Eating at The French Laundry was a dream come true. My inital exposure to the restaurant occurred a few years ago when I read Grant Achatz’s book, Life, on The Line where he mentions his experience at The French Laundry and the philosophy and ideals espoused by the chef behind it all, Thomas Keller.
As one of the first pioneers of the farm-to-table movement that is now commonplace, Keller left his indelible mark in culinary history. My opportunity to dine there was a random occurrence - when I met Anna back in the fall of 2012, she was in the midst of organizing a group to go for private dining and extended an invitation to me.
Fast forward to Sunday, June 2, 2013. The sun was shining, the skies were clear and blue, and a group of us were dressed up like it was prom all over again.
While we were waiting for our garden tour to start, two waiters from FL walked across the street to deliver us trays of water. Thoughtful service even before the meal begins!
We met Anton, the FL gardener, shortly thereafter and he took us on a short tour beginning with a look at the rows of vegetables and herbs in the FL garden.
Next up, we passed by a spacious chicken coop with plenty of room to run around.
A visit to the greenhouse gave us a chance to look at fresh tomatoes and carrots up close.
I also learned about mizuna, a japanese green from the mustard family that has a peppery, bitter taste.
After the tour, we were led to our private table out in the patio, our own oasis to enjoy the food and each other’s company. We ordered a bottle of red and white and excitedly peeked at the menu for the gastrojourney to come.
The amuse bouche was the famous tartare cornet - the usual salmon was substituted by fluke which was just as delicious. In one bite, you have the fluke tartare, the crème fraîche, the peppery microgreen, and the crunchy cone. Simply amazing and I could have inhaled five more easily.
The first course is a classic mainstay of their menu, “Oysters and Pearls” - fresh Island Creek oysters and white sturgeon caviar sitting in a pool of decadent butter sauce. Both the cornet and the oyster dish are also served at Per Se, Keller’s outpost in NYC.
The two restaurants have a very intimate working relationship. I believe they used the word “cross-pollinate” where they would send a Per Se chef to French Laundry for a few months and vice-versa to exchange ideas, recipes, and techniques. This transparency allows for discussion and learning, and ultimately a better experience for the chefs and the customers.
Judging from the “oohs” and “aahs”, the hen egg custard with a ragout of Perigord truffles was a crowd favorite. As much as I love truffles, not every dish needs it. Unlike bacon, shaving truffles over a dish doesn't automatically make it "better".
For this dish, the addition of truffle wasn't gimmicky. It did not overpower the creamy egg custard and everyone let out a collective “awww” when their spoons scraped the last piece of custard in the empty egg shell.
The bread course was sourdough, pretzel (my favorite) and multigrain. Accompanying the warm breads were two types of butter, salted and unsalted, that probably came from the milk of a cow that morning.
The star of the next dish was hearts of palm, something I ate out of a can maybe twice in my life. Of course this salad of fresh Hawaiian hearts of peach palm was infinitely better. Paired well with the contrasting crunch of the Marcona almonds.
The Columbia River King Salmon was sublime. I have never seen a fish with such a deep bold color. Such a gorgeous fillet that I stared at it for a few extra seconds before piercing the flesh easily with my fork.
As I reflect on this picture, I’m reminded of the armada of servers that surrounded us with our dishes perfectly placed in their hands. Not only did they make eye contact with each other, they also looked to the server on their in order to choreograph the precise moment of when the dish hit the tablecloth. Total control.
The next dish was a bit of a disappointment. The lobster was overcooked just enough to take on a leathery texture which resulted in prolonged chewing. The hazelnut raviolini and brown butter sauce more than made up for it.
At this point, my camera battery began to flash which meant I only had a few shots left.
Was able to capture the tasty quail with a crispy skin and a juicy interior. The dark and fruity sauce went perfectly with the meat.
Unfortunately, this was the spare battery and I was unable to finish shooting the rest of the meal. For the rest of the pictures, check out Anna’s awesome set.
The final act consisted of sweets on top of sweets. From the mango sorbet with compressed pineapple to the trays of never-ending chocolates, it was a dream come true for such a sweet tooth as myself. But hats off to Ming, who carried the team near the end when he finished a whole tray of chocolates that people were too full to touch. I believe someone phrased it as, “guys, if you calculate the cost, each truffle we leave behind is $x.xx).
Stuffed and satisfied, we sat there and soaked in the peace and quiet as a cool breeze swirled around our feet. Temperatures that evening had dipped to the 60’s and toasty heat lamps were wheeled out out along with shawls and scarves for the ladies. The top-notch service continued when the server came out with a retyped keepsake menu for everyone that contained the names of the additional dishes, amuse-bouches, and wines that were served. As we stood up, we filed into the kitchen in groups of two or three in order to check out the kitchen in action. What struck me was just how quiet and clean it was, almost clinically sterile enough to perform open-heart surgery. The shiny steel pass had the day’s menu secured by lime green painter’s tape. Keller uses painter’s tape instead of masking tape because it peels away cleanly and doesn’t have that messy residue. It’s also used to label the date and contents of the plastic containers.
I turned around and above me on the doorway was a clock with a plaque underneath that had “Sense of Urgency” inscribed. The tour was pretty quick - after our server explained the different stations and said hello to the jovial chefs, we left the kitchen so they could break down the stations in peace.
We clutched our menus and tin boxes of shortbread cookies and slowly made our way back to the car. I remember looking up into the sky at the stars and taking a deep breath of fresh Yountville air, while thinking about the heavenly evening - from the informative garden tour in the beginning to the kitchen tour at the end of our meal and the plates of edible masterpieces in between, we were privy to the whole farm-to-table experience.
The car engine sputtered to life and brought me back to earth.
Great for groups: Getting a table for two for that special anniversary/birthday is not easy and also, you're at the mercy of when the next available date and time is. Booking a group dinner will grant you the flexibility to choose the date and time which can allow you to buy more affordable plane tickets ahead of time. This flexibility will cost you: $80 on top of the normal tasting menu price ($270) and you'll also need a minimum of eight people to participate
Top notch service: Our server and his team were hospitable, knowledgeable, and friendly. They were not clingy and let us enjoy the experience. I appreciated them anticipating things before we even asked.
"Hm...it's a bit chilly out here....do you have a...." "We're already bringing out heat lamps and will have scarves for the ladies."
"Is it possible to get the names of the off-menu items that were..." "Menus are actually being reprinted as we speak with all the information and will be given out after meal!"
Summary: Truly a must visit for both foodies and non-foodies. In terms of cuisine, dishes were executed and cooked perfectly (except for the lobster) but overall, the dishes weren't as exciting compared to comparable restaurants in CA at that price point. For example, both Commis in Oakland and Quince in San Francisco had creative twists on traditional dishes showcasing California produce. Perhaps I was a victim to my lofty expectations. With that being said, the experience of dining with a close group of friends outside in the beautiful Napa backdrop with attentive service is hard to beat.