Arriving in San Francisco on the 15th we’d already dined at Gary Danko, One Market, and Boulevard prior to our trip north to Muir Woods, Napa, Sonoma, and Yountville yet the true goal of my visit was to experience Keller’s magic – first for lunch at Bouchon and then for Dinner at The French Laundry. Having already tasted the Bouchon experience in Vegas and NYC within the past year, I knew what to expect and was not let down despite having to watch my portions in preparation for the meal ahead. After lunch we snapped some daytime pictures in front of the beautiful old laundry house as well as a few of the back lot and the beautiful (albeit rain soaked) garden across the street. After browsing Yountville for a bit we then visited the Petrified Forrest, Berringer Winery, and the Culinary Institute of America before returning for dinner – it was dark and I was glad to have gotten my photos early.
Another few moments passed and I gazed around at the other couples dining before my head-server, Ruben, arrived and stated “the Chef has prepared a special menu at your request, but if you’d like to see the evening menu I can let you browse that as well.” Not wanting to ruin the surprise I declined and Ruben disappeared to the kitchen. Moments later, the first dish arrived, albeit not unexpectedly.
#1 GOUGERES - Savory pate a choux with Gruyère cheese and sauce Mornay. Small as a gumball yet dainty as a dried flower, so dense and packed with flavor that any more might be “too much,” this small pastry simply melted in the mouth leaving behind a delicious and creamy gel. I take back what I said before, more would be ideal…lots more.
#2 SALMON CORONETS – Line caught Scottish Salmon with chives and a red onion crème fraîche on a sesame cone. The signature amuse of The French Laundry and every bit as good as the reports. A buttery and perfect cone filled with savory sweet cream and topped with a spicy yet perfect salmon that seemed to cling to the palate well after it was finished. Perfect.
The first two amuses, classically offered before every meal at The French Laundry, were delivered by a young female server who delivered more than half of the evening’s dishes with great dignity and wonderful descriptions – I personally find it quite impressive that all servers, male or female, are held to the same high standard of dress as the male patrons – jacket and tie required. In order to better organize this report, I will avoid overly discussing the service and simply note that without overstating, I can say that every single server at The French Laundry was flawless in execution. Despite the small size of the restaurant and myriad servers there was no sense of “hovering” or “rush” to the meal at all. Water was refilled without question, the wine pours of others were always on time, and even long pauses between dishes (anywhere from 6-15 minutes) always seemed perfect to fully appreciate the previous dish.
#3 PURÉE OF BELGIAN ENDIVE SOUP - Granny Smith Apples, Celery Branch and Hazelnuts. The first true dish of the evening, this arrived as a small pile of apples, celery branch, and hazelnuts in the base of a bowl into which the piping hot soup was poured tableside. Complex and rich, sweet yet salty, perfectly textured the soup was a knockout and the triple tiered serving dishes were truly gorgeous. Not quite as good as the soup at Gary Danko two days prior, but a take on Endive that I’d have never expected. Brilliant, warm, and a great start.
#4 “OYSTERS AND PEARLS” - “Sabayon” of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and White Sturgeon Caviar. When the mother of pearl spoon arrived I knew what was coming and I must say I was a little concerned. Not a fan of Oysters and minimally experienced in caviar tasting I honestly did not know what to expect, yet these worries disappeared the moment I tasted the first bite. Having read the TFL cookbook I realized the small oysters were trimmed and cooked with the trimmings used in the sabayon and despite the expected brininess, the tapioca’s subtle cream perfectly offset the salty caviar which each popped on the tongue like an experimental mg dish. Flawless and dainty, perhaps I’m more of a fan of oysters than once thought.
#5 TARTARE OF JAPANESE KANPACHI - Compressed Cucumber, Perilla Shoots and Niçoise Olives. The texture of the fish was quite firm, and its dainty flavor was perfectly complimented by the cucumber and mild olives while the perilla lent a small degree of fresh “mint” essence to the dish. While not my favorite dish of the evening, I’d certainly order this at many sushi bars if it were offered.
#6 FLORIDA EVERGLADES FROG LEGS - Cauliflower Fleurettes, Marcona Almonds, Red Chili, Cilantro and Coconut-Kaffir Lime “Nuage.” Clearly an exercise in contrasting textures, flavors, and expectations this dish worked on every level. The panko crusted frog was succulent, moist, and sweet while the cauliflower was crisp and broiled to perfection and the nuts provided a bit of crunch and texture. While the Chili was mostly undetectable at first, the heat grew on the palate as the dish was consumed and the subtle hints of lime essence filled the nostrils with each bite. Amazing.
#7 WHITE TRUFFLE CUSTARD - with a Ragoût of Périgord Truffles. In a night of amazing dishes and a trip of amazing foods, this one may have been the best of them all - what appears to be simply an egg-shell sans top is actually a medley of flavors that can barely be described. Presented with two dried potato chips emerging from the top, the slow poached cream infused custard is then topped with a truffle ragout that can be smelled at arms length. Despite its small size, I do believe this dish took 15 minutes to eat as I savored each bite with a smile on my face. Ruben, my server, must’ve noticed this as he came over to the table when I was done to describe the preparation of this dish and the classic nature of the process.
At this point in the meal I was brought Chef Keller’s famous Pain Au Lait with two butters, an unsalted version from Napa Valley Cows and the famous Animal Farm Dairy Butter, Salted, from Vermont. Served warm, the Pain Au Lait was glorious and notably had the buttery soft texture expected from a roll made with a tablespoon of butter melted with inside – the best dinner roll ever, for sure. Each butter additionally added a subtle nuance to the bread with the local butter notably sweet yet ‘dry’ in the mouth and the Animal Farm Butter slightly less sweet but more nuanced with a ‘grassy’ and ‘wet’ texture to it. While both were tasty, I found myself going back to the Animal Farm option for future bread courses which included a crispy ciabatta roll and a small whole-wheat sourdough roll, both of which were good but not remarkable.
#9 RUSSET POTATO “GNOCCHI” - with Castelmagno Cheese and Shaved Black Truffles from Provence. First of all, let me admit that along with Bread Pudding, Gnocchi is one of my favorite “all time” foods and Keller’s Gnocchi a la Parisian that I had on special request for breakfast at Bouchon in Vegas is my all time favorite version. That said, wow. Perfect potato gnocchi blended with the most intense and savory yet only mildly salty cheese, and then topped tableside with a large portion of freshly shaved black truffle. Possibly the richest dish of the evening outside the Foie Gras, and along with the egg and foie my favorites. The most interesting aspect of this dish was the unique grass-y taste of the Castelmagno (upon further reading, common to this sort of cheese) and its perfect complement to the woodsy and fragrant truffles. While the pate a choux gnocchi at Bouchon still hold reign as the best dumplings I’ve ever tasted, this certainly re-set the bar for potato based gnocchi and as Ruben stated when collecting the dish “Gnocchi and cheese topped with truffles isn’t a bad way to go through life, is it?”
#10 COLUMBIA RIVER STURGEON “CONFIT À LA MINUTE” - Buckwheat Spaetzle, Piquillo Peppers and Brussels Sprouts – While I have no idea what the confit a la minute is, the dish was fantastic. Cooked Sous vide the surgeon was flawless in texture and extremely flavorful while the piquillo peppers were minimally spicy and not overwhelming at all. Given my fondness for Buckwheat (as well as Barley) I was particularly impressed by the toothsome and flavorful spaetzle which seemingly had the essence of creamed cheese and I was equally impressed by the caramelized brussel sprouts which more closely represented a crispy hushpuppy than an actual sprout.
#11 “PEAS AND CARROTS” - Maine Lobster Tail “Pochée au Beurre Doux,” English Peas, Glazed Carrot Buttons and Nantes Carrot Butter. Specially requested in my original e-mail to the restaurant, my server noted that no one had requested this particular dish in ages – a misstep by pretty much everyone, in my eyes. Like many of the wonderfully poached lobster tails commonly featured on the menu at TFL, the perfectly butter poached tail rested daintily at the center of the plate and was presented simply with the accompaniment of wonderfully crisp English Peas, impossibly sweet yet well cooked carrots, and a butter/carrot reduction that essentially redefined carrots. Having lusted for this preparation in The French Laundry Cookbook I can definitely say it was the most delicious Maine lobster I’d ever tasted and topped only by Alex Stratta’s European blue lobster for best crustacean dish ever.
#12 MOULARD DUCK “FOIE GRAS EN TERRINE” - Sunchoke-Vanilla Glaze, Asian Pear, Pickled Pearl Onions, Mizuna and Toasted Brioche. If you’re reading this, chances are you are aware of Keller’s Foie preparations, the warm brioche that is replaced before it has a chance to cool, and the salt. Many call this the best Foie Gras preparation there is…I will agree, though Eleven Madison Park’s was close. Wonderfully creamy, perfectly accented with vanilla and the mustardy essence of mizuna, and sweetened to a peak with the pear/onion addition – Incredible on its own and only more impressive when spread like butter on the buttery brioche (lets just say my brioche never got cold, but I did end up with a second one, regardless.) All that said about the Foie, the other highlight of the extended presentation was the compliment of 6 salts instead of the standard three. Fleur de Sel, Parisian Grey, Hawaian Black, Fiji Red, Montana Jurassic, and Japanese Sea Brine all presented a different nuance to the dish with the Jurassic clearly the most potent and the Brine nearly nori-esque in flavor.
#13 “ROUELLE DE TÊTE DE COCHON” - Romaine Lettuce, San Marzano Tomato Compote and “Ranch Dressing.” Delicious in all regards, if I had to describe this dish I would simply say it tasted like a blend of pork loin and pork belly breaded and served with the appropriate complements to make the best BLT on the planet. Truly rendered from the head of a pig (actually the cheeks according to my server) this dish was as smooth and creamy as the Foie yet as crispy and crunchy as the frog legs. Having never consumed Tete de Cochon before I must admit I was quite impressed and would not hesitate to order it from a menu in the future. While the ranch dressing was impressive, the Tomato Compote was much moreso and actually tasted like a sweeter version of the tomato confit served with Beignets de Brandade de Morue at Bouchon.
#14 FOUR STORY HILL FARM “BLANC DE POULARDE” - “Pommes Sarladaises,” Bluefoot Mushrooms, Cipollini Onions, Watercress and Whole Grain Mustard. First of all, I tasted no mustard – and since I don’t particularly favor strong mustard this was a good thing. With that said, this is officially the best chicken I’ve ever tasted and every aspect of the dish “worked.” Served nearly cordon bleu style with a goat cheese/cream/nut combination whose name escapes me inside of chicken sausage on top of the flawless sous vide chicken the dish was easily cut with a fork and was complimented with salty fried potatoes, crispy mushrooms, and an interesting onion flavored jus. Truly wonderful and unexpected.
#15 “TIMANOIX” - Royal Blenheim Apricot, Celery Branch and Toasted Walnut. My cheese course of the night was served with two types of bread – a cinnamon walnut and pecan currant – and both were delectable (and used to consume more Animal Farm Butter.) The cheese course, alas, was a miss for me because although the compliments were wonderful, the oddly fragrant and firm cheese simply did not rest well on my palate. Although nutty, there was something smoky – almost steak-like that just did not agree with me. To be fair, I’m not much of a cheese eater outside of burrata and brie, so I certainly don’t blame the restaurant – I’m not easy to please.
After the cheese plate I was served a great cup of Equator Estates TFL blend coffee and although not as good as the syrupy/woodsy coffee at Bouchon, this mild and nutty acidic blend worked excellently to open up the palate and prepare for the sweet dishes. It especially worked well with the two dessert options, requiring a second cup.
#16 RHUBARB SORBET - with Mascarpone and Garden Mint. Onward to the sweet courses, my palate cleanser was a beautifully presented dollop of tart yet sweet pink sorbet that tasted like a cold and creamy Rhubarb pie. Though I did not ask, I would not be surprised if the sorbet itself contained butter and there was no doubt the graham cracker crumble below it and the mascarpone on the side created the semblance pie-like feel of the dish. With regard to the mint – I couldn’t taste it, but it looked pretty.
#17 “COFFEE AND DOUGHNUTS” - Cinnamon-Sugared Doughnuts and “Cappuccino Semifreddo.” Another French Laundry classic and every bit worth the hype. Having seen Coffee semifreddo done at a number of restaurants with varying degrees of success, I was glad to taste Keller’s version and realize he didn’t bother trying to make it “too coffee-esque” but instead focused on the essence of coffee in a sweet and airy mousse. Perfect on its own, the semifreddo served as a great foil to the crispy and sugary donut and the placement of the hole back on the donut was a nice touch. I felt like dunking, but refrained in order to not seem a total glutton (not that they hadn’t guessed.)
#18 “MOUSSE AU CHOCOLAT AMEDEI” - Gros Michel Banana Ice Cream, Candied Cashews and Curry “Arlette.” Thick chocolate ganache with hints of spice, crunchy cashews with a cinnamon shell, small balls of incredible plantains, and an ice cream that tasted like banana blended with caramel – what more can I say? Delicious, stupendous, and a top-5 all time dessert.
#19 MIGNARDISES - 3 tiered case with 12 selections, Chocolate Covered Macadamia Nuts. Delivered together, the famous tower was spiraled open to reveal a bottom drawer of fruit flavored concoctions including a pineapple jelly, coconut meringues, olive financier, and something else. A middle tier of chocolates including a peanut butter candy, a chocolate covered pretzel, a cocoa dusted truffle, and a salty dark chocolate filled with coffee. A top tier of vanilla/caramels including a vanilla butterscotch, a hand wrapped caramel, a vanilla/raspberry cookie, and something else. The Macadamia nuts were loaded with chocolate and dusted with powdered sugar and served in the famous Chinese porcelain container. All selections were good with the olive financier and the salty coffee chocolate particularly impressive.
#20 CANDIES - Peanut butter, Passion Fruit, Chocolate, and Clarified Butter Caramel. Arriving after the mignardises were consumed, 6 types of chocolate were presented and 4 selected. Perfect peanut butter, tart passion fruit, thick dark chocolate gnache, and an incredible white chocolate filled with what I can only describe as liquefied butter and caramel. At this point I was nearing a level of sugar overload that was rivaled only by the night I followed a Charlie Trotter’s Tasting menu with a TRU dessert tasting, thus I deferred on the other 2 chocolates.
Along with the Shortbreads the substantial bill was delivered – a bill that was every bit worth the price – on the famous laundry tag. Pulling out the plastic to pay I again chatted with my server Ruben who noted that since the menu was spontaneous there was no printed version yet available, but if I left my information this menu would be printed and signed by both Chef’s Lee and Keller and mailed to my home first class. He additionally offered me a tour of the kitchen and noting that I missed out on two of the chocolates offered to package up some candies for me to take home with me. I gratefully accepted the wonderful offers and sampled the coconut chocolate as well as the caramel filled dark chocolate 2 days later (along with a pistachio candy, fleur de sel chocolate, and two cocoa truffles) which brought back more fond memories.
Entering the kitchen I was struck by its incredible cleanliness and the raw number of chefs, sous chefs, and myriad stations preparing each dish. I saw the large Michelin 3-star on the back wall as well as the plasma screen monitoring the kitchen at Per Se. I additionally had the chance to shake Chef Lee’s hand and thank him for the wonderful evening.
On my way out of the building a nice lady snapped my picture at the blue door and we chatted until my ride arrived – apparently this lady and her husband were celebrating an anniversary that night – and their 23rd visit to The French Laundry. Widely traveled, the woman’s husband told me that TFL was his favorite restaurant in the world –better than El Bulli or Fat Duck or Mugaritz. Well, I haven’t been to any of those places, nor have I been to The French Laundry 23 times, but I can definitely say it is the best meal I have ever had and I really cannot imagine that anything better exists.