Sunday, May 23, 2010

The French Laundry (Enough Said!)

Well, I can check that one off my list. Dining at The French Laundry, that is. You heard right - I recently was TREATED to an incredible meal at one of the world's best restaurants. I'd been to all of Thomas Keller's other Napa Valley establishments many times, and have been working my way through the Bay Area's four-star restaurant list, but THE FRENCH LAUNDRY! That was just a far-off goal for the bucket list, an excursion to be saved for when I won the lottery and quit my job in order to have: A) - the disposable income to plunk down for the full-blown French Laundry extravaganza, wine pairings and all, and B) - the time to stalk the reservations line with my undivided, neurotic attention. But thanks to my dear friend Carolyn, my culinary tick list just got a bit shorter.

Carolyn generously invited me to join a party of six she put together for a group of close friends. I am honored to have been included in the "inner circle" - she's got so many friends and admirers who would clamor for that sixth seat. So officially, Thank You Carolyn, for pulling my name out of the hat, or however it came to be that you chose me.

At any rate, it really did feel like the chance of a lifetime. I pulled up to the restaurant, and there was a chef out plucking fresh herbs from the expansive French Laundry garden right across the street. I took that as a fantastic sign for a splendid afternoon.

The Meal
I don't want this to be yet another gushing love letter to Thomas Keller - there are plenty of those out there (ok - maybe just a tiny bit of gushing) - but the meal was fantastic, exquisite, amazing... basically, insert any superlative adjective here: _______ , and it will apply. There were nine official courses (with options between two different offerings in a couple of instances), as well as several amuse bouche and bonus courses. However, it truly was a tasting menu - two, three or four bites perhaps of any given thing. I left the meal perfectly satisfied, but not overly stuffed. Since everything defies description, I'll just let the menu speak for itself.

Note: apologies for the pretty crappy photos, but I decided that I wouldn't lug my big old conspicuous camera into such a distinguished locale; I opted to try and be stealth with my little point-and-shoot. Turns out, I should have brought the big guns. The woman at the next table was armed with an outrageous DSLR, and our server ran down the French Laundry's photography guidelines (no flash). Apparently I'm not the only one who brings their inner geek to the table.

So here it is, my French Laundry meal, in full detail:

Chef's Tasting Menu

Gruyère Cheese Gougères
Cone of Salmon Tartar

Cauliflower "Panna Cotta"
with Island Creek Oyster Glaze and California Sturgeon Caviar
Salad of Hawaiian Hearts of Peach Palm
Field Rhubarb, Granny Smith Apple, English Walnut Sable, Watercress and Verbena "Aigre-Doux"or, my choice:
Moulard Duck "Foie Gras Au Torchon"
Brooks Cherries, Endive Relish, Green Almonds, Celery Branch and Lychee-Black Tea "Gelée"
Sea of Japan Big Fin Squid
Hen-of-the-Woods Mushroom, Lily Bulb, Kumquat, Red Radish, and Cilantro Shoots

or, my choice:
Grilled Japanese Bluefin Tuna
Globe Artichoke, Tomato Confit, Niçoise Olive, Arugula and Green Garlic Velouté
New Bedford Sea Scallop "Poellée"
English Peas, French Laundry Garden Carrots, Braised Brisket Marmalade
Four Story Hill Farm "Cuisse de Poularde"
Ruby Beets, Spring Onions, Tarragon "Jus"
"Chateaubriand" of Marcho Farms Nature-Fed Veal
Sacramento Delta Asparagus, Pickled Ramps, Tokyo Turnips and Dijon Mustardor, my choice:
"Dégustation" of Bellweather Farm Spring Lamb
Chickpea "Croquette," Japanese Cucumber, Jingle Bell Peppers,
Adante Dairy Yogurt, Parsley and Harissa

Chorizo, Fennel Bulb, Fava Beans, Pine Nuts
and Spanish Caper Vinaigrette

Coconut Milk Sorbet
Vanilla-Roasted Maui Gold Pineapple, Medjool Dates,
Cashew Nuts and Candied Ginger

"Crémeux aux Fruits de la Passion"
Dried Pistachio "Pain de Gene," Silverado Trail Strawberries
and White Chocolate Sorbet
or, my choice:
"Savarin au Citron"
Citrus "Vierge," Per Mio Figlio Olive Oil
and Straus Dairy "Crème Glacée"

Pecan Tart

House-made truffles

Candy-Coated Macadamia Nuts

The Details
It's gotta be obvious that the food was amazing, crappy photos and all, right? But if you think the menu sounds over the top, the attention paid to even the tiniest of details was astounding.

I went into the meal hearing the words of a friend and French Laundry veteran ringing in my head: "The French Laundry - the only place in the world where they replace your fresh brioche if your current fresh brioche cools off too much." And she wasn't kidding. The foie gras course was served with fresh, warm, toasty brioche... and before you could even get in bite 2.5 of your 4-bite tasting, they whisked away the old and replaced it with new, because "there is an optimal temperature to serve the brioche to affect the melting point of the foie gras" (direct quote). I'll have to keep that in mind the next time I serve foie gras at home. (That's a joke, people.)

But between the warm toast, the two different types of butters from different dairies (one, unsalted an quenelled on a plate; the other, salted and set in a crock at perfect room temperature); the three different types of salt, if you so felt the urge to salt the perfectly seasoned fare (a French grey fleur de sel, a Moroccan salt, and a Montana salt made from the remains of an ancient sea); and the servers appearing miraculously at your elbow to replenish, clear, pour or explain, the experience as a whole merits all of the accolades that get heaped on the place. It IS that good.

The Wines
To drink, we started off with a sparkling wine, some sort of Demi Sec (I have no idea what it was specifically - somehow I was not paying attention - what a slacker!). Not a conventional choice, since a Demi Sec is on the sweeter side and you normally see it paired with desserts. But it was the ideal match to kick off the first several courses of the meal. It was light, airy, perfectly spritzed with tiny bubbles - a festive beginning to a festive day.

We moved on to a white wine somewhere around the fish courses. I got the job of choosing that wine, and I think I did ok. I selected a 2007 Araujo Estate Eisele Vineyard Viognier. It was very fruit-forward, and had a beautiful floral bouquet. Again, nice and light - a stunning accompaniment to the delicate food. It was nice that our first couple of wines were light and crisp, because we rounded out the meal with a powerhouse of a wine.

I happened to have in my possession a magnum of 2005 Casa Dalla Valle Napa Valley Red Wine. This is a wine I had no business owning, and yet, there it was, sitting in my little wine cellar just begging for the *perfect* opportunity to be uncorked (the wine was a gift to me from a generous philanthropist). If you don't know about Dalla Valle, just google it - it's a Napa Valley cult wine darling. Dalla Valle's most famous wine, "Maya," is on the French Laundry's wine list starting at $1,500 per bottle. So if there was ever a *perfect* time to enjoy and share my little wine windfall, this was most certainly it. It turns out that the wine itself was new to the French Laundry staff - they'd never seen it before. What? It's true - I was asked a couple of times, by both our server and the sommelier, where I had gotten it. I stumped the French Laundry sommelier - wow. A little sleuthing turned up the following info about the wine:

Ripe and juicy, black cherry and blackberry fruit, is fleshy and well-centered, intense, full-bodied and concentrated. Firms up nicely on the finish, with tight tannins and rich dark fruit. Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. Best from 2010 through 2017. 400 cases made.

So, it was made in limited quantity, which is the only reason I can surmise why it wouldn't be on the French Laundry's radar. It's not as exclusive as Maya, or the Dalla Valle Cabernet Sauvignon, but still - it was a pretty special wine, IMHO. I was so happy to have such an amazing venue in which to share it.

Parting Thoughts
Was dining at the French Laundry amazing? Of course. I feel very fortunate that I was able to experience it, and I certainly hope to go back. But at the end of the day, the best part of the whole thing was sharing quality time with some amazing people. With food being so central to our lives, it's astonishing to me that the nourishment I take away isn't always with what is being served, but rather, with whom I am sharing the meal. Be it foie gras at The French Laundry or a peanut butter sandwich on the hiking trail, the best meals of our lives are inevitably shared with others. It's the very reason Fare to Remember even exists. So again, I thank Carolyn for such a special experience and all the great new memories that came along with it. I look forward to oh-so-many more!


  1. Gah... I wrote a post with drool all over it, nicely disguised so no one but you would notice its grubby gratefulness, and then that silly captcha thing ate it or flung it into space. What I said in a much classier way was how you should be showered with heavenly blessings for sharing that wonderfulness, and that I myself would be instantly exposed as a poseur if I ever managed to make my way to a table in the French Laundry. Envious, I am - but thrilled for you. xoxo

  2. Morry, You captured the day beautifully. You are my culinary co-hort in crime so I can't imagine being at the French Laundry with anyone else. I hope we have many more culinary adventures together. - Miss C.