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Thursday, July 21, 2005

Restaurant Review: The French Laundry

I recently invited two friends to join me for dinner at The French Laundry, the legendary Yountville institution owned by the equally legendary Chef Thomas Keller.   When I sat down afterward to write my review, however, I found myself discussing not just the meal, but also my first visit to the restaurant back in 2000, the quality of the food and service over the years, and the position that The French Laundry holds vis-à-vis other restaurants in the Bay Area.   The result was an enormously long post.

So, in an effort to present something slightly more digestible, I decided to split my original draft into two halves.   In this post, I will provide my review of the restaurant – focusing heavily on my recent meal, but also drawing upon the impressions that I have gleaned from earlier visits.   In a companion piece, I will set forth my thoughts about how the restaurant has held up over the past five years and where it may be headed.

A quick note about the photographs embedded below.   As a review of my blog should make all too clear, I am still in the experimental phase of figuring out how best to capture crisp, well-lit images of dishes in dark restaurants.
One of these days, I will hopefully get it right.   Until then, however, the imperfect pictures included here should at least give you a decent idea of what the presentations actually looked like.   And clicking on any of the images will pull up a full-sized photograph.
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There's more...


The first thing that struck me after my friends and I were seated is the new format of the menu.   Diners are no longer able to construct their own multi-course meal from a list of "a la carte" selections, as was once possible.
The French Laundry:
At A Glance
ChefThomas Keller
Address6640 Washington St.
Yountville, CA 94599
Restaurant Website
Keller now offers only three distinct options: a seven-course dinner menu, a nine-course vegetable tasting menu, and a nine-course chef’s tasting menu.   Even more striking, however, is the new price: each of the three menus costs an incredible $175 per person, with a $25 supplement for the optional foie gras selections.   After perusing the menus at great length, one of my companions ordered the seven-course dinner while my other friend and I decided to go with the chef’s tasting menu.   What follows is a course-by-course description of the latter.

The meal began with not just one amuse bouche, but two.   First up was a single Gruyere Cheese Gougere (Taste: 6.5 / Presentation: 7.5) (Ratings Explained), best described as a "cream puff" that is savory rather than sweet.   The puff had a light, airy consistency and a very nice look, but the taste struck me as being good but not remarkable – the same reaction I had upon sampling this on earlier visits.   The second amuse bouche was Keller’s classic Salmon Cone (T:10.0 / P:10.0), a small black-sesame-laced buttery cornet filled with a dollop of red onion crème fraiche and a "scoop" of salmon tartare to resemble a miniature ice cream cone.   The taste was just as amazing as the first time I tried this clever amuse, with bright lemon oil punching the delicious flavor of salmon right through the cool crème fraiche – and all against the backdrop of a crispy cone.   With a presentation as incredible as the taste, this canapé easily earns a perfect 10 on both fronts.

Our first full course was another one of Keller’s most well-known creations, "Oysters and Pearls" (T:10 / P:10).   A rich, smooth, savory custard made of pearl tapioca is topped with two Beau Soleil oysters and a small quenelle of Sevruga caviar.   The taste was sublime, as the briny oysters and salty caviar were showcased against the indulgent luxuriousness of the underlying sabayon.   The dish also was beautiful to look at, with the dark color of the caviar jumping out against the creamy canvass of the custard.   Another perfect 10 on both taste and presentation.

For the third course, both my friend and I opted for the "Saute" of Moulard Duck Foie Gras (T:5.5 / P:9.0).   A generous serving of foie was served with cream of Arrowleaf spinach, a poached quail egg, frisee lettuce, and a thin savory wafer into which Applewood smoked bacon had been embedded.   The dish was visually quite appealing, but the flavor combination fell short of exceptional.
The fundamental problem here was that the primary flavors on the plate – the foie, the egg, the bacon, the spinach – all seemed to strike the same dark, rich, almost smoky note over and over again.   The overall effect was too one-dimensional, providing no interesting contrast to the richness of the liver.   While I certainly give Keller credit for going out on what seems like a culinary limb here, there is apparently a good reason why chefs everywhere favor pairing foie gras with something sweet.   I wish that Keller, just this once, had played it safe.

The fourth course was Sauteed "Fillet" of Columbia River Sturgeon (T:6.5 / P:8.0), a nicely cooked white fish in a mustard seed emulsion.   Off to one side was a "cassoulet" of pole beans and oven roasted roma tomatoes.   This selection was perfectly fine, but it desperately lacked that extra something that Keller usually manages to find in order to elevate dishes into the stratosphere.
Simply put, every component here was good, but neither the individual ingredients nor their combination was outstanding.

Things picked up again with the next course, Pan Roasted Guerro Negro Bay Scallop (T:9.5 / P:10.0).   A beautifully-browned scallop rested on top of a bed of Silver Queen corn, that was itself surrounded by a perfect circle of sweet corn sauce.   A "salad" of summer truffle was precariously perched on top of the scallop, and a thick puree of black Perigord truffle was artistically spread across the surface of the plate.   The taste here was excellent, with the natural sweetness of the scallop amplified by the high sugar content of the summer corn.   The truffle "salad" added a nice contrast in texture, and both the salad and the puree contributed an earthiness to the overall flavor.   In many ways, this dish exemplies what Keller does so remarkably well – pairing earth and sea, puree of one truffle with a salad of another, all to achieve a spectacular effect.   And the visual presentation could not have been more perfect.

For the next course, my friend and I both asked if we could replace the squab on our menu with an item from the seven-course dinner menu – the Agnolotti of Summer White Corn (T:10.0 / P:8.5).   I had been served this amazing dish on a trip to The French Laundry back in 2000, and to this day, it still ranks as one of the 2-3 best items – if not the best – that I have ever tasted at any restaurant anywhere.   It’s so good, in fact, that I was ready to go with the seven-course dinner had the kitchen declined my substitution request, and I was only half-joking when I told my friends that the agnolotti had virtually "changed my life."   More on that, someday, in a separate post!
A Perfect 10:
Agnolotti of Summer White Corn

The kitchen agreed to make the substitution, but only after confirming that we didn’t mind having two courses in a row with very similar corn sauces.   We, of course, did not, and the agnolotti more than lived up to my vivid memories.   Small pockets of fresh pasta dough are filled with a mixture of polenta and risotto that has been enriched with butter and mascarpone cheese.   A thick sauce comprised of butter, chives, and the juice from ultra-sweet summer corn is then placed over the cooked pasta, along with kernels of corn and a bit of white truffle oil.   The dish is finished at the table with grated fresh summer truffle.   Words simply cannot do justice to the result.   The sweetness of the corn sauce, the lavish decadence of the white truffle oil and fresh summer truffles, the perfect "bite" left in the corn kernels, the tender pasta – all combine to create an utterly intoxicating and aromatic composition that few others can even come close to rivaling.   It is dishes like this one that truly prove – and, indeed, embody – Keller’s brilliance.   The agnolotti is visually appealing enough, but its flavor is what deserves a perfect 10.

It would be hard for anything to follow on the heels of such perfection, but the "Calotte de Boeuf Grillee" (T:8.0 / P:9.5) did an admirable job.   A small square-shaped log of tender meat was cooked perfectly with an attractively browned crust and a medium-rare interior, and then placed in a flavor-rich bordelaise sauce in the center of a plate.   On one side was a beautifully cut and impossibly sweet baby carrot; on the other was a rich and buttery, crescent-shaped pain perdue topped with thick cepe mushrooms.   The overall impact of the dish was well-conceived and well-balanced; tender beef, red wine from the bordelaise sauce, and earthy mushrooms juxtaposed against a sweet carrot and buttery bread.   The only negative here was that the meat was not at the ideal temperature, arriving at the table barely lukewarm.   Visually, however, the plate was beautiful.

The cheese course was up next, and Keller selected "Chaource" (T:6.0 / P:8.0) – a soft, cream-colored cheese with a rich flavor and relatively sharp attack.   The kitchen paired it with roasted heirloom beets, pickled crabapples, frisee lettuce, and a beet vinaigrette.   Like the foie gras, however, this course desperately cried out for something – anything – sweet to provide the necessary counterpoint.   As it turns out, I happened to have selected a piece of raisin bread to eat on the side, and I also fortuitously ordered a great Sauternes – both of which worked wonders in rounding out the flavors of the plate before me.   But a fantastic composed cheese course should be able to stand on its own, without depending on the diner's choice of accompaniments to supply missing flavor components.   I have had some wonderful cheese courses at The French Laundry over the years, but this regrettably was not one of them.

The first dessert course was the Hayden Mango Sorbet (T:9.5 / P:10.0), served with a yuzu-scented genoise (an airy sponge cake), a goma nougatine (a sesame caramelized sugar), and a thick black sesame coulis spread onto the plate in two criss-crossing lines.   The sorbet had a deliciously pure mango flavor, and the sesame sugar added a wonderfully crunchy – and unexpected – texture to the mix.   Of all the palate-cleansing sorbets that I have had over the years, this one was undoubtedly the best.   The plating was amazing as well, meriting a perfect 10.

The main dessert, and final course, was the "Tentation au Chocolat Noisette et Lait" (T:9.5 / P:10.0).   A quenelle of Madagascar vanilla ice cream sat on top of a thin rectangle of hazelnut streusel, while a milk chocolate "cremeux" (a mousse of sorts) flecked with salty hazelnuts sat off to the side.   The flavors here were fantastic.   The ice cream was clean and pure vanilla bean, through and through; the chocolate cremeux, meanwhile, combined perfectly with the hazelnuts.   There was, however, one important trick to eating this dessert, one that I only stumbled upon inadvertently.   The delicate flavor of the Madagascar vanilla could only be fully appreciated if the ice cream was eaten before the chocolate cremeux.   Once I took my first bite of chocolate, all subsequent tastes of the ice cream fell flat.   The presentation of this dessert was outstanding, warranting another perfect 10.

As always, the meal concluded with a few miniaturized desserts – the closing version of an amuse bouche.   The kitchen sent us a Tahitian Vanilla Bean Crème Brulee (T:6.5 / P:8.0) that had a fantastic vanilla flavor, but the sugar crust on top had been carelessly torched just a bit too long.   We also received an Apricot Panna Cotta (T:4.0 / P:4.0) that looked – and tasted – like a container of yogurt from the grocery store, with all of the fruit on the bottom and virtually no flavor on the top.
A nice mignardise plate arrived with the check, and the evening then drew to a close.

Service and Decor

The service was markedly off from The French Laundry’s once-exemplary levels, as it had been on my last few visits.   The problems began just a few moments after we had placed our orders, when the wait staff started putting down the silverware appropriate for our respective first courses.   Inexplicably, they proceeded as though my two friends had ordered the chef’s tasting menu, and I had ordered the seven-course dinner menu – a careless and completely avoidable mistake, and a bad way to start the evening.

And it did not stop there.   At The French Laundry, dishes are brought to the table by any one of a variety of servers.   Several of the individuals who presented our courses were painfully inexperienced, often arriving at the table with nervous looks on their faces and an inability to remember – or to articulate properly – the full description of what was being served.   We were thus treated to explanations such as “Calotte de Boeuf Grilee with cepe mushrooms . . . oh, and sweet carrot . . . and pain perdue . . .”   Another server seemed to have his descriptions down cold, but he spoke so softly that I could only make out every tenth word he said.

Our primary server also failed us.   While we were waiting for the agnolotti course to arrive, he emptied the last remnants of our bottle of Riesling into our wine glasses.   He did not advise us that we had finished the bottle, nor did I even notice this fact.   By the time we were done with the agnolotti, however, I had finished my glass of wine and had come to realize that our Riesling bottle had disappeared.   Although I hoped to order a glass of something to accompany the upcoming meat course, the server never bothered to check in with us – either to ask if we would like more white wine or to inquire whether we’d like to switch to a red with the beef.   Similarly, when we were on the verge of receiving our cheese course, I was the one who had to call out to our server – as he raced by the periphery of our table – to ask whether we could take a look at the list of Sauternes and Ports.   Only moments later, the cheese arrived – meaning that we would have certainly gone without our dessert wines had I not asked.

The table service itself was uneven.   In place of the synchronized placement of plates on the table and simultaneous unveiling of dish covers, we often saw timing that was either sloppy or entirely off.   Consistency in the direction from which dishes were presented or cleared was absent.   And at one point, our primary server reached across in front of me three times in a row, as he stood to my left and placed a cup with saucer to my right, then added a spoon, and then poured coffee.

The décor at The French Laundry is elegant, but understated.   The 17 tables distributed among the two floors of the charming cottage are covered in white tablecloths and first-rate tableware.   The colors in the dining area are comfortable, yet conservative; nobody would mistake the room, for example, for the richly opulent settings of Fleur de Lys or the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton.   But perhaps the best way to summarize the surroundings is as refined and unobtrusivene, allowing diners to focus all of their attention on the food.   And in that regard, it works very nicely.   Finally, the bucolic setting of the building and the surrounding garden add nicely to the overall experience.


When measured against an objective standard – or, for that matter, against other restaurants in the Bay Area – The French Laundry continues to fare very well.   Several of the food courses served during my recent meal were absolutely spectacular, and even the remainder were somewhere between good and excellent.   And while the service certainly had its shortcomings, it was on balance competent and professional.   Thus, even though the cost is now pushing up against – if not exploding through – all limits of reasonableness, I would still encourage those who have never been to The French Laundry to try it if the opportunity presents itself.   It remains, without a doubt, one of the best restaurants around.

And yet, the prospects for the future are not, in my opinion, entirely rosy.   For more, please see the companion piece to this post.

The French Laundry
Food Taste9.59.5

Food Presentation9.5
Number of Visits: 7
Ratings Explained


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