When you acknowledge, as you must, that there is no such thing as perfect food, only the idea of it, then the real purpose of striving toward perfection becomes clear: To make people happy, that is what cooking is all about.
This sentence is imprinted on a tile in The French Laundry kitchen, right beneath the video screen linking Yountville with Per Se, the restaurant’s urban incarnation in New York. Despite the aura of mystique, formality and awe that a mention of The French Laundry conjures up in conversations, a meal there is anything but a stiff affair. Special, undoubtedly so, but certainly not of the stiff-upper-lip variety, which you’d be hard-pressed to experience with a team as warm and hospitable as those working the dining room floor. Four days after our dinner, I’m still pinching myself that it happened: from working the phone lines for a reservation, to the anxiety over whether my digestive tract would be up to scratch, and, on the day of the meal, the incredulity that we were, indeed, going to The French Laundry. I know, I know, it is just a dinner after all, but as a fan of Thomas Keller’s work and philosophy, this restaurant is the Holy Grail of fine dining in my universe.
A meal at The French Laundry is an exercise in simplicity, as crystallized in the opening quote of this post. Simple, because it’s all about making people happy; it’s about using the best quality ingredients; it’s about applying technique honed over many hours of practice and experience; it’s about anticipating a guest’s needs and meeting them. In essence, it’s about creating perfection out of the simplest of elements and helping ingredients find their “muchness“, if you will; whether it’s tomato compote or caramelized fennel, it will be the most tomato-ey tomato and the fennel-est fennel you taste.
The road to perfection begins in a plot of land across the street from the restaurant. Probably the size of half a soccer field, a pre-dinner stroll through the grounds reveal artichokes at the end of their season as zucchini, squash and tomatoes pick up the baton for summer’s run. Jerusalem artichokes reach for the sky, a dense forest of leaves and shade, overlooking young corn seedlings all set to follow in their footsteps. Rows and rows of heirloom tomatoes everywhere you look, a few plots of the reddest, plumpest strawberries you’ve ever seen, while the blackberries are given their own real estate to overcome and conquer with their thorny branches. As an amateur home gardener, witnessing a culinary garden on this scale inspired in me the same sense of awe and wonder as an exhibition of Henri Cartier-Bresson‘s works.
The time for dinner eventually arrived, and we were whisked to our seats in an instant. Tucked in a corner of the intimate dining room, we had the perfect vantage point to observe the restaurant in action. Of course, we already knew what we were going to have, and perusing the menu was a mere formality. Our server, Shannon, was an absolute delight – witty, engaging, personal – she was the gracious host and more, truly bringing to life the philosophy and dedication of everything the restaurant represents.
Choices were made, wines were chosen, and armed with our champagne flutes, dinner began….
…with amuse-bouches of Salmon Cornets and mini gougères stuffed with gruyere. The cornets, filled with a red onion crème fraïche and topped with salmon tartare, provided a tart, refreshing counterpoint to the warm, creamy gougères. The intensity of flavor was remarkable, foreshadowing the depth of flavors that the evening would bring. Accompanying these treats were mini pains au lait from Bouchon bakery, served with a choice of Vermont butter topped with fleur de sel and an unsalted, creamy variation from Petaluma with such purity of flavor that it very quickly became my spread of choice.
Moments later, the maître d‘ arrived, plate in hand, standing at the ready while another server took his place. The conversation paused, and an air of anticipation hung over the table as little soup plates were placed before us, uncovering Oysters and Pearls: two little oysters and a heap of sturgeon caviar sitting in a sabayon of butter and tapioca starch. The oysters were exquisite in their sweet brinyness, perfectly complementing the salty caviar as the butter and pearls of tapioca starch tied everything together. As much as I loved the flavors though, I wasn’t very excited about the tapioca as I found it hard to understand what it brought to the dish. Structure, perhaps? But that didn’t stop me from finishing the plate.
The second course offered a choice between a Foie Gras en Terrine (top left), which M chose, and Piccalilli (top right), which the rest of the table had. Served with a white honey glaze, duck confit, cornichon relish, garden peaches and dijon mustard, the foie gras had the consistency of the smoothest butter, resulting in a concentration of flavor unconventionally paired with tangy cornichons and spicy mustard. Accompanied by a perfectly toasted brioche that seemed to be self-replenishing, each bite was a very luxurious play of textures and flavors on the palate.
S, our dining companion, and I chose the Piccalilli, with its assortment of garden vegetables: fairytale eggplant (which I suspect was slow-roasted), jingle bell peppers, nantes carrots, cauliflower and parsley shoots all served in a light vinaigrette and dressed with tiny flower petals. This was a refreshing palate cleanser after the buttery oysters from the first course.
The third course was also a selection, and S opted for the Sauteed fillet of Bluefin Tuna (bottom left) served with horseradish creme fraiche, red radish, “ficoïde glaciale” and baby beets. Judging by his swiftness in dispatching the dish, S thoroughly enjoyed this course.
M and I, being the sashimi fans that we are, chose the Tartare of Japanese Toro (bottom right), because whenever there’s toro on the menu, you can be sure I’m having some of it. Arriving in a layered clear plastic bowl with sea urchin, razor clams, compressed cucumber, finely diced Hawaiian hearts of palm, Thai basil and a coconut-lime “aigre-doux“, this dish was too pretty to eat, with the intense yellows and violets of the flower petals injecting notes of vibrance, energy and fun to the dish. The toro was cubed, making it more chewy than usual and the sea urchin was the freshest I’ve had outside of Japan, but what really caught my attention was the pairing of razor clams with Thai basil and the aigre-doux. The clams provided texture and a light sweetness, serving as a foundation for the pungent basil and contrasting notes of coconut and lime: it was an explosion of Southeast Asian flavors within a very Japanese dish in a French restaurant. This course really blew me away.
Up next was a New Bedford Sea Scallop “Poêlée”, crusted with breadcrumbs and Hobbs’ bacon, accompanied by the sweetest and most flavor-packed tomato compote, along with celery, lightly roasted white pearl onions and a watercress pudding. Evenly balanced on the palate, the scallop’s crisp crust nicely contrasted with its soft interior.
And then the meat courses began, with a Four Story Hill Farm “Cuisse de Poularde”, a slice of chicken thigh meat stuffed with Kanzuri mousse and served with akita komachi rice, broccolini, cashews, shishito peppers and “sauce Japonaise“. This chicken, which I suspect was cooked sous vide, is as chicken as chicken is ever going to taste. The first bite was unforgettable, with its intensity of chicken flavor, the juiciness and tender bite of thigh meat, and the sweetness of its natural juices. After the toro, this was my next favorite course.
The next and last meat course was a “Chateaubriand” of Marcho Farms Nature-fed Veal. A juicy thick chunk of meat, this was another intensely-packed slice of vealness cooked till tender perfection, accompanied by veal sweetbreads, cepe mushroom ravioli, summer squash, sweet garlic puree, arugula and caper jus. At this point, my gut was pushing the envelope of satiety and I barely made a dent in the meat. I could however, polish off the squash and ravioli, sneaking in tiny bites of veal, while M and S expertly cleaned out their plates, professional diners that they are.
The cheese course was a slice of “Cavatina” goat’s cheese from Andante Dairy in Petaluma, plated with caramelized fennel, French Laundry ham, piedmont hazelnuts, green peppercorns and a Pink Lady apple puree. Honestly, I’m no cheese expert and at this stage in the dinner, I was seriously pacing my bites and rationing the stimulation on the palate. That said, this cheese is pretty remarkable, again for its flavor – distinctive, but not overpowering – as well as its smooth consistency, quite unlike the conventionally crumbly texture associated with goat’s cheese.
The first of the dessert courses was a Sorbet of Royal Blenheim Apricots on a bed of toasted barley-brown streusel topped with a foam of White Apron Ale. On its own, the foam was incredibly bitter and “hoppy”, but together with the sorbet, it was something else altogether, accentuating the flavors of apricot. This was a much-needed palate cleanser after the rich flavors of the previous courses, and magically restored my appetite, just in time for dessert.
“You’re almost at the end, one more course to go”, encouraged the French server as he cleared my plate with lingering traces of apricot sorbet and foam.
Our last selection for the evening was between a “Cremeux aux Fruits de La Passion” (left) or a “Pane di Ricotta Alla Griglia” (right). Or, in our server’s words, “Strawberries or Blueberries”. S and I opted for the former while M went for the latter. The cremeux featured slices of garden strawberries, dehydrated pistachio pain de gêne, drops of passion fruit jelly, white chocolate and a passion fruit custard, along with an ultra-thin wafer of dehydrated strawberry puree. Our dessert was so delicious I neglected to ask M about his, where Delta Blue blueberries rested atop a slice of ricotta cake and was served with pine neut nougatine, “Limone Cagliata” and a quenelle of buttermilk sherbet.
As our dinner wound down, so did the restaurant. Apart from ours, there were three other tables left as we sampled the Mignardises and conversed with Shannon about her plans for the week when the restaurant closed for the summer. We had a small tart of dulce de leche and cream topped with dried coconut flakes and pineapple, and a selection of dark chocolate truffle, with flavors like Thai coffee, peanut butter and hazelnut praline.
The evening ended with a tour of the kitchen, an offer we simply could not refuse. Walking down the corridor from the dining room, we were greeted by the Chef de Cuisine, Timothy Hollingsworth chilling with the kitchen staff after service, and chatted with his sous chef about our evening.
The kitchen, impeccably pristine after a full day’s work, actually felt ‘cosy’, if a commercial kitchen can be described as such. In effect, The French Laundry is a modest space, from kitchen to the dining room, making it imperative for every team member to be spatially aware and know how to move, to the point where a ballet teacher was brought in a few years ago, with the sole purpose of imparting a lesson or two about moving gracefully and attentively. Observing the team at work, it’s clear that the staff have taken these lessons to heart, operating on non-verbal cues to communicate with each other and tend to their guests.
Phew, this is a long post and good on you if you’ve read until this point. By which time you must be asking yourself, “Was it worth the extravagant price tag?”
A resounding yes. For sure. “For reals”.
To be fair, there isn’t a meal in this world in and of itself that justifies paying upwards of US$300 per head. The numbers just don’t compute. Yet, to try to apply an economic rationality to experiences like this would be to miss the whole point. Dining experiences of this nature are not about looking for good food. That can be found in many other places for far less. It’s about the experience, the intangibles; the warmth and hospitality of service staff dedicated to their jobs, the creativity and thought that goes behind the construction of each dish through to its plating, the standards of quality against which ingredients are measured and realized to their fullest potential, the wonderment and insight from discovering new ingredients and flavor combinations with every bite. Many fine dining restaurants strive for perfection, but very few achieve it consistently and flawlessly.
The French Laundry is one of the few that does.