For many years the number one restaurant on my wish list was The French Laundry. This restaurant is the flagship restaurant of Thomas Keller, who will go down as the best American chef of the 20th and 21st centuries. Many of the most influential chefs currently helming restaurants in the US are acolytes of Thomas Keller and the French Laundry or Per Se, included in this list is Grant Achatz of Alinea.
My last two trips to Napa I wasn’t able to dine at The French Laundry for various reasons but I always made a pilgrimage to the famous blue door and walked around to peer into the kitchen. All that to say that when the opportunity arose to dine at The French Laundry, I booked my near 12 hours of round trip flights to fly to Napa for the weekend.
After 4 awesome and exclusive wine tasting experiences spread out over two days culminating with Bond Estates Winery, a by invitation only winery tasting experience closed to the public, it was time for the main event: The French Laundry. We parked in Yountville and walked up the newly renovated building where we were greeted by name as we walked up. After a picture in front of the blue door we walked upstairs where our table was located.
We received our menus where you have the choice of the Chef’s tasting menu or the tasting of vegetables. Although the tasting of vegetables looked amazing it wasn’t a hard choice for me. The only thing I don’t like about The French Laundry and Per Se is the fact that they try to up-charge you. The Chef’s Tasting Menu has a few options where you can substitute a course for an up-charge, for example the lamb course at the end can be subbed for a wagyu beef course for an even $100 up-charge. There are certain dishes that comparable 3 Michelin starred restaurants always offer. The first course is typically a caviar dish, presented differently of course. And the last course is often times a wagyu beef and to see it offered here but for an up-charge doesn’t feel right. In all there were 4 available up-charges.
Anyway, after we made our selections we were served an amuse bouche of a hake tartar with crème fraiche, it was an awesome first bite. Simple, yet very good. One of the things that I have always remembered that Per Se did better than any subsequent 3 Michelin starred restaurant I’ve dined at is the pacing and perfect timing of the dishes. The French Laundry accomplished this difficult part of the dining experience just as perfectly.
The first dish is the famous oysters and pearls, this is the only dish that was also served at Per Se when I dined there a few years ago. The dish was as good as I remember. It’s served on a bed of tapioca pudding with caviar and oysters on top.
As many of us had selected the foie gras rillettes instead of the melon salad we decided to begin the night with a sauternes, who said sauternes is exclusively for dessert?
From there we had a delicious monk fish. Monk fish has a lobster like texture and exquisite flavor. It is truly one of my favorite. It was served with a corn and chanterelle mushrooms.
Next came a small piece of king crab served with spinach and a béarnaise mousse. King crab is one of my all tie favorite seafood items although I’m not really into the fad of turning sauces into mousses or foams. That being said it was delicious just not my favorite dish.
From here before moving to the land dishes we had a bread and butter course. A bacon and onion brioche baked next door at Bouchon Bistro served with butter from Diane St. Clair’s Animal Farm, a small Vermont farm with only 9 cows. Yes I did try the butter separately.
Next we had a poularde dish that was served with a crispy green tomato and a small nectarine slice that was a perfect compliment. I have to confess that I had to Google what a poularde was. Sounds similar to chicken in Spanish (pollo) or French (poulet) but I had to confirm. Turns out it’s a chicken that is spayed as a chick for fattening purposes. Leave it to the French to figure out ways to fatten animals for culinary purposes. In France poulardes receive AOC protection same as a Bordeaux wine, such as a Poularde de Bresse AOC. The chicken was extremely fatty and cooked to perfection, probably sous vide.
And then to cap the main courses we had a herb roasted lamb loin which was also cooked sous vide before receiving a quick roast. The lamb was quite good. And the rice porridge that accompanied it was excellent and when eaten all together it was perfection.
To begin the desserts we had a cheese course that, in my opinion, was poorly placed as it was too heavy. It was a gougère (savory cream puff) filled with a aged Gruyere fondue. I would have preferred some exquisite cheeses.
Next they took orders for coffee or tea, which I ordered an Earl Grey tea. And then the desserts began to come out. Instead of the typical coursing of the desserts they all came out at once and boy did that table fill up quickly. Served in front of each of us we had a baily’s ice cream, a peach’s and cream (kinda) and a chocolate hazelnut ‘cake.’ And then served in the middle of the table to share, although there was one of everything for each, were some strawberry macaroons, warm sugar and cinnamon donut holes, chocolate covered hazelnuts, and chewy raspberry candy.
Many chefs think that to receive the coveted 3rd Michelin star you have to do weird unnatural things to your food. And as much as I will occasionally enjoy dining at a molecular gastronomy temple, they do herald from Spain which I have a soft spot for, I much prefer to be able to eat identifiable flavors and textures. Everything at The French Laundry is beautiful and exquisite yet somehow simple. We had fish, crab, chicken and lamb. Everything is sourced from the very best farms around the country and Thomas Keller has found the perfect balance of letting the ingredients shine and not be outshined or completely hidden by changing the molecular structure of my food.
This may not be the most exciting restaurant, for that I’d send you to Alinea or MiniBar, yet I do believe that this is, in my opinion, the best restaurant in the United States.