Wednesday, October 04, 2006

French Laundry Revisited

6640 Washington Street
Yountville, CA 94599
Chef Thomas Keller
Chef de Cuisine Corey Lee
Lunch Friday through Sunday
Dinner nightly

French Laundry on Urbanspoon

Last tried: September 2006

The last time I dined at the French Laundry was over six years ago. It felt like no other dining experience I had ever tried before. The only comparable experience, in terms of the depth and surprise of my reaction, is when I first got eyeglasses and saw my surroundings and outlines clearly for the first time. How does someone create food like this? This quietly elegant stone cottage with its manicured garden and wood bench outside felt like a different time and place, a million miles away from the cramped streets of San Francisco. A place where every whim and wish, conscious or not, was satisfied by a team of smiling servers.

Fast forward to the present. The Laundry has been recognized as the Best Restaurant in the World two years in a row and listed among the top five since 2002 to the present. The restaurant continues to receive award after award, and its list of kitchen alumni is like a Who's Who among the country's elite restaurants. In the span of a little over a decade, Keller went from being fired by a hotel for being impractical and headstrong to culinary legend to restaurant god. If it was difficult to procure a reservation at the French Laundry before, it is now about as easy as winning the lottery.

A few months after my sublime experience at Chef Keller's Per Se in New York, I was fortunate enough to return to the French Laundry, a special treat for my eleventh wedding anniversary. The decor was as inviting and lovely as I remembered. The salmon tartare "ice cream cone" filled with creme fraiche and golden puffs of cheesy gougere are still offered to begin the meal. Whereas Per Se was sleek, spacious, and modern, the Laundry was cozy with intimate rooms leading off the winding staircase. The ten-course prix fixe menu was $210 per person, service included, the same price as Per Se.

Because the menu changes daily, the restaurant does not offer wine pairing with each course. I did note that some of the introductory courses were the same as, or similar to, those I had tried at Per Se, such as the cauliflower panna cotta with oyster glaze topped with sevruga caviar, the hearts of peach palm salad, and the foie gras torchon ($30 supplement). Although the panna cotta was more of a thick custard than "panna cotta" in texture, the pronounced cauliflower flavor and sweetness of the cream offset the salty caviar beautifully. The hearts of palm salad was accompanied by sweet heirloom beets and shaved Granny Smith apples, highlighted with apple cider gastrique. The creamy, pink foie gras torchon was accompanied by buttery-cinnamony gingerbread crumbles, tiny sweet-tart grapes, and a sweet riesling vinegar reduction.

Busy in conversation, I had failed to notice the triangles of buttered brioche toast delivered on a separate small plate to go with the foie gras torchon. When our server whisked it away and brought over a new plate of fresh brioche, he got my attention. Apparently, this was done to replace the previous toast points that had gotten "cold" in the 60-90 second window when I had overlooked them. Did I mention service is still at a level unequalled by most restaurants?

If I'm going to really nitpicky, the only flaw in the precisely orchestrated service throughout our meal was that while we waited for the sommelier to free up and answer questions about the wine list, we were left without anything to drink for the first couple of courses, after we had finished our glasses of champagne. (Because I was curious about Mark Aubert chardonnay and French Laundry is one of the few places that carries this wine, I decided to splurge and try the 2004 Lauren Vineyard, after listening to the descriptions of the different Aubert chardonnays on the list. Conclusion? It was nice and quite well balanced for a California chardonnay, but not really worth the price tag.)

The third course consisted of Nova Scotia bluefin tuna tartare with a nicoise olive crust, accompanied by fennel bulb compote and an espelette pepper sauce, and a sauteed filet of red snapper with a sea urchin emulsion. Although the tuna was somewhat overpowered by the seasoning and the accompaniments, the snapper was perfectly cooked with a moist interior and crispy exterior, with the creamy sea urchin sauce lending a rich and savory element to the delicate fish in perfect harmony.

The next course consisted of lobster fricasse with gnocchi, pan-fried in butter, served with a mixture of artichokes and Toybox tomatoes and a rabbit jambonette accompanied by peach coulis. The final savory course was an herb-roasted miniature veal chop, with savoy cabbage, tiny fried sweetbread dumplings, baby carrots, and grilled matsutake mushrooms in the Japanese mother sauce of soy/sake/mirin.

The cheese course, Brebis des Pyrenees, a sheep's milk cheese described as "perfume of the mountain," served with black figs and toasted Marcona almonds, marked the transition to desserts. The plum sorbet with pistachios and aged balsamic vinegar was both refreshing and rich. By the time we got to the chocolate parfait with mint syrup and the mignardises, however, we could not eat another bite.

So is the French Laundry the best restaurant in the world? It is certainly among the best I have tried. The issue for me right now is that I can't help but compare French Laundry with Per Se. Jonathan Benno is more experienced than Corey Lee, and that distinction becomes more pronounced in sampling similar menus over a relatively short period of time. In the end though, it it somewhat like trying to figure out whether Brad Pitt or George Clooney is better looking, or comparing a red Ferrari to a yellow one.


NS said...

Interesting review. How did you think TFL compared to your first visit six years ago? My first visit was in 2000 as well, and I'm convinced that -- over the course of multiple visits scattered over the intervening years -- the restaurant has progressively slipped. It's still outstanding, of course, and probably a bit better than its nearest local rivals. But the service is not what it once was, and some of the courses are not quite as spectacular as all of them used to be.

Interestingly, both of my criticisms seem to be supported by your review. The fact that you had to endure two courses without a beverage, for example, is not nitpicky in my book -- it's inexcusable at a restaurant of this caliber, particularly when it's charging $210 per person. But perhaps that's just me...

Anonymous said...

It's difficult to compare with a six-year old memory, which is why I kept going back to my experience at Per Se five months ago, which really was perfection from beginning to end. I also think that our collective impressions are colored by the fact that restaurants generally, and particularly in the San Francisco Bay Area, have gotten progressively more sophisticated and better overall. It is much harder to be an elite establishment now, sort of like the first time a figure skater executed a triple axel in competition versus the present when only a quad would impress. I thought my latest French Laundry experience was quite lovely, but Per Se was better.

With respect to the wine issue, I should explain better. I am a bit of a wannabe wine geek, and as much as our server tried to help, in the end, he had to solicit the help of the sommelier to fully respond to my detailed questions. Had I not been compelled to read the wine list from cover to cover first and interrogate our server before arriving at a decision, we most likely would not have had to do without for two courses.

French Laundry continues to be the restaurant that chefs around the country aspire to be, and that can only mean better and better food. That makes me happy. While I wish it cost less, from a personal credit card standpoint, it is still much less expensive than a night at an exclusive hotel, cheaper than some bottles of wine, and for me personally, the mental equivalent of a vacation.

Alice Q said...

Ah ha - another lawyer food blogger! I suspect my job might be just a leetle bit less heinous than yours - I work at the State AG's office (shhh, don't tell anyone!) but it's still work. I find food blogging a very pleasant diversion and I think you will to. I come to the Bay Area pretty often (I lived there for a few years, though I'm a San Diego native and am back here now) so SF blogs and restaurant news always interest me. I will be checking back in!

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