Friday, October 23, 2009
As I sit here thinking about all the various ways I can communicate the brilliance of The French Laundry, there is literally an eruption of harps, violins and piano keys creating furious and robust music in my mind. I feel like Beethoven composing his beautiful Fifth Symphony. However, I am not Beethoven. I am a humble Foodie, serving his peers. I hope my review of The French Laundry conveys to you, my reader, what pure Foodie heaven tastes like.
The French Laundry in Yountville, CA appears, from the outside, to be a modest establishment, tucked away in the corner of a residential area. If one were not up to date on all things food, they would easily miss it driving through Napa Valley. Many probably have. I had a reservation that was booked two months prior. I was well fasted, having been on a diet for two weeks and ready to expand my waistline. And I was ready to dine in what many call the best restaurant in the U.S. if not the world. As I pulled up to The French Laundry I noticed a piece of land directly opposite the restaurant. There were little signs which looked like they had the name of the restaurant printed onto them. Upon further inspection I realized that this plot of land was where The French Laundry grew all of their vegetables. The same vegetables that were going to grace my plate tonight, were probably basking in the sun, taking in their last few moments of fresh air before being picked, chopped and put into something I would graciously devour later.
This was a good start. Never have I been to a restaurant where the food was grown right outside. It gives new meaning to the phrase, "Eat Local." Once seated, our waitress Shannon handed us the menus and explained both sides of it to us. One side was the Chefs Tasting Menu... and well, the other side was also the Chefs Tasting Menu. However, the right side was dedicated to an all Vegetable Menu. While Shannon delivered her 15 minute, in depth description of both sides, I was almost tempted to order the Vegetable Tasting Menu and then my carnivorous, cave-dwelling ancestors popped into my head and that was the end of that. All three of us had the Chefs Tasting Menu, accompanied by a bottle of 2007 Crozes Hermitage La Guiraude. A powerful wine, with a huge mouth and a giant finish of blackberry and current. Lovely.
A few minutes later we were brought a bit of bread and butter, followed by three small, rolled Puff Balls with a Cheese filling. This was followed by Salmon Tartare with Salmon Mousse and Cream Cheese in a Cone. Which was incredibly flavorful. For starters I had "Oysters and Pearls" with Sabayon of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and White Sturgeon Caviar. It was served with a mother of pearl spoon and at this moment I realized where I was and why The French Laundry had received so much attention, for so long. This was followed nicely by a "Tarte Byaldi Du Jardin" with Petit Lettuces, Parmesan Cream and Aged Balsamic Vinegar. Next was a "Soft Shell Crab En Feuille De Bric" with Sunchokes, Celery Branch and Black Truffle. That was followed by a "Sweet Butter Poached Maine Lobster Mitts" with French Laundry Garden Beets, English Cucumbers, Pearl Onions, Horseradish Creme Fraiche and Beet Essence. Without a doubt, this was a defining moment in my life. Never had I tasted Crab Meat this good. Not in Maine and not in any other restaurant. I would have been happy to end the meal here. But it continued...
As an in between course we were treated to a specialty that Chef Thomas Keller created for the movie, Ratatouille. It was of course, Ratatouille, with small pieces of Lettuce and Aged Balsamic Vinegar. I felt like Ego, the evil food critic in the film and wanted to run around my rural village in France, dancing and playing. Anyone who hasn't seen the film should probably go see it. That sentence will make much more sense to you.
After our Ratatouille we had the "All Day Braised Salmon Creek Pork Jowl" with Three Bean Salad, Toy Box Tomatoes and Sherry Vinaigrette. How can Chef Keller possibly take these ingredients and merge them into a seamless thing of beauty? Well, he does. And he did it again with a "Snake River Farms Calotte De Boeuf Grillee" with Pommes Darphin, Bluefoot Mushrooms, Savoy Spinach and Sauce Colbert. I feel like a schoolboy saying this again, but Chef Keller had now produced the best steak I have ever eaten. It was tender, juicy and had a flavor that would make a preacher commit the worst kinds of sin in order to indulge in this sensual meat.
Dessert started off with a bang. The "Andante Dairy Cavatina" with Jacobsen's Farm Figs, Marcona Almonds, Arugula and Pimenton Essence was so good, that I wanted to write to Mr. Fig Newton and tell him he should be ashamed and urge him to close his factory. Next was the "Moonglow Pear Sorbet" with Chai Tea Sable and Jacobsen's Farm Roasted Pears. But it didn't stop there. This was just getting us ready for the next course. A "Gateau Saint Nazier Au Manjari" with Mango-Chili Relish, Mast Brothers Cocoa Nibs, Lime Foam and Coconut Milk Sorbet. After dessert I ordered a Double Espresso, which was perfectly prepared and as good as anything I've had in Italy, or France. It was paired with not one, but two courses of Petit Fours.
There is one aspect of this meal that I have yet to touch on. After our Steak, Shannon came over and said there would be a little pause in between courses. And that if we'd like, she would show us down to the kitchen. A look of astonishment and bewilderment quickly fell over all the diners. Myself included. As we blindly followed her down the stairs, blank, dumbfounded expressions tattooed on our faces, we entered the kitchen of one of the best restaurants in the world. I looked around in awe and then something amazing happened. I was tapped on the shoulder by one of my fellow diners and just as I was about to turn around to give them a verbal thrashing for interrupting my moment, a face appeared. It was that of Chef Thomas Keller. A large grin adorned his face and he shook my hand with odd familiarity. Like we were long lost friends. "What the hell is going on?" I thought to myself. Celebrity Chefs are supposed to be mean, cursing, English bastards... well, at least one of them is. Sorry Gordon. Chef Keller is none of those.
He showed us around the kitchen, signed some menus and The French Laundry cookbook and then showed me something truly spectacular. A 42 inch LCD TV in the kitchen. It was not the TV that impressed me, it was the images on the screen. Dozens of hands and fingers working feverishly. Chef Keller turned to me and said, "that's my other restaurant, Per Se in New York. I monitor them at all times." After a few more handshakes I closed my mouth, wiped the drool from my chin and collected my things. Shannon brought us back to the table and after about 15 minutes of smiling I returned to the task at hand. Having the best meal of my life, with two of my favorite people, my wife and my best friend. Who later told me he had emailed The French Laundry and arranged for us to meet Chef Keller. This entry is dedicated to you old friend. I wish everyone on Earth could be as blessed as I am. Dinner at The French Laundry would certainly be a start. So get on the phone and start dialing. You will not be disappointed.
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