Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Restaurant Review: French Laundry

"What we want you to experience is that sense of surprise when you taste something so new, so exciting, so comforting, so delicious, you think, "Wow"- and then it's gone. We want the peak of sensation on the palate to be all that you feel. So we serve a series of small courses meant to excite your mind, satisfy your appetite and pique your curiosity. We want you to say, "I wish I had just one more bite of that." And then the next plate arrives and the same thing happens, but in a different way, a whole new flavor and feel and emotion."

- From the French Laundry website


Never did I think I'd have the privilege of dining at the French Laundry at this point in my life. To be honest, when I reminisce on our experience there, I feel like I'm dreaming, like it couldn't actually have happened.

First, if you're interested in getting a reservation at TFL, click HERE for our story.

Well, now that that's out of the way, let's get to the food!

From reading reviews and talking to others who've been, I gathered that the TFL tasting menu doesn't change all that much. Individual components probably change with the seasons or their whims, but their specialties remain pretty constant. In fact, I read a review from 2008 that included pictures of their dishes...and they looked almost identical to photos I saw from someone who went in July of this year! Our proteins were a little different, though, so there's obviously some variety in there somewhere.

Also, though technically a nine course meal, FL throws in a few extra items here and there. The food is tiny, but there are so many courses and little add ins over such a long period of time (3+ hours!) that you still get full.

Course 0 (not on menu): Amuse Bouche

According to our waitress, FL has served the same amuses for 10(?) years. They're tried and true favorites. On the far right is a little pastry filled with cheese. I want to say it's Gruyere. Simple, but definitely yummy. On the far left was a cute little salmon tartare "ice cream cone." This was a huge win in my book. I don't normally like raw salmon, but this was so good! The cone was very delicate and crisp and filled with an onion creme fraiche (if I remember correctly). The combination was delicious.

The center photo is the first piece of bread we were served. I don't remember what kind of bread it was, but it was more of a fluffy, chewy bread than it looks like it would be. When I saw it, I thought it would be flaky. It's not. It was served with two different kinds of butter, but I only photographed one because I made a terrible assumption that I'll address later. The butter shown was a salted butter from Vermont. I thought I'd be all about the salted butter. Turns out I wasn't, so much. Don't get me wrong, it was good butter--it reminded me a lot of an Australian butter my parents used to love called Queensland. I just liked the other butter a lot better.

Course 1: Caviar
Oysters and Pearls --
"sabayon" of pearl tapioca with Island Creek oysters and white sturgeon caviar

For the caviar course we both chose the Oysters and Pearls--another FL signature dish. There's a reason this thing never leaves the menu. Normally I'm not a huge fan of caviar (I find it salty and fishy), but the combination of flavors in this dish was just right. The oysters were slightly briney and paired so nicely with the light, smooth cream and the caviar acting as the "salt" of the dish. There was a definite hint of ocean in the caviar, but it wasn't overly fishy, if you know what I mean. I was truly sad when I finished this because there was no more for me to savor.

Course 2: (Aldwin)
Moulard Duck Foie Gras en Terrine --
French Laundry Garden strawberries, cucumber, young coconut, and basil.
Served with toasted brioche and three different salts (gray was some French salt; tall vessel was Jurassic (as in actually old) salt from some mountains; short vessel was deep sea salt from the Philippines! we had a laugh hearing all the wait staff butcher "Pangasinan").

Aldwin opted to pay the extra for the foie gras course. According to him it was awesome and totally worth it--very creamy and surprisingly light while still offering that rich foie gras flavor. It doesn't look all that large, but it the world of foie gras, it's actually kind of a lot for one person to finish. Aldwin needed three servings of brioche to finish it all. His advice is,"don't spread it sparingly." :-) An interesting note about this course is that they believe the bread's temperature makes a huge difference, so they change out your bread whenever they think it's sat long enough to get cold. We watched as diners at surrounding tables had their bread changed before it was even touched! Aldwin, on the other hand, actually had to request his third toast. I guess he just ate way too fast for them to keep up.

I tried the brioche with some butter and wow...that was some great brioche. It was flaky and buttery and awesome. As for the salts, I was most excited to try the Jurassic salt. It had a very clean, salty flavor, and I feel like there was a hint of something smoky about it, but that may have been my imagination. The French salt was pretty darn salty. The Pangasinan salt was by far my favorite, and I wasn't even trying to play favorites with the whole Filipino thing. In fact, it was the last one I tried just because I expected more from the other two. The Philippine salt with very mild in flavor, which was much more to my liking.

Course 2: (Joy)
French Laundry Garden Tomato Salad --
fairytale eggplant, pickled green tomato relish, garden pickles and lemon verbena

For me this dish just proved that while Thomas Keller can do amazing things with food, he can't perform miracles--even TFL can't get me to like tomatoes. I know I could have requested something other than a tomato salad since I know I don't like tomatoes, but I wanted to give it a shot in case the flavors melded together into something I'd like. If I liked tomatoes, I think this would have been a wonderful dish. The tomatoes were really the star--very sweet and tomatoey (if you like that sort of thing). The lemon verbena foam added an interesting perfume and tang to the dish while the eggplant and cucumber added subtle, smooth flavor and a bit of clean, green bite. Don't worry, none of this actually went to waste. Aldwin ate the tomatoes. :-P

Course 3: Fish

Columbia River Sturgeon "Confit a la Minute" --
smoked sturgeon mousse, horseradish-braised romaine lettuce, "pommes maxim's" and red beet essence

I didn't hear a lot about this dish from Aldwin except that it was his least favorite because it was the most "normal" or ordinary. I had a small bite and thought that the fish was well cooked and the horseradish-braised lettuce was really well done--very subtle without the punch in the nose. I actually liked that bit a lot--cooked lettuce is one of those things that I quite enjoy but rarely come across, plus I like horseradish. I guess I can see his point a little in that you can find a well cooked fish with good garnish at many other places. The funny thing about that, though, is that if this were any other restaurant, this flavor and texture might have warranted a rave review, but this being a TFL course following some initial slam dunks, it wasn't a shining star.

"Carpaccio" of Atlantic Fluke --
fennel bulb, pine nuts, arugula and cherry-nicoise olive puree

I really liked this dish, but it didn't wow me. I've never had raw fluke before--it's a very clean tasting fish, and I thought the accompaniments were great and clean tasting as well. I particularly liked the arugula and fennel with it because the combination of smooth, creamy fish with the clean, green fennel crunch with the pepperiness of the arugula was really nice. The nutty hints from the little pine nuts was also a nice addition. The little pepper rounds I could probably have done without, just because the texture was similar to the fish, and it didn't stand out quite as much to me.

Overall it seems like the fish courses, while definitely good, were not standouts from that night.

Course 3.5: Bread...again

After the fish course a server came by with a basket of different breads and let us choose. On the top right is Aldwin's multigrain. I didn't try it, but he liked it. The bottom left was my sourdough, which I thought wasn't all that sour. In fact, I forgot that it was supposed to be sour while I was eating it. If you like your sourdough on the mild side, you'd like this. I'm more a fan of the punchy SF sourdough.

Course 4: Lobster
Sweet Butter-Poached Maine Lobster Tail --
garlic "pain perdu", Hobbs' bacon, nantes carrots, artichokes, parsley and barigoule emulsion

Alright, here's another confession--I'm not a huge fan of lobster. I mean, I'll eat it, but when given a choice I'd much rather order something like scallops or crab than lobster. I've never particularly enjoyed the flavor and texture of lobster, but I also always thought that it could be because I'd never had a "good" lobster. If butter poached lobster at TFL doesn't count as "good" lobster, I don't know what does. Verdict? I'm still not a huge fan of lobster. I will say that the texture of this lobster is the best I've ever had. It was firm, sweet and flavorful. It was good. It's just that the fact that I was making yummy noises for the artichoke and "pain perdu" but not the lobster confirmed for me that I don't play for Team Lobster. Aldwin loved this dish though. Loved it. He kept making happy noises and got really excited when I asked him if he would like some of mine since he obviously enjoyed it more than I did.

As a side note, you might notice that the garnish on the photo on the far left is different than that on the right. The dish normally comes with bacon (far left), but since I don't eat bacon they swapped that out for the tiniest little zucchini in the world. How cute is that thing? It was a very sweet zucchini, too. If you eat bacon, though, Aldwin said that that little morsel was the best bacon he's ever had.

Course 5: Duck
"Rouelle" of Liberty Farm Pekin Duck --
black mission fig, brentwood corn, spring onion, scallion "emincee" and "sauce perigourdine"

This was one of the big winners of the night. Duck? Gooood. Fig? Gooood. Truffle? GOOOOOD! (20 cool points to you if you got that reference) Seriously, though, there must be something about the duck breast, fig and truffle combination. I've already established that I'm a fan of those three together, but this interpretation beats out my previous duck-fig-truffle experience by a mile. The duck breast was wonderfully juicy and tender. The truffle in the mousse was a little subdued, but it paired really well with the deeply sweet fig. The corn was also a nice, sweet accompaniment and the little onion gave a hit of umami to pair with all that sweetness. My dish came plated with a thick, truffle sauce that also added a hit of saltiness to balance that sweet. Plus, who says no to extra truffle-ness? Aldwin's dish, on the other hand came with a much thinner sauce. We didn't notice until we were both finished and our plates looked different. From a little online digging, I think that the sauce originally paired with the dish was veal stock based. TFL may have switched mine since I told them I don't eat veal.

I want more of that duck.

Course 5.5: More bread

At this point a server came back with another round of bread. You can say "no" I'm sure; but I was curious about the pretzel bread the first time around, so I asked for a piece. Aldwin picked up a baguette that I didn't take a picture of. Baguette? Boring! Pretzel bread? Interesting!
I also took a shot of the bread next to my hand so that you could see how small these little loaves were. I thought I was all smart until I realized that you probably have no idea what size my hands are and therefore still have no scale to judge the bread by. The pretzel bread was about 3 inches long (now you know how small my hands are). The breads shown earlier were about 2-2.5 inches in diameter.

The real star in that collage up there is the butter shown on the left. Initialy I had written it off thinking that I would vastly prefer the salted butter. I was so wrong. This butter is made by Andante Dairy in Petaluma exclusively for TFL. If you click that link, you'll see that Andante is a one woman cheesemaking show. Yes, cheese, not butter. I used to think that if butter and cheese had a baby it would taste something like Cowgirl Creamery's Mt. Tam. Now I know that Mt Tam would be like a Weasley kid who you could totally tell was a Weasley because of the red hair alone, while the Andante butter was more like Harry Potter who looked exactly like his dad but with his mom's eyes. Does that make sense? The butter was creamy and smooth and delicately buttery with a definite undertone of cheese. I should have asked if I could buy some from them.

Course 6: Meat

Marcho Farm Nature-Fed Veal --
"ris de veau", tokyo turnips, celery banch and chanterelle mushrooms "a la Greque"

Do you see how juicy the meat on the top left is? Aldwin was a huge fan. He said that he's never had meat so tender and juicy. He didn't like the turnips; but he's also not sure he's ever had a turnip before, so I don't know if it's just that he doesn't like turnips or if these weren't cooked to his liking. He did say that the chanterelles were a great complement to the veal and that the flavors enhanced each other.

Lamb Rib Eye --
broccoli, roasted hazelnuts, blue foot mushrooms, and 100 year balsamic
(sorry, this was off menu, so the description is from memory and not as fancy)

Since I don't eat veal, they subbed my dish for an off-menu lamb rib eye. (If you don't eat any red meat, they also offered me a vegetarian pasta dish) The lamb was surprisingly tender and the perfect medium rare. The balsamic and candied hazelnuts provided an interesting flavor combination of smokey, sweet and nutty. I felt that the mushrooms, on the other hand, were completely overshadowed by the other ingredients, so I left those for last and ate them alone. It could just be that I'm so much of a mushroom fan that I wanted them to stand out a bit more. I've never had blue foot mushrooms before this, so they might just have a naturally subtle flavor. The broccoli didn't really add to the dish either, in my opinion. It was nicely cooked and an interesting texture contrast (maybe that was the point?) but flavor wise it didn't add or detract from the other elements. I know it almost sounds like I'm bashing this one, but really, this was another winner in my book. There were a couple components that I didn't quite understand, but overall the flavor combination was really wonderful.

Course 7: Cheese
royal blenheim apricot, cauliflower, wild ramps, marcona almonds and dijon mustard

Funny thing about this course. The lighting in the restaurant was dark and warm to the point that in the cheese course, I couldn't distinguish the cheese from the fruit since they're all similar tones. In fact, I thought that the little white nuggets on the edges were the cheese and that everything that was darker orange was fruit! Once I took a bite, though, the world all made sense again. This course was paired with yet more bread, this time a currant bread roll. I only had a couple small bites of the bread because I was getting full, but I thought it made a nice pairing with the cheese. The cheese was on the sharper side, so the slightly sweet bread was a good complement. My favorite accompaniment was surprisingly the dijon mustard. It had a sweet and fruity quality. Paired with the firm, sharp cheese--it was so nice.

Course 8: Palate Cleanser
"Sweet Tea" Sorbet
shiso, young ginger and meyer lemon

Sweet Tea sorbet? Shut the garage! (SYTYCD anyone?) Why is this not in every ice cream shop around? Genius, in my world. The little cracker thing was slightly salty and lightly crisp. I think it was supposed to add a flavor and texture contrast, but I ate it quickly because it was in the way of me getting to every last bit of that sorbet. The ginger-lemon gelee type stuff surrounding the sorbet was a perfect pairing with the sweet tea. The young ginger was really light and subtle. Ginger + tea = good. Ginger + citrus + sweet tea = mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm

Btw, that's a teaspoon in the bowl for scale. I wish it were a serving spoon.
Or one of those giant Filipino wooden spoons that you hang on the wall.

Course 9: Dessert

Carmelia Chocolate "Cremeux"
gros michel banana, georgia peanuts, "dentelle" and salted popcorn ice cream

This was really well done. After such a long meal, the last thing you want (or I want, at least. this was Aldwin's dessert) is something super rich for dessert. For a chocolate dessert, this was surprisingly light. The chocolate "mousse" was smooth and light and the chocolate bit on top was actually crisp and added a nice crunch. I was most excited for the salted popcorn ice cream--it was interesting! It was more like a salted caramel popcorn flavor than simply salted popcorn (buttered popcorn jelly belly anyone? mmm), and in the scope of this dish, I think it worked nicely. Would I want to order it from an ice cream shop? Although it sounds like something I'd love, I think that outside of this dish, the ice cream was a bit salty for me to want a whole bowl full.

"Peach Melba"
sicilian pistachio "pain de genes", andante dairy yogurt, "biscotti" and raspberry sorbet

The peach melba was mine, and I was a huge fan. It had the perfect level of sweetness for me and my bursting at the seams stomach. How gorgeous is that top peach layer? Amazingly meticulous work. The flavor and texture combination of the peaches with the yogurt and the pistachio crust was perfect--smooth and crunchy and creamy and sweet and mmmmmm. The raspberry sorbet was also a nice punch of cold tang, as well. Even though my stomach already felt like it as about to explode, I finished every last bit of that dessert.

Course 9.33: Coffee and Donuts

This is the TFL take on coffee and donuts--coffee semifreddo and sugared brioche donuts. Brioche donuts are everything I imagined they would be--warm, buttery, crunchy on the outside but soft on the inside. It seems Thomas Keller donuts and I get along a lot better than other celebrity chef donuts. Now that tasted like slightly sweetened coffee with a ton of cream turned into cold custard. Love. The texture was similar to a frozen custard but thicker and creamier. For me it felt like the cup was cold and the spoon was cold but when the cream hit my mouth, it wasn't cold. It could have been full-stomach induced hallucinations, though.

Did I mention I finished this, too? I was in pain on the ride home.

Course 9.66: Chocolate

I should start by saying that at this point I was so painfully full, I didn't eat any of these. The TFL staff was kind enough to box these up for us to take home, though, and we ate them the following day.

On the top left you'll see the chocolate covered toffee macadamia nuts. Super addicting. I think if I didn't assume these were expensive I would have eaten them all in one sitting. By myself.
The chocolates on the left from left to right--cherry, ginger, peanut butter and jelly.
On the right from left to right--meyer lemon, olive oil, hazelnut.

Overall these were good chocolates. By the texture of the shells I'm assuming there's a lot more chocolate than milk/cream in them--they were a little more solid to the tooth than say Godiva. The fillings were definitely the headliners to this show. I didn't try the cherry or the peanut butter and jelly (Aldwin popped those in his mouth without even asking if I wanted some), so I can't comment on those. I guess that's fine with me, though, because I really enjoyed the others. The ginger was really well done--light and not over powering. The meyer lemon was along the same lines--definitely lemon but light enough that you don't pucker your face or even get that slight sting in the back of your mouth. The olive oil was a little different than I expected. I'm a huge fan of fruity olive oil in desserts (I'm one of those that puts it on her ice cream). This wasn't a fruity olive oil, but rather a perfumey one--slightly savory and enjoyable in a different way. The hazelnut was like a Ferrero Roche on...something...that makes you better...but in a light and delicate way. I can't think of what that would be. Anyway, this was light and slightly crunchy with a delicate hazelnut flavor, not the kind that punches you in the face, but the kind that makes you go "mmmmm".


Clockwise from top left-- the check comes on a laundry tag, laundry symbols on the lamp shades (funny story, when I excitedly pointed out the lamp shades to Aldwin, he asked if it was a foreign language), they send you off with a copy of the menu tucked into the latest issue of Finesse magazine. Not pictured: they also send you home with a little package of shortbread cookies. These were good, but not anything amazing in comparison to everything else from here. They reminded me of a slightly butterier version of those Dutch shortbread cookies that come in the blue tins.

Overall I really enjoyed our experience at TFL. This was by far some of the best service we've ever received at a high end restaurant. Honestly, I think we get written off a lot of the time because we look younger than we are and often receive subpar service. This was definitely not the case at TFL. The staff, for the most part, was warm and friendly. For the sake of full disclosure I'll just say one of the ladies at the front of the house could have been more friendly. She came across as rude and snobbish compared to the other two who were there with her. Also the guy who put the foam on my salad treated me like I was an idiot when I said "ooo!" as he described the foam. I was just trying to be nice, jerk. The rest of the staff was wonderful, though. We were taken care of by Shannon, and she was awesome.

Was it worth the splurge? For us, I'd say yes. It was definitely an experience I enjoyed and will not soon forget. When I read through the quote at the top of this post I think, "Yes, that is exactly how it felt."

See TFL's website HERE and their yelp reviews HERE


MJ said...

Soooo happy for you two to enjoy this once in a lifetime amazing meal for your extremely special day! :)

- Ynna <3

Jeremy said...

For some reason, I usually find Kara's and my experience to be the opposite at expensive restaurants. Maybe they think I'm some dot-com/startup wunderkind or something (obv not the case)... hahaha. I usually try to project an air of "I've done this before" when I eat at places like that though, and they never treat me like I haven't. Good read! Glad you guys enjoyed, overall!

joy said...

@MJ Thank you!

@Jeremy I've tried both ways (the "oo! excited!" and the "ehh, whatev)) and in the end I decide that I shouldn't have to act a certain way in order to receive good service. They shouldn't have to think I'm rich in order for me to be treated well. It's always obvious when we're not getting the same service as the people around us. TFL definitely was not that way.