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French Laundry Tonight: Fine but not Sublime (long)

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French Laundry Tonight: Fine but not Sublime (long)

Syre | Jul 17, 2003 05:30 AM

I've been to the French Laundry twice. The service is very good to excellent, the ambiance is fine, and the food is fine.

So why do I only give it a 7 overall?

Because only a few dishes were truly sublime. All the ingredients are perfectly fresh, the preparation is careful, the dishes taste good, but Keller has said that what he tries for is the sudden jolt of flavor, the sudden realization that you're tasting something amazing. I've experienced sublime dishes many times in restaurants all over the world. The French Laundry, when I've been there, is fine but it doesn't usually reach those heights for me.

Another quibble is the pace at which dishes emerge from the kitchen. We arrived at 6pm, were seated by 6:05, but by 8:30 only 3 of the 9 courses in our tasting menus had arrived. Each tiny dish was followed by a wait of up to 1/2 hour. Instead of waking us up with new flavors, Keller nearly put us to sleep with the slow pace!

Some more thoughts on my latest dinner:

Amuse Bouche: Salmon tartare cone - one of his signature dishes. The salmon was perfectly fresh, minced and mixed with chives. The cone was somewhat overcooked. The creme fraiche in the cone tasted very good.

Starter: Truffle custard - another signature dish, it's served in an egg shell which has been neatly sliced off near the top leaving just enough room to fit a spoon into it. The first bite was nearly sublime. There was a generous amount of truffle added to the custard, which was soft and creamy. Towards the bottom of the egg, however, the custard was less truffled and harder, so it was a mixed success.

Second: For a second course, I selected the duck foie gras pate with truffles ($25 supplement). This was another excellent dish. A nice sized slice was presented on a plate with a tiny bit of frisee covered with a few truffle slices. The pate was very delicately flavored and had lines of truffle running through it. The taste of the truffle in this pate and on the frisee was very mild. So much so that I suspected Keller of economizing on ingredients by using Chinese "truffles" which taste somewhat like the French Perigord truffle, but have a much weaker flavor and cost about 1/10 as much. It was served with perfectly toasted white bread, hot from the toaster.

Third: Peas and Carrots - another signature dish. Pea-shaped balls of carrot served next to several pieces of Maine lobster on a carrot sauce topped with pea shoots. This dish was very good, and I liked it a lot, but it didn't quite get to the "sublime" level, perhaps because there wasn't enough sauce to flavor all the lobster that was provided, and the lobster itself was simply a very good lobster that had been cooked well.

Fourth: Cod with fennel - This dish consisted of a medallion of codfish topped with a flat green cylinder of ground fennel preparation, on a bed of diced fennel and red and yellow peppers, with a smidge of pepper sauce next to it. Again, a perfectly good dish, but one which, while interesting, wasn't incredibly surprising or enlightening.

Fifth: Sea Bass with hen-of-the-woods mushrooms and spinach - Another perfectly good dish which didn't inspire. A nicely cooked slice of fish, crisp on top, over a bed of spinach mixed with a too-sweet balsamic vinegar sauce, and two hen-of-the-woods mushrooms on the side. The mushrooms appeared to have been grilled separately with perhaps a bit of olive oil (though they were slightly dry) and, though they are interesting mushrooms, didn't add much to the dish.

Sixth: Fulton Valley Duck Breast topped with fresh Foie Gras – OK, I love foie gras. This fresh foie gras was cooked perfectly – no complaints there. The duck breast had a thick layer of fat, but was not crispy on top. At the same time, it seemed a bit overcooked. Still, the dish was fine, if, again, not inspiring.

Seventh: Cheese – a small slice of local goat cheese served with an apple compote and an excellent piece of shortbread. The goat cheese, whose name I forget, reminded me of a French Grand Mere cheese that I like. The compote was nice – not too sweet and with a good fresh apple taste.

Eighth: Passion Fruit Sorbet with Toasted Coconut “Financier” – The sorbet was fine, if a bit weak in flavor. As I ate it, I couldn’t help wishing for an intensely flavored Bertillon sorbet. The “Financier” was a small, moist muffin which I found a bit bready.

Ninth: Delice au Chocolate Caramel – this was a lovely small round confection with a dark chocolate coating. The interior was a lighter chocolate mousse, and it all rested on a disk of shortbread. Around it were arrayed some “yogurt foam”, creme anglais and swipes of passion fruit coulis. I found the light part of the chocolate to be not chocolaty enough (but then again, I eat a lot of 99% or 100% chocolate). It was beautifully made, however.

Extras: With coffee we were brought a tray of 12 petite-fours sized pastries and two macaroons. The pastries were generally of excellent quality. One of them surprised me: a small flat disk with a yellowish dome of custard, which turned out to be very intensely flavored – with passion-fruit again! The macaroons were nice, but they weren’t really like the French macaroons they were obviously trying for. A great French macaroon cookie should have a slightly crisp crust, then snap through to an incredibly light and airy center. The cream between the two cookies should have a rich flavor. Instead, these macaroons were very chewy and had a doughy flavor.

All in all, I give the food a rating of 8.75 out of 10, Service a 7 (because of the long wait between courses), and Value a 6, because the price isn’t quite justified by the quality, and, as I stated at the beginning of the article, a 7 Overall.

Next time I eat in Yountville, It’ll be at Jeanty.

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