The French Laundry (Yountville)

I first heard about the renowned French Laundry (“TFL”) 6 years ago when my husband (then boyfriend) and I were visiting Napa Valley. Food loving co-workers encouraged me to eat at the restaurant, but the US$250 per person price tag seemed astronomical. After returning home and learning more about TFL and its founder and Chef, Thomas Keller, regret sank in and I vowed to experience the restaurant during my next return.

Set in a converted French steam laundry facility in Yountville, the venue is now a picturesque two storied cottage with plenty of greenery providing privacy at the entrance. Strolling through the pathway you arrive at a small patio area: to the right, a window offering a glimpse of their spotless kitchen and to the left, a blue door that leads you to the delights to come.

Even though the Chef’s tasting menu only lists 8-courses (US$295 inclusive of service but before taxes), there was easily 8 dishes within the “assortment of desserts” alone; arrive hungry and ready for a glutinous affair.

Your first taste of the French Laundry’s craft is with a gruyère gougères, a warm cheese puff filled with a rich gruyère laced béchamel cream. A dreamy intoxicating bite that was later matched by a shiny bun, which was a cross between a buttery brioche and French stick; both satisfying the carb monster in me.

A signature amuse of salmon cornets arrived thereafter, a savoury cone filled with red onion crème fraîche and topped with a “scoop” of micro finely diced raw salmon. The thin crisp cone was buttery, melding with the luscious cream.

As with all menus, the oysters and pearls (in this case, tapioca pearls) was featured – a enduring dish that combines a velvety sabayon pearl tapioca, two cool Island Creek oysters and briny white sturgeon caviar. It’s fantastic with the exception of a lone oyster that left an unpleasant after taste, which may be a factor of the type used, as my friends each also found one with a fishy tang.

The Hawaiian hearts of peach palm salad was a daring and distinct dish combining braised fennel, crisp rings of peach palm and sweet spheres of white wine poached Fuji apples. Unlike the other dishes, which rely heavily of cream and butter based sauces, the salad had an acidness that I’d later crave in the meal. I would have liked the sweetness toned down a touch and there was a taste of Chinese preserved plums (chan pui ying che, generally found in white and blue wrappers) whose origin I couldn’t pinpoint.

A glistening sauteed fillet of Pacific yellowtail starts the round of mains. With a wonderful well seasoned golden crust, the fish was good, but for me it was the crisp garden radish on the side that stole the show; that small perfectly trimmed root vegetable was the best I’ve had.

Sadly, we could only secure a 9pm reservation, so by the time we arrived it was too dark to walk amongst TFL’s gardens, where the restaurant grows a lot of their produce. What once started as a small herb garden managed by the restaurant’s chefs, has grown into a three-acre affair with a dedicated gardener. After having the radish, I was simply craving a dish of raw vegetables – perhaps a good idea for a palette cleanser?

Alas, it was Pacific abalone that arrived instead – I know what you’re thinking… first world problems. Abalone, being a relatively neutral tasting sea creature, requires quite a bit of flavour; aside from the barigoule emulsion there wasn’t much taste to the protein itself. Prepared using the fricassee method, I learnt it’s essentially a French stew that sautes then braises the ingredient, finishing it off within a white sauce.

Assuming the abalone was fresh (and not the dried rehydrated version), it was tougher than expected, adding a chewiness to the seafood. At the bottom sat a spinach ravioli stuffed with what I thought was a pork and fish filling but was actually an oyster. My stuffed pasta was delicious, but my friends found grits of sand in theirs.

The rabbit wrapped in bacon was soft to the consistency of a medium-done pork tenderloin. Surprised by how meaty the rabbit was, it was through the purveyor’s booklet (more about this later) that I learnt it was raised at Devil’s Gulch Ranch and is a cross breed between three stocks to make a larger and  more flavourful animal.

Following the creamy white sauce used with the abalone, the cabbage cream pairing the rabbit felt too similar. Additionally, after two hours of eating, I was also starting to feel extremely full so the thick toasted grain porridge was simply too heavy. By now, my taste buds were craving something acidic and non-creamy. 

Luckily, the “chateaubriand” was paired with a red wine shallot jus providing me with that hint of tart sweetness I was yearning. Yet, the tender veal was, once again, reminiscent of the rabbit before. Generally, with tasting menus, I love how dishes can be so different. As each course progresses, you’re waiting for transformation of flavours that bring your taste buds on their next journey.

At TFL, after the initial progression over the amuse bouches and first three courses, the following tender proteins with rich sauces started blending together. Certainly, all the dishes were each delicious but combined together didn’t elevate the experience into one you’d expect from a three Michelin-starred establishment.  

If you’re a fan of rich smooth consistencies, TFL is for you. Even their cheese course, a velvety blue topped with a fruity gelee, was creamy. If you enjoy stronger cheeses, it was a good transition course: the sweetness of the persimmons slowly getting the palette ready for the plethora of desserts to come.

Firstly, a trio of dishes including chocolate cup filled with silky mousse and crunchy cookie bits. A tad rich for me but I did enjoy the whimsical fruity chip on the side.

The sponge cake soaked in raspberry coulis and topped with sorbet was wonderfully cool and refreshing. The bits of basil (?) oil wasn’t very pronounced but gave the dessert another dimension.

Yet, it was the brown butter ice cream that won me over with crunchy fried bits of fennel (?) adding textural contrast (finally) against the milky dessert.

Thomas Keller’s signature coffee and doughnuts didn’t disappoint. The cinnamon-sugar dusted beignets were hot from the fryer, airy and just slightly sweet. The “coffee” was actually a cappuccino semi-freddo, a silky pudding with the bitterness of coffee and a heavenly aroma, exactly what I needed to end the meal.

But then, things just kept coming. From a breath taking tray of glossy chocolate truffles, where you can pick to your heart’s content. Imagine being able to offer these as a Christmas present!

I settled for pistachio, passion fruit green tea and the smores (one that our server noted we had to try). Having a small bite of each, the pistachio and passion fruit green tea tasted exactly as described with a rich essence. It was the smores one I had to finish. So scrumptious with fluffy marshmallow and buttery graham cracker crumbs within the chocolate itself.

There were also blackberry and vanilla macaroons and the most delicious cocoa dusted macadamia nuts. If only I could have taken those nuts with me; a crisp large macadamia encapsulated in a crispy shell and unsweetened cocoa powder was a dessert and snack in one.

Of course, TFL didn’t leave us empty handed while departing; we each received a tin of sugar butter cookies, which I enjoyed later at the airport and at home over the following week.

In an interview, with whom I can’t remember, Thomas Keller once proclaimed he wants the French Laundry to be known without him. After all, it’s a whole team of people working together that makes these dishes possible. Indeed, since Keller splits his time between his other restaurants, David Breeden, Chef de Cuisine at TFL has to continue the tradition of the signature dishes.

Keller also recognizes that a delicious meal goes beyond their restaurant: the ingredients used in the dishes are paramount to its success. Therefore, all their suppliers, or as TFL calls them “purveyors”, are just as important. Included with the typical take home menu, there was an entire booklet with a page on each purveyor: providing a description, back story or account of how they came to be TFL’s partner.

Many ask whether the meal was worth it – not only in terms of price but also the effort to secure a reservation. After all, one doesn’t simply call up and leave a name: you need to plan for when reservations are available (two months in advance of the calendar date).

Your first chance is at midnight PST when three tables appear online through Open Table (alas, despite my friend and I both trying were disappointed). Afterwards, you can try again at 10am PST by calling, which means re-dialing for 10 minutes and upon connecting waiting another half an hour until you speak to someone. Even then, prepare to be disappointed or eat (like us) at 9pm.  

Although the food was good and the service impeccable – not only attentive but also friendly (we chatted with our waitress about the delicious Vermont butter served with the bread that has a hint of cheese in it) – the meal was simply satisfactory.

I’ve heard so much about the restaurant including it being a 5-hour affair where each dish is inventive and heavenly. Where was the restaurant that made Anthony Bourdain proclaim it was the best meal he’s ever eaten?

Perhaps I missed my chance to experience the magic that happens when Thomas Keller is actually in the kitchen. More likely, it’s because the industry has upped their game, creating distinct menus that are a feast for all the senses (certainly French Laundry alumni Grant Achatz is doing just this at Alinea). Nonetheless, it was still a delicious meal and could be particularly appealing to unadventurous eaters. And thankfully, this time I didn’t leave Napa Valley with regret. 

Overall mark - 7 out of 10

How To Find Them
 Location: Yountville, USA
 Address: 6640 Washington Street

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Gastro World's Grading System

  • Anything under 5 - I really disliked and will never go back
  • 6 - decent restaurant but I likely won't return
  • 7 - decent restaurant and I will likely return
  • 8 - great restaurant that I'd be happy to recommend
  • 9 - fantastic restaurant that I would love to visit regularly and highly recommend
  • 10 - absolute perfection!

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