Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The French Laundry, Yountville

Just ask any foodie, The French Laundry is the holy grail. It's not just that TFL is touted by many to be the top restaurant in the country. It's not just that it's a Michelin Three Star restaurant and the jewel of Thomas Keller's restaurant empire. It's not just that there are 16 tables and can seat only 60. It's not just that there are only two tasting menus (regular and vegetarian), no ala carte. It's because it's just so darn hard to get a reservation. There's a system. Not joking. You can only make reservations up to 2 months to the date, and at 10am when the reservation lines open, the phone line will already be busy. And if you're lucky enough to speak with a live person, most likely all reservations (for a table two months away) would have been snapped up. It's the toughest reservation to get in the country. Scratch that. Ludobites 6.0 reservations might actually have been harder to secure. I know. I was F5ing for an hour and a half to no avail. So I didn't think much of it when the lady on the other line put my name down on the wait list. I went on with my merry life until one day, I received the call. A spot had opened up. Thankfully it was a month in advance so I had sufficient time to round up the ladies, book a flight and hotel, and plan a wine tasting itinerary.

TFL is located in Yountville, in a stone cottage. It's really quaint with a garden in the front where I've been told you could hang out at if you needed a break during the 9 course tasting menu.

We were seated in the main dining room which only had about five tables.

The menu changes daily and twice for lunch and dinner. The 9 course tasting is priced at $250, service included, not tax. It's the same price for both lunch and dinner.

Wine pairing is an additional $250. Yes, that's the same price as the food menu. Pricey, but the wine selections were stellar.

Amuse Bouche #1: Gougere was airy and filled with light, warm gruyere. A perfect bite sized popper to kick off the culinary adventure.

Amuse Bouche #2: Tuna Tartare Cone with Creme Fraiche and topped with chive
These two amuse bouches are signature TFL dishes. The cornets were made with tuile batter so they were brittle and buttery.

Bread selection included brioche, baguette, multi grain and pretzel roll, served with both salted and unsalted butter. Besides the pretzel roll which was my favorite, I was a bit underwhelmed by the bread. Considering that it's baked daily by famed sister establishment Bouchon Bakery, I was expecting soft, buttery bread. These weren't bad per se, they were just very ordinary. Definitely did not hold a candle to the exceptional breadcart at Joel Robuchon at The Mansion. I'm still drooling over that.

1) Cauliflower "Panna Cotta" with Island Creek Oyster Glaze and California Sturgeon Caviar
The quenelle of caviar was a rather sizable serving. I loved the saltiness of the caviar against the very mild flavoring of the panna cotta. In fact, I could barely taste a hint of cauliflower, but that wasn't an issue since the caviar was the star of the plate.

Pierre Gimonnet, Blanc de Blancs, "Cuvee Deux Cotes:, 1er Cry 2005
Perfect pairing to the first course. You always have to start a meal off with bubbly.

2) Moulard Duck "Foie Gras Au Torchon", Gingerbread, Garnet Yam, Toasted Pecans, Cranberries and Watercress ($30 supplement)
All four of us opted for the foie gras. We had to, the other choice for the second course was a salad of potatoes. I like this preparation of foie gras, it's simple. All you need is some salt and brioche. The presentation was lovely with the vibrant colors of the yam and cranberries. Coupled with the buttery gingerbread crust, this dish really reminded me of the holidays.

The foie gras was served with a selection of salt.

The foie gras was paired with a glass of Yves Cuilleron, "Roussilliere," Liquoreux, Rhone Valley, 2009. I loved all the stemware. We noticed by the end of the meal that there were no two similar glasses served with the wine pairing.

3a) Florida Everglades Frog Leg "Boudin", Piperade, Baby Fennel, Tarragon and "Noilly Prat" Emulsion
Lopez de Heredia, "Vina Gravonia", Blanco, Rioja 2000
I've heard good things about Keller's traditional boudin blanc at Bouchon so I was intrigued by this interpretation. The boudin was tender and smooth. It tasted like a lean, veal sausage.

3b) Sauteed Fillet of Atlantic Black Bass, Chorizo, Piquillo Peppers, Eggplant, Garlic, Parsley and Saffron Bouillon
Maison Leroy, Bourgogne Blanc, Burgundy 2002
The fish itself was a little bland but paired well with the fragrant and salty broth. The accoutrement really elevated the dish. The chorizo chunks were intensely flavored and the peppers added a smokiness to the broth.

4) New Bedford Sea Scallops, Swiss Chard "Subric", Chanterelle Mushroom "Duxelles", tokyo Turnips and Preserved Meyer Lemon
Copain, Roussanne, "James Berry Vineyard", Paso Robles, 2008
I really enjoyed the caramelization of the scallop, although I thought mine was a slight bit overcooked. The mushroom duxelles was meaty and flavorful. My favorite part of the dish was the swiss chard subric. It's basically a fried cube of swiss chard that had a nice crust and very concentrated flavors in the cube.

The French Laundry also offered a supplemental Truffle menu with a few options.

We were presented with the box of Alba White Truffles which was the most aromatic scent I've smelt.

Our waiter then proceeded to shave the whole truffle onto a bowl of pasta.

Supplemental: Handcut Tagliatelle with Shaved White Truffle ($150 supplement)
Produttori del Barbaresco, Barbaresco, Piedmont 1999
This was the most amount of shaved truffles I've ever seen. The homemade pasta was coated with butter and cream, and completely overwhelmed by the woodsy truffle. The pasta was good, but was it worth an additional $150? Probably not.

5) Milk-poached Four Story Hill Farm "Poularde", "Miettes de Topinambour", Cipollini Onions, Scallion Salad, Soubise and Coffee Scented "Jus"
Robert Chevillon, Nuits-Saint-Georges, "Les Roncieres", 1er Cru, Burgundy 2005
The poularde was absolutely scrumptious. It was tender, fatty and a melt-in-your-mouth piece of chicken. Crunchy sunchoke crumbs coated the top of the chicken and was salty and added texture to the dish.

6) Elysian Fields Farm Lamb Rib-eye, Falafel, English Cucumber, Pickled Carrot Ribbons, Medjool Dates, Cilantro and Madras Curry
Marques de Murrieta, "Castillo Ygay", Gran Reserva Especial, Rioja 2001
The lamb was perfectly cooked to a medium rare. There were many flavors going on in this dish. I appreciated that Keller utilized exotic spices even though his cuisine leans towards Californian French. The falafel was crunchy and dense.

7a) Cabot "Clothbound Cheddar", Braised Cabbage, Chestnut "Gnocchi a la Parisienne" and Hobbs' Bacon-Mustard Vinaigrette
I don't like cheese but surprisingly, this was one of my top dishes. I thought the choice of cheese was splendid. The Cheddar was sharp and worked well with all the other components on the plate. There were both chunks and shaved pieces of chestnut, coupled with flavorful braised cabbage.

Brooklyn Brewery, Blue Aprin Ale
The cheese was paired with an ale that is only available at TFL and sister restaurant, Per Se in New York.

7b) Radish plate with cashews
Since I'm not much of a cheese eater, they offered another plate in substitution. I thought this was a throwaway dish. It was ordinary and very boring. It was also difficult to consume this dish as the radishes were hard to cut through, but yet were too large of pieces to eat as a whole. As it turned out, I actually enjoyed the cheese plate better.

8a) Philo Gold Apple Sorbet, Poached Prune, apple "Croquette" and Spiced Cider
The apple pie had a deep fried breading which was remniscient of the McDonald's fried apple pie that you can find at some outlets (unofrtunately not in Los Angeles). It was a sweet and tart flavor combination which was almost like a palate cleanser before the next dessert dishes.

Spiced Cider was a wonderful taste of Christmas.

8b) White Verjus Sorbet, Brown Butter "Financier", Spanish Peanut, and Concord Grape
This option was actually from the vegetarian menu but when I saw it, I asked to substitute the apple dessert for this. I'm a financier whore. Unfortunately, the financier was hard as a rock. It was not the soft, spongy buttery tea cake I was hoping for. I did like the peanuts which added a crunch and almost tasted like a brittle.

9a) Peanut Butter and chocolate Maple Toffee, Chocolate Ganache and Gros Michel Banana Sorbet
Alvear, Pedro Ximenez, "Solera 1927", Montilla-Moriles
The peanut butter and chocolate sphere was sweet, creamy ad rich. Unfortunately the banana sorbet had a very odd concentrated flavor.

9b) Straus Cream "Genoise", Jacobsen's Farm Figs, Lemon Curd and Fig Leaf Ice Cream
I enjoyed the fresh, juicy sweet fig which was caramelized, and the tart lemon curd. The ice cream however was rather bitter. Overall, I didn't think any of the desserts were memorable.

Mignardises #1) Macadamia nuts with Caramel powder sugar and Choc layer
This was served with our coffee. I couldn't stop popping this into my mouth so thankfully, there were many nuts in the bowl. These are offered for sale at Bouchon Bakery.

Mignardises #2) Bon Bons included banana malt, praline, passionfruit caramel, peanut butter, thai coffee cardamom and michigan cherry
My favorite was the praline that tasted like a ferrera rocher.

Mignardises #3) Vanilla cheesecake with graham cracker
Unfortunately, I wasn't impressed with any of the desserts in the Tasting Menu but I really enjoyed this mini cheesecake with buttery crust. It was simple but hit the spot.

They brought by shortbread to-go, along with copies of the menu and the hefty bill. $2,000 for our party of four. Generally, it'll cost you between $350 to $700, depending on if you go with the wine pairing and supplemental foie gras and white truffles.

So what was my verdict? I struggled with this post a little. I thought this was a once in a lifetime experience and felt really fortunate to have secured a reservation. I really enjoyed my meal, but if I closed my eyes, I wouldn't have been able to tell that I was eating at The French Laundry. I've heard amazing things about their service, but I wasn't blown away by it. One of the servers was curt and looked irritated, our main waitress skirted the issue on whether service is included in the alcohol pairing price of $250 (it's included in the food menu pricing). She just sounded vague, saying that it was and was not. After many glasses of wine, we just wanted a simple, direct answer. We also had to constantly ask for bread service. But I do have to note that water glasses were filled regularly, and a few of the servers were friendly. Although the food was mostly well executed and the wine pairing was exceptional, I didn't think the presentation lived up to the pictures on the website. Also, the website mentioned that they wanted us to feel a sense of surprise with every bite, as if we had tasted something we've never experienced before. Except for the swiss chard subric, I didn't find anything else to be unique and innovative. Perhaps I walked in with too high of expectations, which even TFL would have trouble delivering. Yes, I thought the food was solid and prepared well, but I guess wouldn't consider it the "best meal of my life". That title, I'd have to save for Joel Robuchon at The Mansion.

Hits: poularde, caviar, mignardises
Misses: desserts, pricey, tough to get a reservation
Rating: ****

The French Laundry
6640 Washington St.,
Yountville, CA 94599
(707) 944-2380


Anonymous said...

I'm laughing at the fact that the mignardises are better than the dessert. So $600 didn't get you a marriage proposal? Does that at least buy a happy ending? Sufficed to say, this, along with Alinea, will probably forever escape me. And I'm ok with that.

Daniel S. said...

Such a detailed write-up with pictures of everything :). As I reading through this, I could tell you were coming to a less than enthusiastic conclusion, especially with the dessert let-down. Your dinner at Joel Robuchon definitely looked better than this one at TFL.

BTW you can get the Blue Apron ale at Bar Bouchon in the Montage...goes really well with the truffle mac and cheese :)

I love how to planned a trip around this. Nice work!

Diana said...

How disappointing! Although really, how could it compete when Joel Robuchon has a bread cart and a cart of chocolates to take home with you?

weezermonkey said...

You made it!

Thanks for the honest review. I'm sad it didn't blow your mind, but I'm happy that you still enjoyed your meal.


bagnatic said...

maybe it's the high expectations, the hard to secure ressies, and the not so perfect service. well, now you know...another check off the list.

Banana Wonder said...

Wow, you went all it here so its great to hear your fresh opinion - after all the money you spent, you are more than entitled to say whatever you want! I didn't realize how difficult and expensive TFL was! Funny your most memorable dish was the cheese one too.

Darin said...

Is the wine pairing option new? I don't remember ever seeing that before.

It's unfortunate that you found it a little disappointing.

I LOVE the presentation of the white truffles.

Gastronomer said...

Hats off to you and your dining companions for going all out! Wine pairings, foie gras, and white truffles! Damn!

I wasn't crazy about The French Laundry experience after my dinner as well. It happens... You've piqued my interest about Joel Robuchon at The Mansion.

stuffycheaks said...

sinosoul - I kindda want to go to Alinea. I know I'll need to adjust my expectations though.

Daniel - I know.. hard to beat JR, but I was hoping TFL would have been more impressive.

Diana - seriously! the bread cart at JR. I expected more of the bread at TFL cuz its from Bouchon.

weezer - thanks! I thought I was gonna be bashed by readers for not LOVING TFL. It is what it is, unfortunately.

Bagnatic - I'm glad I checked it off the list.. but don't feel the need to go back. I def plan to go back to JR though.. that says a lot.

Anna - Thanks! I know.. cheese saved the day hahah. I should give cheese a chance.

Darin - Yeah I think wine pairing might be fairly new. Wine selection was splendid, but ouch.. same price as the tasting menu. worth it, if you have the $$. I think if the service had been as exceptional as they (and others) tout it to be, I might have had a better experience.

Gastronomer - Oh.. you're one of the very few I've heard from that wasn't overly impressed with TFL. You'll have to try JR if you get the chance. Maybe don't go in with super high expectations! I learnt my lesson...

Liz said...

I'm going this friday! I'll be in the private dining room... hopefully its a meal to remember.

stuffycheaks said...

ooh Liz, can't wait to hear about it! Really hope you have a gerat experience.