the first time I heard there was a restaurant in napa valley called the french laundry, I had a bit of a laugh. after all, I had never associated fine dining with dirty linens…
but then, my friend told me that it was considered the best restaurant in the usa, if not the world and that it strictly accepted reservations 2 months ahead (and took a mere 15 minutes to become fully booked). not surprisingly, right then and there i made it a personal priority to go as soon as I possibly could… in the end, thankfully a bit wiser, it took 4 years… and even then, it was jason who secured the reservations by some extraordinary stroke of fortune…
the french laundry is in a small, very humble-and-easy-to-miss 2-storey building in the now foodie capital of yountville, napa valley.
in an excellent book by michael ruhlman, “the soul of a chef”, I learned that it was once a brothel like the ones you see in old western movies but that it did house a steam laundry maintained by french people. in 1976, the building which had been vacant for years was purchased by a couple who decided to turn it into a restaurant and keep its nickname “the french laundry” and in 1992, thomas keller, unemployed and cash-strapped, found out it was for sale. he was able to convince the owners to keep it for him until he was able to secure the funds and turn it into his dream restaurant. ruhlman devotes 1/3 of the book on thomas keller and his philosophy and it was well worth the read before going.
the french laundry is, unfortunately, for many people a thick mark on a list of things they want to do before they die. thankfully for others though, it is the ultimate temple of food pilgrimage where food is elevated to a god-like status. the whole dining experience is focused on the food, giving it full priority and deference. in fact, keller’s philosophy is all about purity of and respect for the food. nothing goes to waste and each ingredients are used to their pure and absolute maximum effect on combination and flavours all the while obsessively striving for perfection in order to, ultimately, make people happy. simple enough?
two chef’s tasting menus were on offer: the meat menu and the vegetable menu. of course, foodie as I now am, I had to have the fois gras (yes mom, foie gras..) and the pigeon. and the lamb. and the oysters… for the wine, I let the somelier decide on pairings to each of my courses.
here is our menu – my mouth is watering as a write this:
oyster and pearls (a classic) - sabayon of pearl tapioca with island creek oysters and white surgeon caviar paired with 2001 scramsberg vineyards, j. schram, napa valley
moulard duck foie gras au torchon – belgian endive, green grapes, toasted oats and mustard-verjus emulsion paired with 2005 becker gewürztraminer estate auslese, pfalz
cuisses de grenouilles croquantes à l’aigre-doux – cauliflower fleurettes, crispy capers, red chili, cilantro shoots and marcona almonds paired with 2004 toni jost riesling bacharacher hahn, mittelrhein
sweet butter-poached maine lobster mitts – yukon gold potato purée, sugar snap peas, baby corn and black truffle sauce paired with 2004 patrick javillier les tillets meursault burgundy
scottish wood pigeon rôti en cocotte – k&j orchard chestnut purée, sunchokes, watercress and pomegranate jus paired with 2000 auguste clape cornas, rhône valley
ribeye of elysian fields farm lamb en persillade – petit salé, cassoulet of jacobsen’s farm beans, garlic chips and sauce d’agneau paired with 1998 azelia bricco fiasco barolo, piedmont
tomme brulée – fennel bulb, sweet peppers, niçoise olives and arugula paired with 2004 martinelli zinfandel jackass vineyard russian river valley, california
diane st-claire buttermilk sherbet – pain perdu and huckleberries
domori sambriano chocolate mille-feuille – tahini ganache, sesame seed cake and shiso sorbet paired with 1968 d’oliveira bual madeira, portugal
an amazing food and wine experience. supplemented by a superlative service and attention to details…
in fact, I had a buzz the whole night not unlike the buzz I get each time i see a cirque du soleil representation. in those, acrobatics, colors, and sounds defies my imagination and awes me that the human body can achieve such feats. at the french laundy, every bites, every sips awed me that human beings can create, from ingredients provided by mother nature, such sensations, such pleasure, and such feeling of well being.