In 2008, a snap decision led me to San Francisco to visit a good friend with just four weeks notice. Testing the possibility of visiting the French laundry, then number 3 restaurant in the world, with their 3 month wait list seemed rather grim. Their offer of being put on stand by, seemed like more of a brush off rather than a solution; offering no solace. But as luck would have it, as I was waiting at the departure lounge in Shanghai I received call stating that a spot had opened up for lunch and would I be interested to take it. Ummmm…..HELL YES!!!!
The drive from San Francisco to Yountville was a pleasant one and once you got off the freeway it was great to soak up some of the picturesque wine country that is Napa Valley. Despite the French Laundry’s iconic status, the building blends into its surroundings and has a rather unassuming sign; well at least that’s my excuse for driving past it three times!
Having been offered and stupidly turning down a 6 month stage at the “French Laundry” several years before in 1999; dining there had long been at the top of my bucket list. This was also to be my first ever Michelin experience so I was really nervous going in. Would they be able to live up to the mammoth expectations that I had built in my mind. Or would they disappoint as so many other restaurants had done to me in the past…..
When we entered the restaurant we were asked our name, lead through an elegantly set dining room and promptly seated at our table. The place setting was immaculate and crisp yet very simple. The iconic wooden peg on the linen napkin was a nice touch; of which mysteriously found its way into my pocket by the end of the meal 🙂
We were presented with a degustation menu as well as being informed of the French Laundry classics which were also available on request. So we made our menu choices to ensure that we experienced the maximum of Chef Thomas Keller’s talent and of course had the sommelier match it with a complete wine pairing.
Small cones of raw salmon tartar in a sesame tuille with sweet red onion crème fraîche. Our waiter asked us to pick a cone from the specially made holder; we ate it in our hand like a savory ice cream cone. These cones were outstanding, a balance of a sweet nutty tuille with fatty salmon and light crème fraîche.
One of the most divine dishes ever. A sabayon of pearl tapioca, “beau soleil” oysters and white sturgeon caviar. This incredibly rich, buttery hollandaise-like sauce works great with the cold briny caviar and plump oysters.
By far the stand out dish for me and one that still makes me salivate when I think of it. Perfectly poached foie gras, Genoese sponge made from foie gras fat and a cherry compote made from last seasons cherries. Unfortunately it was so good that I was forced to swap dishes with my partner half way through 😦
The foie gras was also served with a selection of three different salts: sal gris, fleur de sel and local salt. It was fun to try the different salts, each with varying salinity and minerality. Our waiter left the salt tray on the table for us to enjoy with bread service.
Another stand out dish: the beef in all its fatty buttery glory, the acidic contrast yet richness of the truffle vinagrette. All seemed to be soaked up by the neutral flavour of the chinese cabbage. Then the nashi offered a sharp finish, only to be mellowed by the nuttiness of the pine nuts. WOW!
Cinnamon-sugared doughnuts with a “cappuccino semi-freddo.” The cappuccino semi-freddo had a texture of a pot de crème with a fluffy mouse up top. It had the distinct taste of coffee without having much of the oxidized flavor coffee-flavored products sometimes have. Its sweetness was just right. This was delicious. The doughnuts were served hot.
Peanut butter parfait, caramel délice and sauce à la Guimauve flambée. The best part of this dessert was the salted peanut butter with its brittle-like sandiness. This dish was a bit of a stretch from a s’more, perhaps the connection is the “guimauve flambée” or burnt marshmallow.
We finished the meal with a parade of sweets including marzipan, pâtes de fruit and chocolate truffles.
I enjoyed the meal immensely. Technically flawless and well-executed and the ingredient quality was impeccable. The service was some of the best I’ve experienced in a restaurant. Given the lengths we’d travelled to eat here, our waiter made us comfortable and the sommelier was incredible and very knowledgeable. One of the best dining experiences I have had to date…..