I have always thought of The French Laundry (TFL) as some sort of American treasure, as I have never heard of a restaurant so revered by the American public. However, in spite of decades of success and critical acclaim, I have never felt inclined to dine here. After reading several blogs, I vehemently believed that TFL would not be a new or exciting experience for me.
Naturally, when S informed me he wanted to go to TFL around the time of his birthday in December, I was quite averse to the prospect. But after giving it some thought, I felt that TFL had been a major influence in the culinary world for a significant amount of time, laying the foundation for many of today’s great chefs, and decided that dining here would be important for my gastronomical education.
We arrived at Yountville a little early and decided to have a “pre-game meal” composed of chocolate croissants and coffee at one of Chef Thomas Keller’s other establishments, Bouchon Bakery. It was exactly what we needed at the time, light on the stomach but enough to get our metabolism started for the meal ahead. I later found out during our lunch that the bakery started as an annexed bread making machine for TFL. Today, it has diversified its product offerings to yield quite the pastry shop (Chef Keller is the master of restaurant vertical and horizontal integration). I’ve been to Yountville twice and have yet to see a moment longer than five minutes where the lineups at Bouchon Bakery did not go out the door.
About three minutes from Bouchon Bakery down Washington St is the restaurant, a wooden house-looking establishment surrounded by colourful flowers, plants loosely draped from the upstairs balcony, vines covering the exterior walls and a vegetable garden right across the street. Upon entering the house’s blue door, whether it be from the warm tones of the rooms, illumination from the wall lights accented by laundry signs or the coffered moulding on the ceiling, there is an overriding feeling that the interior atmosphere of the restaurant is just as homey and inviting as the exterior.
We were seated in a dining area on the first floor enclosed by a stone wall. Here, our meal started with a couple of Chef Keller staples, canapés of cornets with salmon tartar and gougères. Next, instead of another Keller classic, “oyster and pearls”, we were given white sturgeon caviar with hass avocado and black pepper melba, as the oysters for the day were not of the quality that chef and team deemed as acceptable. The caviar course was quite a treat. Salty and briny from the caviar, smooth and creamy from the avocado, and crunchy from the melba. It was a playful dish that had quite the sensation of flavours and textures.
At one point our conversation with Brian, our main server, stumbled on Benu, former TFL top dog Chef Corey Lee’s two Michelin star restaurant in San Francisco. Brian mentioned that there are still some items and influences on the menu from Chef Lee’s tenure. I forgot to ask which dishes those were, but if I were to venture a guess, one of them would have to be the fish course – cobia with onions, radish, frisée, parsley, shallots and bacon jus – as it had a flavour that reminded me of certain Asian sauces. The cobia was cooked perfectly, flakey and not dry, it had a slightly seared outer crust which made breaking through it a similar experience to cracking the caramelized top of a creme brûlée. This was my favourite dish of the afternoon with the butter-poached Maine lobster that came right after coming a close second. The lobster was accompanied by squash, turnips, walnuts, flowering quince and máche, and just like the cobia, I don’t think I have ever had a lobster cooked more perfectly. The squash was a great addition, providing a subtle complimenting sweetness to the lobster.
For the next course S ordered the supplement, a risotto with white truffles topped off with caramelized butter. I nabbed a bit from S and found it to be surprisingly light and fluffy. The shaved white truffles provided an earthy aroma and flavour, and eaten together with the risotto, it is how I imagined an intensely flavoured cheesy and mushroomy cloud to be like. As I did not get the supplement, I had the quail with sweetbread, pearl barley, rutabaga, watercress and prune purée. The quail was stuffed with the sweetbread and was shaped into a tiny “pear”, and as every detail is looked after, it was finished off with a tiny stem.
When we go to any of these restaurants, I honestly never read the menu. So I didn’t notice there was a cheese course tucked in there. My stomach decides when my very mild lactose intolerance acts up, and with cheese causing most of the issues for me more than anything, I did not even want to entertain the possibility of an upset stomach on vacation. So when Brian said a cheese course was coming up, I told him I would just forego the course entirely, but Brian insisted that they’ll give me something else. On the fly, they were able to put together a vegetable-based dish. I thought they nabbed it from their vegetarian menu, but looking at that menu now, I can’t find it. It seemed like a very simple dish when they placed it before me. It was composed mainly of potatoes cooked in different ways, however I was surprised at how hearty the flavours were overall.
Towards the end of our meal and as a palate cleaner, we were given a blood orange mimosa. There was a light fizz to it from the fresh cream sherbet that made it seem like a sophisticated and healthy carbonated drink. After desserts and knowing that they do not regularly serve this Chef Keller signature dish, we specifically requested the “coffee and doughnuts”. What makes this dish special is that it is not composed of your regular coffee. The “coffee” is actually cappuccino semifreddo with whip cream on top. Two words to describe the “coffee”: silky smooth. To top off our entire meal, we were served mignardises. I took a hazelnut one before we took a picture, hence the missing piece in the picture below.
After our meal we asked to see the kitchen. Before coming to TFL, I was hoping to see Tim Hollingsworth and David Breeden at work since I read David would be under Tim’s tutelage for the month of December before he takes over the TFL kitchen in the new year. But Brian informed us that was not happening until a couple of months from now. As for the kitchen itself, what is pretty neat is that they have a TV that allows them to view the live Per Se kitchen at work (prime creeper action!). The team at Per Se was just starting dinner service. Tim and his slicked back hair were at the office – literally a one seat glass encasement beside the kitchen – and seemed to be signing diner’s menus. For the TFL social media fans, I finally got to see the pass, (aside from the food that comes through here) it is famous to us twitter followers for its “#tweetsfromthepass” hash tag. Although, I didn’t see the actual tweet printed on the pass.
As a final highlight of the afternoon, out of nowhere the main man himself, Chef Keller popped into the kitchen. I can only assume he took over expediting duties from Tim as he was standing right at the centre of the pass, and we saw Tim down Washington St about 10 minutes later. Chef Keller seems to be a very pleasant man, zen and calm, although I can totally see him doing a complete 180 in a second if I stepped on his foot or something along those lines.
The night before Chef Dominique Crenn of Atelier Crenn told us TFL will transport us and I think she summed it up perfectly. We were transported to a home, TFL style, and I was pleasantly surprised by the understated elegance, warmth and welcoming atmosphere of the staff, food and restaurant as a whole. The only issue during our meal was an obnoxious inebriated woman sitting next to us, which was completely out of TFL’s control and does not reflect them in any way nor alter our opinion of the restaurant. Everything at TFL was classically well done, most especially the food, which was executed to absolute perfection. Perfection in every sense of the word. Looking back, I should not have expected anything less from TFL and am very pleased to have my previous misconceptions overturned.
To view pictures of our meal in its entirety, click through the photo set below. If you are using a mobile device, please click here for compatibility.
Thanks for reading,
C & S