The French Laundry – Most Celebrated Restaurant in The Country
- Article Author: Max Jacobson
The French Laundry – Most Celebrated Restaurant in The Country
The century old stone farmhouse that houses The French Laundry has become the most celebrated restaurant in this country. Thomas Keller has won three Michelin stars for his cuisine, and twice, the restaurant has been voted “the best restaurant in the world,” in a poll conducted by Italian mineral water company, San Pellegrino.
On June 30, I ate at Thomas Keller’s French Laundry with four of my friends, two of whom were visiting Chinese from Hong Kong. It was my sixth time to eat there, and in many ways, in spite of the fact that the chef was in New York tending to his other Michelin three-star, Per Se, the best dinner I’ve had in the restaurant yet.
I’m not sure whether credit for that goes to the staff, Keller’s training, what was on the menu that night, the incredible bounty of the summer, or my condition, the latter always being a factor. I can tell you that the service didn’t miss a beat, choices were incredibly well balanced, and the 13-plus course tasting was perfectly portioned and executed.
The only mild annoyance, in fact, was a policy I find stuffy and outdated, especially in the hot Napa summer, that of jackets being required for gentlemen. I hate dress codes even when my jackets fit, not the case these days, anyway.
When I informed my Chinese friends about the policy, they did not, to my infinite surprise, voice objection. Two of them had refused to wear jackets at two Three Michelin Stars in France (Monaco’s Louis XV, and Lucas-Carton in Paris), but they were, perhaps, more eager to eat here. So when one of them removed his jacket between courses, a Maitre d’ appeared and told him to put it back on. And so he did.
We stayed down the street, in a new hotel called the Luca, a luxe, Italian themed place with colonial Spanish architecture and modern rooms, and were able to walk to and from the meal. On a previous visit to the restaurant, I accompanied a party of ten Chinese guests, one of whom, a self-styled wine enthusiast, owns Panda Express, and its’ thousand-plus restaurants. That meal turned out to be problematic. Many of the guests ran out of gas during the middle of the tasting.
But I insisted my three friends fast before our dinner, and so we all did, arriving ravenously hungry for our Bacchanale. The first course, if you want to call a course, consisted of gougeres, ephemeral cheese puffs, followed by salmon tartare in cones, and the obligatory flutes of champagne, the amuse, as the French like to call it. Jaysus.
Then came a delightful little ceramic cup filled with the very essence of mushroom in a creamy soup, and the pretense vanished magically. These dishes, incidentally, all precede the actual printed menu.
If you’ve eaten here before, you’ve had one of Keller’s signature dishes, Oysters and Pearls, which you will surely get anytime you dine here. It’s a magnificent dish, one I never get tired of, two delicate Island Creek (the provenance of the oyster changes) mollusks in a sabayon sauce laced with pearl tapioca, topped with white sturgeon caviar.
Then came the first of my two favorite courses of the evening, hand rolled agnolotti filled with cranberry beans, in a buttery sauce stocked with crispy garlic, wild ramps and a hint of Dijon mustard, which I will guess wasn’t Grey Poupon. Next was the foie gras, which I didn’t order but ate gratefully, ignoring its $30 supplement.
The Chinese adore foie gras, but it is filling, and I advised my large group not to have it. They didn’t listen, though, and it did them in. These guys, however, proved to be true trenchermen. The foie, sauted crisp on one side, with Jacobsen’s Farm (ha!) crab apple, walnuts, and summer truffles, indeed lived up to the Three Star standard.
Atlantic cod “confit a la minute” smacked of sous-videry, but Tomales Bay clam, Jingle Bell (sic) pepper, fennel and Nicoise olives turned the trick nicely, making the dish a memorable one. Sweet butter poached lobster “mitts”, code for claws, came next, with Hobbs bacon and fried green tomatoes, a dish that almost seemed rustic by comparison.
The chefs were told to cook for us, and so they chose to give us pork instead of rabbit for the first meat course, fine with the Chinese, since the character for pork and the character for meat are synonymous. But the course that came after the pork knocked it out of the park.
I’d never been that impressed by Oregon Kobe beef before, but now I have to eat my words. In the wrong hands, Oregon Kobe can taste like a wet dishrag, and I don’t get the high price. But this piece of Snake River Farms Kobe, done with Bing cherries, golden corn, chanterelles and Swiss chard, made me a convert. Now, if I can only get Keller or his team to prepare it for me every time.
After a vegetable course of Marble potatoes, Savoy cabbage, French prunes and Australian black truffles, we were ready to repair with an assortment of sweets, Royal Blenheim apricot sorbet tricked out with toasted barley streusel, a fruit medley, and grilled ricotta cheese with blueberries, pine nut nougatine, and the usual array of mignardises, or petit fours to you, fella.
The Chinese aren’t big drinkers, so we got by with one only bottle of wine, albeit a nice one, a Marquis d’Angerville Volnay of early century vintage, for the bargain basement price of only $280. This brought the bill for four, service included, up to $1588, about half of what the same misbegotten foursome plus one, my Italian friend Massimo, spent at El Bulli in Spain. On balance, this seemed like the better deal.
I was also fairly astonished to see that my friend, the indefatigable Li Tung, who speaks no English, and lets no course go uneaten, declare that he was full to the point of discomfort at the end of the meal. Tung is 65, but he has a 38-year old wife, a 9-year old daughter, and a palate that never quits, so all I could think of was “gotcha, finally.”
You need to call several weeks in advance to get a table here, so the recession hasn’t hurt this institution that badly as yet. (Although Keller did tell me, the last time I saw him in Vegas, that they actually had the experience of a few empty tables in the winter of 2008-2009.)
So for my money (and this wasn’t) the Prix Fixe price of $250 per person, service included, is a better value than you can get in Vegas at our Big Michelin Five, namely Alex, Guy Savoy, Joel Robuchon, Picasso or Twist. You might even want to eat there again.
I didn’t mind.
The French Laundry is at 6640 Washington St. in Yountville, Calif. Dinner is served 7 nights a week, and lunch Friday-Sunday. You can make reservations in advance, up to two months from the date. Call 707-753-0088.