I knew that the culinary highlight of my California trip would be my dinner (with Jason, my sister, and Mr. Barzelay) at Thomas Keller’s world-reknowned restaurant. But I had been looking forward to the meal at The French Laundry ever since we scored reservations (two months prior), and I had built it up so much in my head that I figured it would NEVER live up to my lofty expectations.
Why I doubted, I will never know.
The French Laundry was perfection in almost every way imaginable. It was worth the hype (and, clearly, there is a lot of it). It was worth the dollar signs (and, clearly, there are a lot of them). It was worth the transcontinental flight, and the hour-long drive from San Francisco to Yountville. It was worth snaking into my sleekest, classiest dress, even though I knew I’d be busting at its seams by night’s end. It was, without a doubt, the most amazing and complete dining experience of my life. Yet, somehow, magically, there was no pretention to be found within its hallowed walls. Here is the menu I enjoyed, with my thoughts about each dish:
Before the official start of the meal, there were two amuses: a gougere (warm pastry filled with cheese) and the signature “cornets” of salmon tartare and sweet red onion creme fraiche. The former were light, tasty, and a warm and inviting start to our four-hour dining adventure. The latter were mind-blowingly delicate, yet intensely flavorful. If there had been any questions before, they instantly evaporated–we knew we were in for a real treat.
“Oysters and Pearls”–”Sabayon” of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and California Sturgeon Caviar. This is another Keller signature, and there’s a reason why–this dish is out of this world. Somehow, the saltiness of the oysters and the caviar combine with the buttery sabayon to transport you to a beautiful French seascape. No ingredient overpowered the dish, which is quite something considering that two of the components are oysters and caviar. Magnificent.
Salad of Hawaiian Hearts of Peach Palm–Cucumber, Radish, Cilantro and Avocado Puree. Compared with the foie gras that was also available for this course (for a $30 upcharge), this salad may seem unremarkable. However, I found it really satisfying and interesting and balanced, particularly each time I got a burst of flavor from a cilantro shoot. The avocado puree was also impressive in its smoothness and intensity.
I believe it was during the salad/foie course that we experienced the first pass of the bread service. The tray was enormous and full of many lovely carby varieties, including mini-baguettes, sourdough, multigrain, and ciabatta. I personally tried the sourdough and the multigrain, and they were both incredible (as were the other choices, according to the peanut gallery). The breads were made even more special and delicious by the availability of salted and unsalted butter, both from small, artisan dairies, and both served at the appropriate temperature.
“Tartare” of Japanese Bluefin Tuna–Sacramento Delta Asparagus, Navel Orange, Perilla and White Sesame. This was one big bowl of concentrated flavor. The tuna practically melted in my mouth, and was really fishy…in a good way. Because it was so rich and velvety, the oranges provided a welcomed acidic punch. The asparagus and sesame had a touch of bitterness, so the entire course was really well-rounded.
“Beets and Leeks”–Maine Lobster Tail “Pochee au Beurre Doux” with King Richard Leeks, “Pommes Maxim’s” and Red Beet Essence. Jesus H. Christ on a cracker, this course was INCREDIBLE. I am still thinking about it, salivating with joy each time I remember the tender, butter-poached lobster…the sweet and oniony leeks (which almost had a consistency like dip)…the beet essence that was exactly that…and the pomme that was the crispiest, most decadent example of a potato chip I’ve ever tasted. As with each preceding course, the components were delicious on their own, but they reached their peaks when combined as a cohesive whole.
Sauteed Veal Sweetbreads–”Chou-Fleur a la Grenobloise.” Okay, I have no idea what that French gobbledy-gook means. All I know is that I gobbled up these sweetbreads. It was funny, actually–there was a choice for this course, either sweetbreads or Pekin duck. As a couple, Jeanette and David’s strategy was, wherever there was a choice within a course, they ordered one of each. Jason and I, on the other hand, ordered what we pleased (meaning that neither of us ate the foie and both of us opted for sweetbreads). We were given endless shit about how that wasn’t enabling us to try as many things, we were missing out, blah blah blah. But when this course arrived, there was no question that the sweetbreads were the superior choice. And Jason and I each had our own portion. Hey, I learned to share in kindergarten, but all bets are off when it comes to thymus glands.
“Navarin d’Agneu”–Elysian Fields Farm Lamb Rib-Eye with French Laundry Garden Vegetables. I am not normally a huge lamb fan (I’ll eat it, but I rarely make a point of ordering it), but this dish was the pinnacle of lamb deliciousness. There were two thick, perfectly cooked (rare to medium rare) slices of meat, accompanied only by their own jus and some colorful, adorable baby vegetables. This course represented, for me, the height of culinary excellence–no frills, no foams, no fancy-shmancy distractions. Just meat, cooked properly, with vegetables. Never underestimate the power of the basics.
“Zamorano”–Globe Artichokes, Iberico Ham Croquette, Black Truffle and Mache. This was the cheese course, and I was so very thrilled that we weren’t presented with something from the blue family. Instead, we were served a delicious Spanish cheese–it had more bite than a manchego but not as much funkiness as cabrales. I guess it reminded me most of an idiazabal. In any case, yum! The cheese paired beautifully with the artichokes and the ham croquette (which was delicate yet powerful in flavor). And my mushroom-hating fiance even tried the truffle and declared it “not bad.”
I believe at this point, we were presented with the second bread service. This time, there was crusty white bread and a couple of different types of sweet slices (with dried fruit and nuts). I opted for the plain, and I only took a few bites because I was really starting to feel full, but everyone seemed to enjoy their selections.
Andante Dairy Yogurt Sorbet–Cream Scone, Sour Cherry and Black Tea Foam. This was technically the palatte cleanser, but it was like an extra dessert. The sorbet was perfectly creamy and had an amazing yogurty tang, and the sour cherry was the perfect accompaniment.
“Mousse au Chocolat Amedei”–Toasted Cashews, Curry “Arlette” and Gros Michel Banana Ice Cream. Originally, I did not order this dessert, instead opting for the citrus parfait. However, Jason and I switched after a few bites and decided we liked each other’s better than our own. This dish was the definition of decadent–rich chocolate mousse, thick banana ice cream, and some wonderful nuttiness from the cashews and the little curry cookie. Even though I was pretty darn full at this point, I was quite tempted to lick the plate.
Mignardises–While I knew that little candies would be part of the end-of-meal service, I had no idea that we were basically in store for two more desserts. First, the server came around with a beautiful silver container full of homemade sweets like meringues, salted caramels, nougatines, pates de fruits, and caramelized macadamia nuts dusted with powdered chocolate. Everything was just wonderful, but the table seemed particularly fond of the macadamia nuts. THEN, the server appeared with a huge tray of homemade truffles–in SIX different flavors (salted caramel, lime, white chocolate yogurt, peanut butter, praline, and one more that I simply don’t remember). My sister asked how many she could take, and the server said, “As many as you want!” Music to our ears. Not surprisingly, the truffles were absolutely fabulous–my personal favorite was the white chocolate yogurt, though the lime and salted caramel were also superb.
Throughout the evening, the service was formal, but somehow it felt accessible and friendly rather than stiff and stuffy. We were dining for approximately four hours, but it didn’t seem overly drawn out or like there was too much pomp and circumstance. The staff took great care of us (our server even took David and Jeanette into the kitchen and chatted with them for a while after the meal), but I didn’t get that sense of fakeness and butt-smooching that I’ve felt at some other restaurants. Just like the food, the service was simultaneously intricate and straightforward.
As we drove away from The French Laundry, full of food and good cheer, it was hard to believe that such a “bucket list” experience had come and gone. Thankfully, everything about the night will remain in my fondest of memories. I may never again visit Chef Keller’s flagship restaurant, but I feel lucky to have had one singularly perfect meal at what seemed, strangely, yet somehow unexpectedly, like his home.