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Top of the Food Chain: The French Laundry

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Top of the Food Chain: The French Laundry

Paul H | Jul 22, 2003 09:12 PM

It seems that everyone in the local Chowhound Universe has recently posted about his or her trip to The French Laundry. Not wanting to be left out, I offer the following thoughts on my June 14th visit to this Culinary Mecca. Indeed, I feel somewhat obligated to do so, as this trip was a Chowhound outing.

Well, to be accurate, it was a private affair, but Chowhound was responsible for my being there. An east coast chowhound posted a message here posing the oft-asked question of how to get a reservation at the FL. Miraculously, he received an e-mail in return offing to let him have a Saturday night reservation for four. Since our east coast sojourner was coming out here alone on business, he posted another message asking if anyone would like to go to the French Laundry. That is how I ended up in Yountville at 9:30 p.m. one perfect Saturday evening where I eventually emerged from The French Laundry at 1 a.m. the next day and sauntered happily back to my hotel room, having had the single best meal of my life.

Two of us had the Chef’s tasting menu with the Foie Gras option (+$20). One of us had the tasting menu without the Foie Gras, and the fourth member of the party had the Vegetarian Tasting menu.

I didn't take notes, and at this remove from the meal I don't remember everything, but I'll comment on the things that stand out in my memory, and note observations that I hope might be useful.

First, we were not offered any extra courses, save for the small Crême Brûlés at the end of the meal. This may be related to the late seating (9:30 p.m.). The menu also had "Oysters and Pearls" listed as the first course, but by the time we were seated they had run out of these, and the cauliflower panna cotta was substituted. These experiences may indicate it is better to get an earlier seating if you have any choice in the matter.

Unlike many other places offering a Chef's Tasting Menu, The French Laundry does not offer a wine pairing option. Instead, they offer to use half-bottles to make up a wine pairing. This can substantially add to the cost. For instance, Gary Danko offers a wine paring with their tasting menu for $42. The custom wine paring for our meal at FL was $97.

The tasting menu is as carefully designed as each dish. It starts with simple tastes and builds to more complex ones. It has a structure, just as sure as a symphony or novel does. The menu offered, and the chosen wines were as follows (with occasional commentary inserted at various places):

Chef's Tasting Menu - June 14, 2003

Wine: Billecart-Salmon Brut Rose Champagne (1/2 bottle)
[Any proper meal should start with Champagne.]

Amuse Bouche: "Cornets" Salmon Tartare with Sweet Red Onion Crème Fraiche
[The signature FL dish. The whole table broke out in smiles when this was served. Only ice cream from a Good Humor Man truck on hot summer day is both as fun and delicious.]

First Course: Cauliflower Panna Cotta with Beluga Caviar
[My "disappointment" at the substitution disappeared in an instant. The caviar was presented in a perfectly formed "egg" on top of the panna cotta. The mild panna cotta and the salty burst of fish eggs provided just as much intellectual as gustatory pleasure.]

Wine: Domaine Bru-Baché Jurançon "L'Eminence" 2000 (glass)
[This was a wonderful wine served chilled with the Foie Gras. It had hint of honey and melon and a wonderful lingering finish. I stopped by Kermit Lynch as soon as I could and bought a few bottles for my collection.]

Second Course: Moulard Duck "Foie Gras au Torchon" with "Confiture" of Apricots and Upland Cress Salad.

Wine: Calera Viognier Estate Mount Harlan 2002 (1/2 bottle)
[I was disappointed in this wine. I had been to the Hospice du Rhone a few weeks earlier and tasted some bigger and more unctuous Viogniers. Everyone's not a winner.]

Third Course: Grilled Hawaiian Big-Eye Tuna, Wilted Arrowleaf Spinach, Crispy Shiitake Mushrooms and "Sauce Mignonette"
[The taste of the tuna was so intense, I first thought it was lobster. This was one of my favorites of the evening.]

Fourth Course: Sweet Butter Poached Maine Lobster, Caramelized Fennel Bulb, Crystallized Fennel Chip and Sauce "Noilly Prat"
[Another favorite. Everything was beautiful, tasty, and pleasing to the mind. The crystallized fennel bulb chip was delicious as well as making me wonder out loud "How did they do this?" (I found myself saying that quite a bit). The lobster was rich and tender. The caramelized fennel bulb was a great foundation, much better than the crouton that a lesser chef would have used.]

Wine: Patz and Hall Pinot Noir, Pisoni Vineyard Santa Lucia Highlands 2000
[Very good, but too young. It was a bit overpowering given the delicacy of the dishes.]

Fifth Course: "Pork and Beans" All Day Braised Eden Farms Berkshire Pork Shoulder Served with a "Ragoût" of Summer Pole Beans

Sixth Course: Pan Roasted "Prime Rib" of Elysian Fields Farm Lamb, Green Asparagus, Spring Onions and Roasted Lam "Jus"

Seventh Course: "Chaource" (French cheese from Champagne) with Brooks Cherries and Coriander "Syrup"
[My favorite dish of the night. I took one taste of the coriander "syrup" and put the fork down in awe and wonder. It was a new taste! A wonderful taste. The chaource cheese, which is a very firm brie from Champagne was also magnificent. You should buy some of this and try it if you ever have the chance.]

Eighth Course: White Peach Sorbet and a Toasted Almond "Financier"

Ninth Course: Chocolate "Velours" with Valrhona Chocolate "Sacher" and Cocoa Syrup

"Mignardises" - Petite Fours and a Miniature Crême Brûlé; Coffee, Espresso, or Tea

The total bill for the four of us was $1,077.78 and it breaks down as follows..

Dinner for Four The French Laundry June 14, 2003

............A......B......C......D......Food....Beverage..Total
Vegetarian....115.00.......................115.00............115.00
Tasting.Menu.........135.00.135.00.135.00..405.00............405.00
Foie.Gras.............20.00..20.00..........40.00.............40.00
Champagne.............18.33..18.33..18.33............55.00....55.00
Riesling.......12.00..12.00..........................24.00....24.00
L'Eminance...................24.00..24.00............48.00....48.00
Viognier..............11.67..11.67..11.67............35.00....35.00
Pinot.Noir............43.33..43.33..43.33...........130.00...130.00

Food.Subtotal.115.00.135.00.155.00.155.00..560.00
Tip............20.70..24.30..27.90..27.90..100.80
Tax.............9.78..11.48..13.18..13.18...47.60
Food.Total....145.48.170.78.196.08.196.08..708.40

Bev..Subtotal..12.00..85.33..97.33..97.33...........292.00
Tip.............2.16..15.36..17.52..17.52............52.56
Tax.............1.02...7.25...8.27...8.27............24.82
Bev..Total.....15.18.107.95.123.13.123.13...........369.38

Subtotal......127.00.220.33.252.33.252.33...560.00..292.00...852.00
Tip............22.86..39.66..45.42..45.42...100.80...52.56...153.36
Tax............10.80..18.73..21.45..21.45....47.60...24.82....72.42
Total.........160.66.278.72.319.20.319.20...708.40..369.38.1,077.78

Was it worth it? Yes. Would I tell my mother I spent this much on dinner? No. Do I think Thomas Keller is a genius? Yes. Would I go back? Watch for my next report!!

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