Californian Restaurant in Yountville, United States: The French Laundry

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Review
 
The French Laundry HeartHeartHeart
Restaurants and bars
Yountville
Open: Lunch Sat-Sun, dinner Wed-Sun
Price: Expensive
Score (/20): 17.5

Reviewed By

Sue Dyson and Roger McShane
Phone Number: +1 707 944 2380
Address: 6640 Washington Street
Yountville, California, 94599
Country: United States
Food Style: Californian

It is easy to drive past The French Laundry and not notice it - we did twice! However, once we realised that this unremarkable corner building was the one we were looking for and saw the small sign at the front, things rapidly changed.
You approach the restaurant via a charming garden and see the line of chefs through the kitchen windows calmly, yet purposefully preparing the day's menu. Past the pile of pumpkins and through the doors to be greeted and shown into the stylish dining room (either upstairs or downstairs). The tables are covered by good linen, the cutlery is Ercuis from France and the vast array of crockery is Limoges. The chairs are large and very comfortable.
The restaurant is located at Yountville just north of Napa and about a one and a half hour drive north of San Francisco. Because we were driving we had to exercise restraint in our drinking. A great pity, because the wine list here is very serious with an excellent selection of Bordeaux and wines from Burgundy. The selection from California is also good but not as impressive as other places we have visited in San Francisco.
We decided to start with mineral water and were delighted to see a familiar blue bottle heading our way. The Ty Nant from Wales is one of the best sparkling waters you can find, and on this warm autumn day it was perfect.
The structure of the menu was explained by our very knowledgeable waiter. There are three menus. One is the chef's tasting menu, one is a vegetarian menu and the other is a fixed price menu where you choose from each of five 'brackets' of dishes progressing from appetiser to fish to meat to cheese and then dessert.
We decided to opt for the five brackets because we wanted some control over the choice. Having said that, the tasting menu was a well-balanced progression of dishes that also appealed to us.
Soon after being seated the first of two 'surprise' dishes appeared. A small cornmeal cone (looking just like a miniature ice cream cone) filled with a light red onion cream and topped with finely chopped salmon tartare was a perfect marriage of flavour (from the salmon), texture (the crunchy cone) and balance (the harmony between the salmon and the cream).
The next complimentary dish came in a small, round but quite shallow plate. In it was a single pike quenelle surrounded by lobster cream. We often find that sauces based on lobster are highly-overextracted and too strong for delicate flavours such as sea fish. This cream however was quite delicate. The quenelle was almost ethereal in its lightness, but flavour hadn't been sacrificed. The dish had been placed under a grill to give a golden hue to the cream. A lovely, lovely dish.
By this time we were drinking a Chassagne-Montrachet La Romanee 1st cru by Michel Morey-Coffinet as it was available by the half bottle. This dry, flinty wine was the perfect accompaniment to the seafood.
Our dishes from the first bracket arrived. The risotto was made from carnaroli rice that has been cooked so that there was still some crunch in the very centre of the grain. A whole white truffle from Alba was brought to the table and a generous portion sliced over the rice. A little burnt butter was also poured. This was very nostalgic as it had been a year, almost to the day, since we had eaten white truffles at Ristorante del Cambio in Turin just south of Alba. This was the richest dish on the menu but a memorable one.
We had read so many reviews of the 'Tongue in Cheek' that we felt compelled to order it. A gravity-defying thin cylinder appeared. The braised beef cheek and veal tongue were topped by baby leeks, a frisee and baby beet leaf salad and horseradish cream. Small pieces of dried horseradish were scattered on the plate. This was a satisfying and unctuous dish that was surprisingly light.
The next two dishes were from the fish bracket. We had been reading the fascinating history of cod, so thought it would be thematic to order the cod on cod cake with razor clams. The perfectly cooked disk of cod was served on a stunning cod cake made from salted cod - in the style of a brandade. This sat in vivid green pools of parsley-infused extra virgin olive oil.
The other dish saw a mound of artichoke barigoule sitting on another vivid green sauce, this time of aragula oil. Sitting on top was a chock of crisped spotted skate wing. The artichokes provided additional texture as a counterpoint to the softness of the skate.
We now moved to a Mt Harlan Pinot Noir from the Calera Selleck Vineyard to accompany our meat and cheese dishes.
Veal sweetbreads arrived sitting on roasted cauliflower pieces. Disks of chestnuts covered the veal and a small mound of truffle matchsticks were given pride of place on top of the stack. A very rich, unctuous jus accompanied the dish. A pleasant dish but probably the one that was the least exciting despite our love of ris de veau.
The other meat dish was quite funny. A loin of rabbit had been wrapped in smoked bacon to provide a flavour contrast. This worked very well. A blade of braised fennel was perfectly cooked. Dotted on the plate were small pieces of parsley and tiny dice of very flavourful tomato. But the item that made us laugh was the smallest crown roast of rabbit you could ever imagine. We took great delight in cutting these delicate, tiny ribs and eating the tender flesh.
The cheese course here breaks the mould. Instead of a selection of cheese accompanied by grapes or figs or bread or biscuits, here each cheese has a dish of its own devoted to it. And the pairings are quite complex, showing off the quality of the cheeses to perfection. The chabichou was mounted on slow baked beets, one of our favourite flavours. The two flavours combined beautifully. For the stronger Roquefort the choice was rosemary poached fruits - once again an inspired choice.
For dessert, a conical-shaped bowl held a variant of Poire Belle Helene. A warm chocolate pudding rested in the base of the cone. Sitting on top was a crisp biscuit separating the chocolate from a vivid white pear sorbet. A vertical slice of almost translucent pear had been caramelised until crisp. A complex and wonderful dessert.
The other dessert saw a thick slice of new season apple sitting on a complex crème de farine made from farina that had been gently fried to form a cake.
Excellent coffee and petit fours (mignardise) finished a perfect meal.
How would we place The French Laundry on a world scale? The meal was very, very impressive. The pace of the meal and the quality of service set it apart. Some of the individual dishes we have tried at Chez Panisse have been more memorable. A meal at Alain Ducasse in Paris was more memorable for its technical virtuosity. But this was stunning. Probably the closest restaurant we can think of in terms of concept and dining style is Tetsuyas in Sydney. We have scored them both the same. The French Laundry is in good company.
 
     
   
     


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