Updated: May 22, 2020
The French Laundry is on most foodies’ A-list of destinations, Rich had managed to get us a reservation for Sunday lunch, and we worked up to the event by having a vertical tasting of Paraduxx at their Napa Valley vineyard (Paraduxx is part of the Duckhorn group).
While we were there, Rich changed into his slacks and jacket, as the dress code is strict at the French Laundry, even for lunch on a summer’s day. But only for men, as Tish was able to wear a singlet, skirt and designer flip-flops; and, at the table next to us, a young lass was clothed (and I use the term loosely) in a few shreds of red crochet over a body stocking.
The restaurant is small, with low-beamed ceilings and shuttered windows. The interior has been limed and skylights have been installed to ameliorate its laundry heritage.
We were shown to our table, given our menus and a glass of water swiftly arrived along with the promise “Would you care for an aperitif? I’ll be back in a moment”. Fifteen minutes later, Tish and I ordered a glass each of Napa sparkling wine (at $18 a very small glass), and Rich a glass of Fruili (he was designated driver). By this time, we’d had the opportunity to digest the menu, which consisted of two choices – the Chef’s menu, or the Vegetarian menu. Both nine courses. Both $210. Foie gras – supplement $30.
Now degustation menus have their place, but as the only option, it’s not my preference, especially at lunch. No a la carte, no smaller menus. By this stage I’ve decided that the joint is aptly named and that we’re going to be taken to the cleaners, so we may as well enjoy it.
Tish is vegetarian, but doesn’t like truffles, so I reckon that theoretically would have halved the cost of her lunch, but it was still going to be $210. When she mentioned this, our server gently suggested that the chef was so extraordinary, ‘most’ (the inference being ‘anyone with any culinary sense’) people find they enjoy things they previously didn’t like. At the same time, I overheard a server carefully chiding a patron at the next table that they hadn’t eaten their egg the right way.
The service, once it started, was excellent. The first thing to arrive was a small bowl containing three miniscule gougere. As an amuse bouche it was completely inadequate – one teeny puff of cheese waft.
This was followed by the signature cornets of smoked salmon with red onion and sour cream (red bell pepper puree for Tish). Fine.
On to the main event:
a cauliflower panna cotta with beluga caviar. Very pleasant.
Hearts of Palm salad with madras curry vinaigrette – ditto
Sashimi of Kahala with radish and pressed pineapple - ditto
the ridiculously named, poorly textured, blandly cloying and not worth the trouble of picking up the fork ‘Peas and Carrots’ (actually a lobster crepe with said vegie overtones)
jambonette of rabbit – stunning
rare loin and slow cooked ribs of baby lamb with baby purple artichokes and chanterelles – the lamb and artichokes were an excellent match, the chanterelles dived the dish into the ‘too rich by far- let my palate out of here’ range.
Cheese course: Cobb salad – Mr Keller has a penchant for the false snobbery of taking a complex/expensive dishes and giving it a proletarian appellation (see ‘peas and carrots’ above) . The salad was a lovely composite of avodaco, blue cheese, tomatoes, baby lettuce, but there the similarity to Cobb Salad ended.
Nectarine & raspberry sorbet
Chocolate ganache pie with mint.
And to imbibe, we’d consumed 1/2 bottle of Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc and one glass of Sangiovese between we three.
Whilst our server (Kevin) was wonderful, a consummate professional who has been at the restaurant since it opened, there were obvious service errors by the junior wait-staff. Rich’s and my fish choices were placed the wrong way around (I suppose two out of three ain’t bad, except when one’s a vegetarian). More importantly, instead of our rabbit dish, we were presented with the bisected pigeon (supplement) ordered by a table for two within eye-shot. When I pointed out the error, the plates were whisked away without apology. Kev came by to hose down the situation, whereupon I said jovially, “no problem, you’re doing a wonderful job of baby-sitting this afternoon” his response was polite but chilly.
So, in summary, the French Laundry gets a B+ rating. It was a lovely lunch, but under-delivered for the price. The fundamental problem (in my opinion) is that Thomas Keller started a restaurant in a wonderful part of the country, which developed into one that was perfect for its time and place. He then strove for the superlative of ‘best in the world’, irrespective of the fact that this is a restaurant and kitchen with a physically limited site. From where I was sitting, it seemed that the number of servers struggled with the limited access and egress through the passage linking the kitchen to the dining rooms (including the narrow stairway to the upstairs area), I only found one restroom per gender serving the entire restaurant, and parking was non-existent. Oh, and we had to wait five minutes while they found my jacket when we were leaving.
It’s as if the restaurant has been put on steroids but the skin hasn’t expanded to cope with the ambition.
Total cost: US$780/A$1125. June 2006