Friday, April 04, 2008

The French Laundry, Yountville, USA

6640 Washington Street, Yountville, USA

The French Laundry was voted the World's Best Restaurant in 2004. Since then, it has remained in the top four and is best restaurant in America. I got the cookbook for Christmas and, although I've not made anything from it as yet, the recipes look wonderful.

So, when we booked our holiday in California I just had to try and get a reservation. If I could get it for my wife and I's wedding anniversary, then it would be just perfect.

The French Laundry only take reservations two months in advance, so for a couple of days in a row I was on the phone trying to get a table. Eventually I managed to book one for lunch on the day of our anniversary.

From then until the day we went I was excited and hoping that it would live up to all my expectations.

So, did it? You bet. And some...

We were seated just in front of the fireplace and our waiter wished us Happy Anniversary and introduced himself. We were then given the menus and the waiter explained them. The French Laundry has two nine course menus, The Chef’s Tasting and A Taste of Vegetables. Each menu changes daily, depending on the ingredients available which means that no two meals you have here will ever be the same. They also have a policy of only using an ingredient once in each menu, so that each course is a new experience.

My wife chose the Chef’s Tasting menu and I chose the Taste of Vegetables. Because of the ever changing menus, the French Laundry does not offer a set of wines matched to each course, instead the sommelier will talk you through the wine list recommending bottles that will match your selection. This was quite a difficult job as, for us, he had to find a wine that would match two different menus. But he did very well indeed. I can’t remember the wine selection, but he suggested that we started with champagne, have a half bottle of white between us for the first couple of courses, a red for the middle few and finish with a dessert wine.

Very shortly two small “ice cream” cones were delivered to the table. These were an amuse bouche, we were told of a salmon sorbet for my wife and a sundried tomato sorbet with fennel crème fraiche for myself. The flavours were great, it looked superb and it was an excellent start to the meal.

Then came the first course “proper”.

I had Tokyo Turnips, which consisted of baby turnips, perilla shoots (a kind of mint) and a pine nut puree. The turnips were sweet and crunchy and the pine nut puree was great.

My wife had Cauliflower Panna Cotta which came with caviar. She hadn't had caviar before and said that it tasted like a roast dinner.

Next up were a couple of salads. Mine was a Salad of English Cucumber which, as well as the cucumber, had charred scallions, avocado and was dressed with yogurt. Again (and you're going to to get fed up with me saying this) all of the ingredients were incredibly fresh and very well presented. The Chef's menu had a Salad of Big Island Hearts of Peach Palm which was accompanied with radishes, coriander shoots, a coconut "gelee" and a date coulis.

Next, I had Asperges Vertes en Feuille de Bric This consisted of asparagus (which has just come into season in California) the stalks of which were coated in a wonderfully light batter, pearl onions, lambs lettuce, Castelmagno cheese and a black truffle coulis. I will never be able to eat asparagus again without thinking of this dish - it was amazing.

My wife had Nicoise Olive-Crusted Fillet of Atlantic Halibut, which she enjoyed.

Next up was something that I thought just didn't sound right, Hand-Rolled Potato Gnocchi. It sounds okay so far, but it came with peas and a "Madras Curry Emulsion." Italy and India? Surely it couldn't work? It did. The curry flavour of the emulsion was very delicate (certainly not a "Madras" as we know it) and didn't interfere with the wonderful fresh crisp flavour of the peas, and the whole thing really worked well.

From the Chef's Menu, my wife had Sweet Butter-Poached Maine Lobster "Mitts". These were accompanied by peas, white asparagus, mint, red chilli and passion fruit emulsion. The pink of the lobster, the green of the peas and the yellow emulsion meant it was a real feast for the eyes as well as the palette.

None of the portions were huge, but I never felt that they were that small either. After every course I was eager to see what the next delight would be. Every course was beautifully presented and both mine and my wife's were delivered together. The timing between courses was fairly short, but we never felt rushed.

Next on the menu was a "Fricassee" of Baby Artichokes. This consisted of tiny globe artichokes and baby carrots with a mustard vinaigrette. Again, it was the fresh taste of the vegetables that was most evident, perfectly accented by the vinaigrette.

The All Day Braised Kurobuta Pork Belly that my wife had was accompanied by a really smooth mashed potato, greens and maple syrup.

Next for me was a dish I was really looking forward to. Crispy Hen-of-the-Woods Mushroom. My previous experience of Hen-of-the-Woods was during the mushroom foray I did, where we discovered it at the foot of an oak tree.

The mushroom was really tasty and, as the description said, quite crispy which was quite an odd sensation for a mushroom.

My wife had Elysian Fields Farm Lamb Ribeye. She loves lamb and really enjoyed it.

And so, onto the cheese course.

I had Timanoix cheese with butternut squash, toasted pecans and maple syrup. My wife had Shropshire Blue with grapes, endive, watercress and green peppercorn "aigre doux". Both were lovely, but if I had to choose, then the Shropshire Blue would win. It was gloriously creamy with a lovely "sourness" that blue cheeses have.

Next up were a couple of sorbets. The Taste of Vegetables menu had a Sour Cherry Sorbet with Sesame Nougat and the Chef's menu has Diane St. Claire Buttermilk Sherbet with Field Rhubarb.

By now, it was time for dessert and we were realising that we were getting to the end of the meal.

Just before the dessert was delivered, a couple of small pre-desserts were delivered. My wife had a creme brulee and I had a sort of creamy set custard. The creme-brulee was nice (7.5) but had it been made with the custard that I had it would have topped the chart.

My dessert was Crepe Soufflee. This was essentially small banana pancakes and was served with Guinness ice cream. It was lovely and the ice cream, although a bit odd on its own complemented the bananas very well.

My wife's dessert was Granny Smith Apple "Bavarois" with Dijon mustard ice cream. As with the crepes, the ice cream on its own was very strange, but went very well with the apple. Once again, the presentation was wonderful.

Following the dessert were some petit fours and coffee. We were presented with an Easter Egg, some shortbreads, a French Laundry clothes peg that had been clipped to the napkin when we arrived and a copy of the menus.

To my delight, we were also invited to visit the kitchen.

It was interesting to see the chefs at work. There was none of the frantic action or cursing that we all have come to expect from being exposed to so many "Gordon Ramsay" reality TV programs, it was all very quiet and controlled.

So, that was it. The end of possibly the best meal I have ever had. It was certainly a fantastic way to celebrate our wedding anniversary. The setting of the restaurant is wonderful and the service is perfect. As a bonus, on that particular day, Yountville was having a wine festival, so after the meal we made our way there and were able to sample some more of the region's wines.

The French Laundry was a wonderful experience. I would love to go back if I ever get the chance. It's not cheap, but nowhere of this calibre is. The nine course menu is $240 and on top of that you have to add drinks. Luckily, service is included in the price, however we were so impressed that we left a bit more, a don't begrudge a penny (or cent) of it.

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