French Laundry (Yountville, CA) – Calculated Cuisine
The French Laundry has taken on a mythical status, an impossible restaurant firmly entrenched in foodie pantheon. There may not be a more oft-mentioned destination restaurant besides El Bulli. It’s tucked away in Yountville, California, a less and less probable place for Thomas Keller’s vision – a Disneyland-type simulacrum for those following the Napa Valley wine trails. Indeed, the restaurant’s critics might say the location is representative of the food one will encounter – a perfection without blemish or character, sanitized, safe, and soulless.
There is considerable debate as to whether an American Michelin 3 Star restaurant is the equivalent to French 3 Stars. I disagree with Michelin’s San Francisco 2 Star picks, but there’s no question a meal at The French Laundry is akin to 3 Star French dining. This was my fifth meal, the fourth in the past two years (see last review.) Things rarely go wrong here; and the food even less so. But the myth has taken on a life of its own. The expectations are so high that philopsophical and practical consideration must be taken into account before eating. Many food bloggers, particularly Refined Palate, have had transcendental meals at TFL. Others, while pleased, expected more.
Philosophically, TFL plays it safe. Asian flavors and ingredients have crept into the repertoire but the menu still reads mostly French. It’s Continental cuisine that is enhanced by some of the chemist techniques, but it strives to be an effortless cuisine, not one of shock and awe. Taste is valued over intellect, but a witty playfulness can be seen throughout the menu (look for the quotes.) If you expect the cutting edge, you will be disappointed.
Practically, TFL is still subservient to mother nature. My meal in March was the least impressive but we ate during a dead spell in Bay Area produce. This cuisine relies on prime ingredients; if it’s not in season, you probably won’t see it. If it’s not a season, the food can not rise to a 3 Star level.
After that March meal, I wanted to try TFL during prime vegetable season. After some back and forth, I was able to secure a date. Unfortunately, that date fell through and I gave away my winning lottery ticket to Olivia (she is one of the restaurant’s biggest fans.) After some more back and forth, I was awarded a Sunday lunch – perfect. Throw on the suit, hop in the car, and take off! A fast car for a short drive and slow meal.
Upon arriving in Yountville, once a country town, you’ll find resorts, restaurants, and other inspired businesses thanks to the TFL money machine. The TFL building certainly has the charm of a countryside French restaurant, nearly hidden in plain view. Inside, the mystery of the building turns to a staid and dull, somewhat stifling, atmosphere. The tables are close and the conversation level can be unbearably quiet downstairs. KR Connect has an apt piece on the flaws of the space. A majesty still permeates the rooms but its power comes from the restaurant’s reputation instead of the space itself.
From there, you choose between a Vegetarian or Chef’s Menu and prepare for the food. Be very very hungry.
1. CHILLED ASIAN PEAR SOUP – Braised Radish, Basil and Coconut Foam
I substitued this dish from the Vegetarian menu (which I nearly ordered) because I had the Cauliflower Panna Cotta last time. This sounded like a sensual and refreshing way to begin the meal. The pear flavor was bright and tart while the coconut foam tempered and cooled it. The basil seeds added the faintest of sparks. I suspect this is a Keller-approved dish from chef de cuisine Corey Lee. It was subtle and precise but not quite as sublime as Ledoyen’s Cuttlefish with Almond Milk and Lavender Foam. Very Good.
2. Truffled Egg Custard
This was a perplexing dish – truffles are nowhere near in season and they lent a heavy hand to just the second dish of the day. The truffles had the faintest of truffle tastes, nothing like Les Ambassadeurs from February’s Truffle Trip, but its heaviness bothered me most. Afterall, it was a hot afternoon and I was still expecting 8-10 more courses. Ok.
3. MOULARD DUCK “FOIE GRAS EN TERRINE” – Jacobsen’s Farm Crab Apple, Shaved Summer Truffles, Mâche and Crab Apple “Gelée”
There is nothing as sublime as TFL’s foie gras terrine. It is worth every penny of the $30 supplement. Its near whipped-cream texture is as ephemeral as a meat-based dish can get. It is akin to eating the essence of foie. It is generally served with a variety of sea salts, ranging from different continents and millenium. Sublime.
4. GRILLED PACIFIC OCTOPUS – Yukon Gold Potato “Confit,” Piquillo Peppers, Green Almonds, Young Cilantro and Spanish Saffron-Sultana Vinaigrette
Besides the egg, the weakest dish of the night. The octopu was cooked nicely, a bit mushy but still firm, with an excellent charred flavor. Its cast did nothing to elevate or detract – they were just around for the ride. Ok.
5. SWEET BUTTER-POACHED MAINE LOBSTER “MITTS” – Golden Corn “Pudding,” Hearts of Romaine Lettuce and Toybox Tomatoes
The lobster and corn were the two main stars of this dish – their different sensations of sweetness playing off each other. This lobster wasn’t the sweetest specimen and it was every-so-slightly over-cooked but the dish was a winner. TFL lobster dishes always impress. Very Good.
6. FOUR STORY HILLS FARM “POULARDE” – “Farci aux Truffes Noirs,” Creamy Polenta, Caramelized Cipollini Onion and Celery Branch Salad
Most Americans may never understand what real chicken tastes like thanks to our industrial breeds. I’ve had Four Story Hills Farm poularde at Manresa and other restaurants but this particular bird had a remarkable taste. The texture was firm and its chicken taste was nearly as intense as the Heritage chickens I buy from Prather Ranch. This was French quality chicken. Again, black truffles made an unnecessary appearance but I just disregarded them. Excellent.
7. “FILET MIGNON” OF MARCHO FARM’S NATURE-FED VEAL – Nantes Carrots, Grey Morel Mushrooms, Melted Cavalo Nero and “Sauce Colbert”
Veal often disappoints me because it is usually tasteless. This veal, however, was quite special – succulent to the point of decadence and full of flavor. I’m unsure of what “nature-fed” means; mother’s milk? Regardless, a remarkable piece of meat. The morel mushrooms reminded me that while I can buy great ingredients, I will never cook them at this level. Excellent.
9. “BRIN D’AMOUR” – Jacobsen’s Farm Black Mission Figs, Baby Fennel Bulb and Blis “Elixir”
10. “CONFISERIE DE FRUITS EXOTIQUES” – Pineapple “Granité,” Lilikoi and Coconut Sauce
11. “SUMMER PUDDING” – French Laundry Garden Lemon Verbena Ice Cream, Vanilla “Genoise” and Summer Berry “Compote”
12. Apricot Pot de Creme
When compared to its regional competitors, The French Laundry occupies and owns its niche. Manresa is the contemporary choice with superior fish and (bio-dynamic) vegetable ingredient quality. TFL is a more classic choice with very good fish and vegetable quality and excellent meat. Quince, the better Chez Panisse, has a pared down conceptual style (it’s Italian) with high quality meats and vegetables. I’d rank them in the order I’ve listed them but your desires may differ from mine.
As everyone else ends their reviews, “was it worth it?” Taking money out of the equation, this is one of the better meals you can eat in the US. In fact, this was my best meal at TFL. After the relative disappointment of NYC’s finest awhile ago, The French Laundry definitely creeps up in the rankings and it would probably make my Top 5 US (behind Manresa, Urasawa, Providence, and possibly Alinea.) When money is factored in, at a cost of $400/pp, it’s still worth it but only on occasion.
- Here’s the original SF Chronicle review from 1994. Rating? 3.5 stars (out of 4.)