After five fabulous years of feasting, traveling, and dating, The Astronomer proposed that we spend the rest of our lives together in matrimonial bliss. In one hand was a “huge and bloodless” diamond ring, and in the other was a confirmation for dinner at The French Laundry. He made it way too easy to say, Yes.
My boyfriend fiancé likes astronomy. I prefer gastronomy.
Oh, The French Laundry—it really needs no introduction. A funny thing happened as we walked through the restaurant’s front door; I recognized the hostess. From Mrs. Hayes’ honors biology class to Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry. It’s a small, small world after all.
The Astronomer and I were seated in a cave-like stone room that jutted from the first floor’s main dining space. Our breathy-voiced waiter informed us that the room was the restaurant’s original point of entry. We got the party started with some premium bubbly—Pierre Gimonnet Blanc de Blancs from France—because we were celebrating something pretty darn special.
GRUYÈRE CHEESE GOUGÈRES
Keller’s kind of tease when it comes to his fare at The French Laundry. “The more you have of something, the less you like it,” says Keller. “So our goal is to give the guests an experience that leaves them wanting a little bit more. Certainly with the food, you know, one, two, three, four bites – if that dish is finished and you say, ‘God I wish I had one more bite,’ that’s what we’re trying to achieve.”
These gougeres were served warm and had an airy touch of salty cheese. Due to their limited size, the flavors and textures ended up being so fleeting that I felt like I didn’t fully taste it.
I’ve read so many accounts of meals at The French Laundry over the years that the first few courses were eerily predictable. When these adorable canapés arrived, it was sort of like seeing an old friend for the first time.
My favorite element of these whimsical ice cream cone-inspired bites was the red onion infused creme fraiche piped into the savory cone. Whereas the gougeres were too small to fully appreciate, the cornets successfully left me wanting another bite. And another one after that.
“OYSTERS AND PEARLS”—“Sabayon” of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and California Sturgeon Caviar
Oysters and Pearls was the highlight of The French Laundry experience for me. As anticipated, the combination of flavors and textures was luxurious. What really excited me about this dish was the temperature at which it was served—the Oysters and Pearls were perfectly warm. The ideal temperature made the flavors brighter and surprised the palate after a series of cooler dishes.
PAIN AU LAIT
Our first bread pairing of the evening was a pain au lait from Bouchon Bakery, which is located down the street from The French Laundry. The roll was light, crisp, and slightly buttery.
The pain au lait was served with two types of butter—a locally produced salted one, and a firmer variety made by a cheesemaker. The nontraditional butter wasn’t as spreadable as the traditional one, but it tasted richer and more decadent. The pain au lait didn’t really require any butter, but The Astronomer and I couldn’t help slathering each bite with one of the lovely options before us.
SALAD OF HAWAIIAN HEARTS OF PEACH PALM—Hayden Mango Relish, Radish, Cilantro Shoots and Persian Lime
Up until this point in the meal, The Astronomer and I were served the exact same dishes. The Chef’s tasting menu allows for diners to choose between two options for a number of courses, so to maximize our dining experience, we each chose different dishes when available and swapped plates midway through.
Following the pain au lait, The Astronomer received a hearts of palm salad. We both agreed that the presentation was attractive, but the flavors weren’t very exciting. It’s important to note that Keller’s plates are composed by rejecting any item that, while maybe making the dish more ‘interesting,’ gets in the way of achieving perfection. It was wholly apparent during this course that Keller’s minimalistic vision of perfection differed from my own.
MOULARD DUCK “FOIE GRAS EN TERRINE”—Marcona Almonds, Celery Branch, Apricot Puree and Toasted Brioche
Prior to my trip to The French Laundry, my brother Victor, a fine dining veteran, adamantly insisted that we shell out an extra thirty bucks for the foie gras course. I’ve eaten foie gras here and there over the years and have never been too impressed, but he promised me that Keller’s deftly executed fatty duck liver would change my mind for good.
The delicate portion of foie gras was prettily accented with Marcona almonds, celery, and a sweet and tart apricot puree. A thick slice of buttered and toasted brioche arrived on the side, along with three types of finishing salt—gray French sea salt, white Japanese sea salt, and a pink salt from copper mines in Montana.
Spread smoothly upon the warm brioche, the impossibly velvety foie gras tasted like an otherworldly kind of butter. The salts and fruit puree curbed the richness, while the celery and almonds reset the palate for more. The simplicty of the preparation allowed me to really taste and appreciate foie gras in all of its controversial glory.
A note about The French Laundry’s superior attention to detail—As soon as I finished photographing the brioche, a waiter swooped in and removed the plate from the table. He replaced it with a freshly toasted slice without saying a word. The photo shoot took about 30 to 45 seconds, which is apparently much too long for brioche to sit idly. Although it was admittedly wasteful, I appreciated that the kitchen insisted that I experience the dish at its peak of deliciousness.
SAUTEED FILLET OF GULF COAST COBIA—Fava Beans, Turnips, Granny Smith Apple and Mustard Seed Emulsion
For the fish course, The Astronomer was presented with the sauteed fillet of cobia. Although it appeared dainty and supple upon the plate, the fish’s flesh was actually quite firm. Since I tend to favor buttery fishes with flaky fleshes, this plate didn’t excite me, although I did like the compressed Granny Smith apple and fava bean accents. The Astronomer was pleased with the cobia’s steak-like texture and consumed the bulk of the dish.
“TARTARE” OF JAPANESE BLUEFIN TUNA—Green Asparagus, Navel Orange, Perilla and White Sesame
The tartare of Japanese bluefin tuna was another highlight of the evening. Counter to Keller’s usual philosophy, this plate contained quite a few bells and whistles that made it interesting. The raw cubes of tuna, which were perfectly fresh, had an easy consistency that melted in my mouth. Dabbed in the white sesame sauce along with the oranges, each of the clean and distinct favors harmoniously mingled together. I liked every element of this dish.
Following the fish course was another bread pairing. The Astronomer chose The French Laundry baguette, while I went with a multigrain roll.
SWEET BUTTER-POACHED MAINE LOBSTER TAIL—Glazed Carrots, English Peas and Black Truffle Sauce
Dinner could have very well ended after this course because in my mind, it’s nearly impossible to top a succulent, butter-poached lobster tail resting in a pool of black truffle sauce. The glazed carrots and English peas brightened the plate beautifully, but it was the sweet lobster tail that knocked this dish out of the park. It was easily the greatest lobster I have ever eaten in my life.
The lobster course was a turning point in our dinner; the final lighter course before an onslaught of heavy meats. I adore tasting menus, especially when they’re paced properly, but almost always prefer the first half of a multi-coursed affair to the last. The early notes tend to hit the flavors and textures that I adore most when my tastebuds are ready to be wowed.
Though not completely stuffed, I was more or less sated after the lobster, which did not bode well for the meat courses on the horizon.
Following the lobster course was another bread pairing. The Astronomer chose a wheat roll, while I went with a sourdough.
VEAL HEARTS—Yukon Potatoes, Beets, Horseradish (left, top)
LIBERTY FARMS PEKIN DUCK “PASTRAMI”—Savoy Cabbage, “1000 Island Gastrique” and Caraway Seed Melba (left, bottom)
SNAKE RIVER FARMS “COLOTTE DE BOEUF GRILLEE”—Akita Komachi Rice, Beech Mushrooms, Broccolini, Ginkgo Nuts and Ginger Sauce (right)
The sun set moments before the meat courses began. Hence, the shoddy shots.
For the first meat course, I received the veal hearts, while The Astronomer was presented with the duck pastrami. The thin sheets of tender veal hearts weren’t very memorable eaten alone, but really came alive when paired with the spicy horseradish. The beets were disappointingly dehydrated, while the potatoes were terrific.
The duck pastrami was splayed on a bed of cabbage and topped with a thin and crispy caraway seed cracker. The duck was moist and tender, but the composition of flavors didn’t strike me as anything special.
For our second meat course, The Astronomer and I both received a hunk of grilled beef prepared medium rare. Though tender, the texture of the beef wasn’t of the melt-in-your-mouth Japanese Wagyu variety. The rice and ginger sauce pairing struck an unexpected Asian fusion chord, which I wasn’t too keen on. The ginkgo nuts were unpleasantly bitter.
The series of meat courses highlighted how Keller’s aim for perfection leaves the plate a touch too one-dimensional. All of the meat dishes were good in their own right, but none of them managed to excite me the same way some of the earlier courses did.
Dining at a gastronomical temple like The French Laundry, I want nothing more than to fall madly for each and every dish. Although experiencing a series of misses is heartbreaking, it truly does give me a better sense not only of the Chef’s vision, but of my own personal preferences as a diner.
The Astronomer and I loved everything about the cheese course but the actual cheese. The “beermat” was a firm specimen with an unpalatable flavor. We tried to mask the unpleasantness with honey, bacon, nuts, and fruit, but after two slices each, we had to admit that the cheese was an acquired taste. This was the only course that we didn’t finish all evening.
DIANE ST. CLAIR BUTTERMILK SHERBET—Cream Scone, Sour Cherries and Earl Grey Tea Foam (left, top)
“PARFAIT AU CITRON”—Crystallized Buddha’s Hand, Pistachio Biscotti and Lemon Snow (left, bottom)
“GATEAU AU CHOCOLAT AVEC BAVAROIS PRALINE”—Caramelized Gros Michel Bananas and Hazelnut Sorbet (right)
A buttermilk sorbet arrived next to cleanse our palates as we transitioned from savories to sweets. The sorbet’s pervading sourness was jarring at first, but mellowed out after a few bites. I loved how the dish was inspired by high tea complete with cream scones, Earl Grey foam, and fruity preserves. Clever!
Both dessert options this evening were a let down. I’m a dessert-lover through and through, so this sad turn of events was even more disappointing than the meat courses. Both the chocolate and hazelnut number and the parfait au citron were uninspired and disjointed. The individual elements that comprised each dessert were decent eaten alone, but never managed to meld together into a satisfyingly sweet package. This style of arty plating worked for most of the savory dishes, but came together poorly for the desserts.
Dessert was followed by mignardises, tiny, bite-sized sweets to end the meal. First, we indulged in some fine handcrafted chocolates. We chose a peanut butter cup, The chocolates were followed by little candies presented in a three-tiered silver box. I liked the drama of the presentation, but the nibbles inside weren’t as unique as their container.
Lastly, the maître d’ led us into The French Laundry’s kitchen for a mini-tour. The space was clean, calm, and warm, but I felt awkward gawking at the cooks and wanted to hit the road straightaway with my shortbread cookies in hand.
I walked away from my dinner at The French Laundry pleased that I had finally experienced the culinary mecca, but somewhat bothered that I didn’t fall head over heels for the place. At this level of dining, the food, service, and ambiance are a reflection of the Chef’s personality and intentions. In the case of The French Laundry, I have to admit that Keller’s perfectionistic style didn’t quite gel with my own.
The French Laundry
6640 Washington Street
Yountville, CA 94599