The Best Restaurant in America? (by Alberto Chromatico)

The French Laundry

Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry  –  a universally revered culinary Mecca…. How Exciting. Henri’s birthday, and a lucky chain of serendipities, leading to a rare and prized dinner reservation, gives us a chance to find out what all the fuss is about.

Bardessono

And an excuse to jump on a weekend to wine country. A short drive up from San Francisco, we wind into Yountville early afternoon. It looks like it was built yesterday; everything is freshly minted. No litter. No fallen leaves. Shiny as a new button.

Dressed up – this is a jacket-and-tie proposition, for sure – we stroll over from Bardessono, who are proud to be one of the most environmentally friendly luxury spa hotels in the world (all built from something other than building materials) in time for our 5.30 reservation. Seems early, but we’ve been forewarned that we are in for a long haul – four to five hours of persistent exquisiteness – so, fasted for the day, we’re ready.

But our table isn’t.

How can a table not be ready at 5.30 p.m.?

Our maître d’, Martin, greets us – warmly…if a touch over-formally…? Somehow, I’m already on my guard.

Schramsberg

We are invited to sit in the garden and savor the anticipation – and a yummy glass of Schramsberg, Cuvée French Laundry. This is all fine. It’s a nice garden, and the anticipation is savorable.

In due course we are ushered in and sat upstairs. I’m not sure whether downstairs might have been better…the small dining room on the first floor accentuates the hush…for the place is quiet. Like a library or a mausoleum.  Neighboring tables murmur behind cupped hands. It makes me want to let off a rocket or play a power chord or something.

I begin to feel that that the weight of expectation and the stillness of this high church atmosphere might run the danger of stifling the earthly enjoyment of what it is widely agreed is a menu without equal, not to mention the simple conviviality of the birthday celebration.

Anyway, said menu arrived, and questions derived therefrom fielded by our waiter and our sommelier, I’m reminded of the mangling our language is receiving these days in the U.S.  Actually everywhere. Probably including this paragraph. (I’d call it Jamesian, but that would be pushing it.)

“The lamb is going to be more of a salad preparation, if you will.”

Right.

“Now I’m going to go ahead and take your order. If you will.”

Ok! We go ahead and give it to him.

And straighten it all out and strap in. It’s a prix fixe – admittedly a ten-course, and nosebleedingly expensive, prix fixe – with a vegetarian swerve if needed. For me, I just have to avoid the tête du cochon (which brings back too many dark memories from childhood) – everything else sounds plausible. Even the rabbit. For Henri, the vegetarian/pescetarian line works itself out with a little negotiation.

On the sommelier front, we inquire after the much-anticipated wine flight only to find…there isn’t one. We were expecting pairings, and an education, but we’ve been misinformed…so we plump for his (hopefully) skillful and (indubitably) expensive half-bottle or by-the-glass suggestions.

And so…it starts to arrive.

Let me say in advance that, overall, it really was an exceptional dinner and an experience that will never be forgotten.

Amuse-Bouches

Following which, let me also say that – with fear now of eventually contradicting myself – below are the highlights, since some of our notes are illegible and some of our memories vague, and there were photographs untaken and some things we just can’t reconstruct even with the aid of the documentary evidence (menu kept, wine labels studied, website revisited).

The amuse-bouches were more than amusing; they quite possibly trumped the entire meal:

The ice cream cone: salmon tartar on a tuille filled with red-onion creme fraiche…

A melt-in-your-mouth Gruyere cheese coquotte…

And a china spoon full of monkfish liver – ankimo – with yuzu, “like foo gra,” coating….

"Oysters and Pearls"

Then, to kick off properly, a real mainstay of the menu: “Oysters and Pearls,” a “Sabayon” of Pearl Tapioca with Oysters and White Sturgeon Caviar. A Sabayon is a french cousin of the Zabagliones, and whilst this is starting to feel like an upside down meal from years gone by, it is exquisite.

The oysters are from Island Creek in Massachusetts, whereas the Caviar is “local.” Where is the nearest sturgeon, I wonder?

(The alternative bore a $50 supplement and was really just caviar on its own – albeit caviar from somewhere closer to Vladivostock – with merely a decorative sprig of radish, so this was an easy choice.)

Following:

Moulard Duck "Foie Gras en Terrine"

Well, one thing Henri emphatically won’t join me in is the Foie Gras course. But I can’t help myself. (Ah – there goes a $30 supplement!)

Served with “white honey, Oregon Huckleberry Relish, and Tokyo Turnips” – boy what a cruise this is turning out to be – it is also explosively delicious. M. Sommelier cleverly brings a local sweet Pinot Gris which works just fine. Sorry, didn’t catch the label.

Meanwhile, H has a boiled egg. With maple syrup. Are we at the Fat Duck suddenly? Or is it already breakfast somehow?

A word about condiments. At some stage, maybe with the Foie Gras, together with a beurre salé from Animal Farm in Vermont (they have seven cows, one of whom is called Keller), we are delivered three additional types of salt, including a Filipino deer-lick salt, a French sea salt, and a pink Jurassic cave salt from Montana which is 40 million years old.

Forty. Million. Year. Old. Salt. Oh come on, these tidings delivered with not a hint of a smile?

Henri, for her part, can’t stop giggling. We’re not even half way through and she’s already, er, full – and yet can’t stop eating the irresistible bread they keep restocking us with. We’ve eaten more dough than everything else put together and in desperate desperation she begs the waiter to take her bread plate away before another roll magically appears on the table.

Next up:

A Halibut, if you will, with Wild Nettles, Pine Nuts, and Sunchokes. We have had – really – nothing to complain about thus far, but this was a challenge. Really oversalty and slightly on the dry side.

We share our reservations with the waiter, and I can’t help (with the prehistoric rock salt in mind) but say “well at least the salt was fresh.”

Stoneface.

Oh come on, still not a hint of a smile?

"Peas and Carrots"

No, and sideways looks from nearby tables. Feels like suddenly we are in the Python fork sketch. Mortified, wounded, our man retreats into the kitchen and returns with:

An apology in the form of a complimentary gnocchi preparation, if you will.

Just what Henri was after. Dough!

I manfully help to finish it – well, really, to eat it all (it was kind of a small portion).

“Now THAT wasn’t too salty was it?” asks our man, a touch smug.

Ah, no, but it was too much!

Calling on stamina and other resources to continue:

A sweet butter-poached Main lobster dish, in which the fresh peas and carrots from the famed French Laundry garden they are harvested from take the main billing. It is pretty undeniable.

Devil's Gulch Ranch Rabbit Sirloin

And a Rabbit. From the Devil’s Gulch Ranch, served with white Asparagus, Red Pearl Onions, Piedmont Hazelnuts. Watercress and Aged Balsamic Vinegar, and which, being more of a small rabbit, took me less time to eat than describe – tasty but it swept past.

Konsgaard Chardonnay

Meanwhile we have been served with:

A CALERA pinot noir….

A MODICUM Cab Sav….

And a KONSGAARD CHARDONNAY

All the wines were just great.

And then:

Lamb Rib-Eye

The lamb. The lamb is from the Elysian Fields. It is “petit salé.” It comes with: Globe Artichokes, Piperade (a kind of Basque tomato and pepper relish), “Barbajuan” (a Riviera ravioli), and Spanish Capers. I begin to wonder, what merits inverted commas and what not? Is it an index of rarity? Anyway, all of this being noted, the lamb itself was lukewarm, verging on cold. Anxious to avoid another fork-sketch incident, I soldier on – and it tastes fine – but here the wheels seem to have fallen off the wagon again.

"Yorkshire Pudding"

In the meantime Henri has been feasting on a really lovely Yorkshire Pudding, garnished with King Trumpet mushrooms. She seems to have got her appetite back.

Almost there:

Next up was the cheese course. Henri takes hers to go (probably still in the hotel fridge) and I have a cavatina with cauliflower and apricots, but neither of our memories can conjure it up again.

Not so with the ensuing desserts, which are memorably and unquestionably epic, and accompanied by an excellent tag team of a fine Tokai and a surprising Asti (which we noted with some prescience, “taste like tomorrow’s hangover”).

The chocolate souffle with caramel ice cream and Malden salt (yes, even now, the panoply of salts keeps a-coming) is indescribable, and the Lemongrass Cremeux with Sicilian Pistachio is equally a peak experience. Followed by a mini chocolate birthday cake!

Birthday Cake

And then, to rub it all in, chocolates, which for Henri at least redefine the word “chocolates.” Which is hard to do.

It’s hard to sum it all up. Absolutely no regrets, though some small disappointments along the way. When the food was amazing, it really was amazing, Hats off. I found the ambience a challenge, yet in the end really wanted to think the best of it.

Would we do it again?

Well I don’t know, but in the end, a gorgeous evening.

Bouchon Bakery

Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups

And by the way, no better breakfast to follow such a night than chocolate peanut buttercups and monkey bread from Keller’s Bouchon bakery a few doors down. Sweet or savory, your choice.

And the best macaroons in the world.

Macaroons

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: