Thanks to some very good friends with great connections Gary and I were privileged enough to have a reservation at The French Laundry last Monday night.
Words can not explain the excitement and anticipation we have felt the past month waiting for the evening to come. Imagine the feeling you have knowing you are about to experience something you never thought you would; or remember how you felt the day you first tasted the sweetness of your first home-grown tomato from your garden or a 100 point wine or the first time you put your toes in the sand with ocean waves rushing over them or the rush of driving fast with the top down in a convertible. Maybe that is a slight exaggeration, but we were very excited!
The French Laundry is regarded by most people who regard anything as one of the finest restaurants in the world, with dedication to providing guests superb service over a stunning meal highlighting the freshest, seasonal ingredients, most of which is grown in their garden across the street from their quaint 16 table restaurant in the middle of Yountville in the heart of Napa County, California. The baby and brainchild of Chef Thomas Keller, opened in the mid 1990’s with the original idea coming from the cozy French country restaurants, that were still 3 star establishments, that Keller visited as an apprentice.
Every detail is precise within the walls of The French Laundry, with an overwhelming level of respect acting as the thread that ties the front and back of the house together, with both staffs going through rigorous training before receiving the honor of running a station, or a table, on their own. And everyone from apprentice and food runner to the lead Sommelier and Chef de Cuisine are constantly learning and dedicated to honing their craft. Though the growth of each position is still earned through hard work, time and experience, the great thing about the chefs working at The French Laundry, as with each of Keller’s 10 restaurants he has launched since The French Laundry opened, is that every chef from apprentice to executive wears the Keller signature blue apron during the daily prep for the evening service, with the accomplished chefs putting on their chefs whites only at the start of service, creating a unity in the kitchen. It is a well oiled machine, and one we were excited to jump on board to experience.
We walked the garden for a few minutes just before dinner. Perfectly manicured rows of colorful peppers, heirloom tomatoes, herbs, squash the size of my head, lettuce of every type, and happy chickens in their roomy coop.
Then we started our experience. Out of respect I didn’t photograph the interior of the restaurant or our courses (but man I wanted to….) but I will do my best to describe our favorites. The menu is a 9 course chefs tasting of small plates where each ingredient will only be used on one dish, not a single ingredient will be repeated throughout the meal. There is also a vegetarian option for those looking for a lighter offering. Gary jumped on the chefs tasting. I opted for the vegetarian offering, with Gary graciously giving me bites of his plates that looked interesting.
The wine list is extensive and impressive. As many great Sommeliers in the country have come out of The French Laundry as great Chefs, like . They do give guests the opportunity to bring in their own bottle for a corkage fee. Though there were many wines we would love to enjoy on the list I wanted to open a special bottle that meant something to me, and what better time than this.
I had brought with me a 2001 Niebaum-Coppola Rubicon. The 1997 Rubicon was the wine that really for me into wine and made me want to learn, taste and in-turn write everything that I could about this beautiful, alluring and elegant grape juice. I had purchased the 2001 several years ago while visiting Napa with my sister on one of my first trips to the Valley. With that, it seemed like the ideal wine for the evening. It isn’t the best wine in the world, though it did receive a 93 point rating, or the most expensive, but the story behind it is what made it special to me and made our dinner at French Laundry the perfect time to share it with Gary.
First we started with a La Frosca Soave from Gini. Clean, bright flavors of stone fruit like apricots and peaches with a layer of creamy honey and balanced citrus. a perfect starter with our first few dishes. To start, baby cheese croquet then the signature smoked salmon cornets, the same dish he made for the barrel tasting at this years Auction Napa Valley. Then our main courses. For Gary – Oysters and Pearls, a Keller classic that is often featured on his menus as it is a beautiful representation of oysters with pearl tapioca sabayon and white Sturgeon caviar then a Moulard Duck Foie Gras Terrine with Concord Grape Gelle. For me a sweet Marcona Almond Sorbet with Plum-Sake Granite followed by a beautiful salas of French Laundry Garden Onions with a Yellow Peach relish and arugula. The acidity in the wine balanced well with both the sweetness and the creamy flavors that were present in both of our dishes.
Highlights of our next few dishes were a Butter Poached Main Lobster Tail with a Chocolate Emulsion for Gary; an Ash-Baked perfect red Beet with Hazelnuts and Australian Black Truffle. The presentation of this course was beautiful. The ash was removed from the beet tableside and then plated and served. As soon as the plate was set in front of me our wait staff shaved a healthy, healthy portion of black truffles over the top. Beautiful and elegant, and ideally paired with the Rubicon. As was Gary’s Bellwether Farm Spring Lamb with Chanterelle Mushrooms, Artichoke, Nicoise Olive and Padron Pepper Consomme. A hearty, earthy dish that really brought out the intense fruit and spice flavors in the wine. We commented a few times that the chefs at French Laundry must go through a lot of pairs of tweezers in any given service, as every element of the plates were designed and beautiful, truly highlighting the idea that you eat with your eyes before your palate. The cheese course did represented this also. For Gary, very strong Camembert with Jacobsen Farm Pink Pearl Apples, Pecan Shortbread and Black Truffle; for me, Burrata with Baby Squash, Fairytale Eggplant, Greek Basil and Padron Pepper Vinaigrette. Even our palate cleansing sorbet was thoughtful, for me Persian Lime Sorbet with Mascarpone “Panna Cotta” and Yellow Watermelon Sorbet with Basil-Honey and Saba Vinegar for Gary. To finish, Gary and I just split his dessert, the Nectarine Melba with Sicilian Pistachio “Pain de Genes,” Andante Dairy Yogurt, Biscotti and Raspberry Sorbet. Delicious!
As we were getting ready to leave our adorable waitress offered a treat we could not pass down. A quick peek into the kitchen to meet the chefs and see the operation in action.
Amazing, clean and precise with each member of the team working in unison creating the artistic dishes with obvious pride and accomplishment. The opportunity to visit the behind the scenes was something we won’t forget, that was then followed up with a stack of shortbread cookies in a glycine bag with a blue French Laundry ribbon. The perfect end to this decadent and unforgettable evening.