Getting back into cooking since 2009.


Thursday, December 24, 2009

The French Laundry

Yountville is almost creepily scenic. Imagine Margaret River if it wasn't full of franchises. So, imagine Bridgetown, only without a highway down the middle. It also feels a bit like Disneyland, except instead of Mickey Mouse the central character that the town revolves around is Thomas Keller.

Keller has three restaurants in this small, one-street town. The Michelin one-star Bouchon, the casual family-style Ad Hoc, and the world-beating reason we'd driven an hour and a bit north of San Francisco, the French Laundry. He also has the spin-off Bouchon Bakery, a little shop front that started off purely to supply the restaurants, but is now open to the public. They still deliver bread down the street in a little branded delivery bicycle, a twee touch that would make me retch and wince in disbelief if it was in an Audrey Tatou movie.

Keller has a lot going on, but the focus is very much the French Laundry.


We wandered up the main street from the little converted train we were staying in, hoping to stumble across The Restaurant, when we came across a farm. Rows and rows of cabbages, herbs, lettuces of all kinds, a giant persimmon tree, a greenhouse.




Then we looked a bit closer and realised...


That's not just a farm, that's the farm, the French Laundry's kitchen garden. We turned around and there it was, the culinary mecca.



A few hours later, we were inside, and ready to eat.

I'd love to describe each dish we ate, but I'm afraid I'd bore you. The menu is a nine course degustation plus assorted canapes, with a choice between an omnivorous menu and a vegetarian menu. Each menu gives a choice between two alternatives on several courses, giving you the chance to taste even more than the allotted number of dishes if you're willing to share (we did, although sometimes reluctantly).

We ate the signature salmon cornets, a foie gras terrine with hazelnuts and brioche, a dumpling with tripe and black truffles, two different fish dishes. Tiny rolls from the Bouchon Bakery were served with a French butter and one from Vermont that comes from a dairy farm with four cows. Soda raved about her tiny rack and saddle of rabbit. We had incredible lamb from Elsyian Fields Farm, the saddle wrapped in its own fat and cooked sous vide, tasting much more strongly gamey than the lamb we eat at home and the more subtle roast we had a few nights earlier at Chez Panisse.

There was a composed cheese course, a pre-dessert that took its cues from the Dark and Stormy cocktail  featuring a ginger beer foam and ginger tuile, a bakewell tart and chocolate cake (that of course didn't look like bakewell tart and chocolate cake), some mignardises including a sublime salted caramel truffle.

You can see some fairly average photos of these incredible dishes on my Picasa, but I really need to rave about two courses in particular: Oysters and Pearls, and the "Caesar Salad".

I almost wish I hadn't eaten Oysters and Pearls, because now that I have there's no turning back. Oysters and Pearls set the bar so high, I'm not sure any other restaurant will be able clear it. This is a dish with aims so far beyond sustenance that it deserves its own category as a pleasure-delivery vehicle: to call it it "food" feels woefully inadequate.

Oysters and Pearls consists of lightly poached oysters, all briny and sweet, in a delicately chive-scented sabayon studded with tapioca pearls. On top goes a hunking great wodge of unspeakably good caviar. That's it. It builds and builds, subtle at first, but then the delicate, salty roe start to work their magic, popping in the mouth, the tapioca spheres a textural echo of the caviar. The oysters themselves tip it over the top into pure hedonism.

I have to eat this again someday. Perhaps, someday, Per Se. Until then, I'll just have to dream about it.

Oysters and Pearls, as you'll have gathered, was a very good way to begin a meal. Things got better from there.


I have no hesitation in naming the French Laundry's "Caesar Salad" as the greatest single dish I've ever had the pleasure of eating. The dish bears very little relation to any Caesar salad you or I have seen before, instead using classic Caesar dressing as a jumping off point for a dish that is based around Keller's famous butter-poached lobster tail.

On the base of the plate is a generous but inadequate mound of Caesar dressing (I would drink two litre cartons of "Caesar Chill" if it existed), with bottarga playing the role of anchovy. Bottarga is sun-dried mullet roe, and shares a similar salty, intense, umami-laden deliciousness with anchovies, one of my favourite foods. The bottarga gives the dressing a light orange hue, which mirrors the butter-poached lobster tail perched on top.

Sitting next the lobster is a rectangular piece of cos lettuce ('romaine', to the Americans), caramelised on the outside and giving an extra nod to the salad that gives this dish its name. Perched atop it all at a jaunty angle is a little garlic crisp, a delicate tuile with the muted taste of roasted garlic.

Over the top, a waiter shaves another few flakes of bottarga tableside. Wow. From the first forkful, I went into a glassy-eyed stupour, something S tends to refer to as my "polenta face" after first encountering it over a plate of crab and polenta at Icebergs in Sydney a few years ago. The lobster is tender and moist, tasting of the sea, its natural fattiness reinforced by the beurre monte (butter emulsified with water) in which it was poached.

The lobster, in a nice fusion of the classic and modern techniques, is poached in a vat controlled by an immersion circulator, but isn't vacuum sealed first, so it's halfway between a sous-vide poach and a traditional poach. A nice summation of where the kitchen sits on the modern-traditional spectrum, I think.


We even got invited to view the kitchen and meet the Chef de Cuisine, Tim Hollingsworth, a man who represented America at the last Bocuse d'Or culinary Olympics. The kitchen is shockingly small, with six stations managing to turn out food of such precision and quality, with two menus that are really more like four given the choices available, plus canapes, every night. Oh and the menu changes every day. These are cooks at the top of their game, at the top of the world, and I'm incredibly glad I got to eat their food.

French Laundry on Urbanspoon
The French Laundry
 6640 Washington St
Yountville, CA 94599

16 comments:

  1. I already had The French Laundry on my list of places to visit; it's just moved up a notch on the strength of your review. Thanks for sharing (and making me very ridiculously hungry), Matt.

    H :)

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  2. I couldn't stop staring at the Oysters and Pearls and re-reading your description. Now you've ruined us all. I was quite happy with my planned dinner of leftover turkey, stuffing and vegies until I read this. Dang.

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  4. Oh My God! This place looks amazing, specially the oysters! What a memorable meal it must have been

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  5. Hannah, Conor, Food lover: Thanks for reading! It's probably a tad self-indulgent of me to "review" a restaurant that is on the other side of the world and charges a small fortune ($US240 per person including service, not including tax and drinks), but that's what a blog is for, I guess!

    Vincent/Spam Bot: No thanks!

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  6. wow. that truly does look magnificent. i think the fact that you had built the meal up so much in your mind and it still managed to blow you away is a sign of just how amazing this place is.


    you're a top chef fan - that garlic chip - didnt he get the idea from brian voltaggio in the bocuse d'or challenge? i remember him being impressed with the technique.

    by the way pls dont mention who won top chef etc, ive been watching it on foxtel and the first part of the finale is on monday.

    sanj

    p.s -

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  7. Wow, you might be right, actually! We were at the French Laundry about 2 weeks after that episode was shot, so the timing works.

    We saw Marcel at the Bazaar (he's a sous chef; Michael V was chef de cuisine there until recently), plus we went to the Gorbals (Ilan's new restaurant in downtown LA), ate at 'wichcraft (Colicchio's sandwich shop). Inadvertent (well... semi-advertent) top chef tour

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  8. awesome. im a huge fan of the show. what was gorbals like? u have the bacon wrapped matzo balls? any good or just a pretty successful gimmick for publicity?

    sanj

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  9. They weren't actually on the menu the night we went.
    The Gorbals was GREAT. GREAT. Smallish plates, brief menu, a lot of offal but not in a confronting sort of way. Surprisingly humble place too, not flashy at all. It's in a completely run down hotel in scary downtown LA.

    The closest comparison I think would be Cantina I think, but with fewer braises, more offal, less wine, more scotch.

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  10. i would like to add THE GORBALS = A+++++

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  11. sounds like my sort of place. might do some further reading up on it.

    thanks.

    sanj

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  12. Great read on French Laundry, folks. We visited in 2008, but couldn't get a booking, so ate at Bouchon and the bakery instead. But your piece brought back memories of dinner at Per Se in NYC - a fantastic experience. We were invited into the kitchen to meet Mr Keller, despite the fact he was on the other side of the country in Yountville... we watched him by live satellite video feed which was broadcast onto a flatscreen TV. It allowed him to oversee the pass at both of his establishments at the same time... It's that sort of quest for control and perfection that makes his places such an experience. Glad you got to eat the FL... and a great blog.

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  13. Your use of "caesar chill" is what makes this a good thing. you can take the boy out of the northern suburbs etc.

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  14. bmgm: Thanks for reading! I'd love to go to Per Se. I suppose I should aspire to eat at some non-Keller restaurants, but I'd be happy to eat nothing other than Oysters and Pearls every day for the rest of my life.

    Robbie: I didn't wear any shoes either

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  15. Shoot, haven't visited here in a while. Awesome write up mate. You'll be missed in Perth. Need more bloggers like you writing the way you do about Perth (disclaimer: admittedly I don't spend as much time as I should blog-trawling)

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  16. Thanks Max! It wasn't hard to write an interesting post about the French Laundry, the place is magnificent.

    There seems to be a lot of new Perth food blogs around, I'm sure one of them can fill the very modest void left by our defection to Melbourne!

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