French Laundry

Years ago I read The Soul of A Chef. I was hooked and then had to read The Making of a Chef. After both books I was obsessed with getting to French Laundry. My time finally came.

 French Laundry, Thomas Keller’s place in Napa Valley, is revered as the best restaurant in the country. Hmm. Could all the hype be really true? Will I be thrilled or disappointed? Could it really be that good? Well I finally got to answer my own questions. The answer is that French Laundry is a must experience for any food lover. Truly.

 This isn’t just an evening out for a good meal. After all there are 9 courses. This is a culinary feast. Your palette gets to taste extraordinary flavors, textures, pairings of unique produce cooked in a variety of ways. It is eye opening, imaginative and provocative. Was I in a museum, an emerging art gallery or at a thought provoking play? No, just at a restaurant with an incredible chef who is pushing the envelope like no other.

 The staff couldn’t more helpful and knowledgeable. There are 3 menus to choose from. The Dinner Menu which is a 7 course meal, the Vegetable Tasting which is a 9 course meal or the Chefs Tasting menu which is a 9 course meal. We (Fred and me) opted for the Chefs Tasting. Our waiter recommended champagnes, wines (all ½ bottles) and dessert wines based on our meal of the evening. We went with what he recommended. All good, believe me.

 We began with 2 treats. The first one was a warm puffed pastry melded with gruyere cheese. One pop in the mouth and the dinner begins. We started this with a “blanc de blanc” champagne. The second treat looked like a small ice cream cone. Warm, yet slightly chewy cone immersed with black sesame seeds. The cone was filled with crème fraiche and topped with a small scoop of tuna tartare. Divine. Now the 9 courses start to arrive.

 Our first course was a creamed cauliflower panna cotta. Light, creamy and buttery. There was a small hint of oyster taste and a scoop of Russian Sevruga Caviar on top. This was perfect with the champagne.

 Next course we could have gone with the salad but instead opted for the Foie Gras ($25 Supplement). Hey, you only live once. We each did a different Foie Gras. One was made from Moulard Duck made into a circular shaped terrine.  We got a 1/2 inch slice. This was placed over a peach jelly that had small pieces of picked peaches and tiny marinated red onions in it. When they served it, the server topped it off with crisped rice pieces. Of course, melba toast sliced so thin on the side that I can’t imagine how many pieces break before they get to the table. The other Foie Gras was warm. Sauteed until crisp a piece of Moulard Duck Foie Gras served with peeled poached sweet crab apples and summer onions topped with a black pepper sauce We had 2 dessert wines with this. A Gwurtztraminer for the hot and a Tocai for the cold. Perfect. Each serving was sublime. We literally savored each bite very slowly.

 We are now entering the fish courses. We had a 2003 Muersault with this (1/2 bottle). Crispy filet of Japanese Suzuki served with sweet carrots, celery and the tiniest mushrooms I have ever seen. A reduction of Sherry Vinegar was served swiped on the side of the plate. This was my least favorite dish. Simple, elegant, but not as earth shattering as the others.

 The next fish course was inspired by Caesar Salad. My first bite made my whole mouth smile. Maine Lobster tail poached and set over a creamy emulsion paired with roasted romaine lettuce and a sweet parmesan crouton that was like a square creamy like a pudding. Phenomenal.

 Meat courses are next. We drank a really great California Cabernet from Merus with this (again ½ bottle). A variety of vineyards in the region make ½ bottles for them only.

 The first meat course was rabbit. Interesting. 3 small loins of rabbit, and I mean small. This was served with a rabbit liver that had been barely charred on the outside. Brown butter pudding and soft small leaks accompanied the dish and a sauce of wonderberries. Never heard of wonderberries? Me neither but they are like blueberries but sweeter and more dense. A local favorite. Too bad I couldn’t haul some back to NYC to make jam. Oh well.

 The next meat course was lamb. My fav. 3 small round piece of lamb served over a cassoulet of pole beans, tiny cherry tomatoes and a thyme “jus”. The perfect summer dish.

 The cheese plate, at least what they considered to be the cheese plate was one of the best things I had. Crunchy sautéed corn with applesmoked bacon mixed lightly with truffles and a few pieces of tiny mache served over the top. 2 pieces of a thick yet smooth cheese that had incredible flavor but not too tart were served next to this. The different textures and tastes just worked. It was an explosion in the mouth. We loved this.

 Dessert time. We had a Muscat from Australia to carry us to the end. It was time to cleanse the palette. Mango sorbet that was beyond intense served with a yuzu scented soft cookie and a black sesame coulis underneath. Really refreshing.

 The main dessert was outrageous. It resembled a large oval egg of pure chocolate with a hint of hazelnut covering the middle that was a caramel chocolate. This was served with a rich vanilla ice cream and toasty sweet hazelnuts. We both slowly ate the chocolate dipped with the ice cream. It was like nothing I had ever had before.

 About now you start to hit a wall. Amazing that we hadn’t hit it yet. They come out with small little treats. I couldn’t resist just a tasting. Macaroons that crumbled in your mouth, tiny lemon tarts that aren’t bigger than your thumb nail, chocolate tarts too.  Our served said he'd be happy to package it to go but I wanted to complete the meal as the chef saw it. 

Alas,  it was over. What a feast. What an experience. We rolled home happy and well fed. One of the top culinary experiences I have ever had. The waiter actually told me that the last 2 weeks in December they do a 9 course truffle menu. Hmmm. Perhaps I will get back to The French Laundry sooner than I think.

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Joanne Wilson Joanne Wilson loves food, books, and music. She lives in New York City. Her husband Fred and children Jessica, Emily, and Josh are bloggers too. More »

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