Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The French Laundry

One of my goals finally achieved! I got the opportunity to eat at The French Laundry in Yountville, Napa Valley. I can't really say whether it's "overrated" or "over-priced" because for one, I went for the experience as well as the food and two, I've only done a tasting dinner once before. How can I be a judge of anything? All I can tell you is what I experienced and how everything tasted to me...and the latter I will preface by saying I am totally biased due to some of my personal tastes. With that said, I begin to tell you about my very fun, cool and FULL experience I had at The French Laundry.

The French Laundry, as you approach it from the street, looks like quaint dark brown brick and wood building with vines creeping along the sides. You'll miss it if you don't look carefully. The only sign is a softly lit one on the retaining wall bordering the front of the restaurant. (I'm glad we drove by earlier in the day so we would know where it was because we did miss it at first!)
The French Laundry
If you're looking for the garden, you'll need to look across the street. Unfortunately, we went late at night so we didn't get to look at it. Walking around the front of the house to the entrance you'll see a few tables set out in the yard area to the side of the house set with wine glasses ready for you to sit yourself down and enjoy the outdoors for a bit...but again, it was too late for us to make use of it. From the side of the house, you get a glimpse of the kitchen through windows of what seems like a separate single story building that is actually connected to the restaurant. Wish I could have lingered out there a while more but I wasn't sure if they liked to be "watched" or not...and we were also too eager to see what it was like inside. As you enter, there is a nice cozy parlor with non other than the Bouchon and The French Laundry Cookbooks out on the table. I wanted to peruse through them while we were waiting (since we had gotten there early) but they sat us almost immediately.
The French Laundry Ambiance
The French Laundry Ambiance
When we walked into the dining room, we realized that the main dining room had about 8-10 tables and most of the 2 person tables were to the outer edges with the 4 person tables all to the center. I was surprised then as the waiter took us into a small little "nook" just off to the right of the main dining room. This room, I believe, was made to look like a little wine cave with stone ambiance on the ceiling and a view through a little window into their wine cellar. There were only 3 tables in there; one 4 person table and 2-2 person tables. I was VERY excited at this point - whoever had given up this table causing the table for 2 to be thrown up on OpenTable.com must either have been very important or very darn lucky. But we ended up lucky in the end to have been seated at that table because it was great! Even the lighting was a little dimmer in this little nook and it felt really romantic.
The French Laundry Ambiance
We were seated at our table and immediately I was happy with tulips as their choice of flower (my favorite) for their floral touch and our napkins tucked into an old fashioned clothes pin tying in the "Laundry" theme; EXACTLY like the front of Thomas Keller's Cookbook of the same name.
The French Laundry Ambiance
The French Laundry Ambiance
The French Laundry Ambiance
Finally, to the food! They had started us off with Amuse bouche, a set of appetizer or starter "finger food" as the waiter explained to us. Typically food served before the actual courses of the menu. Because they are Amuse bouche, these tasty morsels are not listed on the menu and so we can only make a guess as to what they were since our memory was already blurring after the 6th or 7th course later. The "ice cream" cone appetizer was a mini sesame cone filled with a creme fraice type concoction with (I'm guessing now) a type of caviar on top (not sturgeon since it was very orange in color) because it was salty. Good salty mind you. It was a faaabulous combination! Wish I could have had more! Next to it in the bowl came cheese filled pastry puffs. Oh - they were good! So yummy just out of the oven, the cheese just melted into the puff and it was delicious.
"Amuse bouche"
Next we had "Oysters and Pearls", a "Sabayon" of Pearl Tapioca with Beau Soleil Oysters and White Sturgeon Caviar. This was one of our favorites overall. This 1st course was excellent! Great texture, nice balance of saltiness and creaminess...it was so silky. Again, this was one I wish I could have a big bowl of. I couldn't get enough of it! The oyster was so delicate and the caviar tasted as good as it was expensive. The Sabayon at the bottom (I don't get Sabayon a lot) was really nice and went well with the salty caviar and oyster. The sauce was a buttery layer that sat atop the Sabayon. We were very VERY excited about the rest that was to come after having this 1st course!
For the second course, we had our choice of "Salad of White Asparagus" (Poached Field Rhubarb, Garden Mache and Black Truffle "Coulis") or Moulard Duck "Foie Gras Au Torchon" (White Peach Relish, Hazelnut Puree, Pickled Ramps and Red Mustard Greens). Well, since there were two of us, we split our choices. Since my husband hates asparagus (poor guy), I took the Salad and he ordered the Foie Gras. Of course, it doesn't matter since we made our plan to share everything anyway. I was excited about the White Asparagus since I LOVE asparagus and I was really looking forward to the Black Truffle Coulis. The asparagus was very light and the rhubarb kind of sweet. The black truffle coulis was a sauce swished over the plate and tasted great with the veggies. Wish I had more of the sauce actually.
Though it was good - it could not compare to the show stopping Foie Gras! This was also one of our favorites since it was so interactive in addition to being sooooo yummy. The presentation of the Foie Gras was very nice accompanied with 3 silver dishes of specialty salts. One salt being a french 40,000 year old salt; very fine with dark and light bits in it. The second being a rock salt from France and the third being a red rock salt from Kauai. (I think I have this in my cupboard actually. We Hawaii people love our rock salt and Alae rock salt (or red rock salt) is common in Hawaii cooking households these days) Also served with the Foie Gras was freshly made brioche. Mmmmm. The direction we got was to spoon a bit of each salt onto our plates first.hen slice off a bit of the Foie Gras, top with a pinch of one type of salt and savor. Repeat with the other salts and see how your taste buds like the contrast of the different flavors. Each salt brought a different level of contrast to the Foie Gras and my favorite was the 40,000 year old salt. Since I had my asparagus, my husband ate the brioche with the Foie Gras that was left over after we tasted to our heart's delight the Foie Gras with the salts. The French Laundry is very particular about their brioche and replaced our original brioche with a plate of new ones so that we would have warm brioche to eat with the Foie Gras (I guess we took our time doing our salt comparisons. :) That was very nice of them to do.
The French Laundry Ambiance
The next course we again had two choices and again we ordered both. This course was the fish course and consisted of "Crispy-Ckin Fillet of Pacific Suzuki (Spring Garlic "Confit," San Marzano Tomato "Compote," Nicoise Olive Crumbs and Golden Squash Puree) and "Tartare" of Japanese Hamachi (Cucumber "Gelee," Red Radish, Haas Avocado, Kumquats and Cilantro Shoots). I had the Suzuki...it was ok. I think I enjoyed the flavors of the puree and compote and found them more interesting than the fish itself.
However, the Tartare my husband ad was very nice! The Cucumber Gelee was so interesting! The Hamachi was very nice...not exactly Tartare (hence the quotation marks) which I liked actually because we got to eat fresher tasting cubed Hamachi instead of something that was chopped up and mixed with too much sauce to notice. I liked it this way and with the Cucumber Gelee and silky avocado ribbons - it was a very excellent combination. And of course, why not?! The whole entree was a relative of the California Roll with Hamachi instead of the traditional tuna. Loved this idea - taking a common food and basically turning it inside out. And the presentation was so nice and bright with the color of the Gelee and the ribbons of Avocado.
I've been waiting to say this...I had a PRETZEL at The French Laundry! Ofcourse, not the kind of pretzel you get at the fair, but it's a pretzel non the less and I was tickled to be offered it. It was a nice lightly salty bread between courses that I enjoyed like a kid at the fair. :) (sorry, the picture is blurry)
The next course (our 4th) was "Beet and Leek" (Maine Lobster Tail "Pochee au Beurre Doux" with King Richard Leeks, "Pommes Maxim's" and Red Beet Essence). Such a pretty presentation with the Pommes Maxim's sitting on top. I had to take a second picture to give you a view of the yummy lobster and beet essence underneath. Oh!, and did this taste as good as it looked. Not only was it lobster but it was lobster sitting in this heavenly, slightly sweet, delicious red beet reduction sauce. I am looking up this recipe for sure! This sauce was excellent! I was hoping for more pieces of lobster so that I could run it through the sauce. Now me and lobster - we go way back from when my mom was craving lobster when she was pregnant with me so for me to get distracted by lobster with a sauce, that's something.
The next course (our 5th) reminded me of breakfast. :) Since we had a choice again, we ordered one of each of the "Wolfe Ranch White Quail" (Morel Mushrooms, Roasted Romaine Lettuce, Corn Bread Pudding and "Foie Gras Mignonette") and the "Bacon and Eggs" ("Rouelle" of All Day-Braised "Tete de Cocon," Soft-Poached Quail Egg, Frisee Lettuce and "Sauce Gribiche"). You get all that? Though the titles and descriptions sounded so yummy, unfortunately this was one of our least favorite courses. I think I'm not that big on quail because I should have been awed. Though I wasn't, the quail was melt in your mouth...see the piece on the left? That piece absolutely just melted. And I loved the morel mushroom since I love mushrooms and I don't get to eat this variety very often. Doesn't the Foie Gras sauce look so yummy? It was. :) The corn bread was an interesting accompaniment. I know it's probably normal to have it - but my taste buds thought it odd. But, it was yummy none the less.
My husband liked his Bacon and Eggs. It was just okay for me. I think I wasn't in the mood for Pork. The presentation was nice with the pork being stuffed into the center of something that was deep fried. Looked like a little tater to me :). Hey, I just looked up "Tete de Cochon" and it means Head from Hog. Y'know, I never had pigs head before...
1/2 Bottle of Copain Syrah
Our next course was Snake River Farm "Calotte de Beouf Grillee" (Braised Beef Cheeks, Thumbelina Carrots, Globe Artichokes and "Sauce Bordelaise"). Me and meat, thanks to my Dad, get a long very very well. I loved the slice of meat in this dish, it was served just how I like it. My husband, being a lover of ribeye thought it okay. I was really looking forward to the beef cheek and it was very soft and tender. (though the flavor reminded me of something I eat at dim sum - I'll fill in here if and when I remember what it was!)
Our next course was a goat cheese course. "Blanc de Bleu du Rizet" (Goat Cheese with Fennel Bulb, Prune Puree and Watercress Leaves). The cheese was sooo heavy. By this time we had gone through 6 courses and this was our 7th. I know it's hard to believe from the size of the portions that we could be full, but eating 7 of these little plates in succession is more filling than you think. I was so ashamed I could only eat 1 out of the 3 pieces that was given to me! I was so sad that I was a little mad. "Why do they serve this now and here? Not even my Cab can cut through this to help my taste buds." It was very good cheese but at this point in time, we just could not finish it. I felt bad when they came to take them away with so much still left on our plates but what could we do? I'm sure this is normal to serve it here - maybe the purpose wasn't to eat it all?
Ah! now THIS was nice. The 8th course was so refreshing! It was "Glace de Fruits Excotiques" (Pineapple "Granite," Lilikoi and Coconut Sauce. I am partial to Passion fruit and am happy to see almost every restaurant taking advantage of this fruit these days. I was very happy to see it on the menu and was looking forward to it. In contrast to the cheese, I LOVED this as simple as it was. And how about that plate?! Gonna find me some for sure - so nice for entertaining.
Our 9th course, dessert, consisted of "Composition de Chocolate Italien" (Amedei Gianduja Chocolate" "Creme Patissier," oscano Nut Brownie and Nougat Glace") and "Summer Pudding" (French Laundry Garden Lemon Verbena Ice Cream and Summer Berry "Compote") I wish I had pure Nougat instead of a glace. I LOVE nougat and was looking forward to a stronger flavor there. The other cylinder in the picture tasted of hazelnut which was the Gianduja chocolate. Hmmm, I wanted a stronger flavor here too...I think they went light on purpose, but I guess I wasn't reading the menu well and hoping for a whopping of chocolate and nougat. I should pay more attention. My husband's Summer Pudding was topped with a foamy concoction which made it fun. Each piece of the "pudding" by itself isn't that great, but together, they worked well and was a pretty refreshing dessert. I think as a dessert lover - I had high (which equalled "rich") expectations of this dish which made me judge it unfailrly. Looking back, these were delightfully light and let you taste the elements without being too rich and over powering.
To our eyes delights (& moans of our full stomachs), following our 9 courses was "Mignardises".

Mignardise. (i) Decorative pastry puff, (ii) Small dainty dish.
---International Dictionary of Food & Cooking

Small and dainty for sure, we were presented wth a small pot of Panna Cotta and a pretty little dish of creme brule. After 9 courses, thank goodness these dishes were small! Even though my stomach couldn't possibly handle anything more, I had to order a coffee to help get through these "small dainty dishes".
"Mignardises" --- Panna Cotta
"Mignardises" --- Creme Brule
And just when you think it's over, more "Mignardises"...

"At a sophisticated meal in France, an assortment of petits fours (sometimes known as mignardises) may be served either with or after the dessert."
---Larousse Gastronomique

Sweet Cigar shaped confections and Chocolate Covered and Sugar Powdered Macadamia Nuts followed. I think I could only eat one cigar and being from Hawaii, I skipped the macadamia nuts.
"Mignardises" -- Chocolate Covered Macadamia Nuts & (Almond Cigars?)

And can you believe it? There was STILL more...

The term mignardise, as applied to the culinary world, means an assortment of small, dainty confections. This assortment is generally composed of petits fours in the larger sense: tiny decorated cakes, specialty cookies, bonbons and sugared fruits. In other words, a plate of identical petits fours confections (no matter how ornate) would not be considered a mignardise. A mixed presentation of small, decorated specialty pastries, cookies and candies would qualify as mignardise.
© Lynne Olver 2000

The presentation of this next set of Mignardise was a silver container consisting of a tier of chocolate truffles (one milk, one dark and something else), a tier of wrapped nougat and nut confections and a top tier of wrapped fruit confections.
"Mignardises" -- Truffles and wrapped candies

And of course, this was not the end. The final ending of the night came with the bill and a bag of shortbread cookies to take with us tied with ribbon adorned with the restaurant's logo.
French Laundry Shortbread

All in all - an expensive night but what an exquiste night. One of those I will truly remember for years to come. Was it worth it? For me, being able to experience it, taste it and share it all with you, yes it was. For my husband, he was happy just to see me happy. :) Hope you liked sharing in the experience too.