The French Laundry (Yountville, CA) – Unlocking the Secret

In the past, I’ve called The French Laundry soulless – haute cuisine by the numbers. The food is technically perfect; sometimes, so well done, it feels machine-like and cold, a Stepford meal. The quotes, dominating the menu, denoting a postmodern sense of ironic humor, try to downplay the seriousness of the affair and give it some humanity. The restaurant is a necessary reference point for anyone interested in food but the lofty expectations, and the need for culinary fireworks, often lead many, including myself, to question the greatness of the meal. Food for the Thoughtless perfectly captures these conflicted emotions of the French Laundry virgin. Of course, the meal’s expense ($240/pp +) also leave it wide open to criticisms of value. 1


English Cucumber Sorbet
“Umeboshi” puree, Perilla Shoots and Compressed Cucumber

Something happened on this visit, my sixth over the past two years – the food began to click. Most, if not all, of the dishes were sufficiently restrained in the standard French Laundry style but there was a modernity to the plating and tastes – a lightness that might have been missing in previous visits. Was Corey Lee, the chef de cuisine, finally beginning to imbue his own style into dishes? This meal might be likened to Japanese kaiseki where revelatory dishes, and tastes, were not as important as all of the dishes, and their properties, considered as a whole. Was this the proper viewpoint for enjoying the meal? The whole experience was standard French Laundry with a slightly new (satisfying) twist.



Moulard Duck “Foie Gras Au Torchon”
Yellow peaches, Hazelnut, Mache, and Black Pepper Gastrique

A friend of mine, a L’Arpege veteran, came into town for the weekend so we decided on two meals – Manresa and The French Laundry. I thought they would provide an interesting contrast on what the Bay Area, and the US, has to offer in fine dining. Unfortunately, I came down with a cold a few days before the visit – horrible timing considering how much money I was about to spend on eating. Our table of four shared both menus – the Chef’s Tasting and Vegetable Tasting menus. I made liberal substitutions on my Chef’s Tasting and probably ended up with a Chef’s Vegetable Tasting. The pictures throughout the post capture many, but not all, of the dishes served that lunch.


Santa Barbara Sea Urchin “Tongues”
Sugar snap peas, Potato “Confit”, Red radish and Preserved ginger creme fraiche

I was excited to try The French Laundry coming into prime vegetable season for the Bay Area. I assumed the Vegetable Tasting would be a serious option since the traditional Chef’s Tasting menu rarely changes; and I wanted to compare the vegetable quality to places like Ubuntu and Manresa. There was only one mis-step in ingredient quality – morels. Local morels had just begun trickling into the farmer’s market but these had no purpose on a plate in any restaurant. A gnocchi dish, available on the Vegetable Tasting of course, would not have been out of place in a local neighborhood Italian restaurant – nothing extraordinary here – as the gnocchi was quite heavy.


Chilled Golden Corn Soup

The French Laundry is known for consistency and a few favorite repeat dishes did not disappoint. The foie gras, despite its $30 surcharge (on top of a $240 meal), is a must-order any time of the season. It has the smoothest consistency of any foie I’ve had. The taste can be somewhat variable, sometimes more intense than others, but this was among the best. The Marcho Farms veal tenderloin impressed me last visit but this visit’s piece was a reference piece for me. The season might come into play here – my last visit was last July and this visit was late May. The milk-fed veal probably changed slightly in taste, and possibly texture, thanks to the earlier season’s diet.


“Pinces de Homard Pochees au Beurre Doux”
Green Asparagus and One Thousand Island Dressing

The meal was not without its intensity, best expressed in a few vegetable dishes. The compressed cucumber sorbet had a concentrated cucumber taste. The “compressed” presumably refers to the preparation – compressing a fresh vegetable in vacuum (possibly with its own juices for even more concentration), freezing it, and then using it for whatever purposes. Ideas in Food has documented this process somewhere on their site. L2O’s Laurent Gras also wrote an informative piece about the process. The chilled corn soup took on a similar concentration and intensity, an ultimate expression of sweet corn.


Morel Mushrooms
Ramp top “Subric”, Pickled ramp bulbs, Mustard Vinaigrette, Glazed sweet carrots and French Laundry Garden herbs

And then there were ingredients that could be classified as exemplary. The sea urchin tongues, served at a time when they were just coming into season, were perfect. They had great structural integrity, delicious creaminess, and that slightest hint of sea. The peas served with the dish rivaled those of Ubuntu a week earlier – no small feat. In fact, all of the vegetable accompaniments to the various dishes were outstanding. There’s no question The French Laundry can deliver world-class vegetables during their prime seasons; there can be issues when vegetables are in-between seasons as last March’s meal (never posted) proved.


Marcho Farms Veal Tenderloin
Yellow corn, Sweet peppers, Bluefoot mushrooms and Saucer Pimenton

And then there was dessert. Despite promises made earlier, my attention had faded by this point. None disappointed and the coffee and donuts is an all-time favorite – better than the Doughnut Plant.


“Brillat Savarin”
Medjool dates, Carrot ribbons, Parsley shoots and Curry “Aigre-Doux”


Gros Michel Banana Sorbet
Andante Dairy Yogurt “Granite” and Granola


Coffee and Donuts


“Fraisier aux Pistaches”
Licorice “Bavarois”, Silverado Trail strawberry sorbet and Blis Elixir


Coffee “Cremeux”
Chocolate granite, Baked “financier” and Coffee “Creme Anglaise”

Was it the season? A better understanding of the restaurant and its ways? An slightly updated approach to their food? Or a meal that was marked in the computer as “sixth visit?” Whatever the answer, The French Laundry is winning me over. I have two more meals coming up this summer/fall, with a third one possible provided I can make the necessary reservations. Its expense, and the difficulty in procuring a reservation, make it impossible to enjoy regularly but I am beginning to understand why Refined Palate likens it to home.

- chuck

1 – I hope this first paragraph does not lead to a demotion of my various search engine scores – a robot might indeed mis-interpret the context of a few relevant words.

  • http://michaelprocopio.wordpress.com/ Michael Procopio

    Hey Chuck,

    Thanks so much for linking to my post. Re-reading it gave me the opportunity to actually correct the typos and lack of listing commas.

    6th visit? Jeepers. I would like to return to the French Laundry sometime as a “veteran”. I just don’t know when. There is something slightly depressing in having to plan several months ahead for a dinner reservation. The vegetables may then be fresh, but the utter lack of spontenaiety involved in so much advanced planning takes a bit of bloom off the rose, if you know what I mean.

    Michael

  • paul

    Thomas Kellers food always looks so beautiful i would love to get the chance to eat there at the French Laundry one day IMO

  • Ray

    Hey Chuck,

    The pictures are stellar as usual. I look forward for your coming meals at TFL especially during summer.

    What would you describe the cuisine at TFL? New American, Seasonal American, French, etc.

    Thanks

  • http://www.tasty-bits.com Misha

    I had a good, but unremarkable meal at French Laundry in March. Walked away thinking “that was nice, but I am not dying to do it again”. I had a better time at Le Reve, which continues to fly under the radar, because it’s in San Antonio. I’ll wrap up posts about both soon, but the photo set is here:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/24094566@N04/sets/72157605653776016/

    I would much rather visit Manresa every time I am in the Bay Area (I’ll be going again this Sunday, in fact), than go to through the fuss and expense of French Laundry again.

  • chuckeats

    Misha, I had a meal last March and it was very unremarkable – it’s a dead season for Bay Area produce. I won’t argue about choosing Manresa over TFL, but the TFL Vegetable summer menu should be worth your time.

    Where else are you going while here?

  • http://www.tasty-bits.com Misha

    I am traveling with a couple of co-workers, so the rest of the trip will be fairly casual. I love what Chris Consentino does at Incanto, so I’ll be making a mandatory visit there. Also going to Delfina, mostly because I called it a glorified Italian joint in my blog after the James Beard awards, and someone got pretty upset about it. Not expecting a whole lot, to be honest.

    I did drop by Sawa and had an absolutely fantastic meal last time I was in San Jose.

    BTW, I saw Nishino on your “to do” list for the year. I was there just last weekend. It’s a decent place to visit if you are in the area, but it’s not a destination. The chef clearly cooks at a high level when he wants to, but being located in less than demanding market has it’s toll. The first half of the meal was very impressive. Then things went rapidly downhill and got downright lazy when he served us a platter full of fairly average nigiri and rolls. Kind of lame.

  • Roberto

    Hi chuck, 2 suggestions for your next Spanish Trip.
    a. El Portal del Echaurren (http://www.echaurren.com). In ezcaray, La Rioja, Spain. Located near Mugaritz, Arzak and so on. The tasting menu is quite impressive.
    b. Via Veneto. In Barcelona. On of the oldest Star’s of Barcelona. I would say it’s the most solid, consistent cuisine in the city. This should be in the line of Les Ambassadeurs.
    Any suggestions for Miami, I may go this summer??

  • http://www.soussurvivor.wordpress.com Patrick

    Chuck,
    The whole “compressed” thing. You put whatever you want in a special plastic bag, cucumbers in this case. Perhaps season them with a touch of salt, white verjus, maybe sugar, maybe nothing. You put the bag in the machine and once you close the lid, the machine sucks out all the air present within. This modified vacuum is what helps compress the cucumbers. Once the air is let back in to the chamber, the bag snaps down on the cucumber and the pressure within the chamber comes back to normal, which compresses the air cells within the vegetable, which lends itself to intensifying flavor due to less air present within the vegetable. They also become more succulent. (compressed melon is my favorite). Anyways, sounds like a great meal. Never went there the entire time I was in SF, because I was afraid of spending too much on a meal that might lack soul. Looks like Ill head back out there when I visit.

  • admin

    misha – delfina is exactly as you say – ‘glorified italian’ – it is a very good restaurant – for the city. glad to hear you had a good meal at sawa – can’t wait for that review. as for nishino, yes, i’ve seen pics since i added that to my must-do list; it didn’t look so hot. i need to update those lists anyways.

    patrick – thanks for the detailed explanation.

    roberto – will look up those restaurants. as for miami, i don’t really know of anything. perhaps someone else reading this will have a suggestion?

  • Roberto

    I forgot, the web of Via Veneto is http://www.viavenetorestaurant.com

  • http://allancantona.blogspot.com/ Allan

    Hi Chuck,

    It has been some time since I was here the last time, but I just saw the link from Trines website (verygoodfood) and headed over here.

    What a great read with marvelous pictures!

    All the best
    / Allan

  • http://hungrydru.wordpress.com Hungry Dru

    Chuck,

    Appreciate the substantial post and wonderful pictures! 6 times? Good lord! I have only been to Per Se in New York which is by far my favorite restaurant in the world. How do you think it compares? By the way, shelling out 2000 Euros on a single meal for 4 at the 3-star Enoteca Pinchiorri in Florence made me redefine my idea of what “value” really is…Per Se and French Laundry is great value in comparison!

    Check out my blog if you have time,

    Hungry Dru

  • http://www.ulteriorepicure.wordpress.com ulterior epicure

    Great post, Chuck. Like you, I’ve been searching for that Keller sweet spot and have yet to find it. Surely, I’ve seen glimpses, but I think most of his high-level performance is lost on me. If, in fact, the genius of Keller is simply the use of fresh ingredients and the ability to deploy techniques to exacting measure, then I have appreciated (and do appreciate) his restaurants and cuisine for this. However, as you noted, the lack of “fireworks” (though certainly not lack of “theatrics”) is perhaps what I am focusing on–and that may be wrong the wrong thing to focus on. Fresh ingredients and flawless technique, in and of themselves, may be pyrotechnic-worthy. If you haven’t already, check out my thoughts on my latest meal at per se at the ulterior epicure.

    Question: what about *this* meal, in particular, struck you as being more “modern? Can you give me a specific taste or plating that seemed “more modern” to you? I’m truly curious, as I have seen a consistently modern approach to Keller over the two years I’ve eaten at his restaurants — albeit, I haven’t been nearly as many times as you.

  • daniel

    Hey chuck, thanks for the awesome review!

    i have a quick question. i’m going there late august (first time!!! super excited!!!) and i want to do the wine pairing…but i have no idea how much that is. do you mind letting me know how much extra a wine pairing would be?

    thanks!!!

  • chuckeats

    daniel, there are some reports of wine pairings here and there but i’ve always been told there wasn’t a wine pairing program. and that wine list is pretty pricey – there are a few bottles under $100 that are ok.

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