Nestled in the rolling golden hills of Napa Valley is one of the most famous and iconic restaurants in the world, The French Laundry. I had always heard here and there little bits and stories of their extraordinary service, menu, and Chef. The French Laundry was always at the top of my restaurant wish list, a list which Mark and I are always adding to and attempting to conquer.
The moment Mark told me we had Saturday birthday dinner reservations at The French Laundry, I nearly fell over. Partly because it was literally the day before my birthday and he had been keeping this secret reservation from me for nearly a month, but mostly because I couldn’t believe I was actually about to experience their culinary magic.
Making a whole weekend getaway out of the occasion, Mark and I traveled up to Napa Valley for what would turn into the trip of a lifetime. We arrived to the restaurant early to explore The French Laundry Culinary Garden, which was right across the street from the restaurant. The garden was perfectly manicured and blooming with fresh produce like carrots, lettuce, herbs, and heirloom tomatoes. They also have a chicken coop, bee hive, and giant greenhouse to explore.
Right before our reservation time, we left the garden and crossed the street to check out their restaurant front. The outside of the restaurant was covered in blooming white flowers, almost hiding the entire front of the building. We then walked down a corridor to the main entrance where you enter the restaurant through their famous blue door.
We were greeted by the Maitre d’ Host, who started speaking Russian to Mark (whose last name is Russian) and French to me (my maiden last name is French) while leading us to our table. I don’t speak French but luckily Mark is fluent in Russian and they chatted away! I was shocked the Maitre d’ knew so many languages. Although, I am sure he had even more languages up his sleeve just ready for the next guest to walk through their blue front door. After settling into our seats, we were ready for the nine course dinner of a lifetime!
Chef Thomas Keller’s Tasting Menu at The French Laundry
Our first French Laundry creation was a pre tasting amuse bouche, which is one of Chef Thomas Keller’s signature bites. We were presented with a cone filled with creme fraiche and topped with salmon tartare and a slice of chive. The cone was sweet and delicate and filled with cold and smooth creme fraiche. The salmon tartare top was an extra smooth texture with notes of citrus throughout. This playful spin on an ice cream cone was sweet, creamy … and I was sad this bite didn’t last for more than two seconds!
After devouring our amuse bouche, we began the Chef’s tasting menu with freshly poured J. Lassalle Brut Rosé in our hands, an open palate, and exploding excitement in the air. Let me walk you through the Tasting Menu’s nine courses of elevated flavors and perfected textures. Let’s start with the first course from our unforgettable evening at the French Laundry.
Royal Kaluga Caviar
Applewood Smoked Gulf Coast Cobia, Toasted Rye Melba, Ruby Beet Relish and Wild Sorrel
This dish was like a caviar cracker sandwich, packed with contrasting flavors and textures. The salty and creamy caviar was sandwiched between a hard rye melba cracker top and a soft creamy bottom. The caviar was smoked, which perfectly paired with its natural ocean flavor. The accompanying beet relish was sweet and acidic, which balanced out the salty and smokey caviar notes.
Hudson Valley Moulard Duck Foie Gras “Terrine”
Silverado Trail Strawberries, Creamed Cauliflower Puree, Toasted Macona Almonds and Black Winter Truffle Emilsion
Not only was this dish beautifully plated, it also came with six exotic salts. The dish of salts included red and back salt from Hawaii, Japanese white sea salt, pink copper salt from Montana, and gray and white salts from France. I had never seen this many exciting salts! We were encouraged to try each of the salts on top of a fluffy brioche bun. Don’t mind if I do! To accompany this course, we shared a half bottle of 2014 Puligny Montrachet, which was a great light wine to sip while enjoying our first few, less heavy courses.
Slow Cooked Fillet of Wild Scottish Sea Trout
Satsuma “Supremes,” Glazed Carrots, Nasturtium Leaves, and Sweet Carrot-Young Ginger Puree
This playful carrot dish had a variety of textures – silky trout, pureed carrot, shaved tender carrot slivers, and raw Nasturtium leaves. I couldn’t get over the perfect texture of the trout and how it dissolved on my palate!
Sweet Butter Poached Alaskan King Crab
Cornbread Stuffed Wild California Morel Mushrooms, Fava Beans “Pistou” and Wild Ramp “Mousseline”
When biting into this Alaskan King Crab, it literally exploded in my mouth it was so juicy! It was like the crab meat acted as a sponge to the buttery and broth poaching liquid – heaven! The fava beans were so tender and creamy with an accompanying bean puree that was almost meaty in flavor. If you look closely, you will see levitating in the white foam tiny shavings of wild ramp bulbs which had been pickled and were sweet in flavor. The morels were meaty and their outer texture tickled my tongue!
“Bread and Butter”
Bitter Cocoa Laminated Brioche and Diane St. Clair’s Animal Farm Butter
Chef Keller’s take on bread and butter was anything but simple! The soft and flakey laminated brioche was from The French Laundry’s partner Bouchon Bakery, which was just down the road. The bitter cocoa swirls throughout were the perfect sharp flavor to match the creamy and salty butter I slathered onto each bite of brioche.
Right about this time, our bottle of red wine arrived. We ordered the 2012 Nine Suns, a wine we had never tried before and we were blown away! Mark swears that he can still taste it. Definitely not a wine we will be drinking often because of the hefty price tag, but when choosing a Napa Valley wine for your birthday dinner at The French Laundry, you rise to the occasion.
Wolfe Ranch White Quail “Rôti à La Broche”
Toasted “Ditalini” and Black Winter Truffle-Foie Gras Emulsion
Let me tell you. This was the greatest dish I have ever had. As innocent and unsuspecting as this dish looks, it was incredible! It’s almost like they knew they didn’t need any fancy plating because each stellar ingredient speaks for itself. The quail cut like butter but the perfectly crusted skin gave this protein a balanced contrast of textures. The sauce (which I still dream about) was so complex and rich with little hints of vinegar and nutmeg. The foie gras and truffles in the sauce really turned on all of my ‘craving’ signals and I unapologetically licked the plate clean. Oh yes, and this dish also had pasta. It was also spectacular. Literally, this is the best meal I have ever had. And just like Mark and his Nine Suns wine, I too can still taste this dish, even months later.
The above course was an aged gruyère cheese and gougère bread course, which was topped with shaved English walnuts and edible gold. Yes, edible gold! The warm cheese underneath the fluffy, bread puff was the consistency of hot, gooey shaving cream.
Charcoal Grilled Japanese Wagu
Braised Brisket “Latke,” La Ratte Potato Purée, Garden Romaine Lettuce, Bantam Hen Egg “Pressé,” Crispy Parmesan and “Béarnaise Gastrique”
The Japanese Wagu was tender and juicy with a lightly seared crust. I kept scooping up the béarnaise gastrique sauce, which had warm notes of cinnamon and nutmeg – a flavor combination I wouldn’t have thought would go with beef, but it totally complimented! The accompanying salad had some bitter greens that I recognized from their culinary garden we explored across the street. The onions on the salad were pickled, vinegary, and sweet, with the whole salad perfectly dressed in a fennel dressing.
Assortment of Desserts
Fruit, Ice Cream, Chocolate and Candies
The final course was a stamped of plates, desserts, and extraordinary sweets! Intended to overwhelm you, our whole table was full of desserts! And I wasn’t about to complain. The dessert closest to me was a half moon stiff meringue with compressed pineapple, fennel, whipped creme fresh, and gorgeous edible flowers. In a small tea cup was a sweet coffee mouse topped with whip cream so light it was like eating air. Accompanying the coffee mouse was a bowl of perfectly circular doughnut holes, which they suggested we dunk in our coffee mouse. There was also a sorbet that looked like translucent fruit glass had been shattered all over the top! Towards the end of this course, specialty chocolate candies were offered to us in a wooden box – Mark choose the PB&J filled hard chocolate, while I had the passionfruit and smores flavor.
Although, I was sad the final dessert course had ended, I knew it also meant that the most exciting part of the evening was about to happen – The French Laundry kitchen tour! Our server guided us down the hall to a place that, I believe, was actually heaven. Euphoric culinary heaven. We were standing in a culinary genius playground where the creme de la creme of Chefs and equally superior ingredients meet together and make actual magic. In this kitchen they create the kind of food that sparkles and levitates on the fork before you pop it into your mouth and your eyes roll to the back of your head. Magic. And just like a magic trick, after every dish we always found ourselves asking ‘How did they do that?!’. Culinary magic, that’s how.
While in the kitchen, we tried to get a peek at some of their dishes in the making, particularly the quail dish I couldn’t stop thinking about. Unfortunately, I wasn’t in the kitchen long enough to steal their secret recipe, but don’t think I wasn’t trying! The French Laundry kitchen was such a well oiled machine, with immaculate stations and laser focused staff all quietly prepping and cooking away.
While in the kitchen, The French Laundry’s Chef de Cuisine David Breeden greeted us and asked about our evening’s experience. With the wine still in full force, I boozily told Chef Breeden this was the best meal of my life, to which he cooly and humbly smiled and thanked me for the compliment. I laugh now because I am sure everyone who has experienced dinner at The French Laundry tells him that, and I am sure he always replies the same way, as if he had never heard it before. At the time of this conversation, the wine was telling me to come up with something witty and clever, ya’ know, so I could get an ‘in’ with the most famous restaurant in the world. Nailed it, haha. I unapologetically blame dinner’s Napa Valley vino but I wouldn’t have changed a thing. I meant every word I said to Chef Breeden, it was the best meal of my life.
As a parting gift, the host handed us a small white bag filled with goodies. Our wine bottle corks all tied up in a pretty bag with a bow, the evenings printed tasting menu, a booklet describing each of their hand selected purveyors, and some cookies in a cute tin box. Mark and I have enjoyed quite a few Chefs tasting menus, with course after spectacular course. This was the first Chefs tasting menu where we left the restaurant feeling light, refreshed, and dare I say renewed. This might have been because of The French Laundry’s use of fresh and high quality ingredients, their commitment to local sourcing, or the relaxing location of Napa Valley. Whatever the reason, we wouldn’t mind going back again to find out!
Out of all the spectacular dishes and courses, which one caught your eye? I would give anything to taste that quail dish again!