Saturday, December 27, 2008

French Laundry: Pilgrimage to Yountville

After literally years of trying, on and off, to score a reservation here, we finally managed it with the help of some family connections who are close to the Napa restaurant scene. We did only manage to get lunch reservations, not dinner but there are some advantages in doing the big meal in the middle of the day, I think.

Anyhow, it was a grey, chilly day in Napa as we drove up to the restaurant. It is quite unpretentious and casual, at least from the outside. No valet parking...just find a space across the street. It's not even obvious where the front door is. Once we found it, we were greeted with courtesy if not excessive warmth and shown to a table in a small side room off the main dining room. This must have been the "gay room" since there were two other tables there, another deuce and a four top, both occupied by gay men. Presumably there were some "family" members in the main dining room as well.

The room was pleasant but not exactly what we might have pictured. On a dark, rather gloomy day the atmosphere was dark and a bit subdued. Michael noted that the chairs were rather dated and also, I noticed, rather scuffed up -- not exactly what one might expect from a place touted as the best restaurant in America. However, the chairs were comfortable enough and we quickly settled in and started reading the menu.

There are two fixed-price menus at FL, both $240. One is vegetarian and one is not. We were each tempted by the vegetarian menu (and if we ever go back, I would lean that way) but ultimately decided on the main menu to get the full experience. This consisted of nine course of which four were choices (of 2) and the other five were fixed. We decided to split our choices to have the widest number of possible tastes.

A couple of interesting but not memorable amuse bouches appeared...I think one was sort of a southern ham biscuit which was, frankly, a little dry, but my memory may be blurred by what came afterward.

Before getting down to serious eating, we of course needed to turn our attention to the wine list. The French Laundry has a serious list, as you can imagine, about 100 pages worth. It is also seriously expensive. By that I don't mean just that they have expensive wine (which, of course, they do) but that most of the wine is expensive, and that even relatively modest bottles are more expensive than they are at other restaurants. As an example, a bottle of Kongsgaard Chardonnay that we ordered at Snake River Grill in Jackson Hole for $125 (a very good price, by the way -- retail is $75) was $230 at FL. OK, maybe SRG isn't a great comparison being much less formal and in a small town. But the Dirler Grand Cru Kessler Pinot Gris that we had at FL for $150 (and outstanding, by the way) is on the list at Charleston in Baltimore, a pretty good restaurant in its own right, for $90.

It is not totally clear to me why expensive restaurants generally have expensive lists. It suggests that even at $240 a head they're not making enough money and that the wine subsidizes the food. Or maybe it's just because there is so much demand for tables that they can charge whatever they want for the wine. In any case I find it just a tad offputting.

Nonetheless, we were there for the experience and I was determined not to think too hard about the bottom line. We decided that we would start with half a bottle of champagne and ordered one recommended by the charming and helpful sommelier. I don't remember the name (and the posted wine list is not up to date so I can't recreate it). I do remember that it was a blanc de noirs and intended to be creamy and rich. Both Michael and I found it to be off. It actually tasted oxidized to me with the sort of spoiled flavors that we have found, surprisingly often, in "corked" wines. Michael and I both expressed our concern and as I usually do, I asked the sommelier to taste it himself. To his credit, he refused, saying that our opinion was the only one that mattered. He disappeared with the offending bottle and in due course reappeared with another one, a Taittinger I think, that he thought would be more to our liking. It was.

Meanwhile, the parade of food had begun. I don't have the energy, and I doubt any readers of this post have the interest, to engage in an exhaustive blow by blow description of each ingredient in each of nine courses. So I hope all will understand that I am condensing and abbreviating.

The first course was a cauliflower panna cotta which was far and away the best cauliflower I have ever had. That is not saying much since I can't stand cauliflower but this was really fantastic with just a hint of cauliflower flavor. The oyster glaze and caviar garnish didn't hurt a bit.

The second course was more problematic. I had the "foie gras en terrine" with a $30 upcharge, which ticked Michael off. He is militant on the subject of upcharges and one could argue that a $240 menu should allow for that. On the other hand it doesn't reach to the absurd levels of a meal last year at Komi in DC when practically every dish had an upcharge. Anyhow, the foie gras was delicious (and when is it not?. Michael opted for a beet salad and was very disappointed when it appeared with what appeared to be one small beet sliced into three or four pieces. Admittedly, it was an excellent beet, but not a big one. His first impression was that this was the kind of "cuisine" that non-foodies make fun of. As Michael said, "would it have killed them to put a second beet on the plate?"

Next Michael had a fillet of Japanese suzuki, which I always thought was a brand of motorcycle but turns out to be a kind of sea bass. He loved it. I had tartare of bluefin tuna which was unlike any tuna I have ever eaten, much more intense in its flavor. It made me think about why you hear about those bluefin tunas going for $10,000 in Japan. It was simply much more robust and flavorful than any sushi I have ever had, even in Japan.

Next we both had a butter poached lobster tail. I thought this fell a little flat. Sure, it was delicious. Lobster is always delicious. Especially with bacon on the side. It just seemed unexceptional. I ate a lot of lobster living in New England and sailing in Maine and I am of the "it doesn't need anything but itself school" so I wasn't looking for a lot to be done to it. But I would have thought that one of the world's great chefs could have done more with this. I am remembering the lobster with morels at Auberge de l'Ill.

Following the lobster, we were presented with a beautiful rabbit dish...a chunk of loin, a tiny little rack of chops, and some miscellaneous bits. More on that in a moment. I sensed a bit of potential trouble here as Michael is not a fan of rabbit on psychological (not moral) grounds. However, he dug in like a man. We both loved the sirloin and I was pleased to see him knawing on the miniature chops (around the size of your thumb) with relish. As part of the garnish of this dish (including baby turnips, a bit of roasted lettuce, and a prune), there was a pinkish object around the size and shape of a lima bean. I quietly put this in my mouth before Michael noticed it and chewing confirmed that it was a rabbit kidney. As far as I know I have not eaten a kidney before so I don't have anything to compare it to. This was quite pink (like medium rare liver) and around the same consistency. Michael figured out what it was and not surprisingly passed it up, so I ate his as well, wanting to give the kidney thing a fair shot. It was...OK. It did not make me want to rush out and eat any more.

The next course was a choice but since the saddle of lamb was made for two, and Michael wanted it, that was what we both had. (The other choice was beef). I remember the lamb being very tasty but I don't remember that much else about it. I had a glass of Martinelli Zinfandel with the lamb which was so good that even Michael took a couple of swigs from it.

Following the lamb, there was a modest (one selection) cheese course of a Tomme de l'Ariege which was very nice. An intermezzo of a buttermilk sherbet followed. It was, depending on your view, either fascinatingly subtle or essentially bland. I actually found it a bit of both. At first taste (it was not a tiny portion) it seemed to taste basically of milk, but on subsequent bites the very haunting taste of buttermilk came through in a very refreshing way.

Finally we arrived at dessert. The gents to our right were about 2 courses ahead of us so I knew what to expect. First was the listed dessert. I had chocolate, naturally...a "Jivara-caramel roulade". I had no idea what Jivara was and later found out it is a special Valrhona label. It was great. Michael had a cream yogurt bavarois with huckleberries. OK if you don't like chocolate, but I wasn't going to trade. This was followed by a delicious selection of mignardises and truffles.

The meal was beautifully timed and the service was extremely professional, very friendly and accommodating and balancing perfectly between stuffy and overly familiar. It turned out to be just the right amount of food as we left being very satisfied but not bloated. (We did not have any trouble eating dinner that night). The whole meal took 3 1/2 hours so it is pretty much of an all day experience.

The major downside, of course, was the cost. Except for the upcharge for the foie gras, the menu cost included all of the incidentals (bottled water, coffee -- which we didn't have -- and tip) so it is not quite as much as it seems. Still, with the wine, the total bill came to about $830.

I have to say that my conclusion is that it was not worth it. Obviously that is a very personal view and does not reflect anything about the care and professionalism of the restaurant and its staff. Maybe it is more of a reflection of the times that we find ourselves in and the state of the economy that I somehow feel uneasy about spending that much money on a single meal. This was the third over-$700 meal in four months for us (the other two being Alinea and Citronelle) and something in me says "enough". At least for a while.

But I think also my conclusion is not just about the absolute level of the cost but the value. Certainly the food was delicious and enjoyable. The service was flawless. The surroundings were pleasant (although I did not like the small side room we were in). But, with the exception of a couple of dishes -- the cauliflower panna cotta, the tuna, and the rabbit sirloin -- the taste of the dishes has not stuck with me. In contrast, with the best meal we have ever had -- dinner at Auberge de l'Ill -- I can still remember the look and taste of each of the five courses. I can also still remember the excitement and wonder of our first meal at Alinea even though I can't, of course, remember all 24 courses.

I guess in car terms I would characterize FL as kind of like a Lexus. Perfectly put together, refined, reliable, flawless...all of those adjectives fit. Exciting, not so much.

The French Laundry was a great and memorable experience and I am very glad that we had the chance to go. I will, perhaps, go again some day in better economic times, but for now, I am not in a hurry to return.

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