The French Laundry, Yountville, CA (May 2012)

I’ve been in enough restaurants to know that some use cameras to get a sense of when to fire the next course. But this was different. ‘Twas the course after Oysters and Pearls and all through the dining room, not a runner/server/or captain was in sight. Savoring the textural playground of Santa Barbara uni, English cucumber, avocado and chili threads, my brother–staring down into his bowl–asked, “Do you know what that creamy white layer is?” “Not sure,” I responded.

A couple minutes later, with all of us having nearly repristinated our plates, a server whose name I never managed to ascertain walked over to clear our plates, but before doing so said mischievously, “That white layer was a ginger panna cotta.”

Those zones of privacy the Warren Court identified in Griswald v. Connecticut don’t apply in The French Laundry, and I’m glad they don’t because it’s the front-of-house’s job to anticipate and to accommodate–within reason, of course–the diner’s requests. And that’s exactly what they did for just shy of six hours.

To say the staff at The French Laundry were gracious hosts would be stating the obvious. But occasionally the obvious needs stating. They were more generous than they needed to be, especially since we were first-time diners.* In the process, they set an impossibly high standard for my return visit to Per Se two weeks from now.


 

But my feelings toward the restaurant weren’t always so effusive. 

This is not Per Se, I thought, after spending 45 minutes on the phone, calling 4-5 times a minute to secure an 11:15am lunch reservation.** And the curt reservationist didn’t bother to ask about dietary restrictions, special occasions and couldn’t guarantee an extended tasting menu, but instead said it would be up to the chef on the day of our meal, adding needless uncertainty to our trip (yet when we sat down, Andrew, our captain, greeted us without menus and said the kitchen would be cooking for us). 

And then there were the inaugural canapés: the gougère seemed colder than Per Se’s with too much choux pastry and not enough mornay, and the cornet cone seemed thicker than I remember, partially masking the tartare.

From there, however, the expectations one brings into a three-star Michelin, perennial San Pellegrino Top 100 establishment started to not only get met, but to get surpassed one plate after another. The oysters and pearls were overturn-the-furniture-in-your-head good, with a bowl of sabayon so bottomless it was as if shoveling decadence into my mouth would eventually yield to the earth’s core. Chef Hollingsworth, who happened to be slicing diaphanous pieces of green tomato in preparation for the impending dinner service when we ambled off to the kitchen to thank him, and his small army of cooks don’t just make memorable dishes; they make you forget about your surroundings, forget about the cumbrous reservation system and convince you to return before your meal is even close to over just to see what they’ll do next.

The truth is there were about a dozen courses that merit a dissertation-length paean, as each successive set of plates confronts you with something unprecedentedly delicious:

An amalgam of textures and temperatures of beet that would daunt even the most dexterous of kitchens.  

Gnocchi, swiftly and surreally engulfed by a swarm of black truffles, which in turn delicately alert your olfactory that something inimitable is about to happen.

A comprehension-defying elision of squab breast and sausage dusted tableside (by maitre d’ and raconteur Larry Nadeau) with pulverized duck crackling and fleur de sel.

The sensual adventure of grilled Snake River Farms ribeye — the blushing piece of beef was beautiful and salty and madly grand, coaxing out of each of us a soft, irrepressible purr.

And on it went. In the end, though, the faultless service and the kitchen’s close-to-perfect execution must be experienced to be believed.

Salmon cornet

Gruyere gougeres with sauce mornay

Rabbit fritter with San Marzano jam

White asparagus velouté, garden strawberries and Sicilian pistachios

Cucumber velouté

Oysters and Pearls

White asparagus and royal osetra from China

Santa Barbara uni, young ginger panna cotta, chili threads, English cucumber and avocado
Kona kampachi sashimi, radish, cauliflower, peas, sesame purée and Nicoise olive

Hen egg custard with white truffle oil,  black truffle ragout and a chive chip

Wagyu tataki and tartare, meyer lemon, mizuna and black sesame

Salt-baked heirloom beets, beet sorbet, spherical beet panna cotta, buckwheat-pecan sablé, mache and navel orange
Gnocchi and black truffle beurre monté

More black truffles!

Atlantic halibut, grilled brioche crust and chowder sauce
Sweet butter-poached lobster tail, Sacramento Delta asparagus, bone marrow-infused bordelaise, tokyo turnip and king trumpet mushroom

 Sous vide squab breast and sausage, Brooks cherry, seared foie gras, tonka beans, charred cipollini onion and sauce périgourdine

Snake River Farms “Wangus” ribeye, morels, white asparagus, hen egg emulsion and veal jus

Tomme de savoie (raw cow’s milk cheese) cornmeal financier, endive, Sicilian pistachios, pistachio purée, sour ale gastrique and watercress

Salad of ?
Meyer lemon sorbet, lemon verbena, lemon curd and lemon granité

Applewood smoked chocolate cremeux, hazelnuts, banana and malted milk ice cream
Millefeuille of early spring peaches, vanilla bean crème patisserie and crème fraîche, nectarine sorbet, garden blueberries, 100-year aged balsamic
Coconut-shaped coconut sorbet with tropical fruit, chili threads and coconut water

Cappuccino semifreddo
Strawberry sorbet

Chocolate-powdered sugar macadamia nuts

Brioche donut holes

Hazelnut-praline, peanut butter and jelly, salted caramel, coconut cream pie, passion fruit and mint

Shortbread cookies

*  This was a meal that took several years to come to fruition. In my penultimate year at Cal, we floated the idea of TFL as a graduation present. Alas, a confluence of factors militated against it happening. 

** For Per Se, one merely needs to call once at 10am and is put through to a reservationist after about thirty minutes.

8 thoughts on “The French Laundry, Yountville, CA (May 2012)

  1. That's an amazing progression of courses–it looks quite overwhelming (in a good way, of course.) Having read many reviews of TFL, it's great to get your focused-yet-humorous perspective.

  2. It was indeed, and it made sense, which I recall was one of the problems you had with El Ideas. Thanks for the compliment! If I tried to describe every dish, I would have exhausted every superlative in my lexicon before the meal's intermission.

  3. I really like the environ of FL – that's something Per Se simply cannot offer. Hollingworth's composition-style seems a bit more complicated than Lee's but still retains that FL aesthetics (and what beautiful pics!). I guess they tone down their mignardises offering for lunch?

  4. Me too! And I totally agree: while Central Park offers a nice view, one is still inside a mall. As for the mignardises, I'm not sure if they scale it down, but I wasn't complaining, for at that point, I was more than sated.Did you try Lee's food when he was at TFL?

  5. No, I have never been to TFL (lowering my head in shame) or tried Lee's food in other contexts. I guess I've read so many reviews of his cooking that I feel I know his style.

  6. Tsk, tsk (kidding, of course). To the extent possible, I try to avoid reading reviews before visiting a restaurant. But now, having eaten at his former employer's restaurant and his, I'd be curious to read what others have written, so feel free to pass along any reviews you found edifying.

  7. You already knew Endo Edibles – he has write-ups on both Benu and TFL under Lee. Also check out reviews by Chuckeats and A Life Worth Eating (both wrote about TFL under Lee).

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