January 28, 2009

The French Laundry

As is evident by this blog of mine, I like food and I like to write. So you would think that if I ate dinner at The French Laundry (!!!) on the 21st of January, I would have had a post up about it immediately. But The French Laundry left me speechless. So what follows is my meager attempt at describing my greatest dining experience.

To begin, I was fortunate enough to get reservations by putting my name on the waiting list. I was planning my trip to Napa specifically to go to The French Laundry and wasn’t going if I didn’t get a table. The problem was, I had to coincide my dinner there with having time off from work. When I called for reservations I put my name on the list for a weeks worth of dinners and hoped for the best. On New Year’s Eve I got a call to confirm that I had a 9pm reservation for two on January 21st. That meant I had three weeks to plan my trip and figure out who I was taking with me. Although quite a few people expressed interest in coming, most of them couldn’t take the time off work, didn’t have the money, excuses, excuses. Then I realized the best person to take with me was my Dad. He’d appreciate it, (unlike some others who just wanted a trip to sunny California) and his birthday was a couple days afterwards so a celebratory dinner at The French Laundry would certainly be one to remember. As I mentioned last year on his birthday, Dad’s also pretty awesome and I couldn’t ask for a better traveling companion.

Fast forward to January 21st, the time is 8:50. As we walked through the front door I was nervous. I almost didn’t want to eat there. I’ve read so much about The French Laundry and Thomas Keller and heard so many amazing stories that it seemed as though it was destined to disappoint. But I had traveled over 3000km to get there and I would not be going home on an empty stomach. I gave the hostess my name and we sat down to wait for our table to be ready. As with almost every other location in the Napa Valley, there were copies of Thomas Keller’s books on the coffee table. I wanted to dig into Under Pressure as I’ve only skimmed it at the bookstore, but I was too excited to be able to focus. Our table was taking a couple extra minutes to prepare so two glasses of complementary champagne were brought out to us while we waited. It was only the beginning of over four more hours of impeccable service.

It wasn’t long before we were seated and our server, Shannon, (one of about nine people who waited on us throughout our meal) greeted us warmly, handed us menus and encouraged us to ask her questions if there was anything we were unsure of. There are only two menu options at The French Laundry, both are nine course Chef’s tasting menus but one is vegetarian. I’m sure the vegetarian option was amazing, (I read it over just because I was curious) but there was no way this carnivore was choosing it. Within the regular Chef’s tasting menu there are four courses that require you to choose between two options. For the most part Dad and I made sure to coordinate our selections so that we got to taste everything. However on the course that offered either a cauliflower salad or foie gras, Dad and I both chose the foie. As for wine, we put ourselves in the very capable hands of the sommelier, Anani. It was the right thing to do as he chose an excellent white and then red to carry us through the meal. We couldn’t have asked for a nicer sommelier. I liked him so much I wanted to take him back to Canada with me and to the restaurant I work at. I even offered him free golf… Somehow I don’t think there’s a sweet enough deal in the world that could lure him, (or anyone) away from The French Laundry.

The first bits of food to arrive were two tiny gougères, served on an equally small silver platter. We popped them in our mouths and so began our taste adventure. Warm from the oven and full of cheesy goodness, the gougères left us eager to see what would come next. It was the reknown Thomas Keller Salmon Cornet, the cutest, most delicious little savory cone you’ll ever eat. That was followed by our first official course:

“Oysters and Pearls”: “Sabayon” of Peal Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and White Sturgeon Caviar

After one bite from a mother of pearl spoon it became very clear to me that The French Laundry would not disappoint. I savoured that little dish of oysters and pearls like nothing I ever have before. The balance of flavours and textures was unlike anything else. Dad, who previously thought he didn’t care much for the texture of oysters was blown away by how much he liked these.

Moulard Duck “Foie Gras en Terrine”: Sunchokes, Apple Mustard Seed Relish, Toasted Brioche and Dijon Mustard

Attention to detail. This dish embodies it. Every element on the plate has a purpose and every flavour combination has been carefully considered. The foie is served with a trio of salts so that you can customize it to your liking, as well as with warm, toasted brioche to spread it on. Half way through this course a server appeared to whisk away our partially eaten brioche and to replace it with warm ones. Thomas Keller thinks the warm brioche enhances the dish and wants to ensure that your last bite is as enjoyable as your first. Attention to detail.

Columbia River Sturgeon “Confit à la Minute”: Globe Artichokes, Pearl Onions, Parsley Shoots and Hobbs’ Bacon

Cod Milt “En Aigre-Doux”: Fennel Bulb, San Marzano Tomato Compote, Niçoise Olives, Arugula and Smoked Eggplant Coulis

This was the first course in which Dad and I had something different, although after eating our way through half our plates, we switched so we could taste everything. I think I’m quickly becoming a fan of anything confited, the sturgeon was to die for. The Hobbs’ bacon that accompanied it was also spectacular, served paper thin but with such a robust bacon flavour that you could have sworn you were tucking into a full slab of it. As for the cod, at first glance it looked like little more than a cod fritter but one bite combined with the tomato compote and eggplant coulis told a very different story.

“Beets and Leeks”: Maine Lobster Tail “Pochée au Beurre Doux” with King Richard Leeks, “Pommes Maxim’s” and Red Beet Essence

Dad and I have eaten a lot of lobster in our lives. His family is from the East coast of Canada and they know how to have a lobster feast. But both of us immediately remarked that we’ve never before had lobster this good and vowed that next time we made it at home it would have to be poached in butter. Of course, we’ll have to try our hand at the gourmet ‘potato chip’ that accompanied it, as well as the beet and leek sauces. The lobster was truly a highlight.

“Aiguillette” of Liberty Farm Pekin Duck Breast: Roasted Savoy Cabbage, Hen-of-the-Woods Mushroom, Tokyo Turnips and Young Ginger Sauce

Corned Marcho Farms Veal Tongue: Tuscan Lentils, Black Trumpet Mushrooms and Brussels Sprouts

Being fans of wild mushrooms, we were happy to see that two different kinds appeared in these dishes. And I was happy to try something completely new to me, veal tongue. Veal tongue is one of those ingredients that when I mention it to my non-foodie friends, I usually get somewhat of a horrified or disgusted look as a response. I challenge anyone to eat veal tongue at The French Laundry and not like it. It was delicately nestled into a perfectly cooked bowl of Tuscan lentils and it was fantastic. Dad went on at length about how wonderful his duck breast was.

Snake River Farms “Calotte de Boeuf Grillée”: Sweet Garlic “Pain Perdu,” French Laundry Garden Carrots, Broccolini, Bone Marrow Pudding and “Sauce Bordelaise”

I now have dreams about Snake River Farms beef. And considering the price, that’s probably all I’ll be doing about it for quite some time. But it was, hands down, the best piece of beef that has ever passed my lips. I let it dissolve on my tongue and tried to make it last for as long as I could so that the memory would remain even after I swallowed. I wanted to lick the plate clean so as to garner every drop of beefy goodness. I miss that beef.

“Tomme de L’Ariège”: Belgian Endive, Green Grapes, Watercress and Black Truffles from Provence

The cheese course arrived and with it came truffles! Hurrah! Point of interest- the grapes were peeled. Every detail is accounted for.

Ruby Red Grapefruit Sorbet: Pistachio “Pain de Gênes” and Mascarpone

Prior to going to The French Laundry I had recently tried to make grapefruit sorbet. The flavour of mine was decent but the texture was woefully inadequate in comparison to the velvety smoothness of TFL. Their pairing of grapefruit with pistachio and creamy mascarpone is something that I can only hope to one day think of on my own. Sadly, this was one of my worst photos of the night. Taking pictures by candlelight is not easy.

“Mousse au Chocolat Amedei”: Gros Michel Banana Ice Cream, Candied Cashews and Curry “Arlette”

Braised Golden Pineapple: Spiced Sweet Rice Beignet, Dark Raisin Coulis and Long Pepper Sherbert

When we were seated at the beginning of the meal, our server had asked if we were celebrating anything in particular and I told her Dad’s birthday was in a couple days so when they brought out the desserts his was adorned with a ‘Happy Birthday’ sugar paste plaque. I managed to snag a tiny spoonful of Dad’s chocolate mousse and I could have happily eaten a whole bowl of it. The only slight hiccup in the whole FL meal came at dessert for me, (and I cringe at calling it a hiccup because it was barely anything). The long pepper sherbert that accompanied my dish just hit too hard at the back of my throat. The spice was overpowering for me. Although it didn’t linger long, I found the taste to be too sharp when I swallowed it. I debated whether or not I would even mention this little tidbit but decided I would, just to show that in a four hour meal, the only thing I could find to complain about was a tiny element of one single dish.

Mignardises

Chocolates

We were getting pretty full by the time the beautiful box of mignardises was brought to our table but neither of us could resist sampling one or two anyways. The rest were boxed up and given to us to take home, likewise with the selection of gorgeous chocolates. As much as I wanted to eat them at the time, I couldn’t manage another bite. I enjoyed them on the plane ride home instead. Besides the mignardises and chocolate, our take home package included shortbread cookies for each of us and extra chocolate bars for Dad for his birthday.

The service at The French Laundry is nothing if not accommodating. They ask specifically at the beginning of your meal if you have any food allergies that they should be aware of but seem equally good about personal preferences as well. At the table behind me, one of the women requested that there be nothing “cold” in her desserts. The course consisting primarily of Ruby Red Grapefruit Sorbet was therefore out, as were both of the final dessert options which contained ice cream. The kitchen improvised with completely different plates for her. I almost wanted to make up an allergy just to see what they’d make for me…

As we were finishing up, our wonderful server Shannon, knowing that I work in a kitchen, asked if we wanted to see The French Laundry kitchen after our meal. Absolutely! We were one of the last tables to finish at the end of the night and it was after 1am by the time we were lead back to the kitchen. There was a team of cooks working hard on tomorrow nights menu. They use a matrix to ensure that no ingredient is repeated twice throughout the meal. If I hadn’t of been in awe of the kitchen itself, there were a million questions I wanted to ask them.

As Dad and I made our way out the door I felt like I was walking on a cloud. Time had flown by and I couldn’t believe my French Laundry experience was over already. Despite the fact that it was after 4am my time, (it’s a three hour time difference between California and Ontario) I was wide awake and spent the next couple hours running over every aspect of the meal in my head. The flavours were so distinct on the plate and yet worked in perfect harmony with each other. I went over the meal course by course, trying to remember exactly how everything tasted. It was overwhelming in the best possible way.

My French Laundry experience was everything I hoped it would be and more. I can’t adequately express in words how wonderful/amazing/incredible it was, (the thesaurus can’t help me here either). A very special thanks to everyone at The French Laundry who made our meal there an unforgettable one.

28 comments:

MyKitchenInHalfCups said...

Awesome. I so want to go there.
Congratulations Bri!

Mary said...

So totally cool.

anna said...

That's awesome, lucky you! It's nice to know they have a veg menu and are so accomodating, though it is one of the only places on earth I'd suspend my vegetarianism for! I think I like Chef Keller more every time I read about his restaurants.

Nicole (anotheronebitesthecrust.wordpress.com) said...

Wow! Fancy!

mickey said...

I really enjoyed your story. While the food looked sumptious, the picture of that spotless, gleaming kitchen at 1 AM after service just blew me away.

kat said...

I'm so glad you weren't disappointed. That has always been my fear of going to eat there.

steph- whisk/spoon said...

ack--you are killing me with jealousy! three times we have been to napa, and three times we have not gotten in to the french laundry (despite calling our calling exactly 2 months beforehand)...one day, maybe!

breadchick said...

Bri, that is just about the best report from the French Laundry I've read.

And you and your Dad sure look like you were having a blast!

Peabody said...

I'm so happy that it lived up to your expectations. It really is something every person who truly loves food should experience in a lifetime.

Dana McCauley said...

That sounds like a great night and even better that it was a father-daughter night! I bet you'll guys talk about this trip for years!

Psychgrad said...

Excellent review of the experience. Quite a lot of activity going on at your blog. Sounds like a good past few weeks.

Manggy said...

Thank you so much for sharing-- and how fortunate that you got the reservation when you did! I've been to Napa but not lucky enough for tFL-- maybe in a decade or so, heh :)

kickpleat said...

Wow, i'm so impressed (and a bit jealous!). This was a wonderful recap.

Sara said...

That is AWESOME! I'm so excited for you that you ate there and enjoyed it so much. This post made me almost feel like I was there too. Just fantastic.

Kevin said...

THat sounds like fun. Look at all of that food!

Jerry said...

To say I'm jealous would be the world's most inexplicable understatement. Having said that, I'll follow with my most sincere and heartfelt thanks for sharing this experience with the rest of us. I have never heard a bad thing about The French Laundry and you've just made me determined to visit while I'm in California later this year.

Gigi said...

Sounds like you had fabulous time. I am glad it was everything you hoped it would be.

farida said...

Sounds like a great experience. So happy for you!

Maria said...

Great post! I am beyond jealous! I am glad you had a wonderful experience!

Lys said...

That is an excellent write up- I'm now considering going to NAPA for vacation next year and, of course, visiting TFL :) Thank you for the recap!

Amy from eggs on sunday said...

Oh Brilynn, I *so* enjoyed this post -- I'm so happy for you that you got to go! What a memorable, unbelievably special meal. I hope I can go one of these days - great idea to do the waiting list thing.

Elle said...

Usually I pass when I see a restaurant review on a blog that usually is devoted to cooking. Your write up of the French Laundry experience is one of the best I have ever read. Perhaps it's because you work in a restaurant, but I think it is because of your pure love of food and excellent writing style...it was almost like being there. Bravo.

Sylvie said...

You like I have now been spoiled by a perfect dining event. Now I dream to dine at ElBulli in Spain.

K and S said...

what a wonderful experience! totally jealous!

Margaret said...

What an experience! Glad you were able to get away and enjoy it! I'm sure your Dad enjoyed it too.
Aunt Margaret

Nicisme said...

What a fabulous experience! Thanks so much for posting in such detail.

Joy the Baker said...

I could literally just cry. I have goose bumps. What a tremendous experience! And I LOVE that you got to go in the kitchen. So amazing. So crazy amazing!

Grace said...

wow! wouldnt know which to eat first. so yum. all looks perfectly beautiful! heavenly!