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.
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.
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
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.
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.