meets the New World. Traditional technique interprets today’s modernism. Salmon tartare and ice cream cones co-exist.

There is no way to quantitatively explain the importance of The French Laundry in the restaurant world. Perhaps “three” for its number of Michelin stars or “$270” for the price, service included, of a “four”-hour meal here. Or “ten” as in the hour of the morning, Pacific time, when hundreds or thousands of wishful future diners call hoping to procure a reservation for “two” full months to the calendar day when they desire to eat at this restaurant, only to have all of those phone calls run into a busy signal, if the busy signal isn’t too busy.

"Oysters and Pearls""Sabayon" of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and White Sturgeon Caviar

“Oysters and Pearls”
“Sabayon” of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and White Sturgeon Caviar

The French Laundry by all accounts was an accomplished, special occasion restaurant in its first two decades under the ownership of Sally and Don Schmitt. It probably was a very useful French steam laundry too in its fifty years as that, prior to the Schmitt’s transforming the stone building into a restaurant.

However, The French Laundry never became The French Laundry until the chef Thomas Keller left New York and returned to his native California to purchase this old laundry in 1992 and re-opened the restaurant under the same name in 1994. Yountville has never been the same since. Fine dining has never been the same since.

In this day where chefs are treated more like celebrities by the fervent, restaurant-following public than actual entertainment celebrities, and chefs now veer towards the heavily tattooed, unshaven, and tantrum-prone in the kitchen, Keller provides the calm, consummate professionalism that once was associated with haute cuisine chefs.

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At a young age, Keller and his family moved to Palm Beach, Florida, where he first learned the restaurant industry working in his mother’s restaurant. In 1983, Keller crossed the Atlantic to grow in the fabled Paris kitchens of Taillevent and Guy Savoy, the latter perhaps having an effect on the importance of a luxurious, eye-opening starter to every meal. Keller’s signature starter every time you dine at The French Laundry is “Oysters and Pearls” with white sturgeon caviar, while Savoy goes the vegetarian route with his fabled truffle and artichoke soup with toasted brioche.

Back in the U.S. in 1986, Keller opened his first restaurant, Rakel, in New York, a formal affair heavily influenced by France’s haute cuisine temples. Soon, Keller split from his fellow Rakel owners and returned to the West Coast, cooking at the Checkers Hotel in Los Angeles, before the definitive move to Yountville.

What is critical to understand about Keller’s Yountville flagship is its profound blending of the Michelin-starred, French countryside restaurant with the new California aesthetics, focusing on relationships with ingredient producers and not shying away from modernist and global influences. Keller champions this prominent sense of terroir being in Northern California, yet encourages reaching to a far-away culture (perhaps a Spanish sauce Romesco) or even exploring back-in-time, classic dishes (Chicken “Kiev”).

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The past few years have seen several haute American restaurants take countrysides by storm, blending the influences of France’s starred restaurants with local terroir and America’s deep-rooted farming heritage. Look at Blueberry Farm in Tennessee or Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Westchester County, New York, or even The Restaurant at Meadowood in St. Helena, about three towns north of Yountville in The French Laundry’s own Napa Valley.

Yet, no place can quite blend all of these influences into one seamless France meets California meets the World meets the Modern World meets Classic Technique quite like The French Laundry. In 2007, Keller wrote in his section of Chef’s Story, the companion book to a public television series, “I am a classicist, but that doesn’t just mean how I approach food but also how I approach the craft of cooking” and that classicism “ultimately pertains to that moment at the cutting board when you’re before the ingredient.”

The French Laundry's Kitchen

The French Laundry’s Kitchen

Classicism is everywhere in this dining room. However, it’s classicism evolved. Look at the menu and its harmonious blend of classic preparations, new ideas, and the prominent mention of the orchards or farms behind the ingredients. Look at the immaculate dining room with each napkin folded properly with one central crease, held by the restaurant’s famed clothespin. Look at the spotless aprons of the kitchen staff and the servers with their proper, crisp suits or vests and ties. Look at the pebbles outside the restaurant’s entrance along Washington Street, raked daily as if it were a garden in Kyoto. Look at the restaurant’s chicken coop and the rows of herbs and produce growing across from the restaurant, leading to Highway 29 in the distance.

A distinct classicism principle pervades each element of the restaurant, while being open to a continued discourse on a countryside gastronomic restaurant. This is California, where Alice Waters started the state’s cuisine just before Keller’s return from the East Coast. Whereas Waters leaves the ingredients alone, Keller subtly bolsters them with a meticulous, inquisitive touch. The ingredients are the stars in this California restaurant too; do not forget that. When leaving the restaurant, diners receive a booklet of Keller’s purveyors, so you can understand more about Mast Brothers in Brooklyn or Andante Dairy of Petaluma, California.

Parsnip VeloutéGros Michel Banana, Pearson Farm Pecans, Sorrel, and Noble Maple Syrup

Parsnip Velouté
Gros Michel Banana, Pearson Farm Pecans, Sorrel, and Noble Maple Syrup

Keller now is a bit of a businessman. His first offshoot, Bouchon, a classic belle époque French bistro that seems more Parisian than any place I’ve been to in Paris, opened down the street from The French Laundry in 1998. Keller opened Per Se in Manhattan’s Time Warner Center in 2004, which is much, much more than a cosmopolitan version of The French Laundry. It’s a new terroir and demands new inspirations that are still reliant upon the classicism concepts. Per Se and The French Laundry both repeatedly have received three Michelin stars. Keller now also oversees a Bouchon Bakery and Ad Hoc in Yountville, the latter a down-home bistro best known for its sous-vide fried chicken and the fact that it was a temporary restaurant at first, supposed to be Keller’s version of a burger restaurant. That hasn’t happened…yet. Bouchon and Bouchon Bakery have expanded, with the bakeries in New York and Las Vegas and the bistro in Las Vegas and Beverly Hills, Keller’s return to his old Los Angeles cooking roots.

The French Laundry's Courtyard

The French Laundry’s Courtyard

The television appearances are few and far between. The chef is a chef, even at The French Laundry in full chef attire in the kitchen, despite the fact that I had seen him on a network television morning news program in New York earlier in the week. Keller isn’t Bobby or Emeril or Mario or Wolfgang. You don’t refer to him by his first name. You might not even recognize him walking down Washington Street for a coffee.

He’s a chef with a brilliant sense of when something is too much. He is expanding prudently, as if he spent years on Wall Street and learned the importance of caution. No, there are no airport cafés yet under his authority. Keller establishes strong, unique concepts, be it the French bistro perfectly imitated down to the île flottante’s precise consistency or the perfect upscale rendition of buttermilk fried chicken or pot roast at the family style, wholesome neighborhood bistro, Ad Hoc. His cookbooks follow these brands, with the most daring being completely devoted to the sous-vide technique. Keller is even dabbling in the print publication market, just releasing the fourth issue of his in-house magazine Finesse, examining the “refinement and delicacy of performance, execution, or artisanship.”

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With the razor-sharp precision Keller demonstrates in his dishes or business decisions, it’s far from surprising to see how smoothly and refined The French Laundry experience moves. Everybody pays the same price ($270) for nine courses of either the chef’s tasting menu or the tasting of vegetables, with two bread services from Bouchon Bakery, a gougère and a cornet to start, mignardises to finish, a tin with shortbread cookies for the road, and coffee and tea as you desire. Service is included; there is no need to calculate the tip. Should you desire dishes with shaved white truffles or Kaluga caviar, various $75 to $150 supplements will be added.

It’s such a crisp system. It’s brilliant organization in this world of endless chaos, especially when considering the restaurant industry.  Depending on your eating time, you’ll be at the table for three and a half to four hours. The experience is down to a science here, almost more reliable than the master atomic clock at the U.S. Naval Observatory.

(Actual) Entrance to The French Laundry

(Actual) Entrance to The French Laundry

After the obligatory picture with the glimmering golden sign elegantly saying “The French Laundry” partially hidden by a flower bed, guests stroll into the garden with its benches, freshly mowed grass, Bay Laurel trees, and antique rose bushes that are largely untouched from the days of the Schmitt’s ownership. You’ll be confused as to where to enter in the compound. One part of the building is the kitchen and another is the dining room, though neither says “Enter Here” and “Do Not Enter Here.” The host or hostess will come out and welcome the disoriented guests inside.

After being seated, the captain allows you to acquaint yourself with the surroundings and receive a little explanation of the not-so-complicated menu formula. Vegetable or chef’s tasting? Any supplements? Any allergies? On we go then.

The French Laundry Is Now Part of the iPad Wine List Generation

The French Laundry Is Now Part of the iPad Wine List Generation

The sommelier will stroll by, nowadays guiding you through the 121-page wine list, all of course on a tablet device. You’ll get a lesson in both technology and wine here. Chances are you’ll be steered towards a glass or bottle of Schramsberg’s Extra Brut “Cuvée French Laundry” for the initial celebratory bubbles.

The one strange area lacking at The French Laundry is that there are no wine pairings. With nine courses, it’s a bit of a stretch to do, but would be welcomed. The sommelier staff knows what wine to match perfectly with dishes or your desires. All I said for a red was somewhere in the middle ground between a lighter Pinot Noir and a darker Malbec. The sommelier discreetly took the tablet list away from me, assuring me he knew what I wanted.

He did.

Don’t be afraid to mention price when seeking wine advice. These aren’t the bad guys. They are here for you, rooting for your meal of a lifetime.

Salmon Tartare Cornet

Salmon Tartare Cornet

Pomp and circumstance, orders of business complete, out come the famed cornets wrapped in a napkin tucked inside a metallic cylinder. No meal starts with more of a flourish than this miniature ice cream cone gone to the Ivy Leagues, buttery and studded with black sesame seeds. The cornets are filled with a red onion crème fraîche and salmon tartare, all handsomely crowned by some caviar. Whether it’s a riff on a bagel and lox or the evolution of ice cream, it’s the symbol of The French Laundry and deservedly so. The cornets seem smaller in person than you’d guess, but they pack a vitality that food so seldom achieves.

Gruyere Gougères

Gruyere Gougères

A silver dish of gruyere gougères arrives at the same time, melting with mornay sauce inside, the pastry art exemplified. This one-two punch at the start will be the best bites of the meal. It’s not to slight what comes the rest of the way. It’s just how accomplished this opening duo is. “West Side Story” and “Oklahoma!” are masterpieces, but I’d argue that their opening numbers are the most accomplished as well.

“Oysters and Pearls” arrives next on the chef’s tasting menu, a more classical preparation. The base is a sabayon from pearl tapioca, almost custard in texture. On one side resides the quenelle of white sturgeon caviar, and on the other side are two twinkling Island Creek oysters from Duxbury, Massachusetts. Not to be outdone, the vegetable tasting starts with the magnificent pairing of banana and maple syrup, a duo I once wrote as the most complementary together in the ingredient world. The spoon for the serving is covered with a maple brûlée, which is then dipped into a parsnip velouté fortified with Gros Michel banana, sorrel, and Pearson Farms pecans. Complex, unique, and luxurious in an entirely different manner than the “Oysters and Pearls.” One shows the importance of salt, the other of controlled smoke and sweetness.

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Seriously, the initial course may even outdo the opening canapés. However, they won’t be outdone by the second course. But first, a serving of brioche, spilling butter from its flaky body, and the pain au lait, the perfect bread for spreading a beehive of salted butter from Animal Farm in Orwell, Vermont (yes, slap your knee now) or the unsalted butter from Andante Dairy.

"Tarte aux Betteraves"Belgian Endive Marmalade, Black Winter Truffle, Garden Mâche, and Juniper Balsamic

“Tarte aux Betteraves”
Belgian Endive Marmalade, Black Winter Truffle, Garden Mâche, and Juniper Balsamic

On the vegetarian side, welcome a beautifully, tidy “Tarte aux Betteraves,” evoking an impressionist still-life with its single slices of black winter truffle, yellow beet, and purple beets arranged around a biscuit cookie base. A marmalade of Belgian endive and an abstract smear of Juniper balsamic complete the painting.

Salad of CauliflowerBroccoli, Radicchio, Piedmont Hazelnuts, Cilantro, and "Sauce Romesco"

Salad of Cauliflower
Broccoli, Radicchio, Piedmont Hazelnuts, Cilantro, and “Sauce Romesco”

Less striking, but more colorful is the salad of cauliflower, broccoli, and radicchio in a kaleidoscope of colors. Cauliflower is having its moment center stage these days, when even a popular Italian restaurant in Los Angeles’ signature dish is a cauliflower t-bone steak. Keller must share the same sentiment as Mark Twain, the author who once declared, “Cauliflower is cabbage with a college education.” However beautiful the florets are in this composition, the summa cum laude graduate part is the hazelnuts, cilantro, and robust Romesco sauce.

In place of cauliflower, you could get a “Carnaroli Risotto Biologico” with shaved white truffles for $150 more. Really, who would trade for truffles when you can have cauliflower?

Red Wine-Braised Casco Bay MonkfishHen-of-the-Woods Mushroom, Nantes Carrots, Tokyo Turnip, Pistachios, and Mizuna

Red Wine-Braised Casco Bay Monkfish
Hen-of-the-Woods Mushroom, Nantes Carrots, Tokyo Turnip, Pistachios, and Mizuna

Seafood arrives next, with red wine-braised Casco Bay monkfish, gently studded with a pistachio crust. Again, as flaky and flawless as the centerpiece is, it’s the single Tokyo turnip, Nantes carrot, and Hen-of-the-Woods mushroom that demand your fullest attention.

Salad of Roasted SalsifyQuail Egg, "Pain de Campagne," B;acl Trumpet Mushrooms, Tardivo Radicchio, and Oxalis

Salad of Roasted Salsify
Quail Egg, “Pain de Campagne,” B;acl Trumpet Mushrooms, Tardivo Radicchio, and Oxalis

Not everything soars to life-changing heights at The French Laundry. Sometimes, a dish might be merely excellent. The salad of roasted salsify with a quail egg, brioche powder, radicchio, and black trumpet mushrooms is marvelous, but lacks a distinct central narrative outside of being several beautiful ingredients in an equally beautiful presentation.

Hawaiian Hearts of PalmCranberry Beans, Kale, Peppers, Meyer Lemon, Thyme Oil, and "Sauce Pimentón"

Hawaiian Hearts of Palm
Cranberry Beans, Kale, Peppers, Meyer Lemon, Thyme Oil, and “Sauce Pimentón”

The same story follows for the next vegetable item, a work of art with magnificent cranberry beans at one end, leading in a line of Hawaiian hearts of palm, kale, peppers, and a sauce Pimentón that doesn’t quite succeed in pulling all of these superlative produce fully together.

For the same course, seafood eaters get the real crowd-pleaser of sweet butter-poached Maine lobster mitts. As regal and downright phenomenal as it sounds, the two potatoes from David Little in Petaluma, an eye-opening addition of a wispy celery branch, a beet sliver, and then the real punch, a bone marrow vinaigrette with tiny bits of the gelatinous marrow in the broth make this something entirely unique and classic at the same time.

Sweet Butter-Poached Maine Lobster "Mitts"David Little Potato, French Laundry Garden Beet, Celery Branch, and Bone Marrow Vinaigrette

Sweet Butter-Poached Maine Lobster “Mitts”
David Little Potato, French Laundry Garden Beet, Celery Branch, and Bone Marrow Vinaigrette

The only comment on the monkfish followed by lobster on the chef’s tasting menu would be that both share the same texture and a similar taste representation on the palate. Perhaps, a lighter fish would be a welcome segue to the lobster. Then again, I would never want to see this monkfish dish leave.

Even though most diners haven’t quite finished their brioche at this point, another service of bread brings the choice of a perfect demi-baguette, multi-grain sourdough, or the day’s winner, pretzel bread.

Four Story Hill Farm Chicken "Kiev"Garnet Yam, Collard Greens, Sand Pear, Watercress, and Black Strap Molasses

Four Story Hill Farm Chicken “Kiev”
Garnet Yam, Collard Greens, Sand Pear, Watercress, and Black Strap Molasses

The first meat dish is a chicken “Kiev” that thrives in all aspects except the slightly dry Four Story Hill Farm chicken itself. The accoutrements make the dish, with an alluring black strap molasses sauce base, a scoop of garnet yam puree, and a fascinating sand pear that almost seems as though it’s been dehydrated.

Wild Scottish Wood PigeonHobbs' Bacon, Pumpkin Crêpe, Brussels Sprouts, Sorrel, and Honey-Poached Cranberries (Serves Two)

Wild Scottish Wood Pigeon
Hobbs’ Bacon, Pumpkin Crêpe, Brussels Sprouts, Sorrel, and Honey-Poached Cranberries (Serves Two)

Here, a couple could opt for the sensational wild Scottish wood pigeon for two. The fowl is presented with an appearance that looks like it could almost be pan-seared foie gras, blessed with a touch of sea salt. The strong tasting meat, in a positive way, resides atop a pumpkin crêpe, accented by a squash-enhanced sauce twirl, Brussels sprouts, sorrel, and gorgeous honey-poached cranberries.

Butternut Squash "Porridge"Parmesan, Sicilian Pistachios, and Black Truffle

Butternut Squash “Porridge”
Parmesan, Sicilian Pistachios, and Black Truffle

It’s success all around, with the spectacular butternut squash “porridge” on the other menu, ravishing with a Sicilian pistachio oil and parmesan mixed in, topped with slices of fragrant black truffles. No bite is anything except sensational, the way you hope every bite ever could be. One note, though. Both menus take pride in never repeating an ingredient. Yet on the vegetable menu, we did see black winter truffle earlier in the “Tarte aux Betteraves.” Intriguing. I can’t find a difference between black truffles and black winter truffles, but I’d love to hear if there is one. That being said, both dishes absolutely benefit from the truffles.

Mascarpone-Enriched Chestnut "Agnolotti"Celeriac, Cutting Celery, and "Crème de Fontina d' Aosta

Mascarpone-Enriched Chestnut “Agnolotti”
Celeriac, Cutting Celery, and “Crème de Fontina d’ Aosta

For the final fully savory courses, the best might be saved for last. Mascarpone- enriched agnolotti is a creamy, decadent affair, lightened by the vibrant pomegranate seeds and piercing sharpness of shaved cutting celery. The Snake River Farms “Calotte de Boeuf Grillée” presents such a tender texture and fully round beef flavor that transcends what steak can really be. We are a steak and potatoes country, but this isn’t steak we’re used to. This is something so pure, so delicate, and yet so strong. A parsnip purée, a sphere of Arrowleaf spinach that looks like a Brussels sprout, a Cherry Belle radish, some black truffle, and a Sauce Périgueux. Upon each diner’s first bite of the meat, there was a moment of pause, contemplating just how challenging it must be to achieve this texture and flavoring. This doesn’t just get achieved by chance. If this isn’t culinary perfection, then it can’t be achieved.

Snake River Farms "Calotte de Boeuf Grillée"Parsnip, Arrowleaf Spinach, Cherry Belle Radish, Black Truffle, and "Sauce Périgueux"

Snake River Farms “Calotte de Boeuf Grillée”
Parsnip, Arrowleaf Spinach, Cherry Belle Radish, Black Truffle, and “Sauce Périgueux”

We rest now for a moment, the end starting to get in sight. Cheese arrives in the form of plated compositions.

"Comté Reserve"Crispy Salsify, Petite Onions, Castelvetrano Olive, Frisée, and Dijon Mustard

“Comté Reserve”
Crispy Salsify, Petite Onions, Castelvetrano Olive, Frisée, and Dijon Mustard

It could be Comté Reserve over Dijon mustard, with crispy salsify, petite onions, frisée, and discs of Castelvetrano olive in a preparation that certainly recalls classic bistro pâté plates. More impressive is the Cabot Clothbound cheddar, sharing quarters with a mustard seed “pain perdu,” slivers of our beloved cauliflower, and a slightly quirky tasting Branston pickle.

Cabot "Clothbound Cheddar"Mustard Seed "Pain Perdu," Bitter Ale "Béchamel," and "Branston Pickle"

Cabot “Clothbound Cheddar”
Mustard Seed “Pain Perdu,” Bitter Ale “Béchamel,” and “Branston Pickle”

Intermezzos share the cheese’s unique composition style, where these are full-on dishes, not just moments between main courses and the sweets. A glass filled with brown sugar streusel, fresh cream sherbet, a blood orange sherbet, and topped by champagne granité hits just the right note. However, the vegetable tasting’s pear-centric dish is something that could be a dessert masterpiece on its own, with a brown butter financier sharing a bowl with a creamy Dashing Range pear sorbet, candied hazelnuts for an earthy crunch, and a Bartlett pear jam. It’s certainly no intermezzo.

Dashing Ranch Pear Sorbet"Financier au Beurre Noisette," Candied Hazelnuts, and Bartlett Pear Jam

Dashing Ranch Pear Sorbet
“Financier au Beurre Noisette,” Candied Hazelnuts, and Bartlett Pear Jam

Coffee and tea arrive just before the final course. Strangely, the one dish that isn’t very close to the restaurant’s superlative standards is…the espresso – too meager and watery, not displaying any of the necessary crema or wooden notes. The restaurant’s coffee beans are roasted by the local Equator Coffee in Marin County. The beans might display excellent flavor profiles. Unfortunately, no barista here will be winning any global competitions any time soon.

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Desserts are now under the direction of Milton Abel, a gifted pastry virtuoso originally from Missouri, who after originally working at The French Laundry, left for Copenhagen to serve as a pastry chef under René Redzepi at Noma (Redzepi himself is a protégé of Keller’s and The French Laundry). There are not too many similarities between Noma’s stark, rugged aesthetic and New Nordic cuisine’s ingredients and techniques focus, compared to the rustic, plush elegance and California meets France ideology of The French Laundry, in both atmosphere and cuisine.

Blood Orange "Mimosa"Champagne "Granité," Brown Sugar Streusel, and Fresh Cream Sherbet

Blood Orange “Mimosa”
Champagne “Granité,” Brown Sugar Streusel, and Fresh Cream Sherbet

Abel’s emphasis on calmer sweet flavors and the incorporation of savory nuances with restraint into the desserts is a common bond between the two destination kitchens. Take Abel’s Bakewell tart, one of two options on the chef’s tasting menu. The shortbread-inspired rectangle could function as the base for pâté or smoked salmon with its scarce amount of sugar. A trio of toppings artfully arranged along the tart include a barely sweetened Rome Beauty apple compote, a quenelle of toasted oat ice cream, and a dollop of what could be clotted cream. Noma’s favorite ingredient sorrel finds its way into the tableau, as does a pain de gene wafer (a sweet Italian almond bread).

Bakewell TartRome Beauty Apple Compote, "Pain de Gêne," and Toasted Oat "Glace"

Bakewell Tart
Rome Beauty Apple Compote, “Pain de Gêne,” and Toasted Oat “Glace”

It is a spot-on dessert, subtle, and thought- provoking. But it won’t be anybody’s favorite. There is no defining “wow” factor. That instead will almost certainly be a dark chocolate “torte” whose centerpiece is a strip of robust ganache over even darker chocolate sauce. Next to the sauce lies a cinnamon brittle that could pass for a crumpled-up bow tie. The dish is finished with pecans, banana ice cream, and the real show-stopper, a cinnamon whip that looks like whipped cream but swiftly transfers into a light-as-air foam. It’s everything you could ask for with dessert.

Chocolate "Torte"Pearson Farm Pecans, Cinnamon Whip, and Banana Ice Cream

Chocolate “Torte”
Pearson Farm Pecans, Cinnamon Whip, and Banana Ice Cream

Well, then again I might ask for the “Jamaican Gingerbread” on the Vegetable Tasting menu– a de-constructed carrot cake of sorts. Twin sandwiches of gingerbread with a Muscovado custard building might soon be sold at Bouchon Bakery. The pair lie next to thin star-fish evoking slices of somewhat tart confit persimmon, grown in Abel’s backyard. If only my backyard persimmon tree could grow these. A few pepitas (pumpkin seeds) are scattered about, with scoops of citrus buttercream and ginger foam piles. A work of art, to be certain. A knock-you-over-with-sugar dessert? Not hardly. There is such meticulous care in every aspect of these creations, which are truly the meaning of edible landscapes.

The two-story stone building could be uprooted and fit right in along St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans, if you changed the wooden balcony to wrought iron and threw a few beads here and there for some spunk. It is stately and harmonious outside, almost part of the landscape like the garden across the street. I know I’m not the only one who drove by the restaurant on their first visit without knowing which building it was.

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Service follows the clear, concise vision of Keller, shared by his longtime girlfriend and business partner, now wife Laura Cunningham. This is the type of place where as soon as you get up for a break, your napkin is taken away and a new one awaits your return. If you’re having a special occasion (which was the case for yours truly), you’ll get a little “birthday cake” of white chocolate with a liquid butterscotch center. No singing, just a single candle is all that is needed. You’ll also get special personalized menus upon arrival and departure (though we realized when it was too late that some of our menus were mistakenly meant for another table).

Yes, I wish the hostess smiled more, instead of seeming a touch stiff. And yes, a few of the food servers shared that lack of a smile trait, and more than once asked members of the table if we were done with a plate, when it was clear that we were not finished or had placed the fork and knife crossed over the plate like properly done.

Jamaican GingerbreadMuscovado Custard, Confit Persimmon, Citrus Buttercream, and "Pepitas"

Jamaican Gingerbread
Muscovado Custard, Confit Persimmon, Citrus Buttercream, and “Pepitas”

Yet, here there are no worries. The wine is always poured when you need it, from a decanter of course if necessary. Water always is filled. If you’re walking up the stairs, a waiter on the stairs will immediately go back to the top or bottom. I felt terrible for the waiter bringing platters of food up the stairs when the moment I emerged at the top, he backed down almost the entire flight to the ground floor. Perhaps, he has eyes in the back of his head. Not once will the table settings be off the mark. Except with the parsnip velouté, where the spoon is conspicuously absent before the presentation.

Then as the bowl is placed before its recipient, a spoon arrives, filled with the maple brûlée.

By no means is The French Laundry casual, but you will feel comfortable. At least, as comfortable as you can be amidst such formal ceremony. The feeling is not snooty and stiff. This is not a caricature of the old glory days of fine dining, where your every movement had to be impossibly discreet and your voice kept to a hushed whisper. A sport coat must be worn by gentlemen, and I encourage you to go for it all with a tie.

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All of the tables of course are covered in some of the finest white tablecloths. This is not Noma with its bare wooden tables or a minimalist, extravagant sushi bar in Tokyo. Tables are decorated with a central vase, filled with some of Napa Valley’s finest flora. Downstairs is a tad more formal and intimate, with prime seating in the exposed stone enclave with the immense wine cellar peeking through a tiny window. Shutters along one wall present a true countryside farmhouse appeal. Upstairs is a bit more festive, open and liberating, especially in the daytime when sunlight spills through the windows looking west. Navy blue and cream whites are the name of the game for the interior, echoing the food’s ethos of being elegant with soft nods to being vibrant. At times the noise rises, wine flows, and then the collective calm returns. This is a temple to gastronomy. It’s also a restaurant, let us not get too far ahead of ourselves. We’re here to eat and have a celebratory time.

Coffee and DoughnutsChocolate Covered Caramelized Macadamia Nuts
Valrhona Chocolates

Coffee and Doughnuts
Chocolate Covered Caramelized Macadamia Nuts
Valrhona Chocolates

As the meal winds down, on comes the parade of mignardises. A parade it is, or the second and third dessert courses if you will. First, a tray presents endless row after row of Valrhona chocolate truffles, surfaces glazed in myriad colors of the painter’s palette. Next come the famed “Coffee and Doughnuts,” as much a Keller signature as the opening salmon cornet and “Oysters and Pearls.” The dish used to be served individually with a single fried cinnamon beignet filling the middle hole of the same beignet, just doughnut sized. Now, the table receives big bowls of the warm, fluffy beignets, a fitting way to enable you to start letting your hair down back in the real world awaiting in moments. The “coffee” part is more of a stretch than the literal doughnuts. It’s a cappuccino riff, with a base of espresso semifreddo, a mousse-like consistency, in place of the drink’s usual milk and espresso body. Steamed milk foam lingers atop, in this case not mixed as a heart or some other latté art form. Every taste is special, but the real primo ones are for those with the patience to let the foam dissolve into the semifreddo.

The parade isn’t over yet. As one table mate mentioned to me, it feels like the end of a July 4th fireworks spectacular, with a dizzying array of sensations thrown at you in every direction. Cue the finale of Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture.” A bowl of caramelized macadamia nuts covered in a razor-thin layer of dark chocolate arrives. For anyone who has had the classic Mauna Loa macadamia nuts from Hawaii, there is a notable difference with this caramelized, almost umami-rich version. By now, the table is filled, and the macadamia nuts are wrapped up for the next dessert at home. I can personally vouch that they taste just the same a week later.

You’ll probably linger over a little Calvados snifter or a Dow’s 20-year Tawny, when the check discreetly arrives as an old laundry receipt. To soften the blow, a small tin filled with four superb sugar crystal dusted shortbreads arrives. Those silver tins are of course imprinted with the restaurant’s signature old clothespin logo. You could probably sell one for $20 on eBay.

It is impossible to call The French Laundry a bargain in the way that your neighborhood gastropub may be. Obviously a $270 menu without wine factored in means something different to everybody. Some might consider it a once-in-a-lifetime splurge; others may be regulars who do this as often as I go to my local café for a salade niçoise. Some people might have no problem spending the same amount for the opera or courtside seats, but never a meal. When comparing with other equally ambitious restaurants with The French Laundry’s caliber of ingredients, preparations, and little nuances from the black sesame in the cornet to the tin you take home, if you are looking for a special occasion lunch or dinner, your money will be well spent. Bargain or not, but a candidate to be called that, the restaurant’s experience could easily be quantified as twice the price, if not more. Oh, remember that service is included.

Finish with a Flourish

Finish with a Flourish

It will be fascinating to see the Spring 2013 turnover of chef de cuisine, with David Breeden replacing Timothy Hollingsworth. Breeden presently is executive sous chef for Keller at Per Se. Meanwhile Hollingsworth, the 2009 Bocuse d’Or representative from the U.S. and the chef de cuisine for the past three years, will possibly open a casual Mexican restaurant concept. Stay tuned.

For now, as the baton is handed off, Hollingsworth and his kitchen brigade are continuing the impeccable standards set forth by Keller’s hallowed establishment. So much changes with the seasons, and yet like the salmon cornet and the “Oysters and Pearls,” the definition of special occasion never changes in this restaurant. This is how Keller wanted a stately but rustic countryside gastronomic experience in France re-envisioned in bucolic Northern California. This is an experience, moments to be cherished, along with that beef and that chocolate “torte.” When a celebration is called for or the time has arrived for the true, fine dining experience, there is The French Laundry still standing prominently at Washington and Creek. Now, should we finish these macadamia nuts?

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