When my sister and I booked our trip to stay with our cousin in San Francisco, she was almost immediately on the phone trying to get a reservation for The French Laundry. Like many top class restaurants in the world, finding a reservation is difficult – you need to book in advance at least a month and even then chances are the bookings will already be taken by the time you get there. She’s a lot more dedicated to it than I am, and managed to get a lunch time booking for Sunday, the day after we arrived in the city.
We arranged to hire a car for the day (it only ended up being about £25 for the day hire), drove up to Napa Valley (or Yountville to be more precise). The weather forecast predicted gloom and rain but instead the day welcomed us with bright sunshine and moderately warm temperatures. Our cousin equipped us with a GPS and that turned out to be really valuable as we took a number of wrong turns off connecting highways and intersections.
We arrived with plenty of time before our 11am booking, so took a quick walk around the area. Directly opposite from The French Laundry’s location is a big open area where they grow and harvest their own vegetables, herbs and even have a chicken coop that I’m guessing is more for the eggs than for the meat.
We could see them rotating crops with a number of the crops already completely harvested and other sections most likely to be harvested sometime soon.
This part of the US is wine country, so the surrounding buildings are either a combination of residential places, or a number of wineries offering samples of their wares. We walked into one place that was had an interesting combination of both indoor and outdoor art with the wine that they would serve. We even saw someone buy a painting, where the lady purchasing immediately demanded for it to be taken down to prevent others from even looking at it.
The French Laundry itself loos like a converted house. The building is made up of two floors, the downstairs floor appearing darker with the blinds semi-closed for privacy. The top floor is more bright but the ceilings much closer giving it the appearance of being slightly smaller. The tables are not pushed together like other popular restaurants with plenty of space for people to walk around. In fact, one table even brought their child (probably about one or two years old) although we were commenting on how it probably wasn’t much of a great experience for the child.
Here’s the door that you enter and exit through. A comfy courtyard welcomes you just outside with chairs if you want to sit and sun yourself whilst waiting, or maybe needing to digest more of your meal.
We walked around the premises a bit and even found this interesting Michelin branded thermometer.
We sat alongside one of the walls with the centre tables reserved for parties greater than two. We felt we were probably the youngest group of people with most people in their late 30s/early 40s and many tables significantly above that age as well. They have a dress code including jacket and no jeans or trainers and they really keep to it as well. A gentlemen, upon being seated, went to go take his jacket off and hang it on the chair when their waiter immediately asked him to, “Please keep your jacket on at all times sir.” They didn’t really explain but I guess it helps make the experience feel more special.
Everything about the experience is immaculately thought out and the decadence presented in a subtle fashion. Much to its namesake, the napkin folded at the table had a French Laundry branded peg. I have no idea whether or not you were supposed to take them home, but they left them about. When you left for the restroom, a waiter or waitress would remove your napkin only to have another one almost seemlessly appear.
Their degustation offerings both priced at a fixed USD270 including service came in two flavours. The first was a chef’s classic and the second, a more vegetarian friendly though not exclusively vegetarian with one or two of the nine courses including meats. I’m sure they could probably substitute for vegetarians but I’m guessing the combination of a French restaurant and a place like this isn’t exactly their target market. We went for the classic menu as well. Parts of the menu offered an alternative between two different dishes and I think we almost went for different alternatives that didn’t involve a supplement. Some choices, like a foie gras, added another USD50 to the overall cost. The price probably wasn’t so much the problem for me (since when are we going to do this experience again) but I decided against it since I am not the biggest lover of foie gras.
My sister also ordered a bitter lemon drink, whilst I perused their iPad wine list to pick a glass of red from the area. Of course the wine list was exhaustively comprehensive but I was surprised there wasn’t as many choices by the glass from the local area. No zinfandel reds by the glass either but I would have more chance later in the trip to indulge.
On choosing the menu, almost instantly two cheese gougères appeared at the table. Perfectly crisp, light and full of cheesy flavour, there was nothing wrong I could pick.
Shortly after arrived an interesting minced salmon cone filled with cream cheese. I like the playfulness of these two classic ingredients paired together in an entertaining manner and all the flavours indeed hit the spot.
Our first course from the degustation menu arrived. “Oysters and Pearls” or Sabayon of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and White Sturgeon Caviar. This dish was amazingly rich and was a great thing that it came in such a tiny bowl. The sabayon had plenty of thickness to it that it was able to easily hold up the caviar and the oysters laid on top. Creamy, rich and it almost felt like eating a thicker hollandaise I was glad to not how much butter or cream went into it. A very lovely start.
With this dish, we had been offered a brioche from the Bouchon bakery just down the road to go along with two types of butter, one from a local farm and the other flown from in from Maine.
Our next course, the “Creme D’Asperges”, Jidori Hen Egg, parmesan, chervil and garden blossoms. I forgot to take a picture of the lovely components underneath the asparagus soup but this was a really nice dish. I was surprised at just how much asparagus flavour they managed to extracta and the poached egg wasn’t too big or too small for this dish.
The bread offerings started to open up. We had a number to choose from including a french loaf, a seeded loaf, sourdough and then a pretzel. Throughout the meal I think I tried everything but the french roll preferring the chewy sourdough and the salted pretzel bread.
I didn’t have this next dish, but my sister did. This was the “Smoked Shad Roe ‘Porridge'”, Lemongrass, charred ginger, tempura sea beans and shiso so I don’t really have comments on this one.
My alternative was the “Sauteed fillet of Atlantic Striped Bass”, Sunchokes, fava beans, nicoise olives and serrano ham. As you can see from the picture, part of the delight of this dish was the perfectly crisped potato crust providing an additional crunch to the texture of the dish. The ham added salt to the dish and this was a very impressive dish. The fish remained juicy and the flavour combinations really worked well.
Our next course together was the “Sweet Butter Poached Maine Lobster ‘Fricassee'”, spätzle, pickled beef, French Laundry garden beets, petite radish, tarragon and “Sauce Borscht”. I laughed and commented to our waiter on his efforts to pronounce spätzle based on my own experiences last year. It was a pretty good effort. You could taste the buttery richness imparted on the lobster by itself and though I didn’t really note a strong pickled flavour from the beef, the “borscht” was an amazing reduction of so many complex flavours. I have no idea how to describe it other than layers and layers of deep flavours impacted on a thick sticky sauce. The spätzle was also pretty good though I couldn’t pick the odd flavour imparted so I asked them if they added a sauce around it. Upon returning from the kitchen I was informed they’d been covered with some sort of reduced creme fraiche.
We both chose the next dish together, “Four Story Hill Farm Poularde Breast”, Nettle ‘gnocchi a la Parisienne’, crosnes, Nantes carrots and Black Winter Truffle Consomme that I think may have been the dish with the most subtle flavours. The poularde had, of course, been perfectly cooked. It looked cooked sous vide as it remained juicy and then its crispy outer finished off in a pan. Tiny fresh vegetables dotted the plate and the nettle gnocchi providing an alternating softer texture though without any distinguishable nettle flavour.
The truffle consomme, was of course, poured at the table with great effect and smelt wonderful imparting soft earthiness to the other dish. I found the truffle consomme not as rich in flavour as I expected but I think that more has to do with the black versus white truffle whose flavour is less pungent and sharp.
I wasn’t quite sure how the next dish was going to go for my sister as she’s not a big fan of lamb. “Elysian Fields Farm lamb saddle”, Merguez sausage, farro, “Ribettes”, broccolini and “Piperade au Saffron” however I certainly enjoyed it. I did think there was a bit too much going on the plate – underneath the lamb sat roasted peppers turned into a mash spread across the plate. The sausage was crisped up to provide texture and tiny pieces of meat that I guessed as some sort of lardons crisped up on one side added more texture and richness to the dish. I liked the small slices of a chile that added a subtle heat to the overall dish. Much to my sister’s delight, the lamb had a very subtle flavour and many other strong-flavoured components helped prevent it from dominating.
We finally moved on beyond the main courses, and first hit the cheese course. “Chaconne”, “Pruneaux d’Agnen”, pecans, petite onions, oxalis and black truffle “Aigre Doux”. As you can see more black truffle infused honey smeared across the plate and a salty, creamy cheese that went well with all the other components.
Or first official dessert arrived, a “Sierra Beauty apple sorbet”, toasted oats and ginger “nuage”. The ginger foam effectively had a very subtle flavour – very surprisingly considering how it normally dominates and I love the crunch provided by the toasted oats at the bottom of the plate. A great way to cleanse the palette and an enjoyable dessert.
My sister opted for the alternative dessert, a “Meyer Lemon ‘Parfait'”, Oregon huckleberries, sicilian pistachios and poppy seed ice cream. It looked really great and I had a small taste of the “parfait” that was just as tart as I would hope.
Being a lot more predictable when it involves hazelnut and chocolate, I ordered the “Marjolaine”, praline Mousse, “Dacquoise” and roasted banana sorbet. Tiny merengue discs sit atop some of the components, caramelised and toasted hazelnuts adorn the plate and a lusciously rich praline mousse was devine. The roasted banana sorbet was a surprising winner as well helping bring more caramel tones to the final dish.
We hit tea and coffee (included in the overall meal cost) and even more food arrived. We thought we were done. First in the bowl at the back, caramelised, sugared macadamias had a crisp caramel shell and made even more decadent by a dusting of icing powder. I couldn’t stop myself eating these as I love macadamia nuts and they were really, really, really good. In the dish to the right were tiny brioche beignets or simply donuts. The brioche bread made them even lighter than a normal donut. Finally the cup in front isn’t a cappuccino as one might expect. Instead it was a coffee ice cream set with foamed milk to resemble one. Delicious and very playful.
Just as we thought we were done with food, they brought yet another plate of food, this time petite fours in the form of various chocolate. They were beautifully made and contained flavours like coconut, praline, peanut butter and jam, mint and lemon. I can’t really remember the other one.
We asked for the bill and another container arrived. I assumed it was some sort of toothpick container.
But I was wrong. More food although this time, we could bring this shortbread home to keep in the French Laundry embossed container.
I stepped out to use the restrooms and then when I got back (and paid), my sister told me that they were going to give us the tour of the kitchen. I was really excited as I still clearly remember our kitchen visit at Eleven Madison Park and love seeing the “behind the scenes”. I think this was because my sister asked about the rumours of a two-way camera and monitor linking the French Laundry with its sister restaurant in New York, Per Se. The rumour is true as we were about to be shown.
Our waiter showed us to the kitchen, asking for staff with large plates of food to graciously move out of the way. Unlike Eleven Madsion Park, I’m guessing kitchen visits weren’t that regular because I felt like we were constantly in the way even though we were pretty much up against the wall.
We got to shake one of the chef’s hands and our waiter told us about the various stations and what they were all doing. This visit to the kitchen really made the visit. I was surprised at how small the kitchen was with many chefs not having much more space than to turn around. The waiter pointed out the preparation area, a small room at the back of the kitchen where it literally looked like chefs worked shoulder to shoulder to peel, cut and prepare for the evening’s meal.
I count myself lucky every time we get to dine at places like this. It’s an experience many people do not and cannot have and appreciated every bite.
Name: The French Laundry
Found at: 6640 Washington Street, Yountville, CA 94599, United States