Many of the world’s great restaurants are a place of pilgrimage, a Mecca to the food obsessed, a box ticked, a dream hopefully fulfilled. A cathartic experience perhaps. For some, a second thought doesn’t even pass for the kind of cash it takes to dine at many of them. For others, a year’s savings might culminate in a once in a lifetime experience that by God, better not disappoint.
For that to transpire at the French Laundry – lauded the world over almost since the day it opened in 1994 – that pilgrimage requires a trip out to the sunny and beauteous surroundings of Yountville, on the fringes of California’s Napa Valley. Things move a little slower out here, time suspended if you will. At least it certainly is inside this culinary temple in which I am sitting. Finally.
Constructed in the 1880s, the building spent time as a saloon before becoming a brothel and then a French steam laundry in the late 1920s. In 1974, the Mayor of Yountville – Don Schmitt and his wife – purchased the property, turning it into a restaurant, which wasn’t officially called the French Laundry, although this is what the locals referred to it as. “The name sticks”, so says the restaurant’s website. It looks like a place that has and will be here forever. Or so we hope.
Chef Thomas Keller bought the place in 1994 and it quickly attracted the attention of the local, and then international, media. Now its accolades are long, well documented and clearly deserved. Keller is a chef on top of his game while The Laundry straddles the line between having nothing to prove yet always under intense scrutiny and pressure. Keller and his team continue to innovate, while hyper obsessing over using local produce, much of it listed on the menu in inverted commas, much of it grown on their own farm.
The setting is exceptionally comforting, modeled on the Michelin starred inns that Keller spent his modest wages on during his trips through France as a young cook. And it looks all the part too, replete with perfectly manicured gardens and a soothing and ethereal charm that makes one forget about everything else for a fleeting moment. Well, at least for the five hours it takes to make your way through the epic meal here. And epic it really is.
We are greeted warmly by Larry Nadeau, the veteran maitre‘d who has been at The Laundry since it opened, and his gracious hospitality permeates through all the service staff, who are serious professionals at the pinnacle of their trade while their demeanor is not too serious as not to share a few laughs with each table. It certainly eases the pressure that so often comes with dining in a restaurant of this caliber, as does the fact that we’re here for Sunday lunch, when shiny lace ups make way for loafers, and cocktail dresses are eschewed for bright pastels and comically oversized sunglasses. There’s a festive mood where everyone is seemingly celebrating, even if it’s simply the fact that they’re actually dining at the French Laundry.
Each day there are two separate menus – a chef’s tasting (read: meat and fish) and a vegetable tasting, both nine courses ($270 each). I am dining with two vegetarians and while I get to see and taste everything on offer in the restaurant today, I wouldn’t be so happy to fork out that same money for vegetables, no matter the quality or setting. But whatever, the equilibrium is restored with my first sip of the Perrier Jouet Belle Epoque 2000 vintage that I’ve brought from New York (note the $75 corkage fee though). It’s a sublime and fitting beginning.
Technology is certainly not lost on this historical building as I am handed an iPad with their 109 page wine list that has 12 pages dedicated solely to half bottles of red. It’s a staggering read in anyone’s language but I’m happy to be at the mercy of their wine team who bring forth a bottle of Billaud-Simon Premier Cru Chablis (06’). It makes me giggle for no other reason than it reminds me of a scene from the hilarious English television show The Trip, where Steve Coogan and his buddy Rob Brydon traverse the English countryside, dining at Michelin starred town houses that actually don’t look too dissimilar to The French Laundry. Upon being presented with a bottle of Premier Cru, Coogan naively says “Premier Cru. Well I know that means it’s good”. It is good, for the record. Spellbindingly good. But I digress.
But it will have to wait as we’re still on Champagne, which is a perfect match for the first course, which is a Keller signature: ‘Oysters and Pearls’. Like several of his dishes, it’s a whimsical moniker that plays on dishes whose names we may be familiar with, like his Mac n’ Cheese (not on the menu today, sadly) yet prepared with such elegant interpretation that very few imaginations could ever dream of.
Also served at Per Se, Keller’s fine dining temple overlooking New York’s Central Park, these two oysters (poached in butter) are surrounded by a tapioca sabayon and finished with a gleaming quenelle of local sturgeon caviar. It smacks of the ocean and might well be the most peerless opening act I’ve ever seen. If there is indeed a flawless symbiosis between food and drink, then this union of bivalves and France’s finest might well be it.
We follow with a Moulard duck foie gras torchon ($30 supplement) whose fatty richness is cut beautifully by the racy acidity of our Burgundian friend, now poured and blessed by oxygen. There are fruity components in the form of banana balls and garden strawberries hanging onto to the end of their season, while the balance is perfectly sated by a balsamic gastrique of sorts, pickled celery and a trio – yes a trio – of salts. The duck liver is spread on feather-light brioche that is changed three times during the course, as “it needs to be eaten warm”, I’m informed by our server. She’s right. A nice touch.
A compressed melon salad – a technique often used by Keller – is another work of art, a kaleidoscope of color sprinkled with tiny basil seeds, tempura sea beans, garden cucumbers and a ginger foam. It’s light, delicate and actually rather refreshing. It needs salt but I remember I do have three to choose from. Big eye tuna – having barely kissed a grill is served on a wooden board with a hearts of palm puree. Again, a pinch of salt brightens the crimson fish.
Gulf Coast red snapper follows, a perfectly seared filet bathing in a spicy saffron broth with globe artichokes and something I’ve never tried nor heard of called ‘toybox’ tomatoes and picholine olives, which add some necessary seasoning. Another of Keller’s signature preparations is his butter poached lobster, a mainstay whose accompaniments change with the seasons. Here and now it’s chanterelles, carrots and pearl onions, given an aromatic lift from tarragon and further richness from a bone marrow jus. It’s a complete triumph that I don’t want to end.
We take a break (which I recommend to anyone dining here) and retreat to the garden, the last of our Chardonnay brought out to us, a welcome foil to this 85 degree September day. Everything is put on hold for “as long as we’d like”, Larry says with a calming nonchalance. We return to a bottle of Alain Graillot Crozes Hermitage and a small block of Salmon Creek Farms pork belly with a dreamy parsnip puree of intense concentration and a huckleberry jus.
There’s a cheese course, of course, a palate cleansing grapefruit sorbet and two desserts, including an insane nectarine Melba with a yoghurt Bavarois, raspberry sorbet, pistachio dust and micro basil. I’m thinking of a way to discreetly lick the plate. I do it anyway. Keller’s ‘coffee and donuts’ – coffee semifreddo and cappuccino foam – concludes this portentous occasion along with the requisite mignardises of immaculate conception. I came with big hopes and big dreams, wanting to be amazed, hoping to be dazzled. Mission accomplished, that box now firmly ticked, Yountville now another special place on my culinary road map.
After the meal, we head across the road into their produce garden and have a poke around, getting close up and personal with those toybox tomatoes, jinglebell peppers and Tokyo turnips we’ve just tried for the first time. We reflect on the pilgrimage that we’ve just made, a dream finally fulfilled. We saunter into town, loosen our ties, kick off our shoes and relax over a bottle of icy local Sauvignon Blanc at a modest local wine bar, as the sun sets on a perfect day in Napa. Sometimes life really is beautiful.