Posted 07 January 2003 - 10:36 AM
There has been a lot of discussion about Thomas Keller losing his edge and that the French Laundry is not as good as it was in the past.
We just returned from the Napa Valley where we enjoyed 2 meals at the French Laundry. I can, without reservation, say that Thomas Keller is delivering wonderful, exceptional meals. What distinguishes a French Laundry meal is the way Keller and his team use only the highest quality ingredients, some unique. Preparation is consistently perfect. I rarely see mistakes, bobbles or errors in Keller's cuisine that I find quite frequently in the cuisine of other chefs in the U.S. Keller is one of a few American based chefs that I find consistently excellent--every course, every meal. This is based on dining at The French Laundry between 7 to 10 times a year for the past 4 years.
I did notice that Thomas prefers to serve his food tepid, not hot. This may be off-putting to some, but, for me, I find that I can "taste" the flavors much more intensely at this temperature. It is the same as when you are served a white burgundy that is so cold that the flavor disappears.
Our first meal was on December 29. Please note, as frequent guests we are treated to a "tasting" that might not be offered to other diners. We sometimes receive two different preparations of a dish for one course. We chose to each consume 50% of each dish by passing the dishes in the middle of the course. This is not required, but we enjoy having double the number of taste experiences.
1. Cornets of Atlantic Salmon Tartar with red onion creme fraiche (This is always the first taste.)
Butternut Squash with 3 small round grilled shitake mushrooms and a red pepper tapenade
Puree of chestnuts with whole glazed chestnuts - this was rich, intense and just perfect
a. Signature Dish of Oysters and Pearls - "Sabayon" of pearl tapioca with Malpeque oysters and osetra caviar
b. Another signature dish of cauliflower panna cotta topped with osetra caviar
Thomas is now using American osetra from Sacramento Valley (Tsar Nicholas) as the Russian caviar has been so inconsistent in quality. Keller will not, as a matter of principle, purchase Iranian Caviar. The French Laundry purchases 5 kilos of caviar a week!
4. Smoked Salmon sliced into long, thin strips presented on celery gelee (named celery Victor) with daikon. This dish had a palate cleansing feel to it.
5. Eggs - two more signature dishes
a. White truffle custard with ragout of Perigord truffles with veal stock presented in a hallowed out egg
b. Coddled hen egg with perigord truffle beurre noisette
6. - Hearts of Palm
a. Hearts of Palm cut to resemble linguine with sherry mignonette and shaved black truffles
b. Hearts of Palm cut to resemble a tartar with black truffle coulis
These 2 dishes sound like they won't work, but they did. Again, the subtle blending of flavors, the unexpected addition of luxurious black truffles to the simple hearts of palm was "one heck of a salad."
a. House made tagliatelle with black truffles
b Carnaroli risotto with black truffles
In both dishes, our server kept shaving the black truffle until we stopped him. I kept thinking, "There goes the profit."
The pasta course was straight-forward so that the flavor of the black truffle was dominant. The tagliatelle was just perfect. Sorry, for the over-use of the word perfect.
At this point, we took a much needed break and walked outside to the garden. From the garden, you can see into the kitchen; it is like watching a ballet - no hectic scrambling, just a controlled, intensely concentrated effort to produce the best by an "army" of cooks.
Shank of Cod with cocoa beans ragout with another very, very generous shaving of black truffles, done tableside. I never thought I would say this, but I was beginning to get over truffled.
Lobster fricassee with globe artichokes, roma tomatoes in a spicy lobster broth. Tableside our server added a few drops of Permefiglia olive oil to the dish. This was a sensational dish - perfectly tender cooked lobster in a light, full-flavored, well-balanced broth. Normally, having lobster at this point in a meal puts me over the top, but this was so delicate and light that I didn't have that stuffed feeling at all.
10. Foie Gras
Whole roasted Moulard duck foie gras with spiced bread crumbs, slices of Bosc pears and clove gastric. The bread crumb added the crunch to the dish and the clove gastric was a masterful seasoning.
We were getting full and asked our server what Thomas had in mind for the next courses. He was going to do 2 meat courses, but we decided to pare it down to one.
Elysian Farms Lamb with salsify, morels, chanterelles and dusted with mushroom powder.
A quenelle of Vacheron with prune confit. Our server formed the Vacheron quenelle table side, mentioning that he had practiced making the perfect quenelle by forming quenelles at home with peanut butter.
A note on FL personnel. They are committed professionals. Servers, expediters, runners, management staff are all excellent. They are not stuffy or pretentious. Over the years we have seen the few snooty ones, or the ones who are less than customer centered go their way. It took 30+ interviews to find sommelier Bobby Stuckey. He is leaving soon to do his own thing. You can be sure his replacement will be one of the outstanding wine people in the U.S., who also has "floor presence" and real skill with customers. At The French Laundry they are very conscious of the client and his or her feelings about every part of the food and wine experience.
We decided to forego the multi-course grand dessert presentation and just had chocolate truffles.
Laurent Perrier Grand Siecle - NV
Keith Fergel, the Asst. Sommelier pointed out that this is something fairly new from Laurent Perrier. They figure that a NV, Cuvee does well for Krug. It was excellent.
2000 Bourgogne Comte de Vogue
Fabulous. Comte de Vogue is known for his Reds. This was a real treat. Quite expensive for a "Bourgogne" $150, but worth it. There is a Musigny Blanc that is very, very expensive, but supposedly wonderful...perhaps?
78 L'Angelus St Emilion
We are normally Burgundy drinkers at The French Laundry, but Keith suggested this wonderful St. Emilion. It was slightly aged, with deep flavor and a beautiful finish.
Service was exceptional. This was a perfect meal from beginning to end.
In an earlier thread, someone had asked if children were welcome at French Laundry. On this first night, a four year old was sitting at the round table in the middle of the room. Both my husband and I were not exactly thrilled to see a 4 year old at 8:00 pm at the French Laundry. Let me say, the staff was wonderful to him. He sat for 4 hours, ate with gusto, was well-behaved and a remarkable child. When his Dad asked him what were his favorite dishes, at the end of the meal - his answer - ice cream, caviar, lamb.
We know that New Years Eve is amateur night, but figured that French Laundry would be able to handle it. The staff again was superb, but I can't say the same for the customers. I wish the four year old had come back for a second dinner. One couple, in particular, was memorable: she was in blue jeans and he spent a great deal of time talking on his cell phone. Another disgusting customer faux pas - 2 no shows - one table of 4 and one table of 6. Let me add that the French Laundry did not take money in advance or a credit card guarantee - the no shows represented no revenue.
New Years Eve
1. Salmon Cornet
3. Custard infused with applewood smoked bacon and chives topped with a quenelle of osetra caviar
4. White truffle custard with ragout of Perigord truffles with veal stock presented in a hallowed out egg.
5. Grilled globe artichoke salad, oven roasted roma tomato, nicoise olives, Jacobsen's Fram crosnes and a Bagna Cauda sauce. The crosnes look like white caterpillars or rattlesnake tails that are crunchy in taste, something like jicama.
Russet potato gnocchi, roasted chestnuts, white truffle butter and shaved white truffles from Alba. Again, our server kept shaving and shaving and shaving! The gnocchi were as light as a soufflé and the chestnuts added perfect texture plus wonderful flavor.
Risotto with white truffles and white truffle butter
7. Salt crusted dourade with mounted baby leeks with a red wine sauce.
8. Pan roasted Maine sea scallop with matsutake mushrooms, celery root puree and matsutake mushroom emulsion
My husband doesn't like scallops and Thomas made a salmon dish for him.
9. "Blanquette" of Monkfish tail, walla walla shallot marmelade and shaved white truffles from Alba.
10. "Canard a L'Orange" Whole roasted moulard duck foie gras with orange braised duck leg and confit of navel orange. The foie gras looked liked a petit filet, about 2 x 2 x 2 and was cooked with a slight crunch on the outside, but moist and rare inside.
11. "Beef x 2"
Grilled "Calotte" and poached rib-eye of prime beef, "tortelloni" of roasted root vegetables and oxtail consomme
12. A quenelle of Vacheron with black currant bread pudding and garden greens. The pudding was a postage stamp layer of 3-4 pieces of bread less than 1/8" thick studded with the black currants.
13. Meyer lemon sorbet with persimmon pudding muffin.
14. A rich, decadent chocolate dessert - "Velours de Chocolat et Noisette"
1995 Billecarte Salmon Cuvee Elisabeth
This was one of two pours included in the $ 275 dinner price fixe menu. The other was Dom Perignon '95. The Billecarte is a real favorite--beautiful blush color, fine bubbles and a crisp bite to the taste.
1996 Chassagne Montrachet, Les Champgaines 1er Cru, Michel Niellon
A little bit of age on this very well made Chassagne. Smooth, light on the palate, beautiful clean finish--what chardonnay grapes should taste like.
1995 Cote Rotie, Jasmin (the last vintage the Dad made before he died)
A very Burgundian style. Bobby recommended it as an alternative to our Burgundy preferences to go with the meat course. It was superbly clean wine with a beautiful fresh nose and full body.