Review: The French Laundry

(by peter & susie)

Let’s great straight to the heart of the issue: is The French Laundry the best restaurant in the world?

Of course, it’s a fatuous question. Much like trying to single out the best wine, the best painting or the best symphony. Such things are subjective. It depends on the mood, the company, the timing, the alignment of the planets and any number of other factors that might collide to produce any given experience on any given occasion.

But now that the sensible disclaimer is out of the way, we can say what we really think. Which is: The French Laundry is the best restaurant in the world.


We’ll get the criticisms out of the way first.

Yes, it’s pricey. The prix fixe is the only menu offered and it is $270 per person, excluding tax at 14%. (While service is nominally included, it’s so attentive, engaging and impeccable that you almost feel compelled to leave a tip anyway.)

Granted, the amount of courses is generous and you’ll hardly leave feeling hungry. But bear in mind that this price excludes wine and other extras. If you’re tempted by the likes of Château Petrus 1947, you can add another cool $13,200 on top of that. (Corkage, incidentally, is $75 per bottle – with a maximum of one bottle brought in for every two guests.)

It’s also true to say that the atmosphere verges on the starchy. The place feels like a small townhouse; there is no music; the first seating is at 5-5:30pm; the service is reverentially polite. All this adds up to create, especially at the start of the evening, a slightly stiff and awkward atmosphere, which could be softened and not at all spoiled by the addition of some discreet music, or even filling rooms earlier on to create a bit more of a buzz.

Finally, it’s long. Our meal took a cool four hours, and we left before things had run their natural course (jet lag finally taking its toll). This is not in itself a bad thing – certainly we never felt it in any way laboured – but it is something to bear in mind if you’re not the type to sit still for hours on end.

And yet, and yet…in our view, these were prices worth paying for what was the most memorable, inventive, delicious, revelatory and technically accomplished meal of our lives.

We’ve been lucky enough to experience some of the world’s best restaurants. El Bulli. The Fat Duck. Charlie Trotter’s. L’Auberge de l’Ilh. Gordon Ramsay Royal Hospital Road. All of these are superb eating houses, the kind of places you have life-changing, life-affirming experiences.

Yet The French Laundry somehow stands apart. It seems to have a self-assurance about its food that makes it special even in this hallowed context. No performance. No gimmickery. Just impeccably, imaginatively presented food that was consistently exceptional in its conception and execution.

At El Bulli, we found the experience more cerebral than visceral – a wonderful, challenging experience rather than a delicious and enjoyable meal. To make an analogy, it was like watching one of Samuel Beckett’s plays – Waiting for Godot, say. You know you’re in the presence of an inventive, mould-breaking, era-defining genius, but it’s also very slightly tortuous, as if you’re a guinea pig in some grand culinary experiment.

The Fat Duck was a far more engaging experience, more relaxing and user-friendly, but still with a strong emphasis on the theatre of the occasion. More Cirque du Soleil – a breathtaking, bravura performance, but a performance nonetheless.

We struggled to complete the analogy with The French Laundry. The closest we could come was Remains of the Day – a beautifully understated work of art (both the film and Ishiguro novel), which borders on being overly classical, staid and starchy, yet whose cumulative effect is powerful, cathartic and enriching.

Before we left, we took at peek at the kitchen.

The place had a focus to it that’s common in the world’s best kitchens. It’s not particularly large but it is busy – around 20 chefs work each shift, with a further 25 staff waiting on, meaning a ratio of 45 employees to 60 covers (the restaurant normally turns five tables, meaning up to 72 covers per sitting).

The cellaring facilities are relatively meagre given the extent of the list (it runs to 112 pages). Sommelier Christopher Hoel told us that they use two storage facilities on-site but aren’t allowed to build any more due to local planning restrictions. They run a larger cellar in downtown Napa – a good 20 minutes away by car – and as a result employ two interns whose sole duty is to check spreadsheets and ferry bottles around, to prevent the disaster of running dry.

The wine list – as with many of the more forward-looking eating establishments these days – is electronic, run via a tablet with basic functionality. It’s a handy way not only to present wines to diners but also to keep the list bang up to date. In future, it will be good to have even more interactive features on these lists, such as producer or sommelier videos, photos and information, perhaps even customer reviews.

As for a rating, we’d give The French Laundry 9.5 out of 10. It’s not perfect – but it’s as close to culinary perfection as we’ve experienced.


What we ate (Tasting menu 30th March 2011)

NB: some of these courses – six and a half to be precise – were not included on the official menu and thus merely represent our rendition, and recollection, of what was served. We calculate we had around 15 courses (more are listed below because in some cases we chose two different dishes for the same course.)

1.      Aged gruyere profiterole – light and sensuous, delicately creamy, a subtle and appetizing amuse bouche.

2.      Scottish salmon tartare with red onion crème fraîche in a black sesame tuile – essentially, a mini ice-cream cone filled with savoury deliciousness. Rich yet also refreshing.

3.      Carrot soup with yoghurt panna cotta, pecan and nasturtium leaf – the yoghurt sat in the bottom, the vibrant soup was poured over the top, the combination of it all was intensely sweet-savoury.

4.      ‘Oysters and Pearls’, sabayon of pearl tapioca with Kumamoto oysters and white sturgeon caviar – a dish in which texture is almost as important as flavour: soft, gently gelatinous, yet salty and intensely appetizing. The oysters were perfect with the champagne; the caviar overwhelmed it slightly.

5.      Truffle custard and mushroom sauce served in a hollowed-out egg shell served with a chive biscuit looking for all the world like a toasty soldier. A quite brilliant dish in both conception and execution. Playful but oh so delicious. The truffle custard is rich and eggy but savoury and succulent. Sensational.

6.      Salad of Hawaiian hearts of palm, Hass avocado, orange, Komatsuna and ginger ‘Aigre-Doux’ – a nod towards Asian cuisine, this was an intricate and bitty dish on the plate, but in itself a subtle and complex taste experience.

7.      Sautéed fillet of Mediterranean lubina, black rice, cauliflower, medjool dates, cashews, cilantro shoots and madras curry. As exquisite and texturally rich as it sounds. The curry contributed nothing more than a delicate hint.

8.      Sweet butter-poached Maine lobster tail, sunchokes, cipollini onions, Piedmont hazelnuts, Scallion salad and coffee-chocolate sauce. On paper, this sounds like it could go either way. In reality, a triumph of layered, flowing flavours.

9.      ‘Boudin de lapin’, pommes maxim’s, Swiss chard and French prune jus. Almost an eggy, mousse texture that played on the rabbit’s delicate yet meaty flavours. Perfect with the Cornas.

10.  Lasagne de coeur de veau, green garlic, San Marzano tomato compote, petite lettuces and Spanish capers. Perhaps the most perfect lasagne. Ever.

11.  Snake River Farms calotte de boeuf grillé, King Trumpet mushrooms, red beets, celery branch, horseradish crème fraîche and sauce bordelaise. A superb interplay between the melt-in-the-mouth beef, the creamy horseradish, the savoury mushrooms and the fruity beetroots. Exquisite.

12.  Comté Reserve, panisse, baby fennel, piperade, arugula and chorizo vinaigrette. Perhaps the first and last time we’ll ever have chorizo vinaigrette. But boy it’s worth experiencing. By this stage of the meal, a cheese course is usually out of the question. But this was so different, so beautifully original, that only shiny plates were returned to the kitchen.

13.  Champagne sorbet, ‘panna cotta’, grapes and garden mint – the ideal palate cleanser. Playfully presented and delicious.

14.  Grapefruit sorbet with lime foam – a surprise extra course, which might have seemed superfluous after the previous one, but whose vivid flavours and cheeky presentation made it equally as delightful.

15.  Mousse au chocolat blanc, morello cherries and marcona almonds – light and airy (it needs to be at this stage of the meal) but full of chocolatey luciousness.

16.  Lemongrass ‘crémeux’, Sicilian pistachio, lemon ‘ice’, Shiso and Granny Smith apple. Crunchy, delicate and refreshing.

17.  ‘Coffee’ parfait, cacao-covered macadamias, mini donuts. Playfully presented in an expresso cup, a delicious finale.

18.  Chocolates – including olive oil, peanut butter and jelly, ginger.


What we drank

Champagne Vilmart Cuvée Grand Cellier, Rilly la Montagne Brut NV – An engagingly rustic, slightly oxidative style of champagne – Susie had it pegged as Pinot dominated (Chris, the sommelier, agreed) but then we learned it was actually a blend of 70% Chardonnay and 30% Pinot Noir. Majors on the bruised-fruit end of the spectrum, with a light and fairly vital palate presence. A very appetizing aperitif. 6-6.5/10

Robert Mondavi Winery Fumé Blanc Reserve ‘I Block’ 2007, To Kalon, Napa Valley, 14.5% – the ‘I Block’ is a rare small-production version of Mondavi’s Fumé Blanc Reserve. Only a few hundred cases are made every year and it’s almost exclusively sold at the cellar door for around $70. It’s similar in style to the straight Fumé Blanc Reserve style, with its classic notes of apricot, wax and creamy citrus. On the palate, it’s weighty, spicy and creamy-textured, with that slightly bitter citrus pith finish that’s also the hallmark of the Reserve. While a slightly bigger and more alcoholic style of white than we’d customarily go for, this actually made a very versatile accompaniment to at least six of our early courses. (By way of explanation, we had been eyeing up a Kumeu River Chardonnay and a Grosset Polish Hill Riesling on the list, when we learned that Peter Marks MW of Mondavi, whom we’d been visiting earlier that day, had kindly dropped off this bottle for us.) 7.5-8/10

Cornas 2007 Les Chaillot, Franck Balthazar, 13% – a quite wonderful wine from a producer who’s new to us, but came recommended by the sommelier (over a Barolo 2004 by Paolo Scavino, as it happened). Classic scents of grilled meats, black olive and sun-baked flowers, with a silky savoury palate and gentle spice. Such complexity and silky refinement in a wonderfully drinkable and food-friendly style. 8.5/10

Tokaji Aszu 6 Puttonyos 2000, Disznoko – probably a glass too many by the end of a long meal packed full of intense flavours. Lush, classic aromas of bitter marmalade, burnt honey and apricots – but it lacked that biting, welcome acidity of the best Tokaji. A case of a weary palate, or an overly modern style of winemaking..? Decent, if not thrilling. 6.5/10