Yes, yes, yes. OH YES. I finally had an opportunity to dine at the mecca of West Coast Dining, Thomas Keller’s ode to amazing, The French Laundry. It has been many, many years of longing to finally get onto the hollowed grounds. I have been by it. I have seen the gardens. I have had friends who have dined. I have eaten at Ad Hoc, right down the street. But, never ever, been inside the lovely world of Mr. Keller’s old Laundry.
There is almost something magical about putting on a nice suit and tie for dinner. Then cruising through the lovely vineyards of Napa knowing a gastronomic feast is about the happen. There is no valet, no problem parking, in fact we parked a few blocks away, knowing we would want to walk off this meal. It’s almost other worldly around twilight in Yountville. A quaint small town surrounded by some of the top wine producers in the world. Well, definitely some of the best in North America. There, happy? I for one love French wine, and long for it at times, but also have come to revere what some winemakers are doing up here. But I digress, and am getting sidetracked by my love of fermented grape juice.
Just walking into the area where Mr. Keller’s first garden was, your hair stands on end. Especially if you are culinary nerd/junky. Imagining all the meals that have come out of that kitchen right there, all the people who have come up through the ranks in that kitchen, and all the people who have dined here, well, it’s exciting.
Getting handed the iPad with the wine list is a daunting task. Being hungry and excited doesn’t help. But I figured when in Rome, and ordered some traditional French bubbles to start us out while taking in the menu. As you may or may not know, there is a tasting menu each night, with a meat or veggie option. I had no problem deciding about which to try. But some in the group saw some of the veggie options and were torn. There were some delicious sounding items, but I had to go meat. If nothing else than to hopefully have some amazing sous vide meats. I know, I know, you can sous vide vegetables, which I have done. But, give me a break, this technique has been perfected for meat. I own a sous vide, and have an autographed copy of Mr. Keller’s book Under Pressure. Which has offered me great insight into not only his techniques, but a certain creative philosophy.
On top of picking which tasting menu, there were other choices within each menu. For the meat side there was an oyster/caviar decision, a second course option, a fish course option and a dessert option. You could stick with the regular menu, or for a small extra fee, add on. Well I took one option of the two extra priced options, as the fish and dessert was just a simple pick. Still a difficult one, none the less.
There is always something fun about getting some friends together and getting gussied up for dinner. Sitting in a small dining room, having amazing service and sipping champagne. So this is how the other half lives, ALL the time. Not just this single evening, going through a wine list that has bottles for well over ten thousand dollars. I can only imagine. Maybe one day I can cozy up to someone who will open one. Just to try, just once. Many, many, many years ago at Bastide in Los Angeles, I happened to be dining when the crazy owner Joe Pytka was present, and the sommelier shared with us a bottle from 1917 that was made for the czar. Nothing crazy amazingly delicious. But the thrill of having something that old was a great rush.
Anywho, we all decided, I ordered a Sancerre to have next and we drank bubbles as our amuse was brought out. Basically a raw tuna ice cream cone. Awesome. And no, there was no bite of chocolate in the bottom of the cone, as some would of suggested at our table.
Starting with oysters and caviar never sounds like a bad start to what is going to be a phenomenal meal. I stuck with the original, not the supplemental, which I did get to try though! But poached oysters with tapioca and caviar is a perfect combination that was one of the best of the night. Just such big, bright, happy flavors dancing around in my mouth. The memory is still strong. As good as it was, I don’t think I could of done a whole big plate. Or maybe I could of. Guess I’ll have to try it at a later date.
The next dish I did get the supplement, which had wilted ramps. Now I have slowly fallen in love with the delicate, exquisite flavors of ramps, basically a wild onion that grows only in certain areas of the East Coast in Spring. I had never heard of them for many years growing up back East, and since I was first taken down the ramp path, I have never turned back. I always pick them when they are in season and on a menu. Of course throw some black truffles on top, and Wha-La a genius dish of epic proportions. Actually throw, many, many finely ground black truffles on top. Black Truffles that are presented in a lovely wooden box, to preserve the freshness, and make for an elegant delivery system. The dense earthy flavors went tremendous with the Sancerre we were drinking. So many levels and depth of flavor. Again, another dish I could eat again, and again, and again.
For my next pick I took the halibut. Because I’ve never met a halibut I didn’t love, and also soft shelled crab is hit or miss for me. Some days it just doesn’t work for me the way I’d like. What with the shell, and the strange crunchy-ness, not that it’s a bad thing, but I have to be in the mood. Although I must say, the Halibut was a little underwhelming. It couldn’t keep up with all the other flavors on the plate. And, I hate, no I dare not say, but I will, the fish seemed a dash overdone. It wasn’t as fresh and easy-going as I find halibut to be. It was still good, just not a home run piece of fish, especially after the two previous dishes.
And just like that, whoosh, comes more graceful elegance in the form of lobster mitts. Oh lobster, you fiendishly delicious scoundrel. I hardly had another second to put forth thinking about the last dish. Add in some English pea puree, and I was transported somewhere else, to another time, another place. There was also a Ginger-Carrot Mousseline that was divine and brought all the brightness out of all the other elements on the plate. I enjoyed this dish thoroughly. To the point I would of made an ass of myself just to lick the plate and not lose one iota of those flavors, if to just savor them, one last moment, before losing them forever. Now you must be thinking I’m either insane or unstable, which has been mentioned from time to time, although that has nothing to do with how amazing this plate of food was. I heard someone say once, “Happiness is a warm gun”. I believe happiness to be warm lobster mitts in this dish. Beautiful
Then there was another “blah” dish for me. The rabbit. Although I did enjoy the apricot and quinoa elements. The rabbit though, didn’t offer my palate that “Wow” factor. I was left longing for something more. It wasn’t bad mind you, but after some of those other dishes, like I said, there was no “Wow”. Now I didn’t send it back, or not finish the dish. No, no, no. I finished it up to the last bite. Because this dish was still from The French Laundry, and was still something I had never seen before, nor probably will in quite some time. It could of been a rock star item on many, many other restaurant’s menus. C’est Le Vie.
Ahhhhhhhhhhhh. Now, now we were having a rock star moment, and my sous vide experience could be complete. There was a short-rib. An exquisite specimen of beef, slow cooked and fork tender. With a tremendous sauce and some very tasty components that went into making a nearly, nie, a perfect dish. This is the point in the dinner where tensions ran high in our group, as discussions started as to which dish was the best of the night. To which I said, this one was the clear winner. Which alas it was. Paired with an equally exquisite Chateauneuf-du-Pape, and I was in heaven.
Then I was drug back down to Earth, and had a very pungent cheese course. Now, not pungent in a terribly bad way. Just a very hard smack across the cheek. The flavor assaulted my taste buds. I am nowhere near experienced enough in my culinary career to judge cheese. It was too much on the palate after that last amazing dish. I can appreciate it, for sure. I just didn’t want to at this moment. It was alright in the grand scheme of things. My senses and palate were awoken for the many dessert courses. And yes, I said many.
At this point my notes and memory start to fade a bit. I have a dark, blurry picture of the starting point, which, I believe was a sorbet, with some tasty bits around it. Sorry to let it fade, but there were some awesomeness upcoming. This was followed by our dessert choice. I made a mistake and got the princess cake. Which was good, and hit the spot, because cake and marzipan are never bad. But I should of gotten the chocolate dish. Oh well. I was trying to change it up from my usual chocoholic self. I did get my fix shortly though. Thankfully. In a flurry we had a mocha, for lack of a better word I have forgotten, parfait. That doesn’t do justice, but served in a nice neat tall glass, chilled to perfection, and having a near perfect balance of sweetness and flavor. There were beignets. Fresh, light, airy, amazing beignets. These would of won over any New Orleans-er. There was also a special homemade chocolates box. A large beautifully crafted wooden box filled with amazing flavors of bite sized chocolates. Stout, mint, truffle, hazelnut, and on and on. Luckily I let the others pick first, and found out I could take more than one!! Suckers!!! They all took only one, and I had the pleasure of trying of few tasty morsels. There were also freshly made salted caramels (which ended up in my coat pocket) (and were awesome-sauce).
Now this was not cheap. And it was not easy to get a reservation. But it is small and intimate. And also one of the, if not the best meal I have ever been on the receiving end of, and in my opinion worth every penny. Whereas some of my dining companions have had their thirst quenched, and don’t see or feel a need to come back, I am of the ilk that I want this “punishment” again. And would gladly pay the entrance fee to partake once again. I thoroughly thought it was worth getting this kind of dining experience. It is not every day you get to see this kind of dedication of every single person who worked there. I could go back right now and love every second of it once again.
Try it once.
You will not be disappointed.