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In a state of hibernation. My backlog has long become unsustainable. Will probably tweet more and write less full-length stuff.

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Wednesday
Oct192005

The French Laundry

Working full days with a 1.5 hour commute sure has wreaked havoc on my free time. Posts like this one seem a daunting task when I get home at 7PM and want to go to bed at like 10 or 11. But do not fret, I will do my best to catch up on my huge backlog of photos. I didn't realize it but the site has just entered its third year as of about a week or two ago. I never thought I'd still be going now when I first decided to start the site during my trip to Hokkaido in 2003, but here I am. The France posts are probably celebration enough, but at Arthur Hungry the fun never stops, so here comes another treat!


frenchlaundry.jpg

Yep, the French Laundry. My mom says that goodness comes in bunches, and so while I spend most of the year eating cheapo college food in Boston, I got to go on an absolute eating frenzy for about a month, with 20 Michelin stars in 10 days capped off by a trip to America's top restaurant just a few days after I returned from France. I guess the French Laundry in Yountville doesn't really need much of an introduction. It's become such an icon in the US, and has spawned an empire for Thomas Keller. Keller is a celebrity all his own, and with the success of Per Se in New York his profile seems to keep on growing.

With my magnificent French meals still fresh in my memory, I was in good position to compare the best of what America has to offer with the best in Paris. It'd been years since I'd gone to French Laundry. I'd been twice, both times when I was quite a bit younger. My first trip there about 10 years ago, which was probably not more than a year or two after the place opened, was one of my first exposures to real fine dining. I went again a few years later, but sadly didn't return for a long time. In the time since, it became the most famous restaurant in the country, a legendary destination that people all over the US plan trips to California around.

Because Auntie Winifred and Uncle Mack were visiting, my mom thought we should go, and managed to book us in for a lunch (fortunately the food doesn't change for lunch). Lucky for me, I was in town and invited along. The drive was actually a lot shorter than I remember it. Then again, I was too young to operate a motor vehicle last time. The setting was instantly familiar. A simple, modest building (just a little house, really) stands on a quaint, unassuming Yountville block. You'd have no idea world-class food was being eaten inside. You enter through a litle front courtyard area that is quiet and serene. Inside, the decor is toned down and homey, but with a very serious vibe. Everyone inside knows how hard it was to get their table, and you can tell everyone is expecting the experience of a lifetime. The restaurant is divided into two floors with several adjoining rooms. We sat in the very center of a room with maybe 7 tables. I was worried that my pictures would bother some of our neighbors, but it didn't turn out to be a problem...

The restaurant offers 3 different menus: a seasonal 7 course menu, a 9 course Chef's Tasting, and a 9 course Vegetable Tasting. All start at $175 a head, with optional supplements. Me, being the glutton and spoiled brat that I am, got the most expensive thing possible, the Chef's Tasting with all possible pricey options. It capped out at a whopping $280, but even my mom didn't discourage me. I mean, when am I gonna make it out to the French Laundry again?

gruyère cheese gougères Shortly after sitting down we were brought these cheese gouègres - essentially fancy cheese puffs. They were very buttery and just delicious! I kinda wish I could have had more than one.

cornet of salmon tartare This amuse has become pretty much world-famous, and for good reason. The finely chopped tartare demonstrates all the wonderful flavors and complexities of raw fish, but in a decidedly Western style. The crunch of the cornet adds a perfect contrast in texture.

cauliflower "panna cotta" with Beau Soleil oyster glaze and Russian Sevruga caviar Another of Keller's many signature dishes, this savory panna cotta is an appetizer in its most Platonic form. The creamy cauliflower mixed with the salty caviar is perfect, and really makes you want to eat more. I was also immediately reminded of the caviar dish I had at Guy Savoy - the combination of creaminess with caviar was strikingly similar.

"peach melba" - poached moulard duck "foie gras au torchon", Masamoto Family Farm peach jelly, pickled white peaches, marinated red onion, "melba toast" and crisped Carolina rice - $25 This foie gras course was the first option, and added $25 to the price. If you haven't heard or noticed, Keller is pretty notorious for his use of " marks all over his menus, and this description shows that in full effect. I don't have much of an opinion about it, though they do sometimes seem pretty randomly placed. Anyway, this dish is supposedly the brainchild of Chef de Cuisine Corey Lee, who does much of the day-to-day leading in the kitchen when Keller is busy doing all that stuff superstar chefs have to do. And as the Aussies here say, good on Chef Lee for it. This is definitely one of the best and most creative foie gras interpretations out there, and an interesting play on a common treat. The foie gras goes wonderfully with the peach jelly (with this dish and the foie gras I had at Isa, I hereby declare that peaches are my favorite foie gras condiment), while the rice crispies and the unpictured toast add just the right element of crunch. This dish fires on all fronts.

sautéed fillet of wild Virginia striped bass, forest mushrooms "à la Grecque", wilted mizuna and 50 year old sherry vinegar "gastrique" As I copy this stuff from the menu, I keep flashing back to old English classes that told me to keep those commas inside the quotations, but oh well. I'm just the messenger. This was a smooth, silky piece of fish, and the accompanying veggies (mizuna is apparently a Japanese mustard green) were like a nice little warm salad. Good stuff.

Maine lobster tail "cuite sous vide", caramelized fennel bulb, marinated toybox tomatoes and "nage de fenouille" So after hearing and reading all the hype about sous vide, and Rubee's explanation of the Le Meurice perfect beef mystery, I'm always on the lookout for anything sous vide now. This tail wasn't anything new, but I must say it was one excellent piece of lobster - perfectly-cooked and full of texture. The fennel flavor was light and subtle but did just enough to balance the butter, and the veggies were delicious.

slow braised Devil's Gulch Ranch "épaule de lapin", glazed Tokyo turnips, Weiser Farm mulberries and griddled "Monte Cristo sandwich" I was most intrigued by this course when I read the description. I remember thinking to myself... do rabbits even have shoulders? They must be small! It turns out they do have shoulders, and they're big enough for more than one bite. The meat was very soft and tender, contrasted by the glazed and slightly crisp skin. The best part of the plate though was the sandwich, which was like a grilled ham and cheese, but egg-battered like French toast. Yummy.

herb roasted sirloin of Snake River Farm platinum grade "Wagyu", yukon gold potato "mille-feuille", sweet carrots "Vichy", crispy bone marrow, "boule d'épinards" and "sauce Bordelaise" - $80 There was a beautiful-looking, supplement-free lamb dish that was the other option on the menu, but I really am a glutton and just could not say no to this wagyu. It's frickin' platinum grade, whatever that means! And talk about quotation mark overload! (Seriously, is it really necessary to quote mark ball of spinach?)

Anyway, I wanted to see what Keller could do with wagyu beef. I was not disappointed. You can see the marbling and the perfect doneness in the picture, with just a dash of nice salt and pepper. This was a sirloin but still wonderfully fat and delicious, not to mention quite different than the Kobe beef I've had in Japan. This Western-style steak used the ingredient perfectly, exposing all of its marbled goodness. Worth noting are the delicious potatoes, and the deep-fried piece of bone marrow. Yeah, you didn't read that wrong. The little brown thing sitting on top of the rectangular potatoes is a straight up fried piece of marrow, and one of the most rich and oily things I've ever eaten. Even I, lover of all things greasy, had trouble taking it down. It was interesting, but not that great beyond the novelty. Still, this dish was just sublime.

"Meadow Creek Grayson", Jacobsen's Farm Green Gage plums, toasted Marcona almonds and port wine reduction One difference from the fine restaurants in France is the lack of a cheese cart. Instead, they bring you an actual prepared cheese course. I think as a cheese novice I like this way better - I don't have to pick stuff by my own uneducated self, and there's someone who knows what they're doing putting it all together. The cheese and plums were good, but the almonds stole the show. They were the crunchiest, tastiest almonds ever, and I almost killed myself when I dropped one of my three on the ground and couldn't find it.

mango sorbet, "yuzu scented génoise", goma "nougatine" and black sesame "coulis" This was an interesting dish to say the least, and a most unusual mix of stuff. The nougatine was the candy-like remains of crushed, hardened nougat that added a crunch into every bite of sorbet/cake. I'd say I enjoyed this course the least overall though - I felt like the sorbet was too rich and everything was too sweet, especially for the so-called palate cleanser.

"tentation au chocolat noisette et lait", milk chocolate "crémeux", hazelnut "streusel" with Madagascar vanilla ice cream and sweetened salty hazelnuts Luckily dessert bounced back with immense success. I absolutely love all things chocolatey and hazlenutty, and let me just say that despite all the fancy description, this was basically essence of chocolate and hazelnut in its greatest form, with some ice cream thrown in to balance things out. Creamy, crunchy, a bit sweet... simply great!

currant panna cotta Things were winding down now. This currant panna cotta was nice, if a bit on the yogurty side for my taste.

mignardises We were presented with this beautiful tower of cookies and treats. We were too full to really eat any of them. Actually, I think I'm the only person that had any. Luckily, they gave us a box to bring them home in, and I enjoyed a few in the following days.

almond macaroons I'm almost certain these macaroons were almond flavored, but for some reason I keep doubting myself. Either way, I was barely able to eat one because I was so full already. I remember it being quite comparable to the billions of macaroons I tried in France.

hazelnut and tea chocolates Finally, we were brought a beautiful tray lined with 5 or 6 different rows of chocolates. I chose hazelnut because I love the stuff and the tea (I believe it was earl grey?) because it sounded interesting. The hazelnut one was better (of course!) but the tea one had a very strong and distinct tea flavor.

And that's it for my triumphant return to the French Laundry. I must say that despite the fact that I had just come off a string of world-class meals, the French Laundry absolutely impressed me. The food is truly excellent, and can definitely hang with the big boys in France. The service was great - more personal than I remember it, and professional in every way. You also get some American touches... For example, our waiter asked each one of us about allergies as we picked our menu, displaying some Californian sensitivity that would be pretty unimaginable in France. And let's not forget about the fact that there's a Vegetarian menu. I'd say with a decent amount of confidence that the French Laundry probably serves the best vegetarian meal in the world. I would have gladly scraped off each of my mom's dishes had she not picked them all clean herself!

It was an excellent meal when all is said and done. I am sure that when (if?) Michelin comes to the Bay Area, FL will be the first with three stars, and deservingly so. I think more and more now that it would get three even if it were in Paris. Mr. Keller, you can use all the wacky quotation marks you want, just keep up the good work!

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Reader Comments (13)

Arhur, I haven't eaten the whole day and I am in the Photonics reading your post.......this is sad really sad
Wednesday, October 19, 2005 at 9:58AM | Unregistered CommenterMichael Fan
im also in photonics reading this post. i havent eaten in 3 days. my stomach has begun to digest itself for survival. ARTHURRRRRR COMEEEE BACKKKKKKKK
Thursday, October 20, 2005 at 2:44AM | Unregistered CommenterDave
Is that your first time having Marcona almonds? I normally get a small tub of them at Whole Foods for ~$10. I agree, they're exquisite.
Thursday, October 20, 2005 at 4:07AM | Unregistered CommenterTim
Wow, that meal was ravishing... *slobbers*
Saturday, October 22, 2005 at 4:30AM | Unregistered CommenterErin Cooper
Interesting that the mango sorbet didn't resonate with you - I thought that it was one of the best sorbet dishes that I've had anywhere! I agree with you completely on the pairing of foie gras with peaches; have you ever had Ron Siegel's preparation of seared foie, with peach reduction and Tahitian vanilla butter? If not, I urge you to try it the next time you are at The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton during the summer months!
Saturday, October 22, 2005 at 6:13PM | Unregistered CommenterNS
Guys, I'll be back in Boston in no time...

Tim - it's the first time that I can remember. Good to hear you can buy them, but it sounds like they ain't cheap.

Erin - yes, yes it was... :)

NS, I went to Masa once a few years ago, but I don't think I've had that foie. Still looking to try his food at the Ritz.



Sunday, October 23, 2005 at 2:56AM | Unregistered CommenterArthur Che
Beautiful photographs. I've never eater there and I loved reading this.
Sunday, October 23, 2005 at 4:37AM | Unregistered CommenterKalyn
What exactly do your parents do for a living whereby you can eat so lavishly? Hope it's not too personal a question. Thanks. I am so, so, jealous.
Wednesday, October 26, 2005 at 9:51AM | Unregistered CommenterLamechop
Kalyn - thanks. Just doin' my job. :)

Lamechop - my dad does business in something that looks like it's kinda boring. I'm sure he can talk about it if he wants too... :P
Thursday, October 27, 2005 at 2:05AM | Unregistered CommenterArthur Che
As Arthur said, I am in what appears to be a rather "boring" business - shipping containers. While the product looks totally unsexy, it is a very global business and we have customers and offices all over the world. Hence for the past 25 years, I had the opportunity to travel quite frequently and extensively. And because of my own love of food, I tend to tie my travels quite closely with my culinery pursuits.The only reason why Arthur gets to participate in some "lavish" meals is because of his early signs of a potential global gourmet. I like to encourage that as I believe there is no better way to appreciate different cultures than through their cuisines. And it's clear that Arthur and his generation will need to be a lot more global-minded than my generation.The other excuse to spoil him this way is - as he gets exposed to the finest foods in the world, there is a greater chance that Arthur will work hard in order to continue his pursuit! Wishful thinking?Lamechop - check out our company's website if you are interested in more information - www.gatewaycontainer.com
Friday, October 28, 2005 at 12:26PM | Unregistered CommenterRaphael
Raphael, thank you so much for commenting! What a lovely philosophy to have towards food, and I adore the fact that you and your lovely wife have instilled such an appreciation of cuisine in your children. To be exposed such feasts through Arthur's site has been an adventure in itself - so I imagine the first hand experience has been nothing short of inspiring.
Wednesday, November 2, 2005 at 6:17AM | Unregistered Commentertara
Arthur,

It's really cool of you to sort of answer the question of how you are able to afford such lavish dining experiences. Most of all, it's really cool that your father, Raphael (I assume), went into detail about what he does for a living and his novel motivation for getting you to succeed in life by spoiling you rotten with world class cuisine. Jealous? Me? Only a little. Okay, medium. Let's trade foodblogs for a week!
Wednesday, November 2, 2005 at 9:19AM | Unregistered CommenterEddie Lin
It's a weird strategy, but I see it working. I am now a slave to the mighty dollar, because I won't be able to live without eating well for the rest of eternity. I'm just lucky I'm not in to expensive wines... according to my roommate Mike though, it's just a matter of time before I fall into that money pit.

I'd certainly take your offer, Eddie, but that one picture of balut with the exposed duck fetus strikes fear into my heart. I don't think I would be able to keep up with you...
Wednesday, November 2, 2005 at 12:50PM | Unregistered CommenterArthur Che

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