Restaurant Review: The French Laundry, Napa, CA
Last Sunday, we had the rare opportunity to dine at The French Laundry in Yountville, Napa, California. Acquiring a reservation at The French Laundry is extremely difficult, and through a wonderful stroke of good fortune we were able to join friends-of-friends who were visiting Napa from Chicago. This couple had managed to secure a 4-top reservation after weeks of effort, and needed two additional diners for their table. It just so happened that their reservation fell during the time we were already in Napa, and we jumped at the opportunity to meet new friends and share this dining experience.
I am thrilled to describe the courses and share all of the photos of our dinner with you in this post. We had our choice of the chef's tasting menu or the chef's vegetarian tasting menu, and we chose the regular tasting menu. Instead of choosing wines off of the overwhelming 30-page list, we gave the sommelier a price ceiling and asked him to choose for us. This was definitely the way to go, and I have added in the names of the wines with the dishes.
The first thing we saw when we sat down at our table was the iconic clothespins on our napkins, an homage to the building's history as a french steam laundry in the 1920's.
First we were served two amuse-bouches. One was the salmon cornetto, with salmon tartare settled inside a buttery sesame cone with creme fraiche at the bottom. The other (on the left side of this photo) was the Gruyere Gougeres, very light puff pastry called "pâte à choux" filled with a light gruyere sauce. Both of these are signature Thomas Keller amuse-bouches, and I was able to find several other bloggers who described the same dishes. We were also served champagne to start: NV Marc Hebrart "Selection" Brut.
The first course was a choice of caviars. I chose the "oysters and pearls," which I have read is a classic French Laundry dish almost always served on the tasting menu. The oysters and pearls consists of a sabayon (a very light light, whipped custard) of pearl tapioca with Island Creek oysters and white sturgeon caviar. It was light but yet rich, and the oysters still had their ocean salt flavor.
The other choice was the Kaluga caviar with sea urchin, "Gaufre de Mais" (corn waffle), green apple, sorrel and grains of Paradise creme fraiche. My sweetheart asked for both, and the staff graciously agreed. He loved this dish with combination of the sea urchin and caviar, two of his favorite delicacies.
In addition to serving my boyfriend extra course of Kaluga caviar, the staff brought out an extra dish for myself and our other two friends at the table, and I quote "so that we would not feel left out." I am sure that the staff at TFL is the best of the best, and they helped to make our dinner a wonderful experience. The extra course was a hen egg custard made with white truffle and topped with black truffle oil, served in the egg shell with a very thin chip containing a chive in the middle. This surprise ended up being one of my favorite dishes of the evening! We were also served a rose at this time: 2011 Domaine Ott Rose from Provence.
For the second course, we had another choice. I chose a salad of French Laundry garden tomatoes with summer squash, grilled melba, Picholine olive, pumpkin seed, and greek basil. It was so light and fresh, and I really enjoyed the combo of the salty olives and acidic tomatoes.
My sweetheart chose the other option, the charcoal-grilled Blackmore Ranch wagyu beef with Akita Komachi rice, Hen of the Woods mushrooms (tempura-style), bonito marinated tomatoes, Tosaka, bok choy, and a few drops of Korean "Chungam-Sa Temple" sesame oil added at the table. It was a delicious combination, and also very memorable.
The third course was a sauteed fillet of Mediterranean Lubina (European seabass) with broccolini, Meyer lemon, pine nuts, pickled garlic, and "Guanciale" (pork cheek) emulsion. This was also one of my favorite dishes - the combination of flavors was savory genius. We also moved on to another bottle of wine: 2010 FX Pichler Gruner Veltliner "Urgunstein" from Austria.
Course number four was my favorite of the night. Sweet butter-poached Maine lobster with "Ravioli de Homard," sweet corn, celery and shaved frozen black winter truffles. The perfectly poached lobster, the texture and flavor of the sweet corn and celery in the buttery foam, and the shaved frozen black truffles were just an amazing dish. I loved it!
For the fifth course, we had another choice. I chose the Four Story hill Farm "poularde," which was delicious, tender chicken with young fennel, baby beets, radish, and Noilly Prat cream. We moved on to our fourth bottle of wine: 2010 Kesner Pinot Noir from the Sonoma Coast.
My boyfriend chose the "Tongue and Cheek," which was braised beef cheeks and veal tongue with Chanterelle mushrooms, Arrowleaf spinach, Tokyo turnips and Marcona almonds. I have also read that the beef cheek/veal tongue is another popular dish at TFL, with varying seasonal ingredients.
The sixth course was Elysian Fields Farm lamb with Jacobsen Orchard figs, Jingle Bell peppers, Cipollini onion, arugula, and balsamic jus. I really enjoyed this dish - the texture and sweetness of the figs as well as the peppers, onions, arugula, and balsamic complimented the tender lamb.
Course number seven was the cheese course from Landaff Cremery with Hobbs bacon, Marble potatoes, Frisee, pickled pear onions, and Jidori hen egg.
Course number eight and we were on to desserts. This was the "plum-ginger soda" with a champagne "Granite," ginger snap crumble and green tea ice cream. The ginger cleaned the palate nicely, and made a refreshing first dessert course.
We had another choice for course number nine - I chose the "strawberries and custard" with lemon custard, "Sable Breton," compressed strawberries, and swiss meringue. Sables are french butter cookies, taking their name from the french word for sand and referring to the grainy texture of the cookie. I loved the lemon and strawberry paired with the buttery sables, and the crunchy meringue added an interesting texture to the dish. We were also served a port with dessert: 2000 Smith-Woodhouse Late Bottled Vintage Oporto.
My sweetheart ordered the "chocolate pudding pie," with a Thomas Keller Oreo, Manjari chocolate mousse, and reduced milk ice cream. Thomas Keller Oreos (TKOs) seem to be quite famous on their own, as I was able to find several recipes online to make them. Basically they are dark chocolate shortbread cookies with white chocolate ganache filling, and I may need to try making these for one of my fall cooking adventures. It was the best oreo I've ever tasted...
We had read that you can request the coffee and doughnuts - also a Thomas Keller signature. These were served with either drip coffee or a cappuccino, and I'm not sure if they automatically bring them to every table. I didn't see the table next to us get them, so I think you have to ask. I'm sure glad we did - they were light, fluffy doughnut holes dusted with cinnamon and sugar. They reminded me of Tom Douglas' doughnuts served at both Lola and the Dahlia Bakery - I wonder if TD got the idea from TK?
The tenth and final course consisted of mignardises, a fancy word for little bite-sized desserts served at the end of a meal. The servers brought over boxes of chocolates with flavors like peanut butter and jelly, hazelnut, mint, and meyer lemon. It was hard to choose!
In addition to the chocolates, we were also served a bowl of toasted chocolate macadamia nuts. These were addictive!
If that wasn't enough to stuff us, we were also presented with tiny tins of shortbread cookies dusted with sugar. We were so full that we saved these for later, but they were the best shortbread cookies I have ever eaten, hands down. A fantastic way to finish off an unforgettable meal.
Before we left, we also took a tour of the kitchen, which was small but run like a well-oiled machine. The servers were kind enough to give us a copy of the menu and write down the wines that we drank, which is the only reason why I have the level of detail that I have included. =) We also took a couple of photos outside afterward.
BCBG red embellished neckline dress (old), similar at Modcloth for $87 here
J Crew "Mona" pumps in nude patent in warm bisque, sold out online but similar Vince Camuto "Desti" in blush patent at Nordstrom here
Bracelets: Cartier Love and Banana Republic (old)
Bag: Tory Burch (chain removed), similar Tory Burch "Amanda" crossbody at Nordstrom here
Another couple of shots of my dress showing off the criss-cross back. This BCBG number is a few years old, but still my favorite LRD (little red dress) that I pull out of the closet for special occasions such as this.
In summary, dinner at the French Laundry was an unforgettable experience, the best meal I have experienced to date (noting that I have dined at Joel Robuchon in Las Vegas, another 3-star Michelin restaurant and relevant comparison). The complex, sometimes surprising flavors in each dish showed the skill and creativity of the Chef de Cuisine, Timothy Hollingsworth. The service was impeccable - we even met a young gentleman named Ryan from Seattle! He formerly served at Place Pigalle, another restaurant now on my list for a special occasion dinner here at home. I have read some reviews saying that the staff is cold and unfriendly, but I did not find that to be so. Perhaps they respond to the attitudes of the people that they are serving? We had a fantastic time, and the staff was smiling and friendly with us but always professional without a step out of place. I am so grateful that we had this opportunity to make new friends and dine at one of the best restaurants in the world. Or if you are Anthony Bourdain, one of my chef heroes, “the best restaurant in the world, period.” I can't argue with that.
Thanks for reading!