The nine course tasting menu changes daily, and with a few clicks through the internet, it was simple to get a good idea of what our upcoming dining experience would entail (best description, and my personal favorite, was Westchester Foodie’s rendition). Admission: I am photographically challenged in restaurants. For someone who occasionally writes about food, this is not a good thing. So, I will apologize in advance for not only the quality of the pictures but the lack thereof. Here’s an overall visual of our tasting menu:
Part of my desire to see and taste what all the excitement is about comes from what I’ve read about chef Thomas Keller’s vision and drive for fine dining perfection. My expectations were high, but not unreasonable – like when I was a teenager and my friends would want me to meet the guy who was destined to be the absolute ultimate boyfriend. At first, I would be thrilled that he’s everything they said, but then, eventually, I’d become upset that I wasn’t starry eyed in love. Unfortunately, my recent date with French Laundry almost prompted me to say the classic line “it’s not you, it’s me”. It was not the sublime dining euphoria I was expecting. Simply put, I was not swooning. Maybe I need a culinary psychologist, but I’ll let you be the judge.
Built in the 1900s and at one time a French steam laundry (hence the name), The French Laundry looks quite unassuming from the outside. Described as the epitome of fine restaurant dining, once we stepped inside the transformation was palatable. We found ourselves speaking in hushed, almost reverent, tones as we read over the tasting menu in the small but elegant dining room. No detail was too small from the clothespinned, starched white napkin to the flawlessly set table. Our server expertly guided us through the menu courses, impressively describing each one. In fact, I began to feel that his demeanor was almost too perfect. I started to slowly look around the room at the other tables and became almost mesmerized by the staff. They definitely strived to be seamless in their service, but it was like that faucet drip that you notice just before drifting off to sleep that now keeps you up all night. I couldn’t stop watching their movements as they served and cleared the courses from the tables around us. Briana described it as synchronized serving (like a restaurant water ballet), but I felt it was more like I was surrounded by Stepford servers. It became distracting instead of invisible, as I became obsessed to observe if mistakes were made. I looked for the rogue server -- the one who broke out of the robotic persona by dropping a glass or spilling a sauce.
I purposely refocused my attention on the main reason we were all here – the food – as an amuse bouche of gougeres (what I lovingly call cheesey puffs) came out. They were golden and warm, with a surprisingly liquidy center. Keep in mind that this “giveaway” course was not only the best picture of the evening, but in retrospect possibly one of my favorite dishes.
Our first true course was the signature dish of Oysters and Pearls. The playful description of the custardy tapioca being the “pearls” of this dish was brilliant. The oysters were immersed in a tapioca custard, while a quenelle of white sturgeon caviar floated off to the side. The dish itself was visually boring, almost grey looking, with the caviar as only a slight contrast. My first bite was creamy, rich and briny, but I was distracted by the texture. Daring to go out on a descriptive limb, it was spherical. Now that’s a newfound foodie concept, but it clearly describes the roundness of the tapioca, oysters and caviar rolling around in my mouth.
I had the unique opportunity earlier in the week to tour the gardens and orchards of Peter and Gwyn Jacobsen who supply produce to The French Laundry (more on that in an upcoming post). I was anxiously anticipating the Veloute of Musquee de Provence Pumpkin because the oddly shaped and huge Fairy Tale Pumpkin I saw at the farm was the main ingredient. The soup was thick and comforting. With the addition of pomegranate seeds and walnuts, it tasted like Thanksgiving and Christmas pureed in a bowl.
The next two fish courses were forgettable and disappointing. The Australian Hiramasa, farm raised yellowtail or king fish, bordered on bland except for the nice acidic pop from the pickled baby eggplant. Sadly, the other signature dish of Sweet Butter Poached Main Lobster “Mitts” was surprisingly rubbery. My frustration stems from the fact that I read all about the process of blanching then slow poaching these lobster claws in buttery goodness. Why, oh why, were they not the velvety, tender morsels I was so looking forward to?
Let me fast forward to the sixth course of
Snake River Farms “Calotte de Boeuf Grillee”. Our server explained that “calotte” was the rib cap which is the most tender and marbled section of a rib eye steak. Snake River Farms doesn’t raise just any ‘ole cattle; their cattle is a cross between Black Angus and Japanese Wagyu. (Want to sear some up in your own kitchen? $190/lb from Gilt Taste.) Now I understand first hand why Snake River Farms has dubbed their meat “butter knife beef”. The meat was purely decadent and rich in ways that I’ve never tasted before. A tiny “lasagna” square of layered umami packed flavors like truffle and tomato was served on the side. This course was so over the top, it was clearly the defining point of the tasting menu. This is where I think my meal should have ended as I had simply hit my palate limit.
I felt myself slipping away in a somewhat foodie fog as I consumed the next three courses of cheese, sorbet and dessert. They were good, but I was feeling quite done until the “surprise” dessert course. The slightly frozen custard cappuccino semifreddo and warm donuts was a very creative take on coffee and donuts and turned this tired dining diva into Homer Simpson (ummmmm, donuts).
Last, but not least, the little sweet tidbits called Mignardises (pronounced min yarn dees) were very French, very small and very delicious truffles in flavors like peanut butter and jelly and meyer lemon. They made it all the way back to
unscathed, and the three of us were able to enjoy a bit of The French Laundry in the comfort of our own family room. New York
Now that I’ve had time to think about our dinner at The French Laundry to be quite fair, it was certainly an amazing, unique dining experience overall which is still being discussed and dissected. Some of the courses have already been saved in my food memory bank, but they have to share space with other amazing dishes like Daniel Humm’s tomato basil lollipops from Eleven Madision or Harold Dieterle’s farro risotto from Perilla. The French Laundry wasn’t my culinary soul mate or my restaurant nirvana, but there was something very appealing about Thomas Keller’s world in Yountville where each dish was plated to perfection.