Finally, The Big Eat – Part III: The French Laundry

We chose not to photograph inside the restaurant. Enjoy the pics of the grounds.

Day three in Yountville started with a modest breakfast in the hotel. In anticipation for our big dinner at The French Laundry, we enjoyed a relatively light lunch at Hurley’s, dining on olive oil poached tuna niçoise and Crab Louis salads. Both hit the spot without being over filling. We thought it best to go into dinner without hunger headaches and the salads were a refreshing departure from the big meals of earlier restaurant visits. After a long walk around the small town of Yountville and a trip to the sauna and steam room at the Spa Villagio, we were ready to sit and eat for the next three hours. Our meal at The French Laundry would soon be a memory and we wanted it to be perfect.

Reservations were set for 8:45. Arriving a few minutes early, the host seated us in the front room while our table was being prepared. The French Laundry is a model of service, as you should expect, and they work very hard to make sure every guest feels as though they should be there. As it turned out, we waited with a certain celebrity couple (Nicole Richie and Joel Madden –Happy Anniversary!) who did a very good job of keeping a low profile thanks to the discretion of the host. [We’re assuming TMZ is no longer interested in something that happened over a month ago, with no pictures.]

The French Laundry's garden with a view of the Napa Valley hills.

The restaurant is divided into three small dining rooms, one downstairs and two upstairs. We were seated upstairs with four other tables, variously populated with couples and groups, most celebrating some sort of special occasion. We were seated at a large round table next to one another with a view of the other guests giving us an opportunity to “see how it’s done” for those who were seated earlier.

The wine list is 112 pages long and is presented at the table in iPad form, open and ready for your review. We love to drink wine, but we don’t love wine as much as the people who composed the remarkable list. The sommelier patiently helped us reduce our choices to a couple of light reds, each in the $100 range. We selected a delightful French burgundy that we nursed throughout the meal. It was just enough and nicely suited to the evening’s menu.

The first bites, or amuse bouches,  arrive in the form of small, warm, cheesy, one-bite gougère. The gougères are quickly followed by the now ubiquitous Salmon Tartar Cornets – bite-sized dollops of fresh, minced wild salmon atop a light, crisp cone filled with red onion seasoned crème fraîche. The “dish” is gone in two delicious bites. That’s OK, because the meal is just beginning and the real starter was just a few minutes away.

Chef Thomas Keller is known for many things, but the one thing diners at both The French Laundry and Per Se, in Manhattan, have come to expect is his glorious “Oysters and Pearls.” Small, beautiful white covered porcelain bowls arrive warm, filled with delicate Island Creek Oysters swimming in a rich pool of “Sabayon” of pearl tapioca, topped with a remarkably large dollop of white sturgeon caviar. We’d heard about this dish from friends who have dined before at the FL, but we had no idea what to expect. While now “common” to FL and Per Se diners, nothing about this dish says “average” or “pedestrian.” Every bite was as good as the last.

Up next, an interesting Salad of Roasted Hawaiian Hearts of Palm with Petite Radish, Cilantro and Citrus “Vierge.” This precious portion stood out not for the flavor of the hearts of palm (simple, but not memorable), but for the fascinating use of citrus in the vinaigrette. We suspect the kitchen used finger limes to produce the capsules of fresh fruit that popped delicately with each bite.

We supplemented the “salad” course with the Moulard Duck “Foie Gras en Terrine” served with Cippolini Onions, Oregon Huckleberry and Celery Branch. The restaurant is known for its flawless execution, evidenced by the mid-course swap out of warm brioche toast. On cue, our server deftly removed the half-eaten portion of toast and set a new, warm piece of toast down to accompany the remainder of the terrine. We were impressed!

A beautiful head of cabbage.

The fish course consisted of Sauteed Fillet of Gulf Coast Red Snapper with Jingle Bell Peppers, young Fennel, Niçoise Olive, Arugula and Noilly Prat dry vermouth (adding vermouth to sauce is a tip we learned from Julia Childs). The fish, tender and oceanic, paired beautifully with the subtle Noilly Prat. Here again, the sauce was the standout.

Sweet Butter-Poached Maine Lobster “Fricassée” came next with Hobbs’ Bacon, Red Wine-Braised Cabbage, Chestnuts, Tokyo Turnips and “Beurre Rouge.” Lobster, once a peasant food and used as fertilizer, is now king of the seafood chain. The smokiness of the bacon played nicely with the crustacean. We could have eaten more, but then, more was to come.

Our next course stands out as one of the evening’s greatest successes: Georges Bank Sea Scollop with Sunchokes, Piedmont Hazelnuts, Fig Compote, Red Ribbon Sorrel and Guinness-Chocolate Sauce. That’s right, Guinness and chocolate in a sauce with scallop. We get the affinity between the two, but with shellfish? Seriously?!? This one blew us away. The scallop was grand! Seared to a perfect crust, tender and barely cooked at its center, this was a scallop to remember. Swiping a bite through the sauce added complexity without overwhelming the sweet, briny morsel. Our first thought was that we wanted more sauce. However, that might have overwhelmed the scallop and then we would have ended up with a chocolate dipped scallop. Less is definitely more with the sauce for this dish!

The friendly chicken.

Next up, a glorious Four Story Hill Farm “Poularde” with Baby Beet, Tardivo Radicchio, Walnuts, Watercress and “Sauce Périgourdine.” Sophie, one of our charming servers, assured us that this chicken didn’t come from the FL hen house nestled among the garden greens across the street from the restaurant. Good thing too, because Jason had a bonding experience with one of the curious hens the day before and we couldn’t bear the thought of noshing on one of those lovely ladies. The meat was savory and richly satisfying, balanced by the bitter radicchio and spicy cress.

What came next will be remembered as one of the evening’s biggest surprises. “Tripe a la Provençale” in a sauce of San Marzano Tomatoes, Capers, Black Kale and “Pain de Campagne” arrived with our curiosity piqued. Steve learned that Thomas Keller is particularly fond of this “scrap” meat when he read Grant Achatz’ (Alinea chef and former sous chef with the FL) book life, on the line, so we were excited to see it on this tasting menu. Tiny pieces of extraordinarily tender tripe stewed in a simple tomato sauce couldn’t have been more spectacular. We’ve only shared tripe once or twice before at one of SF’s taco trucks, just to say we tried it. And now that we have a taste for it again, we’ll be certain to give tripe another try, maybe at a taco truck, fine restaurant, or maybe even at home (a future blog post in the making).

Elysian Fields Farm “Cote D’Agneau,” Chanterelle Mushrooms, Nantes Carrot, Roasted Mizuna and Madras Curry shocked us not only because of its delicate flavor, but also because of the scale of the portion. This was a large lamb chop and the kitchen didn’t skimp on a thing. The meat was unusually “mild” and the fat … well, we could have eaten more and it took some restraint to resist the temptation to gnaw on the bone when all was said and done.

We’re now starting to get that over sated feeling, as I’m sure you, the reader are too. This is not a good thing because we still have cheese and dessert to come and we want, or rather NEED, to enjoy it. The cheese course consisted of a warm bowl of Andante Dairy “Nocturnes” served with Yukon Gold Potato, Flowering Quince and Burgundy Truffles. A ripe, sheep’s milk cheese, the Nocturnes represents some of the best local cheese making to be found. The standout of this dish was the potato. Cut to the tiniest dice, the crunchy toasty bits were packed with earthy flavor. They paired nicely with the rich cheese and the sweet quince. We confess, this composed cheese dish had more than enough flavor to satisfy any happy glutton.

The rest of the flock.

A palate cleanser of Sour Cherry Sorbet, Coconut “Petit Beurre” and Vanilla Soda took the edge off the rich, ripe cheese course. How were we ever going to get through two desserts and all the other lovely sweets we knew were coming at the conclusion of the meal?

First dessert consisted of Alpaco “Mousse Au Chocolat,” Spice Pudding, “Panna Cotta,” Fuyu Persimmon and Almond “Glacée.” Whoa! The marvel of this dish was the cylinder of panna cotta lying on its side, holding its shape as it gleamed and sparkled in the light of the dining room. How did they do that? Our guess, from watching way too many cooking shows, molecular gastronomy. Silky and cool, this one reminded us just how satisfying panna cotta can be.

We also selected the “Pommes Anna” served with Funnel Cake, “Pruneaux d’Agen,” Rum “Anglaise” and Salted Caramel Ice Cream. This was a beautiful dessert. The apple was sliced ever so thin, stacked into a multi-layer round and cooked to tender perfection. The funnel cake was a delicate, playful companion to the sweet apple. Salted caramel ice cream, now available everywhere (even homemade in our freezer), added just the right amount of richness, though we were finally at our limit and barely finished.

Some lovely blueberries that will one day be on the menu.

The menu complete, we sipped the last of our wine and savored the recent memory of the fifteen or so things we’d just eaten. Our server returned to the table with a “special treat” of coconut cake – a congratulatory gesture from the kitchen to say Happy Anniversary (19 years! We met when we were in preschool.). We know the staff is prepared to help lots of diners celebrate special occasions given the likelihood that many of the guests on any given evening have made this special pilgrimage to honor an important occasion. Nevertheless, we felt personally recognized by a group of professionals who care deeply about the service they provide.

Next came the restaurant’s signature “Frozen Capuccino,” a creamy mousse of coffee topped with whipped cream. That’s right, more cream … and chocolate … and sugar. And then a tray of house made chocolate truffles, each with its own uniquely flavored ganache filling. Oh, and a bowl of crunchy, chocolate covered macadamia nuts. No lie. We tasted a couple of nuts and promptly threw in the towel. Not another bite. Any more and we would be miserable beyond redemption. A cup of coffee was all that we could muster at this point in the evening. We asked our server to box up the truffles and the rest of the nuts.

Our goodie bag and a few extras from Bouchon bakery.

Before leaving, we were presented with a bag that contained our boxed up goodies as well as a couple of bags of short bread cookies. A copy of the evening’s menu is delivered along with the bill and the night finally comes to an end. It was about 11:30 when our server invited us to join him in the kitchen to take a look. We gathered our things and headed downstairs where we waited for another group to complete their kitchen tour before heading in. We were most fortunate to get some one-on-one time with Executive Sous Chef Philip Tessier who graciously congratulated us on our anniversary and answered our questions about the kitchen. This was a memorable end to an unforgettable evening.

Stuffed to the gills, we made our way back to the hotel in a cold light rain. Yountville was quiet and sparkling. Our food holiday was now complete and our bellies were full. Three days of total indulgence now behind us, it was time to return to the real world. Damn!

The Big Eat – Part II

Steps away from amazing food.

We woke up Saturday morning to Vintage Inn’s “Champagne Brunch” spread. After all we’d eaten Friday, we surprised ourselves by diving headlong into the omelet station. The jog we planned for later in the day became imperative if we were going to enjoy the rest of the day’s culinary indulgences. Because after all, we do live, breathe and write about food.

After a four-plus mile run through Yountville and a local vineyard, we still weren’t hungry for a typical lunch. We knew we’d be famished if we didn’t get a little something into our bellies before our Bouchon reservations at 7:45, so we tucked into Philippe Jeanty’s charming Bistro Jeanty for a cocktail and a bar bite to take the edge off.

Bistro Jeanty

Seated at the bar, we sipped our drinks and noshed on a hearty serving of Terrine de Lapin (rabbit pate) accompanied by céleri rémoulade (celery root and apple salad), cornichons and a tasty housemade yellow pepper mustard dressing. The thick slice of terrine was well balanced with the lean, meaty rabbit and pork fat. The pepper mustard was an elegant accompaniment to the rich charcuterie.

Rabbit terrine on the left, ratatouille on the right.

Terrine would have done the job of curbing hunger, but we’re on holiday and the ratatouille on the menu was irresistible. Served in a small casserole and bubbling hot, the ratatouille was beautiful with its thin neat scalloped layers of tomato and zucchini (very similar in presentation to the ratatouille dish in the Pixar film of the same name) concealing a savory, saucy vegetable mélange. We sopped up the juices with slices of crusty baguette, finished our drinks and headed back to our room to rest up for the evening’s main event.

Bouchon Bistro

Bouchon at night with the full moon on the right. Hey, that rhymes.

Day two in Yountville and we’re seated once again at a Thomas Keller restaurant. This is our second meal at Bouchon (the first was a brunch back in 2007) and this time it is to celebrate the nineteenth anniversary of the night we met. Still working off the rabbit, Jason recommended we take it easy and share a salad, an entrée, and a side of French fries dusted with truffles so we could save some room for dessert.

There are times when the lighting in restaurants needs a little help.

We ignored the evening specials and ordered a Salade de Cresson et d’Endives au Roquefort, Pommes et Noix (cress and endive salad with bleu cheese, apple and walnut). We love crisp, bitter leaves of endive and these were nicely dressed with a walnut vinaigrette that added a warm, nutty richness to the salad. Peppery watercress and small cubes of fuji apple gave the dish a bright tang and the bites of bleu cheese added a bit of richness. The rather tall pile of a salad was hearty and filling and once our plates were empty, we knew we’d made the right decision about sharing an entrée.

Using the iPhone flashlight app and Photoshop, this photo came out a little better.

Always suckers for short ribs, we ordered the Boeuf Bourguignon. Still haunted by the memory of the short rib hash we enjoyed back in ’07, Steve couldn’t resist the braised beef dish that so many consider quintessential French bistro fare. Of course, any foodie will tell you that Boeuf Bourguignon is Julia’s signature dish. Served with a generous slice of thick porkbelly (bacon), cipollini onions, root vegetables, butter noodles and red wine sauce, the dish was an ideal antidote to the chill of the evening. The braised beef was tender but not mushy and the red wine jus gave each piece a beautiful lacquer finish. Tender egg noodles sopped up the sauce and the bacon scented the dish with sweet smoke. We loved this dish, but the root vegetables need some work. We found the cubed veggies to be a little off, tasting of cardboard. But because they weren’t well integrated, we were able to push them aside without losing anything else in the dish.

The stand out star of the evening was the basket of truffle dusted French fries. Mind you, almost anything with truffles will shoot your taste buds into orbit, but these fries were crispy on the outside and light and fluffy on the inside, just as they should be. The photo we took was too blurred to publish, but just imagine a cone filled with these beauties.

The best photo of the night, but sadly the most disappointing dish.

After finishing our half-carafe of the house red wine ($25 for 500 ml = bargain), we sipped coffee and attempted a slice of Tarte au Citron (lemon tart). The tart slice was beyond generous; double the size one would expect from a fine restaurant of Bouchon’s caliber. Alas, while the tangy lemon sabayon was refreshing, we didn’t love the pine nut tart pastry. We love pine nuts and we eat them regularly, but they are delicate and tend to oxidize quickly. We don’t know if the crust failed because of the nuts, but our server admitted that this desert was a love-it-or-hate-it gamble as some customers found the shell to exhibit odd, off-putting flavors, while others believe it to be wonderful. He graciously removed it from the table, and our tab, and replaced it with a lovely bag of the bakery’s signature Chocolate Bouchons (dense brownies), which we took to go.

Even with the minor meal infractions at Bouchon, we left very pleased with the experience, service and the food, which is exactly why we dine out.

Next up: The French Laundry