To celebrate the 5th anneversary of our wedding, Racquel and I enjoyed a quiet weekend in Napa. The highlight was dinner Saturday at The French Laundry. I first learned about The French Laundry through this discussion forum, and while I often learn from those of you who post here, I don't ofen have much to add. What follows is my humble review of our dinner on March 22.
Dear heavens, where to begin?
The quick review: Best. Meal. Ever.
The extended review: Racquel was dazzling in a navy dress accented with silver butterflies. I did my best not to look out of place in jacket and black pant. The exterior of the restaurant was stone and wood, and quiet in appearance. In fact, I didn't notice it at all when we drove past it earlier that day. (I did U-turn back for a look after Racquel pointed it out to me.) Rain had started to fall, so we went directly inside rather than tour the garden. I tried to peek through the kitchen window before we entered, hoping to catch a glimpse of Thomas Keller, but I was to learn later that he was out of town for the weekend. I was not worried about the quality of the food or service, but I was hoping to see him cooking, if only for a moment or two. The only real disappointment of the evening was being seated 30 minutes after our 8:45 reservation time. The maitre d' apologized for the wait, explaining that the couples there before us were enjoying a rather lengthy meal. I would be doing the same, so how could I complain? We sipped wine as we waited, and the kitchen sent out a small nibble to enjoy prior to being seated. A single-bite puff pastry with a bit of warm gruyère cheese in the center. It was a simple thing, really, and it lingered on the palate nicely.
We were seated at an intimate table by a window of one of the dining rooms. The inside of the restaurant was simple and elegant, themes which would continue throughout the night. The table and settings were crisp white, with the napkin held gently in a fan position by a wooden clothespin. Before I describe the food, I should mention the service, which was beyond exceptional. There is almost too much to mention. Settings were cleared and set between courses with fluidity and grace. Our every need was met before we had a chance to notice there was a need. At one point I excused myself from the table and returned to find a neatly fanned napkin. At various times during the evening we were visited by our head waiter, sommelier, servers, and another person I can only call an assistant waiter, who made settings appear on our table as if by magic. Never were we asked, "Is everything to your liking?" There was no need. Everyone was attentive, and somehow knew what we might want and when to bring it. Through all of this, I never felt watched. No one hovered near our table. In fact, there was a good deal of activity by the wait staff, and yet the room remained calm and quiet. Only once did I hear a member of the wait staff talking at another table. I could continue to pick examples of the quality of service, but that would not be sufficient. What made the service special was the overall feeling of welcome created in the union of all the small details, building something greater.
We wanted to taste different wines throughout the meal, so our sommelier, Keith Fergel, suggested several half-bottles of French wine to be served with the variety of courses. I had read about a young sommeliers award given to Mr. Fergel, and I congratulated him on the achievement. He was thankful, but his smile really widened when he explained that the award enables him to come back this year as a judge. Now the head sommelier at The French Laundry, he is obviously enjoying the opportunity.
The menu is composed of three smaller menus: The dinner menu, which presents five courses with selections in each course, the chef's tasting menu, which presents nine courses with a selection available for the second course, and a fixed vegetarian menu. Racquel decided to select from the dinner menu, while I wanted to sample as many dishes from the kitchen as I could, and so ordered the tasting menu. Racquel was brought extra tastes of various things to compensate for the discrepancy in the numbers of dishes we were served. Racquel's dishes looked and smelled wonderful, but I'll confine my comments to the dished placed before me.
Amuse bousche. Not printed on the menu, this was a small cone with black sesame seeds on the outside, and filled with sweet red onion crème fraîche. The cone is topped with a spoonful of salmon tartar and tiny bits of chive. It looks like a child's ice-cream cone. One bite, two bites, and gone. If you've had raw salmon in another form, you would appreciate this dish. The salmon was smooth and just a bit salty. The crème fraîche was sweet and light, contrasting with the crisp, toasted flavor of the cone. I smiled when it was presented, and I laughed when it was gone. I wonder whether the whimsy of this dish as a starter is intended to help any guests that might feel uneasy or intimidated to feel more at ease? Whatever the reason, it was delicious.
"Oysters and Pearls". Sabayon of Pearl Tapioca with Poached Mapleque Oysters and Osetra Caviar. My favorite dish of the night. I had never tasted caviar before, and I expected a heavy salt flavor. To the contrary, the salt was subtle, and complimented the creamy, buttery sauce in which the oysters were poached. The caviar also provided some contrast in texture and color with the tender oysters. Our assistant waiter brought a mother-of-pearl spoon to my setting before the dish arrived. I had heard about this, but I felt like a child laughing at what was to come. Let me tell you, I used that cute little spoon to retrieve every last drop of goodness from the bowl. This was served with a half-bottle of an M.V. Billecart-Salmon "Rose" Champagne. Have I become a snob? So be it. Caviar and champagne were made for each other.
For the second course, I was presented a choice between two dishes. The first was Hawaiian Hearts of Palm Salad with Truffle Coulis, a Confit of Field Rhubarb and Périgord Truffle Syrup. The second choice was Poached Moulard Duck Foie Gras en Terrine with Frisée and Black Périgord Truffles, Served with Toasted Brioche. I had never tasted chilled foie gras (outside of pâté), so I opted for the terrine. I loved the presentation, which started with a long rectangular dish. Slightly off-center to the right was the foie gras and truffle terrine. To the extreme right was the frisée and truffle salad. To the far left were small servings of ground pepper and fleur de sal. Drops of balsamic reduction were placed between the seasoning and the terrine. The brioche was served on a separate plate. The terrine was exceedingly rich and smoky, with alternating layers of light foie gras and dark truffles, and was to be spread on the brioche. I experimented with adding some of the seasoning, but I found the balsamic reduction balanced the richness of the foie gras wonderfully. The frisée and truffle salad also provided some balance to the dish. The glass of 2000 Domaine Bru-Baché Juragnon served with this course was sweet and accented the earthy tones of the dish.
Crispy Skin Filet of Atlantic Black Bass with Wilted Arrowleaf Spinach, Parsnip Purée and Saffron-Vanilla Sauce. For me, the saffron-vanilla sauce and parsnip purée were the highlight of this dish. Bright, sweet and subtle, I was shaking my head in disbelief at this sauce. This dish was more complex than I anticipated, with the browned and crispy skin lending just enough salt and fat to the tender meat. A single fork-full of this serving had the sauce/purée and skin on either side of the light meat and spinach. Tasting them individually was delicious, but tasting them as they combined was too much. I put my fork down and closed my eyes with the first bite. It was at this point that I knew my fears of the night not meeting my high expectations were unfounded. I laughed again when I realized that several more dishes were still to come. With this dish was poured a half-bottle of 1999 Domaine Ramonet Chassagne-Montrachet, which I found quiet and crisp.
Sweet Butter Poached Maine Lobster with Caramelized Fennel Bulb, Crystallized Fennel Chip and Sauce Noilly Pratt. Another comfort dish (lobster and drawn butter) with a twist. The lobster was sweet and tender. The sauce (which included vermouth, I believe) was smooth and while it was rich itself, somehow mellowed the body of the lobster (or perhaps the lobster mellowed the sauce). Two different types of richness? I'm laughing at myself, because I have no idea how this was done. I'm imagining a couple holding hands as they walk side by side. They married well. The fennel provided an interesting twist, lending sweetness and a pleasurable bitterness to the dish. The crystallized fennel chip atop the serving was light and provided a different measure of sweetness. I set the chip aside and ate it last, but I'm wondering now whether the crispiness of the chip would have changed the dish much had I broken a bit off with each bite.
Glazed Cloverdale Farms Rabbit Shoulder with Granny Smith Apple Coulis, Roasted Cippolini and Glazed Pearl Onions. This dish was perhaps the most rustic in concept. The rabbit was very tender, and its inherent game tones were in nice contrast with the sweet glaze and coulis. The cippolini and pearl onions rounded the country feel of the dish. While this was my least-favorite serving, it was also one that seemed to carry the most history, as if I were taken back in time and place to a empty countryside. With this dish we were served a 2000 Chateau Fortia Chateau-Neuf-du-Pape, which was full of spice and of medium body. It was delicious, but I found that it overpowered the rabbit somewhat. I enjoyed it very much with the next course.
Elysian Fields Farm Lamb Saddle Rôti Entier with a Cassoulet of Spring Pole Beans and Thyme-Infused Extra Virgin Olive Oil. The oil encircled a small handful of soft beans, which were topped with the sliced lamb. The lamb was tender and willing to be influenced by the rest of the dish. The beans were lovely as a buttery compliment and contrast in texture for the lamb. They were a dark cream color, and added some tooth to each bite. I forgot to taste the oil on its own. (To this point I had been using my finger <gasp> to taste the liquids in each course so as to better understand the dish as a whole.) Still, the thyme was evident on the lamb, and the oil provided some roundness in the mouth.
Robiola Vecchia Valsassina with Eggplant Parmesan and Micro Arugula Salad. This cheese was soft and bold, the eggplant tender and mellow. A refreshing young green flavor was added through the salad. It's a bit esoteric, but sometimes I find it best to describe a dish according to a thought or feeling experienced while eating. For me, this dish was a foggy room with small, focused beams of light from above.
Spiced Poached Bartlett Pear Sorbet with Toasted Almond Financier. Such a refreshing way to begin desert! The financier was light and moist, and I thought I detected some sweet spice, but this might have been from the pear sorbet (which, being the perfect consistency, was just starting to melt). Pear was a delightful choice for sorbet; one I'd not tried before this night. It was subtle and elegant in taste and presentation.
Chocolate Velours with Valrhona Chocolate Sacher and Cocoa Syrup. Dark, and well balanced. Delicious on its own. While pouring a 2000 Domaine de Jau "Le Clos de Paulilles" Banyuls, our sommelier remarked about the wine, saying, "After this, chocolate will never taste the same." Oh, goodness, was he ever right. Before this I had not enjoyed wines with chocolate. The wine opened the chocolate, revealing a world of flavors I could not taste before. I will find this wine again.
Yet another desert was served, though this was not on the printed menu. Racquel was brought a small crème brûlée, while I was served a tiny cauldron of chilled almond custard. The texture was a delight. The custard was not overly sweet, and the almond was reserved. Somehow it remained light.
Mignardises. With coffee, our waiter placed on our table a small silver tray with bite-sized cookies. While Racquel and I stared at the tray, wondering what in the world we were supposed to do with more food, he presented another tray, seemingly out of thin air, filled with chocolate truffles and insisted we sample them. How could I possibly eat another bite? I was stuffed. I am happy to report the spirit triumphed! I sampled one of the tiny pastries, but the truffles would have to wait. I could eat no more.
It was very late when we left the restaurant, but the cool air was welcome. The experience far exceeded my expectations, and I hold out hope that we might dine here again someday.