It's been over a week since my meal at The French Laundry, so here is the post. On December 21st, I attended an excom meeting, ambled around, wasted space, and got half the day off so I could head into Napa. The day was windy and rainy, with all the storms in California, and it worsened when we headed inland. There was a bit of traffic on the way, but thanks to Arthur's efficient driving, we arrived at the restaurant at about 6, only 15 minutes after our reservation.
The building itself is a quaint little cottage, which used to be a brothel and a laundry (hence its name). I think the bit about the brothel just adds to the appeal.
After being seated, we were presented with the menu selections for the day: the chef's tasting menu, a special holiday menu at $275, and vegetable tasting menu. I must also mention we were by far the youngest table, by an average of 30 years I'd say. I really was torn between the chef's and holiday menu, considering that the latter menu is only offered 3 weeks out of the year. There were some dishes on it that were quite tantalizing, including Santa Barbara sea urchin custard (have I ever mentioned uni is one of my favorite foods?) and herb roasted sirloin of Australian wagyu. However, this being my first time there, I felt I should have more the more classic dishes that the restaurant is famous for. In retrospect, I should have also ordered the wine pairing, but alas, there's always next time.
The kitchen brings out gruyere cheese gougeres, savory cheese pastries which are warm, soft and delicious.
salmon tartare and red onion creme fraiche on crispy sesame tuile cornet
The famous canape that is associated with the French Laundry, and this becomes obvious upon the first bite. The salmon was creamy and delicious, and the cornet was crunchy and buttery. The fraiche perfectly complimented the salmon and wasn't overwhelming at all. The various ingredients and contrasting textures worked together for the amuse that looked as good as it tasted.
"Oysters and Pearls" "Sabayon" of pearl tapioca with beau soleil oysters and Russian sevruga caviar
This was one of my favorite courses of the night. The tapioca custard was rich and creamy, and the two oysters were fresh, juicy, and plump. The caviar added just the right amount of saltiness to the cream. The textures were silky and smooth, and
the pairing of ingredients was excellent.
We were then presented with a selection of breads, along with a pair of Straus Family Creamery sweet and salted butters. I chose the baguettes that are pictured on the cover of the Bouchon cookbook. I was a bit disappointed to find it hard and cold, even if it tasted good with the butter, which was rich to the point of approaching waxy.
"Carnaroli risotto biologico", castelmagno cheese and shaved white truffles from Alba
This was one of the options on the menu that had a $45 supplement, every dollar of which was very well spent. The risotto had great consistency, but the greatest thing about this course was the white truffle. Our headwaiter comes around to the three of us who ordered the risotto with a wooden box containing two small fist-sized white truffles. I take in a whiff, and it is pungent and musky, a fresh truffle indeed. He takes it and elegantly grates it over our plates, a good 30(?) shavings or so. I was actually quite surprised how generous they were, but when he stopped, all I could want was more. When I was almost done with the dish, I used the bread to soak up every last drop--it was just that good. A truffle hunting trip in Alba in the near future is in order.
Salad of Belgian endive leaves, "compressed" fuyu and marinated hachiya persimmons, garden "mache" and black truffle "puree"
This was the other option apart from the risotto. Only Bart ordered this, but I got to taste an endive leave in the black truffle and persimmon "goop." And good goop it was.
grilled fillet of Mediterranean sea bream, "ragout" of marrow beans, "haricots verts", preserved meyer lemon and piquillo peppers
I was quite excited to taste how good Mr. Keller's fish could be, after hearing all the stories about how he stores his fish in swimming position, and generally how delicate he treats his seafood. The sea bream was quite good, and the flesh was smooth and flaky, which maintained its moisture.
"Caesar Salad" Maine lobster tail "pochee sous vide" with caramelized heart of romaine lettuce, garlic-parmesan "crouton" and "bottarga" emulsion
The lobster tail was cooked perfectly and was buttery and smooth. I wasn't a big fan of the "crouton," as I didn't find its flavor and saltiness really complimented the creamy and sweet lobster, though its crunchy texture did. I just ate that separately. The heart of romaine was flavorful, yet still being somewhat of a palate cleanser for this rich dish. This course was good, but not what I regard as one of the highlights of the meal.
"Aiguillette" of Liberty Valley duck breast, slow baked red beet "tapenade", glazed Tokyo turnips, watercress leaves and red beet emulsion
I really enjoyed this one. The duck breast was tender, juicy, and cooked perfectly, with just the slightest hint of gameyness. I can't think of better accompanyments for the duck than beets, which were delightfully sweet. The turnips could possibly be the best I've ever had. The watercress leaves were flavorful and fresh. All the ingredients worked well together in this course. I couldn't help but contrast Keller's duck with the Peking duck I had just the night before at the Great China in Berkeley, whose duck I maintain compares up to some of the finer restaurants in Hong Kong.
"bouillon" poached ribeye of Elysian Fields farm lamb, Yukon gold potato "mille-feuille", melted cipollini onion, golden chanterelle mushrooms and "mousseline bearnaise"
This course was good also, but I just couldn't help thinking about the wagyu on the holiday menu. Nonetheless, the lamb was tender and moist, with a hint of gameyness. Yum, I do love all game meats. The accompaniments are very worthy of note, the potato sliced millimeter thin, flavorful and flaky, the perfect texture. The chanterelle mushrooms were well seasoned and roasted nicely, and being a mushroom fan I am, these were good.
"St. Nectaire" Sierra beauty apple relish, cutting celery, tellicherry black pepper "gastrique" and crystallized apple chip
At this point I'm a bit stuffed, when out comes the cheese platter (I was semi expecting a cheese cart). I am currently not a big cheese fan, but I vow to cultivate myself into loving the stuff. The St. Nectaire wasn't too strong nor pungent, and it went very well with the greens. However, I squandered most of it on the first piece, and I didn't quite enjoy the bitter/savory aftertaste of the other pieces. The apple chip was great though--I thought it would be cool if there would be an imprint of the French Laundry logo when held up to the light, but it was delicious without it anyway.
satsuma mandarin sorbet "aux agrumes d'automne et feuille of bric croquante"
As a lover of satsumas and all things citrus, I really enjoyed this course. The sorbet was so clean tasting and not too sweet, almost like eating a ripe satsuma. The zesty foam was delicious also, adding a sharper taste of citrus to the dessert. A delicious palate cleanser for the cheese.
Valrhona chocolate "dome", wildflower honey-Sicilian pistachio "nougat blanc", bitter chocolate "coulis" and "cerceaux de sucre"
Presentation for this dish was delightful, with what Bart calls, the skidmark. The domes were rich and smooth, not too sweet and with great Valrhona grade flavor. The pistachio was nutty and had great consistency.
Afterward, half the table got creme brulees, while the other half got lemon custards. The creme brulee was good, but typical. I enjoyed the custard more.
We were then presented with a tray of chocolates, of which I chose espresso, peanut butter, and praline. The espresso chocolate was a mystery, because it really tasted more like hazelnut. I had these with a cup of espresso, strong and full bodied.
At the very end, we each got a bag of shortbread cookies to take home (They're crumbly and buttery delicious.) I also requested to go into the kitchen, so we all got to witness the dynamics of a kitchen that can produce such great food, along with the genius of Mr. Keller himself. He mostly just directed the kitchen in all his glory.
Service was impeccable all night, except for the very delayed pouring of water (they never automatically refilled my glass even when it dipped below half). Props to the waiter who lifted the cloches with so much drama and emotion. Overall, the meal was delicious and well executed. In short, absolutely decadent. Mr. Keller is quoted as saying he wants his diners to say "God, I wish I had just one more bite of that." I definitely agree. The final bill for each person came out to around $270 or so, every dollar well spent. I can't wait to return for the summer menu.