I had three meals at the French Laundry in 2001. This was before I knew about chowhound, so I never wrote a review. The Chowhound outing to the Laundry prompted me to dig up some emails I sent to friends about my experiences and cobble them together for the board.
April 2001 (Tuesday, early dinner)
We were seated in the small room just off the lobby. This is probably the nicest place to sit in the restaurant, as you can see all of the action, but are tucked away from the hustle bustle.
The two of us started with a half bottle of Sancerre. Here is what we ate:
-salmon ice cream cone (further description below)
-oysters and pearls - tapioca, caviar, oysters ~ this was fantastic on many levels; texture, flavour, humour...
-asparagus salad with shitake mushrooms ~ I had the option of a foie gras terrine for a $25 supplement; I went with the asparagus and was very pleased. I would love to try a poached foie, but terrines never seem worth it to me. the salad was made up of slightly crunchy asparagus tips served cold with a shitake dressing.
-sauteed halibut with glazed pearl onions and onion sabayon ~ amazing. the halibut had a beautiful crust on top and was served atop the onion sabayon. the fish was simply perfect; the crust added a wonderful texture and the sweetness of the onions brought the dish together.
-butter braised maine lobster, with spinach and saffron vanilla sauce ~ what can I say? butter braised lobster. yummmmmmmm. (keller doesnt like to boil lobster in water, he prefers butter. my kind of guy)
We switched to a red at this point, I think it was a california pinot noir, but Im not sure.
-Rabbit sirloin wrapped in bacon with toasted almonds, green garlic, and preserved meyer lemon ~ this was as good as it sounds, but amazingly was the worst thing I had. it is nice when a 3 ½ star entrée is the low point of a meal. the highlight of the dish was the tiny (and very delicious) rabbit kidney that accompanied the sirloin.
-truffle crusted filet mignon with perigord truffle risotto cake, truffle mousse, and sauce perigourdine ~ this is possibly the best thing I have ever tasted. ever. I cant describe how good it was, but perhaps an anecdote will help.
A newly married couple was seated in our dining room; we had started eating about 45 minutes before them and had listened to the woman order the tasting menu sans meat. When I tasted the veal, my pleasurable reaction was so powerful and dramatic, the woman asked what I was eating and then called the waiter over to change her order. The waiter said, but, I thought you didnt eat veal. She said firmly ill have what hes having.
-montbriac with red wine poached pears and toasted walnuts ~ a beautiful cheese with perfect accompaniments.
-yogurt and vanilla panna cotta with blood orange sorbet and champange gelee ~ this was good, but did not blow me away.
-preserved apricot cake with spiced apricot sauce and creme chantilly ~ same as the first dessert. good, but not great.
At this point we were perfectly sated. unfortunately, we decided to eat all of the petit fours and rapidly became overly full. still, I was very impressed that we received the perfect amount of food over 9 courses.
September 2001 (Sunday Lunch, seated outside in the garden)
-the salmon "ice cream cone" - a crispy sesame cone filled with sweet onion flavoured creme fraiche and topped with salmon tartare. (amuse bouche)
-a bit of frog leg with fines herb infused oil and topped with an olive tapanade. (amuse bouche part 2)
-foie gras served atop a braised cippolinI onion and topped with minced apples. foie gras sauce.
-lobster pancake - small pieces of lobster meat inside a sort of dumpling wrapper. not sure about the sauce, probably lobster coral sauce.
-veal sweetbreads in a chive butter sauce.
-roquefort tartlette (basically a small slice of quiche with shmear of roquefort on it)
-chocolate mille feuille (layers of chocolate crispys with hazelnut chocolate goo in between. served with hazelnut? ice cream.
-creme brulee / pot au creme (distributed randomly around the table (amuse bouche part 3)
-petit fours (macaroons, min choc tarts, etc)
Sancerre for the first half
a red Rhone blend for the second half (Domaine St. Duc... note to self, I need to get me a bottle of that)
1. sweetbreads - i've had sweetbreads a few times and thought they were just ok. these were perfectly tender and the chive, butter, wine sauce was a great match.
2. lobster - what can I say? lobster meat with a tasty sauce is almost always going to be great.
3. rouqefort - really rich eggy quiche topped with creamy roquefort. yes, I pretty much ordered the most decadent stuff on the menu.
4. foie - very good, but I was not blown away. it has been a while since I ordered foie, but I wanted to see what the $20 supplement to the price fix was about.
5. frog - I didn't taste the herb oil over the tapenade. the frog was really tasty though.
6. salmon cone - this was the only duplication from the last time I was there. cute (whimsical?) little snack, but I havent been blown away.
7. creme brulee / pot au creme - good, but i'm not really crazy about custard desserts.
8. choc hazelnut thing - the desserts were weak last time too.
Having tried both ways of ordering, I would say that the tasting menu is definitely the way to go. The food on the regular menu was excellent (more on that in a sec) but I liked the flow of the meal and the surprises that came with the tasting menu the first time I went.
I should note that I am generally a fan of fixed menus b/c I think it gives the chef an opportunity to plan a menu for you, and you tend to get things that you wouldn't ordinarily order.
The regular menu should probably be reserved for when you have eaten at the FL so much that you are sick of the tasting menu:-)
The garden wasn't great. We had trouble keeping the sun out of our eyes, and it got a bit warm. The garden is tricky, since it is weather dependent and you have to make reservations so far in advance.
I had just read Soul of a Chef, a third of which covers Thomas Keller and his cooking. Keller collaborated with the author, Michael Ruhlman, on the French Laundry cookbook as well. Ruhlman was pretty effusive in his praise of the restaurant and mentioned that solo diners are VIPd. I really wanted to be a VIP, so I made a reservation for 1. Based on the book, I was hoping for an offal tasting menu, as this was glowingly described in the book. As it happened, they were offering a truffle tasting menu, which I felt I could abide by.
December 2001 (late Thursday dinner)
I started with a glass of Champagne while I was waiting for my table. While I was waiting I was given
-a bit of puff pastry that was baked with gruyere (amuse bouche #1)
-Lobster soup; intense lobster and butter flavour; the soup when wonderfully with the Champagne (amuse bouche #2)
I ordered the truffle tasting menu and a glass of Montrachet to go with the first part of my meal.
-salmon coronet (as described above) (amuse bouche #3)
-Parsnip soup with chestnuts (amuse bouche #4)
-Lemon Boy tomato sorbet with early girl tomato tartare, balsamic glaze (amuse bouche #5)
-Tiny blinI with tomato concasse, shaved bottarga (amuse bouche #6)
When the table was set for the next course, I noticed that I was given a caviar spoon. My excitement level began to rise.
-oysters and pearls (as described above, and every bit as good as the first time) (amuse bouche #7)
At this point I became a bit concerned that they were serving me the wrong menu, as I had received 7 courses and had not seen the first item on the menu I ordered. I calmed myself down with another glass of Montrachet.
The next course was part 1 of the truffle tasting menu:
-Coddled egg scented with white truffles, topped with grated perigord (black) truffles.
-Tagliatelle with shaved white truffles
-Beet Confit with mache and shaved black truffles ~ this was fantastic. the sweet earthiness of the beets were perfectly complemented by the truffle.
*Cote de Pape, Chateuneuf de Pape* (half bottle)
-Tian of Scallops with orange zest, olive oil, orange bits, and white truffles
-Roasted Jambonette of duck breast, with potato disks sauteed in duck fat, poached quail egg, and perigord truffle coulis ~ lovely; delicious.
-Blanquette of veal topped with browned veal sweetbreads, celery root and white truffles ~ terrific; Keller does wonderful things with veal and sweetbreads.
-Whipped brie de nangis with perigord truffles and a truffled potato chip (chip and dip:-))
-White truffle infused ice cream float. White truffle ice cream in white truffle soda with a candied white truffle chip. ~ I had not finished the soda when the waiter came to take the dish. He suggested that I drink it down and I found it to be delicious. Lightly carbonated, mildly sweetened, and redolent of white truffle. I think there might be a market for truffle soda. Coke, take note!
-Warm choc cake with hazelnut ice cream and shaved black truffles
I loved the beets, the duck, and the veal, but was disappointed with the desserts again. Nor was I blown away by the truffles. They were sliced or shaved onto each course and Im sure I ate more than one truffle over the course of the evening. I am aware that fresh truffles are supposed to be shaved at serving for optimal flavour and aroma, but I found the slices and/or shavings to be a bit dry and not well integrated with the food. The exception was the beets, where the dry slices of truffle went very well with the cold wet beets. I tossed the truffle shavings into the tagliatelle myself and found that it significantly improved the dish.
Bottom line - My first meal at the French Laundry was the best meal of my life. The two following meals were exceptional, but did not reach the transcendent level of greatness that the first meal hit.