On the Friday before the expo, I had the gluten-free meal of a lifetime! Accompanying me were five out-of-town gluten-free eaters (Brandy Wendler (Mrs. Northwest), Mary Fran Wiley of Franny Cakes, Kyra Bussanich of Portland's Crave Bake Shop, Alison Needham of A Girl Defloured, and Andy Yeum of Taste Guru). We decided to meet up at the bakery so that they could pick up some treats for the road and set off for what would be an epic four-hour meal at the French Laundry.
Set in the heart of Yountville, the restaurant occupies a cozy two-story stone building. Across the street is the French Laundry garden, an open and convenient locale for growing and harvesting vegetables for their dish. A courtyard adjacent to the restaurant overlooks the kitchen operations where prep chefs and line cooks alike busy about expertly preparing the dizzying number of components for each dish.
The hostess sat us at a round table downstairs where the shutters were drawn and natural light could be found only in the cracks of the shades and through skylights in other adjourning rooms. As a result I didn't get the perfectly lit photos of my dreams. :(
The French Laundry offers two nine-course tasting menus, a chef's tasting and a tasting of vegetables (each for $270; wowza!). There were also several $75 supplement options to choose from on each menu. While I love vegetables of all types, I had to go with the chef's tasting menu. There wasn't a wine pairing option, but we were able to pick wine from their tech-friendly iPad list.
We inquired about gluten-free adaptations of the dishes and were reassured that they could make each dish delicious and without anything containing or prepared in the same area as gluten. A few of my dining companions also had dairy and shellfish allergies and the staff said they would also take that into account for their dishes. Our waiter was immediately aware of the ingredients and preparation methods of each dish so we felt pretty comfortable that they could communicate our needs to the kitchen.
And with that, the menus were whisked away and the first bites from the chef arrived at the table.
On the left was an ice-cream-cone-inspired gluten-free tuile with creme faiche, salmon, and dill. On the right were fried herb and potato croquettes. Both bites were delicious.
First course: oysters and pearls
As the first official course of the meal, this dish certainly made a splash. The Isand Creek oysters and white sturgeon caviar sat atop a sabayon of pearl tapioca. I've heard the smaller oysters are the sweetest, and these quarter-sized oysters definitely delivered in taste. The combination of the sweet oysters, the creamy chive sabayon, and caviar made for a wonderful start to the meal. I'd take it over pearls any day... (Patrick close your ears!).
Second course: Hearts of Peach Palm
This dish of peach palm, charred pineapple, young coconut, avocado mousse, and komatsuna (a Japanese leaf vegetable), while beautiful and artfully arranged, left me disappointed. The peach palm was snappy and sweet, but I couldn't get around the fact that almost every component was imported and (at least to me) seemed unnecessary. They also served this dish with a knife and fork and I had no way of transferring that delicious young coconut from plate to mouth.
Second course supplement: Musquee de provence "porridge"
While I didn't actually order this $75 supplement, Andrew was kind enough to share a bite of this dish consisting of pumpkin porridge, Sicilian pistachios and shaved black winter truffle. The dish was served untopped and the official truffle lady (Is there an official title for this position? I want this title!) came over to generously grate black truffles over his plate. I kindly took care of any loose pieces of truffle that had floated onto the tablecloth. Thou shalt not waste black truffles! Midway through the dish, the truffle lady returned to top off his plate. Hot damn! The one bite he shared was in my top two of the evening.
Third course: sauteed fillet of Mediterranean turbot
On top of the perfectly cooked cube of turbot was a black truffle mousse (yay for more black truffles!) and salsify, a root veggie that tastes like oyster when cooked. In the middle was a hearty bordelaise style sauce and on the right a sphere of arrowleaf spinach. Delicious. Bonus serving: gluten-free flippin brioche and two types of butter! The brioche was light and airy like any good brioche should be and the butter was... well lets just say we finished off the butter even if there wasn't any more of the bread. :-o
Fourth course: Sweet butter-poached Maine lobster
This gorgeous lobster was served with thinly sliced cauliflower, Belgian endive, Sultana raisins, almonds, and cilantro on a puree of curried cauliflower. I'd give the award for best dressed plate to this dish. The intense colors presented on this plate were almost too pretty to eat. I gave it a full 360 degree rotation before digging in. As expected, this was melt-in-the-mouth good.
Fifth course: Devil's gulch ranch rabbit sirloin
The rabbit medallions were flanked by garnet yams, grilled brussels sprouts, pecans. The sauce was a black truffle and maple-bacon jus. I could just roll around in that sauce.. it was so dang good. Typically I'm not a brussels sprouts fan, but it was one of my favorite components in the dish. Totally solid.
Sixth course: Snake river farms calotte de boeuf
An elevated dish of meat and potatoes, this kobe-like style of beef was served in a reduction of its own juices and topped with little potatoes and a few young sprigs of romaine lettuce. This buttery cut of beef landed in my other two favorite bites of the evening. The suspiciously crispy red onion rings were in fact gluten-free (yes, we checked on each and every thing that seemed too good to be true, and each time the waiter confirmed it was safe to eat). If this dish has a fan club, sign me up.
Seventh course: Mimolette
This dish of heirloom beets, pear, and frisee followed the proteins and came before the desserts. I wouldn't say it was necessarily a palette cleanser, but it was nice to have something a bit lighter before moving onto dessert.
Pallette Cleanser: Mango sorbet and champagne granita
This actually WAS the palette cleanser I was looking for. It was like a deconstructed bellini! Fresh, clean, sweet, delicious.
Eighth course: Root beer float
The float was served in a short glass and full of root beer ice cream, and marshmallow squares. There was also something slightly salty/crunchy at the bottom of the glass. Gosh I wish I hadn't already started digging in when the waiter was describing exactly WHAT that mystery component was. Instead I was all "NOMNOMNOM, Huh?" Well whatever that salty/crunchy component was, it certainly added a unique texture to the dish.
Ninth course: Fruit cake
Since the standard offering was not gluten-free, they created this course specific to each guests preference of either chocolate or fruit. I chose fruit and received this rich gluten-free cake, topped with fruit, and two fluffy clouds: one a sorbet, and the other more like a meringue.
Bonus desserts: Assorted chocolates, passion fruit gelee, gluten-free donut holes
These bonus items were arguably better than the actual course desserts. The gelees weren't too sweet and the chocolate assortment was amazing. My two favs were the peanut butter and jelly truffle and a salted caramel truffle. And who doesn't love a donut... especially when it is gluten-free!
The overall meal was overwhelmingly meticulous and well-orchestrated. And while there were a few minor missteps, I'm confident that each dish was executed in the exact way that the chef conceptualized it. Each garnish, sauce, and component of each course had a clear purpose that unfolded before us. We left feeling full from all the deliciousness and light-hearted conversation we had consumed, and lighter... from all that money that left our pockets (my meal was just shy of $400). OOF. A fun bucket list item I can now cross off!
Pro-tips for dining at the French Laundry:
- When making your reservation, ask to be seated upstairs if possible. I found the downstairs dining room dark while the upstairs room was full of natural light.
- Go with people with whom you can have fun. Our meal was 4 hours long so keep in mind you are stuck with whoever goes with you! Lucky for me, I was with a delightful, fun-spirited group of like-minded and stomached individuals.
- There is a dress code! Men must wear jackets. If you show up without one, they will loan you a jacket for the duration of the meal. Tennis shoes, shorts, and t-shirts are also not allowed.
- Announce all allergens/food intolerances to the waiter and let them use their creativity for substitutions. They will deliver!
- Insist on seeing the wine list instead of letting the staff make pairing recommendations... unless you are Mr. or Ms. Moneybags and can afford to be quietly surprised that that delicious pinot they recommended had a whopping $40/glass price tag.
- Do the truffle option. If you've made it to FL, chances are you won't be returning anytime soon, so do the extra splurge and prepared for the best mouthful of your life.
- When offered chocolate... take one of each. If you don't finish them, they will box those bad boys up for you. Do it. Trust me.
- Take your time. Enjoy and savor each bite.