Monday, August 29, 2011

French Laundry (Yountville, CA) [2]

The French Laundry
6640 Washington St, Yountville, CA 94599
Mon 08/29/2011, 07:00p-11:40p

French Laundry

Back when I was just starting out in this blog game, dining at the temple of gastronomy that is The French Laundry was almost unfathomable. Almost. When I finally--due to a fortuitous meeting with Thomas Keller's father Ed--made it out, the dinner was a bit of a revelation, and to this day, it still stands as of my most significant, and best, meals that I've ever had. That was all under Chef de Cuisine Corey Lee, who left the restaurant in 2009 and now rules the roost at his own place in San Francisco, Benu. Lee was summarily replaced by Tim Hollingsworth, and for this most recent visit, I was eager to see how things had changed under the reign of the boyish Bocuse d'Or competitor.

About the Chef: Timothy Hollingsworth was born in 1980 in Houston, but spent his childhood in Placerville, CA, a small town in the Sierra Nevada foothills. After finishing school, he took up his first restaurant job at Zachary Jacques, a French-style country restaurant (some foreshadowing perhaps?) run by Chef Christian Masse and his wife Jennifer. He started out at the bottom as a dishwasher, but under the classic French tutelage of Masse, quickly rose up to the rank of Sous Chef. After experiencing life-changing meals at Alain Ducasse's Essex House and Le Cirque in New York, he solidified his commitment to cooking, and, after tenaciously pursuing Thomas Keller, landed a gig at The French Laundry at age 21.

It was 2002, and Hollingsworth found himself as a bright-eyed commis at the vaunted restaurant. He--obviously--excelled in the environment, and in 2004, Keller even selected him to be part of the team that traveled to New York to open Per Se. Stages at some of Europe's top kitchens, including Gordon Ramsay, Michel Rostang, and Alain Senderens at Lucas Carton, soon followed. In 2008, Hollingsworth, somewhat reluctantly, competed in Bocuse d'Or USA semi-finals and ended up winning, allowing him to represent the United States at Lyon in January 2009. Coached by Chef Roland Henen and aided by commis Adina Guest, he managed to finish sixth out of 24. By 2009, Hollingsworth was indispensible as a Sous Chef, and, having undergone extensive training by Corey Lee and Eric Ziebold, was well-prepared to continue French Laundry's strong tradition of culinary excellence upon Lee's departure. Critics seemed to agree. In 2010, he was named "Rising Star Chef" by the San Francisco Chronicle and "Rising Star Chef of the Year" by the James Beard Foundation. Perhaps more importantly, Michelin reaffirmed their three-star rating.

French Laundry Garden Cucumber French Laundry Garden Chickens
French Laundry Garden
As we arrived early, we took the opportunity to enjoy a leisurely stroll through The French Laundry's picturesque gardens across the street.

French Laundry Menu
The French Laundry typically offers up two menus nightly: a Chef's Tasting Menu and Tasting of Vegetables, both priced at $270 per person, inclusive of service. Given that we were seated in the private dining room however, the tab begins at $350 a head, and only goes up from there: +$45pp for foie gras, +$250pp for wine pairing. The cost isn't all for naught though; the huge, huge benefit of the private room is that events can be booked a year in advance, and you don't have to deal with all the rigmarole involved in making a reservation normally--easy breezy. Click for a larger version (note the signature of Executive Sous Chef Philip Tessier, formerly Chef de Cuisine at Bouchon).

A meal at The French Laundry almost always begins with a serving of the famed Gruyère gougères, and indeed, these remain arguably the best I've had. Filled with Mornay sauce, they were creamy, lush, and positively oozing with a cheesy goodness that I found slightly reminiscent of a Cheez-It!

Salmon Cornet
Another mainstay is the restaurant's signature "cornets." Constructed from salmon tartare, chives, and red onion crème fraîche, the dish's savoriness was nicely augmented by the buttery, sesame-tinged smack of the tuile cones.

1: "OYSTERS AND PEARLS" | "Sabayon" of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and White Sturgeon Caviar
Gaston Chiquet, Blanc de Blancs d'Ay, Grand Cru MV
If there is any one dish that is inextricably associated with Thomas Keller, then this is most certainly it. Oysters arrived poached in clarified butter and finished with dry vermouth and chive butter. The luxurious salinity of the oysters was faultlessly highlighted by the sharp brine of the Sterling caviar, while the tapioca served to moderate the dish beautifully. This was pretty much a perfect course, even better than before. In fact, one of my dining companions even deemed it one of the best things that he'd ever eaten. It was arguably my best oyster dish as well.

Truffled Egg Custard
Next up was an off-the-menu course--available by request only--of white truffle-infused egg custard topped with Perigord sauce (veal ragout, black truffle), then finished with a potato-chive chip. The rich, dark flavors of the veal and truffle played wonderfully with the comparatively mild relish of the custard, while the chip added a nice bit of saltiness and a welcomed textural contrast. Think classic flavors, deftly executed.

Pan Au Lait & Butter
Bread is not baked in-house, but rather, sourced from Bouchon Bakery down the street. Interestingly, bread service here comes serially, one variety at a time. Our first was a pan au lait roll, accompanied by an unsalted butter from Andante Dairy and an exclusive, hand-churned salted butter from Diane Sinclair out of Vermont.

2: SALAD OF FRENCH LAUNDRY GARDEN BEETS | Hass Avocado, Compressed Cucumber, Red Ribbon Sorrel and Yuzu "Gastrique"
Weegmüller, Riesling, "Haardter Herzog," Kabinett, Pfalz 2007
Given my aversion to beets, I wasn't exactly looking forward to this dish, though it was one of the better beet dishes that I've had. The root was fortunately subdued in flavor, and adroitly moderated by the other vegetables at play. I especially appreciated the creamy weight imparted by the avocado, while, at the same time, the yuzu vinaigrette served to temper and tie all the various elements together.

'PB&J' Salt Trio
3: "PB&J" | Moulard Duck "Foie Gras," Peanut "Génoise," Concord Grape "Gelée," Celery Branch and Petite Sirah Reduction
Oremus, Tokaji Aszú, 5 Puttonyos, Tokaj 2002
I always hated peanut butter & jelly sandwiches growing up, but I'm sure that I would've liked 'em better had they all tasted like this! The foie gras itself was delicate, restrained in savor, yet still distinctly liver-y. It thus worked wonderfully with the subdued sweetness of the grape, while the celery added an offsetting astringency to things. My favorite elements here, though, were the candied peanuts, which contributed an overarching nuttiness to the mix, as well as a keen crunchiness. Along with the foie came three types of salt: a grey surface salt from France, a white deep sea salt from the Philippines, and pink Jurassic rock salt from the bottom of a copper mine in Bozeman, Montana. Salt wasn't strictly necessary, but did serve to enhance the flavor of the foie somewhat.

4: COLUMBIA RIVER STURGEON "EN PERSILLADE" | "Ragoût" of Summer Pole Beans, Frisée and Dijon Mustard Emulsion
Vincent Girardin, Puligny-Montrachet, "Les Folatières," Burgundy, 1er Cru 2007
A filet of firm, briny sturgeon came encrusted with a layer of parsley, and accompanied by a Dijon emulsion and mixture of black eyed peas, cranberry beans, and filet beans. I first tasted the fish alone, and wasn't in love with it, finding it a bit brash. The key really was to eat everything together. The bright, green flavors and refreshing crunch of the haricot verts worked wonders in offsetting the potency of the fish, while the beans served to ground the dish.

French Demi-Baguette
Next up was a French demi-baguette.

5: SWEET BUTTER-POACHED MAINE LOBSTER TAIL | Bluefoot Mushrooms, Marble Potatoes, Red Radish, Parsley and Padrón Pepper "Vierge"
Lopez de Heredia, "Viña Gravonia," Blanco, Rioja 2001
Lobster was rather tremendous, one of the best cooked preparations that I've ever had, with a perfectly snappy, supple consistency paired with a sweet, lingering salinity that I adored. The crustacean was delicious alone, but I really enjoyed the savoriness imparted by the blue-foots, while the veggies lightened and brightened the dish.

Multigrain Sourdough
Our final bread: a multigrain sourdough.

6: DEVIL'S GULCH RANCH RABBIT SIRLOIN | Baby Corn, Mission Fig, Swiss Chard and Black Truffle Sauce
Arnot-Roberts, Trousseau, "Luchsinger Vineyard," Clear Lake 2010
Here, I first took a bite of the rabbit loin and reveled in its succulence and profound depth of flavor--it was arguably the singular best mouthful of rabbit that I'd ever eaten. The rack, unfortunately, didn't quite reach such lofty levels, but was nonetheless quite tasty. Both cuts were fantastic when taken with the earthy essence of the black truffle dressing, and I appreciated the slight bitterness from the chard as well. I would say that the corn, however, was a touch too sugary.

7: MARCHO FARM NATURE-FED VEAL | "Lasagne de Langue de Veau," Toybox Tomatoes, Globe Artichoke, Romaine Lettuce and Castelmagno "Mousseline"
Tenuta Friggiali, Brunello di Montalcino, "Donna Olga," Tuscany 2004
Our final savory course, quite simply, brought forth the best preparation of veal that I've ever had. I found the meat uncompromisingly tender and amazingly juicy, amped up with loads of bovine sapor--quite an accomplishment for veal. It was beautifully countervailed by the vegetables, especially the bright crunch of the lettuce, and I loved the contrast provided by the "lasagna" of veal tongue as well. A faultless dish; I couldn't think of a single thing that I wanted to change.

8: "TOMME DE BREBIS" | Bacon-Onion Marmalade, Cipollini Onion, Jacobsen's Farm Apples and Watercress
Failla, Syrah, "Estate," Sonoma Coast 2007
Tomme de Brebis, a semi-firm sheep's milk cheese, showed off a subtly tangy relish that was easy to like. As such, it formed a great base for the sweet-savory interplay of the other ingredients to shine. I especially enjoyed the bacon-onion marmalade, which, interestingly, I found reminiscent of corned beef hash! Accompanying breads included a black currant, a toasted walnut, and a pan rustica.

9: YELLOW WATERMELON SORBET | Basil-Honey and Saba Vinegar
Serving as a sort of palate cleanser, a watermelon sorbet conveyed the pure, unmitigated quintessence of the fruit, while the saba (grape must syrup) contributed a deep, viscous counterpoint of syrup-y, savory-sweet goodness.

10: CARAMÉLIA CHOCOLATE "CRÈMEUX" | Gros Michel Banana, Candied Pine Nuts, "Dentelle" and Salted Popcorn Ice Cream
Château Rieussec, 1er Cru Classé, Sauternes 1989
The last proper course was a crèmeux of Valrhona Caramélia, a type of milk chocolate laced with caramel, which gave the dessert a particularly intense sweetness. At the same time, the popcorn ice cream and pine nuts contributed marked salty notes that countered the chocolate's sugariness perfectly. The whole amalgam, taken together, was delicious, and sort of reminded me of high-class Cracker Jacks!

'Coffee and Doughnuts'
Here was Keller's signature "Coffee and Doughnuts," comprised of fried cinnamon beignets served with a demitasse of espresso ice cream semifreddo. It was a simple but effective dessert, with the light, fluffy doughnut holes pairing with the coffee-tinged semifreddo beautifully.

Valrhona Chocolates
A platter of Valrhona chocolates was up next. Six varieties were on offer: a lovely Ginger & Rum, a classic PB&J with strawberry, a delectably fruity Bing Cherry, an Olive Oil version made with product from Calistoga, a Ferrero Rocher-like Hazelnut Crunch, and a subtle Meyer Lemon.

Macadamia Nuts
Rounding things out was a bowl of caramelized macadamia nuts. They were excellent, showing off a gorgeous crunch and deft mix of sweet and salty flavors.

Shortbread Cookies
To take away: a bag of shortbread cookies, made from a recipe from former Pastry Chef Claire Clark's mother.

French Laundry Kitchen
The requisite kitchen tour at the end of the meal. The space is surprisingly small for a restaurant of this caliber.

Coming in to this meal, I was a bit concerned--concerned about the new Chef, concerned that the restaurant was getting a bit long in the tooth. My fears, fortunately, were not warranted. The dinner was a strong one, quite possibly better than my last in fact. Sure, compared to my other meals of this trip--Atelier Crenn, Saison, Baumé--French Laundry may seem a little "safe." And indeed, the food here isn't as avant garde, as modernist as that at the aforementioned eateries, but it is executed near-flawlessly, and the flavors are pretty much spot on, with the oysters, lobster, rabbit, and veal all being some of the best preparations of those respective ingredients that I'd ever experienced. Hollingsworth and company seem to be holding down the fort quite well, and I have no doubt that my next visit here will be just as good, if not better.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jealous! :-) But I am heading off to Vegas in a couple weeks for a little E & Twist action.

It's interesting how fast culinary trends change. I've been eating at "fancy" places since the mid 80s and this meal -- which looks fabulous -- would have been height of fashion in 1999-2000, even still in the early 2000s. Not that it still doesn't look absolutely fabulous! It's just closer to Nouvelle Cuisine -- really the California even-more-ingredient-driven late 20th century variant. But it isn't nearly as influenced by Ferran Adria as some newer places, which gives it that "playing it safe" feel.

Or in LA we have a few spots like Chinois that still linger with that 80s/early 90s "whacky fusion vibe," which for me was exemplified by Rivera's Abiquiu. And truth is, dated or not, Chinois is still tasty :-)

But I won't go so far back as something like:

Sunday, September 04, 2011 9:19:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've been to quite a few "fancy" places myself. Jean-Georges, Le Cirque 2000 (I'm dating myself here), Chanterelle, La Tour d'Argent etc. It's been quite a few years since I was in NYC last, but I'd love to check out Per Se and a few others.

I like that The French Laundry has stuck to what they do well. Culinary trends come and go and quite honestly, I'd be a bit disappointed if The French Laundry started thinking they need to present food in spheres, offering laser cooked proteins tableside etc.. Molecular gastronomy is fine and all, but let's admit it - it's not very approachable. The French Laundry is still "food". Alinea, il Bulli, Moto and the like are indeed on the cutting edge of cuisine, but they're more an experience than a meal. I personally can't "get" wanting to put a sphere of olive oil in my mouth as a course, but I'd be all over the "oysters and pearls" in a nanosecond.

Sunday, September 04, 2011 10:59:00 AM  
Anonymous Gastronomer said...

The foie gras course looked AWESOME. Loved the layering affect. The foie gras and lobster were my fave courses at TFL.

Sunday, September 04, 2011 11:15:00 AM  
Blogger Bobby @ Gourmands Review said...

Is it a larger tasting for the private room or the same? It looks like it was a great dinner and seems its more about the whole experience than just the food.

Sunday, September 04, 2011 12:00:00 PM  
Blogger Rodzilla said...

I've been waiting to read about this one. Glad to see it's still up to par. The lobster, rabbit, and foie really stood out even without you saying so - I was really pulling for another calf's brain course though!

Sunday, September 04, 2011 7:47:00 PM  
Blogger Sam C. said...

Finally you've posted this. I've been waiting for this post for awhile. Good coverage of the FL and I would have to admit that French laundry is "safe" compared to your other restaurant in terms of coolness (comon, who doesn't like laser beams and liquid nitrogen). But they are definitely not "safe" on their flavor!! The funny thing is that your last 2 courses are similar to what I had when I was there a few weeks ago. Maybe they change their dessert menu less frequently?

Sunday, September 04, 2011 8:14:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do you know the minimum number of people required to get a reservation in the private dining room?

Monday, September 05, 2011 9:02:00 AM  
Anonymous Bull Garlington said...

That egg with the potato chive chip just makes me drooly.

Monday, September 05, 2011 11:18:00 AM  
Blogger kevinEats said...

Andy: I wish I was around back then so that I could've experienced all the wacky stuff going on in the 1980's! Coincidentally, now that you mention John Sedlar, I was just over at Rivera the other day. They're doing a tribute to Sedlar's Saint Estèphe restaurant, serving all his old dishes from 30 years ago--you should check it out.

Also, what was the final verdict on photography at é?

Anon: I hear ya; what TFL does, it does bleedingly well. Speaking of New York, I need to get back there myself. Per Se's definitely worth a try, and I also need to visit the iconic Daniel, as well as vaunted newcomer Eleven Madison Park.

Cathy: Some sort of sweet butter-poached lobster tail seems to be a constant on the menu, and the "optional" foie gras really shouldn't be optional at all (your brother is right). The foie that I had on my last trip here remains my best ever.

Bobby: It starts out as the same menu, but you can customize from there (with the price rising accordingly).

Roddy: Ha! That would've been too poetic. ;)

Sam: Yeah I read your post, and also noted the similarities. The structure of the menu here is pretty constant. I like how TFL got you out of your five-month blog hiatus.

Anon: It's eight minimum (which coresponds to a minimum fee of $2800 exclusive of beverages, supplements, and tax), ten maximum. I imagine you could do fewer than eight as long as you hit the $2800 minimum. There's also a $1500 deposit required.

Bull: You and me both!

Tuesday, September 06, 2011 12:42:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Some of the 80s stuff was pretty cool at the time. Abiquiu was pretty awesome. I remember seeing stuff like "flying lobster dude ranch sushi" and "chocolate chili releno" and cracking up. This was in an era when I was still having to explain to most people what sushi was!

"eeewww raw fish?" was the inevitable reply. I was in early on the whole Japanese food thing because my parents went to Japan in the late 70s and got hooked.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011 10:21:00 AM  
Anonymous Cinderella11pm said...

Wonderful pictures, Kevin.

It looks very much like Per Se, and obviously will be an experience many will love:)

Tuesday, September 06, 2011 8:21:00 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

So ridiculously jealous.

Next time, we need to go to Redd. :)

Thursday, September 08, 2011 2:01:00 PM  
Blogger kevinEats said...

Andy: That chocolate chile relleno might be making an apperance at Rivera this month. ;)

Cinderella: Yeah, the restaurants seem very similar. Curious to try Per Se now with Eli Kaimeh replacing Jonathan Benno.

Michael: Redd's actually been on my list for a while, but other stuff keeps coming up!

Monday, September 12, 2011 2:00:00 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

Redd is scrumptious. I just don't understand why you would go to the same places (unless a new chef was residing).

I mean if you were to go to Marche Moderne for the fifteenth time, would it change that much? Maybe it is a comfort thing.

Monday, September 12, 2011 9:15:00 AM  
Blogger kevinEats said...

I certainly wouldn't want to go to Marche Moderne that many times. ;p

Certainly places though are surely worth a repeat visit, especially if there's a new chef in town. The tradeoff between consistent quality and novelty is something I definitely think about.

Thursday, September 22, 2011 4:09:00 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

I love the French Laundry so much, but the reservations is so "AHHH!" ;)

If you are a party of two, you are doomed.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012 2:08:00 PM  
Blogger kevinEats said...

Yes, so better find some more people to go with you!

Tuesday, February 07, 2012 1:57:00 AM  

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