The French Laundry
Curtain Up, Here's Keller
Reservations at The French Laundry are as hard to acquire as many of the cult wines in its cellar. The restaurant's greatness, distinctiveness and exclusivity are the reasons. Dinner here is an Experience with a capital E, and gourmets from all over the world burn up the phone (and fax) lines to make necessary arrangements. It's worth it. This is about as close to perfect as food gets.
Dinner at The French Laundry is sheer theater. Menus run 10 or 12 dishes, plus a few hors d'oeuvre and dessertlike bites. Each course builds on the previous one yet offers a new range of tastes and textures.
Chef-owner Thomas Keller always had a flair for making seemingly outrageous food combinations taste as if they were meant to be. He wowed critics at Rakel in New York and Checkers in Los Angeles, but didn't find his audience until 1994 when he refashioned a cozy, understated wine country retreat into a food lover's nirvana. He continues to refine his style, combining mind-boggling complex elements into dishes that look and feel simple and natural.
On a recent visit, each hors d'oeuvre demonstrated how his style rethinks traditional food associations. Key elements in gazpacho came out as an egg-shaped scoop of tomato sorbet sprinkled with thin garlic chips on a plate dotted with aged balsamic. Oysters and Pearls is rapidly becoming a Keller classic: The briny sweetness of poached Malpeque oysters melts into a savory pudding of pearl tapioca that does a little texture dance on the tongue with the topping of osetra caviar.
Earthy vegetables play a key role in Keller's food, and they are a revelation wherever they're used, like the country cousin you always knew in jeans who becomes a star in evening wear. Snow-white, fork-tender cauliflower with the whisper of a garlic sauce became elegant under white truffle shavings. White and black truffles added their pizzazz to surprisingly luxurious ravioli filled with marrow bean puree as rich and creamy as foie gras. A saut of savoy cabbage set off the natural sweetness of a seared fillet of the Hawaiian fish moi. Earthy-sweet parsnip puree and onion confit perked up wild sea bass.
Pastry chef Stephen Durfee played a coda to Keller's symphony with wit and flair, right down to the fancy three-tiered plate holding quarter-sized tartlets of banana cream, lemon meringue and pecan pies and a porcelain box of fresh macaroons. Coffee and a Doughnut has become a favorite dessert -- an old-fashioned heavy coffee cup filled with semifreddo and a fresh cinnamon doughnut so light it threatened to float to the ceiling.
The strong wine list could be great if it had more mature wines on it. It has many hard-to-find California wines, including Marcassin and Peter Michael Chardonnays, and Rochioli and Littorai Pinot Noirs, as well as Cabernets that include Dalla Valle Maya, Colgin Herb Lamb Vineyard and Abreu. It is strong in Burgundy, but Bordeaux lists only 12 wines, most from the 1988 to 1990 range. Except for a few gems such as Ridge Monte Bello 1980, few on the list are older than 1994.
General manager Laura Cunningham manages the cellar and suggests great matches. Keller serves too many courses to drink a different wine with each one, so she emphasizes flexible wines such as Pinot Noir, Burgundy and aromatic whites. Let Cunningham point you toward a half-bottle or wines by the glass to diversify the experience.
A low stone wall displays the name of the two-story restaurant behind it. Inside, distinctive elements include odd corner angles, an exposed staircase, subtle lighting and a cozy denlike room with a fireplace. Little touches abound, such as clothespins that hold dinner napkins and the laundry ticket that turns out to be the bill. Service is classic without being too formal, and was performed smoothly and unobtrusively on our visit.
Keller is close to perfection with The French Laundry. All he really needs is to become as totally fanatical about wine as he is about the rest of the dining experience.
THE FRENCH LAUNDRY
Address 6640 Washington St., Yountville, Calif. 94599
Telephone (707) 944-2380
Fax (707) 944-1974
Open Lunch, Friday, Saturday and Sunday; dinner, daily
Cost Very expensive
Credit cards Visa, MasterCard, American Express
Wine Spectator Award Best of Award of Excellence