The French Laundry: Simpy the Best
Even those who don’t know much about food have heard of a little restaurant in Yountville, CA (in the Napa Valley) named The French Laundry. Twenty years ago, it led the way among a new breed of fine-dining restaurants focused on American, rather than strictly French, cuisine. As it became more and more popular, its Chef—the revered Thomas Keller—was named best chef in the world. It was considered the best restaurant in America, then the best restaurant in the world. On multiple occasions. It won other awards. Lots of them. It has served as a training ground for numerous Michelin-starred chefs throughout the country and the world, including Chicago’s famed Grant Achatz—himself now a three-Michelin starred chef. Thomas Keller is the only American-born chef (past or present) to have two three-Michelin starred restaurants—New York’s Per Se, and The French Laundry. To paraphrase our former V.P., Joe Biden: “He’s a big f*#k’ing deal!”
We recently took a last-minute trip to Napa Valley over a long weekend, and, as we always do, put ourselves on the waiting list for The French Laundry. We’ve been on the waiting list several times, but never successfully got in. You really need to reserve 60-days out (to the day) and we just never seem to plan trips that far ahead of time. And, they’re always 100%+ full. So, when Natalie got a call on the Thursday we were leaving for our trip, with the restaurant offering lunch reservations for the Saturday afternoon we would be there (the lunch and dinner menus are the same), the answer was automatically “YES.” Then, we had to cancel three competing winery appointments. Actually, they completely understood. But, we digress.
Now, in case you wonder how big of a deal a three-Michelin star rating really is, let’s talk about that for just a minute. There are roughly 135 three-Michelin starred restaurants in the world. The entire world. For 7.5 billion people to enjoy. The vast majority are outside of the USA—not even 10% of them are spread between New York, Chicago, and the SF Bay Area / Napa. One that closed a few years ago (El Bulli) had 2 million annual reservation requests for only 6,000 dining spots. While some are easier to get into than others, you really are fortunate when you get to dine at one.
Coming from quick morning tastings at the Beringer mansion and at Heitz Cellars, we gunned our convertible down Highway 29, parked, and just made it in the beautiful and somewhat hidden door for our 11:45 seating. We had several bottles of pretty nice wine in tow from the two wineries we visited that morning, and the front desk staff was more than happy to accommodate storage. They actually ran the bottles next door to the restaurant’s new cellar, just so they wouldn’t get warm while we ate. Super thoughtful.
Once seated, our waiter brought out the menu and wine list, and we ordered what we usually do in a Michelin-rated environment: as many courses as we can, and vintage champagne to accompany everything. In this case, we literally (not figuratively) ordered everything on the menu. Actually, on all the menus. We ordered everything off of the regular menu. Everything off of the supplemental menu. And, everything off of the vegetarian menu. Because, why not?? To go with the food, we started out with a favorite from our winter Paris / Champagne trip—a bottle of vintage Pommery. 2002 Pommery Cuvee Louise to be exact. Well-made champagne from a super-respected house with enough age to stand up to a lot of different fare. BTW, vintage champagne is a pretty good deal on TFL wine list. Really hard to beat for versatility, taste, quality and price. Our server checked, and the kitchen was happy to accommodate our out-of-the-ordinary order. We simply told him to bring out the food in whatever sequence the kitchen saw fit to serve it. There’s nothing like leaving yourself in the hands of professionals—it almost always turns out better than thinking you know best.
2002 Pommery Cuvee Louise
We can’t say we were surprised that this proved to be the most versatile wine pairing for our meal. As the resident Somm said roughly half-way through our meal, “I was trying to think of something that just wouldn’t work with vintage champagne, but I really can’t think of anything.” You simply can never go wrong with a good vintage bottle (or 2!). Most courses at TFL lend themselves to white, and you can always get a glass or half-bottle of red for meat courses if you want to. The Cuvee Louise was a lovely bottle. It was floral, slightly yeasty/bready, and had raspberry, blueberry, and blackberry notes throughout. It tasted a bit like daffodils, with additional notes of green apple skin. Very fresh. Stayed effervescent throughout the meal. Kept things fresh, and cut rich dishes with great acidity. 93 points, in our humble opinion.
We were both presented with iconic French Laundry amuse-bouches to start our meal. Cameron received a smoked salmon and crème-fraiche “ice cream cone,” with crème-fraiche filling the cone as a nice surprise after biting through the salmon. The cone had some sweet notes, but the dish itself was perfectly salty and briny—just what you want from fresh smoked salmon. It really tasted like the purest essence of the ocean. Awesome! Natalie’s was a savory peach option, the cone also filled with crème-fraiche and subtle notes of dill to counter the sweetness of the peach. While both were really tasty, we both agreed the best amuse of all was their “Ritz Cracker,” a play on the classic cracker sandwich. While it wasn’t much to look at, the filling was heavenly, and remained true to simple “Ritz Cracker” form – really high-quality aged cheddar with caramelized onions. Just a glimpse of the glory that was to come.
Royal Kaluga Caviar
This was an interesting cold dish that had many layers of flavor. The fish was soft and had been poached in sake, giving it a nice little tangy pop. It was a savory juxtaposition to the sour cherry leaf gelée that it was swimming in. When combined with the delicious subdued caviar that provided a nice burst of salt and brine, you got the full range of tangy, salty and sweet, with good firm texture from the fish, equaling a perfectly-balanced dish.
Oysters and Pearls
One of Chef Keller’s oldest and most classic dishes, this certainly didn’t disappoint. The hollandaise was perfect and the tapioca at the bottom provided an interesting textural component. The Regus Ova caviar provided a bit more brine and salt than the Royal Kaluga caviar in our previous course. The oysters were soft and melted in our mouths. And, of course, the tapioca “pearls” hidden in the bottom of the dish added a fun and whimsical component to a delicious dish. It’s no wonder this has been a constant on the menu from almost the beginning.
Roasted Strawberry “Gazpacho”
The first real addition from the vegetarian menu, the color and texture of this gazpacho were both great. It was savory, sweet, and had perfectly-balanced sour notes with just a hint of fennel. It almost served as a palate-cleanser after the two very rich prior courses. But, since spring was just coming to the Valley, and the day couldn’t have been nicer, it was a particularly appropriate dish for our visit.
Toasted Quinoa “Tabbouleh”
A second vegetarian option, this was a hearty version of tabbouleh, with lots of olive, some cucumber, bell pepper, tomato, and saffron. The best part was the olive puff pastry that was coated in garlic sitting to the side of the dish. It really helped cut through the tanginess of the tabbouleh. Plus, it just looked pretty. You eat with your eyes first, and this dish was modern and beautiful, but with a clear homage to the old world.
Elevages Perigord Moulard Duck Foie Gras “Torchon”
The neat part of this course was the box of six separate salts that were brought with it. There were two from France, two from Hawaii, and two from Montana. We tried a different salt with each bite of our fois gras torchon. The torchon itself was beautifully constructed, with a savory apple puree, gelée, and spherical accompaniments. The oat chip was not only beautiful, it was tasty, and gave the perfect textural “crunch” along with the dish’s perfectly-cut apple matchsticks. You can’t go wrong with foie gras, especially at TFL.
Hawaiian Hearts of Peach Palm Salad
The hearts of palm were an interesting texture for both of us. It was served over fluffy panna-cotta and an earthy green puree. The ciabatta roll that came with it was good, but not really necessary. It was beautifully plated, but maybe not our favorite of the day. It was fresh, and well-balanced, however, and was very “springy,” especially with the colors and the fresh greens on top.
Sauteed Fillet of Mediterranean Turbot
The turbot was perfectly cooked with a very light brioche crust on top. It literally fell apart in the best way possible - you could tell it had been poached in butter before the brioche was carefully baked on top. It was served with potatoes three ways: potato puree, black perigord truffle potato puree, and a small butter-poached potato on the side, covered with black truffle sauce. The potato shined as much as the fish and the truffle infusing the dish was aromatic and simply tasted wonderful.
Holland White Asparagus “En Persillade”
This was a colorful, fun, and tasty dish. The asparagus was cooked perfectly and served with Roma tomato “confit” which was like a sun-dried tomato on crack. The eggs were cut into pieces that resembled a tiny slice of lemon meringue pie. The olive puree was savory and gave a nice level of salt to the dish. It was really well thought-through, visually stunning, and a great way to showcase the bounty of the season. It was also one of their vegetarian options, which we just loved—super creative and delicious!
Sacramento Delta Green Asparagus
While we were unsure of two back-to-back asparagus dishes, we were pleasantly surprised that they were both very different. The green asparagus had a bit more bite to it and was served with a beautiful and tasty saffron/citrus sauce that was accompanied by gently cooked citrus foam and accompanying bites. The richness and slight bitterness of the fresh green asparagus was more than matched by the citrus acidity. Super fresh. Super delicious. And very different from the previous white asparagus dish. Well done!
Alaskan King Crab “A La Plancha”
This dish—floated in what was the best consommé we have ever consumed—was masterful! The consommé was buttery with notes of white wine and bright yellow tomato acidity. Floating in it was perfect butter-poached Alaskan crab with a few small pillows of gnocchi and fresh radishes added to cut through the richness. Everything melded so well together and this was one of our favorite courses.
Bread and Butter
Now, most restaurants simply bring bread out as an accompaniment during the meal. Frankly, we often find restaurants use it as a “filler” when their multi-course menus have a tendency to leave diners a bit hungry. We loved that TFL elevated bread to its own set of courses. And, we loved that the bread was freshly baked at Bouchon—Thomas Keller’s iconic bakery just down the street. We started with a parker house roll that had a delicious smoked paprika center filling. The paprika was smoky and savory and creamy. Very good things. Next came a simple cornbread ring—but one that was moist and made from perfectly-sweet corn. However, the best part was the butter, which was hand-churned by Diane St Clair’s Orwell, Vermont “Animal Farm” Creamery. The creamery has 11 cows - 9 milk cows and 2 bulls. The butter was made using milk from all 9 of the milk cows, and shipped across the country to be used exclusively at TFL. Delicious, and an awesome ode to using only the best ingredients, no matter the cost! BTW, she hugs her cows (really). They’re pretty happy, and you can tell.
Applewood Smoked Kurobuta Pork
This pork was some of the best we’ve ever had, and getting all the components of the dish in one bite was pure bliss. Super smoky pork, served over creamed spinach with a slice of citrus and micro turnips to cut through the richness. It was perfectly cooked and melted in our mouths. Cameron described it as a “breakfast campfire” in one bite.
Morel Mushroom “Farci”
This course on the vegetarian menu was supposed to represent its meaty counterpart as a main course. While we’re not typically big fans of morels, these really resembled succulent little cuts of beef. The double mushroom glaze took on a veal taste and it really turned into a surprisingly hearty dish. The mushroom puree had a great texture and we enjoyed the crunch from the micro radishes. Well composed and well balanced.
Spring Vegetable “Navarin”
This was Natalie’s favorite course from the vegetarian menu. The potato stuffed ravioli was cooked al-dente and it cut through the richness of the vegetable jus. The mirepoix was impossibly, yet perfectly diced in 2x2 mm cubes - a task we’re sure belongs to one person whose purpose 100% of the time is dicing mirepoix. The crunch from the carrots, micro turnips, and snap peas provided a nice textural element that, once again, produced a balanced and flavorful effort.
Herb Roasted Elysian Fields Farm Lamb
The lamb was cooked medium rare and was tender, but still had the right amount of gameyness. Tahini curry cut through the gamey notes and a sweet carrot provided a nice pop of flavor. The dish was nicely composed, and frankly just a beautiful example of what a meat dish should be.
Charcoal Grilled Japanese Wagyu
We were looking forward to this course the most! TFL tried using A5 wagyu in the past, but found it tasted too much like butter and not enough like beef, so they’ve switched to A4 wagyu instead. That’s how much thought they put into their dishes. The beef was perfectly cooked and had the right balance of juicy fat and beefy flavor, served over a rich beef demi glace. We really enjoyed the morel mushrooms served on the side with this course, which were stuffed with mushroom puree and diced veal heart. The veal heart/mushroom puree was delicious and tasted like bacon - you can’t go wrong with that!
1995 Sudereaux Sauternes
We quickly figured out we desperately needed a dessert wine to pair with our cheese courses, so we went with the 1995 Sudereaux sauternes. It was nutty, with notes of pear, peach, heavy marzipan, and buttercream frosting. We loved the orange color typical of a well-aged sauternes. 93 points.
Brought out individually, our first cheese course was a creampuff of sorts, filled with Andante Dairy’s “Etude” artisanal goat’s milk cheese, and served over a black truffle “fondue” cheese sauce. The cheese was herbal and slightly sweet, but was more than balanced by the truffle and the pastry shell. It was just delicious, and worked really well with our Sauternes.
Next came a small wedge of Bleu d’Auvergne—a cow’s milk blue cheese from France that is so iconic, it’s been granted its own protected AOC status by the French government. They’ve been making it the same way since 1850. Served simply and traditionally with a Royal Blenheim Apricot fruit gelee, and a hazelnut madeleine, it was creamy, with good pops of acidity, and had just the right amount of blue-cheese “pop.” Milder than many blues you’ll find, this was delicate and delicious. A great pairing.
Finally, we come to the multitude of dessert courses. Many were savory, which appears to be the new trend in high-end desserts. A few were sweet or fruity, which was a nice counterpoint. Some were homeruns. Others were “interesting.” And a couple were sort of misses in our book—but at least they were inventive misses. All told, we were served 9 different dessert courses, when you count the hand-made and hand-painted chocolate truffles presented at the end of the meal (each one takes 3 days to make). Our favorites were probably the famous coffee and donuts, the chocolate cake with chocolate mouse, a gold-flecked chocolate disk, and apple cinnamon gelee (yes, that's all one dessert), and the vanilla ice cream and meyer lemon custard with toasted egg white foam. And, of course, the truffles!
After the Meal
As you can imagine, it was a really long lunch for us. Because we ordered an entire extra menu, we ended up being the last guests in the dining room. Our server was very kind to us, and offered to take us on a tour of the restaurant’s new $10 million kitchen wing. But when we walked back toward the kitchen, we were all surprised to almost literally bump in to Chef Keller himself. He was extraordinarily gracious, took pictures with us, and personally showed us around his new kitchen. A hint on that experience—they still use copper pots, which gleam in the sunlight where they’re hung. And, of course, the kitchen still retains its famous closed-circuit TV connection with Per Se’s kitchen in NYC. All-in-all, it was a really cool experience. Only made better when Chef Keller asked that the Somm show us around the new wine cellar.
Walking in, the Somm showed us all of the “well-traveled” bottles that were stolen (and later returned) last year. These bottles are all extremely rare, and really have to be considered the cream of the crop. For instance, I found myself holding what was probably a $20,000 bottle (retail—not restaurant price) of vintage Domaine de la Romanee-Conti Romanee-Conti Burgundy. This is largely considered to be one of the best wines in the world, and is produced in such miniscule quantities that neither of us had ever seen a bottle—let alone held one. Needless to say, we handed it back to the Somm as quickly as possible, lest something bad happen!! But, how cool! They have an entire “well-traveled bottle” section on their wine list now.
We also saw Chef Keller’s collection of pre-Castro Cuban cigars, and some of his personal wine collection—which is pretty awesome! And we got to listen to Chef Keller prep his kitchen and service staff for the evening ahead. He knew it was one lucky patron’s 31st birthday, and asked that she be treated extra-special. Everything he told his staff was accompanied by a proclamation of “Yes Chef,” spoken in unison by everyone present. We almost chimed in ourselves.
Maybe the coolest part of the experience was when we were finishing our wine, sitting on an outdoor couch, enjoying a beautiful day and TFL’s beautiful courtyard. A private lunch was finishing up in the beautiful new “pavilion,” separated from the restaurant and kitchen by a walkway. And then Chef Keller came out with his afternoon cappuccino, sat on a couch opposite us roughly 50 feet away, and just contemplated life and the experience he was about to provide to dozens of thankful patrons. That moment of zen—watching one of the world’s best Chefs in secluded repose—was so special.
Our experience showed us that one doesn’t need culinary tricks and floating desserts to deserve a three-star rating (not that there’s anything wrong with either of those things, in some moderation). It’s clear Chef Keller and his team pour themselves into their craft, trying to create the most delicious food and the most memorable experience they can. They are people of unusual drive, accomplishments, and talent. But also humble and extremely gracious. We count ourselves lucky to have been invited into their world, and hope to experience that world-class experience again.