The French LaundryThursday, May 12, 2011
Today marks a milestone for Lick My Spoon. It’s my 300th post! Yep, this very post…numero 3-0-0. I thought a fitting way to celebrate this momentous occasion would be to tell you about another momentous occasion that happened a little over a year ago: The French Laundry. Without an ounce of exaggeration, it was a meal of a lifetime. A five-hour, seventeen-course, ten-wine immaculate dining experience.
Now, I realize this post is a little late. Sorry about that (especially to everyone who has been waiting for-ev-er for this), but it was one of those epic posts that I kept guiltily putting off because the heft and magnificence of the entire thing was just too overwhelming. How could I even do this meal justice? Because, well, it was more than just a meal. Thomas Keller has created something truly magical here. He has created a world where every detail has been thought of to the fullest extent for one purpose: Your Pleasure.
To set the scene, Hua and I came upon this coveted reservation and religious dining experience courtesy of a very special and dear friend (hooray, Felix-friend!) who gifted this to us as the Best Wedding Present ever. Even better than getting to go to The French Laundry, we got to share the experience with Felix and Connie, who flew out from NY for a weekend of nonstop fun and food. Champs they were.
After an appetite-inducing morning run and strategically timed light lunch, we arrived in Yountville, which was charming as ever. It had just rained earlier that day and all of wine country smelled fresh and clean. The sun broke through the clouds just in time for our 6 o’clock reservation, and as we giddily crossed the garden courtyard, I was dangerously close to breaking into a skip.
For being lauded as one of the best restaurants in the world, you’d maybe expect something a bit more ostentatious, but actually, the restaurant is easy to miss along the quiet winding road. With rustic stone walls, lush foliage, and a heavy wooden door painted a fetching cerulean hue, it could easily be mistaken for a quaint bed and breakfast dropped in from some French countryside.
As we entered the restaurant, I felt like we were stepping into a cathedral. A cool hush surrounded us, but it was a kinetic kind of quiet, filled with clean and confident movements.
We were graciously greeted and led to our table, inside a pretty little nook off the main dining room, and then the feast and merriment began!
The first amuse bouche was TK’s signature Salmon Cornets, adorable mini crispy, buttery cones filled with salmon tartare and sweet red onion crÃ¨me fraiche, all tucked inside a perfectly folded napkin. Whoever makes those is for sure a master origami maker by now.
For our second amuse, we were presented with petite Gougéres – light as air with molten gruyére inside. A cheesy poof in one hand, champagne in the other? Bliss.
And then a brigade of servers descended upon us for our first course. Inside my bowl was an artful arrangement of Madras curry panna cotta with tiny cubes of carrots, toasted cashews, and cilantro around it. On cue, each of our servers poured over a foamy, creamy cloud of sweet Carrot Soup. I loved the showmanship of it – it was like, “Hey, we want you to see how pretty we made this for you before we cover it all up.” Also, you’ve heard of warmed plates? Well at The French Laundry, they also have warmed soup spoons. #TFLWholeNotherLevel
Ah, the famous Oysters and Pearls! Perhaps the sexiest dish ever invented. The texture is unreal. Velvety and rich. Paired with silky oysters and the salty sea burst of fine caviar…pure decadence. You just feel sexy and rich eating this. I also loved that this little well of luxuriousness came nestled on top of three massive plates. How grand. And, the utensil of choice? Tiny doll spoons made from mother of pearl. Oh yes, only the finest mother of pearl is worthy of transporting these oysters and pearls to your lips. We adored this dish, which was illustrated by the complete silence that fell over the table as we savored each biteâ€”silence that was only punctuated by a number of “Wow”s uttered and Hua asking our server for a whole bowl of the stuff.
Next, succulent Dungeness Crab meat served with a bite-sized crispy roll of fragrant green garlic and Brie wrapped in the most delicate sheet of pastry that shattered with a bite. The dish was topped with a spoonful of the most intensely tomato-y tomato compote I’ve ever had. A dollop of horseradish crÃ¨me fraiche gave it some bite.
Our next sampling from the sea was a bite of Bigfin Squid, served with broccolini, a scattering of crunchy water chestnuts that had been brunoised to confetti size, and segments of mandarins glazed in kanzuri, a Japanese chili paste made with yuzu.
This was my *favorite* dish of the evening. Another classic Keller creation, the Hen Egg Custard was like a crÃ¨me brÃ»lée of white and black truffles. Inside a perfectly cut egg shell was white truffle oil-infused custard with a ragout of black Périgord truffles layered on top. The crowning touch was a breathtakingly delicate garnish – a potato “chip” sliced so thin that two slices compressed together still managed to be translucent (yes, that chip is made with two potato slices and a strand of chive sandwiched between). Talk about precision.
For truffle freaks, this jewel of a dish is the ultimate. The aroma alone made me dizzy with pleasure. I wanted to take a nosedive into my wee little beautiful egg. The cream of the custard made the pungent truffles bloom and the veal stock in the ragout had been reduced and intensified to a syrup of umami richness.
While all the wine pairings throughout the meal were exceptional, this one really blew us away. Head Sommelier Dennis Kelly paired this dish with an exquisite Madeira (D’Oliveira, Verdelho, “Reserva,” Madeira 1973). The caramel, coffee, almond toffee notes in the wine really brought out the best in the woodsy, earthy truffles. We enthusiastically told Dennis, ”You nailed it.” To which he excitedly replied, “I know. Thank you.” This little exchange actually sums up the vibe of the whole place pretty well. Everyone there knows how ridiculously awesome they are. They strive for perfection in every detail. But, it is presented completely without pretension, and with the utmost graciousness and pride in providing the best experience possible for you.
We inquired more about the wine and learned that the Madeira was aged 34 years in conditions recreated to mimic how the wine was treated as it made the journey from Portugal to the Americas in the 1700s. As the ships sailed across the equator, the wine would develop its flavor inside the sun-warmed barrels. Cool, huh?
The burnt sugar flavor of the Madeira was a great play on the whole crÃ¨me brÃ»lée concept. It was all so brilliant. The chef was luring me in not only with seductive flavors, he was playing to my mind as well. It was like an inside joke thrown out there, and if you got it, you would appreciate the thought behind the dish as much as the physical tasting of the food. A kind of meta-dining if you will.
Ok, I’ll stop waxing poetic about this egg dish…we have many more courses to go! (But really, I loved it. I loved it so.)
Following that richness, we had a little something fresh. A few bites of Roasted White Asparagus accompanied by ripe strawberries, a sprig of mache, and hazelnut mousse.
And then it was back to richness Bring on the foie! The decadent Foie Gras au Torchon was sublime. The flavor was pure. The texture was like cool, sweet butter. It was adorned with baby fennel, apricots, almonds, and a streak of aged balsamic, and served with a warm slice of grilled panettone speckled with plump raisins. Also brought to the table was a most impressive tray of salts.
The wooden box in the center contains Japanese sea salt from the Inland Sea. In the upper right corner is flaky French fleur de sel, and below it is sel gris from Brittany. On the left side, we have Hawaiian black lava sea salt, Hawaiian red clay sea salt, and see that small round container in the middle? Well that is 40-million-year-old fine Jurassic pink salt from copper mines in Montana. Yeah, I just said Jurassic.
Our first fish course was a tender Poached Atlantic Halibut with a coat of shad roe sauce, served with buttery potato purée, plump English peas, smoked Cipollini onions, and baby radish on the side. The vegetables stole the show – those sweet peas were like little pearls of spring.
Following that was a pan-fried Sea Scallop with an Egg Yolk Pudding. The scallop was huge, smooth and quivering inside, with a crisp golden sear outside. The yolk was something special. It was essentially an egg yolk confit, cooked slowly in oil at a low temperature until it was the texture of soft pudding. Egg yolk pudding-sauce, people! Incredible. This dish was really fun to eat. Accoutrements included some lobster meat and bits of calf sweetbread in a red wine Bordelaise sauce, and grated back truffle.
The truffle train continued with Gnocchi obscenely covered in Black Truffles. I’ve never consumed so much truffle in one sitting. It was glorious.
This fellow became one of our favorite people to see in the room. Inside that beautiful lacquered box he’s carrying are whole nuggets of truffles. When the truffle bearer enters the room, that means your server is about to make it rain! Win.
Next came a crispy-skinned, juicy Pekin Duck with celery from the garden across the street, tangy rhubarb, pistachios and green peppercorn sauce. I was reaching capacity at this point (and rethinking that second slice of panettone I had with my foie gras…which come to think of it, was totally worth the stomach space).
Rouelle de TÃªte de Cochon is a fancy French way of saying pig’s head shaped in round puck form. It was encrusted in crispy panko breadcrumbs and topped with morels, turnips, and pickled ramps. The lighty, lemony sorrel sauce was a nice balance to the rich meat.
I have to admit that I was only able to take a bite of this final meat course. If only I had a second stomach to do this meal justice. Hua, on the other hand, benefitted from my shortcomings and dispatched of both our Lamb Rib-Eyes. Beast. The lamb was gorgeously cooked, encrusted with parsley and garlic, and served with stewed beans, tomato confit, and thyme-scented lamb jus (drizzled a la Jackson Pollock).
Tomme Crayeuse is a cheese from the Savoie region of France along the Swiss-Italian Alps. It’s a semisoft raw cow’s milk cheese that is creamy under the rind, with a touch of chalkiness in the center (“crayeuse” means “chalky” in French). The cheese was served with a crescent of pain perdu (French toast) and roasted beets.
Now for dessert! First, a palate cleanser of Steel-cut Oat Sherbet. Clean and refreshing, with a bit of crunchy granola, die-sized cubes of tart Granny Smith apple, and a rum raisin coulis.
We graduated to a Peanut Butter Bavarian Cream with a bottom crust of buttery burnt sugar crunchies, garnished with a hazelnut chocolate truffle “surprise” and a chocolate florentine-like hat balanced on top.
Served alongside the bavarois was a spoonful of Gros Michel Banana Sorbet. Leave it to The French Laundry to sniff out a local fruit supplier of rare fancypants bananas.
The Savarin Au Citron was an airy sponge cake encircled with little brilliant gems of orange and grapefruit segments. A canelle of ice cream made from wholesome Straus cream and a drizzle of fruity olive oil finished it off.
And one more off-menu sweet treat for good measure – we received a Honey Cream Tartlette in a shortbread crust (thin as can be), with a raisin-y syrup on the bottom, and garnished with pistachios.
Our Mignardises included Chocolate Truffles (Hazelnut Praline, Thai Coffee, Peanut Butter, Banana, Meyer Lemon, and Salted Caramel), and Chocolate Covered Macadamia Nuts.
After our epic meal, we were treated to a tour of the kitchen. It was shiny, bright, and immaculate. On one of the walls hung a monitor with a direct feed into the kitchen of Per Se.
And above the door, hung this mantra:
Fi-nesse (fÉ™’nes) noun: Refinement and delicacy of performance, execution, or artisanship.
Months later, when I met Thomas Keller, he signed my menu from this evening with the words: “It’s all about finesse.”
That commitment to finesse was present throughout our entire time at The French Laundry. The food was exquisite. Each dish was created and presented with artistry. Every detail was expressed with intention, both in the kitchen and in the dining room.
The service was flawless – like a beautiful dance with servers waltzing gracefully through the dining room, two by two. The vibe was a balance of formality and sincerity. Our servers started out a bit serious, but we quickly broke them down with our insane pumped up-ness. They got excited because we were excited. And really, after 20 rounds of dish drop-offs, pick-ups, water refills…you kind of get to know a person.
It was all just very thoughtful. Oh, you’re feeling a little chilly? Let me offer you a pashmina. Wait, you’re coming up the stairs to use the bathroom? Well, I’m already half-way down, but I’m going to turn around, go back up the stairs, and open the bathroom door for you! Because you are important to us and we would like to make you feel special.
The precision and attention to detail was unreal, borderline OCD. For example, I noticed that every time a plate was set down, my silverware was adjusted so that it lay perfectly perpendicular. Was I imagining this? Only one way to find out. I tested my theory. I subtly knocked my fork off-kilter. Again and again. (I’m sure my server thought I had motor skill control issues.) Each time, without fail, it was reset just so! Amazing! I mean, they train people to do this, purely for the aesthetics.
Nothing is overlooked. Even something as simple as your water glass is a work of art. I’m not exaggerating, they were really cool. They looked like those flimsy plastic cups you get on an airplane, except they’re made of thin thin glass! Completely impractical, but so inexplicably fun to drink from.
As a diner, you are made to feel as if all of this beauty and luxury and extravagance exist purely for your ultimate sensory pleasure. I will treasure this evening for the rest of my life, even more so because I was able to share it with people I love, who appreciated it as much as I did. In the end, that is what a great meal is about. Yes, the foodâ€”really great foodâ€”but also Laughter, Joy, Pleasure, Celebration…Love.
“When you acknowledge, as you must, that there is no such thing as perfect food, only the idea of it, then the real purpose of striving toward perfection becomes clear: To make people happy, that is what cooking is all about.”
– Thomas Keller