A flag flies in a spacious garden across the street from a building with ivy-lined stone walls on Yountville’s north side. This is The French Laundry, Thomas Keller’s legendary restaurant that debuted in 1994 and has become a culinary tourist attraction, but has never wavered on commitment level, quality or hospitality.
What better place to celebrate a 40th birthday party than The French Laundry? My friend June gathered a few close friends and her husband Harlen and treated US to an awe-inspiring lunch that lasted five hours, but was never dull.
The building dates to 1900 and formerly served as a brothel and saloon before becoming a steam laundry in the 1940s. Sally Schmitt and husband/Yountville Mayor Don ran a restaurant there from 1978 until Keller took over.
We sat upstairs in a dining room with modern brown carpet, white tablecloths and walls, and an emblematic clothing pin on the napkin and floral centerpiece. Kathy Hoffman, daughter of the original owners, handles flower arrangements.
The dual-sided menu listed a Chef’s Tasting Menu and Tasting of Vegetables, each costing $270 per person, and each printed with HAPPY BIRTHDAY JUNE on top. A sommelier, who used to work in the kitchen down the street at Redd, handed us an iPad loaded with a nearly 100-page wine list that’s searchable and bookmarkable.
Our waiter suggested a bottle of dry, sparkling Schramsberg Cuvee French Laundry made with 100% Chardonnay grapes.
Our amuse bouche consisted of silky Scottish salmon tartare cornet with red onion creme fraiche at the bottom of each cone. Our sommelier compared the signature creation to Baskin-Robbins and bagels & lox.
Gougeres involved delicate pate au choux and a filling of oozing aged Gruyere.
We started pairings in earnest with dry Stoney Hill Riesling, locally made in St. Helena for over 60 years.
Oysters and Pearls warrants hall of fame status for the combo of plump butter poached Island Creek oysters from Massachusetts, briny American Osetra (white sturgeon) caviar, and custardy tapioca.
A server brought a bread basket with soft, salt-studded pretzel bread, multi-grain and sourdough rolls, and baguettes.
Salted Vermont Butter and Cheese Company Beehive and an unsalted butter quenelle joined pain Viennoise – salted brioche – from nearby Bouchon Bakery.
A satisfying salad combined Hawaiian hearts of palm, K&J orchard nectarines, baby beets, a tangy Andante Dairy yogurt sorbet quenelle, frizzy mizuna, and pink peppercorns.
Atlantic Halibut “Confit a la Minute” featured a juicy fillet of white fish, crispy confit chicken wing, crisp romaine lettuce tucked between green paste, and crunchy pickled onions.
Pam Starr produced Bridesmaid Meritage, our next pairing.
Sweet Butter Poached Maine Lobster “Fricassee” featured sweet butter-poached tail meat, a minced claw dumpling with parsley and shallots, marinated cherry tomatoes, green Castelvetrano olives, greens, and Globe artichoke.
Wolfe Ranch “Cuisse de Caille” starred a juicy quail leg stuffed with veal sweetbreads “ris de veau,” plated with baby Brentwood corn, Sicilian pistachio, Bing cherry, lovage, summer truffle, and frisee.
Rosy Elysian Fields lamb ribeye sported a panko crust and joined summer pole beans, skinless French Laundry Garden marble potatoes, baby arugula, braised pine nuts, confit garlic, Meyer lemon mousse, and veal jus drizzled tableside.
The French Laundry’s atypical cheese course, involved a tart made with Tomme de Chevre, raw goat’s milk, plated with pluot gelee and pluots, Marcona almonds, young fennel, shaved celery, and verbena blossoms.
An intermezzo paired basil seeds, Persian lime sorbet, fresh lychee, citrus peel, and sangria poured from a pitcher.
The first beautifully plated dessert featured Marjolaine, praline mousse, “Dacquoise” and banana sherbet.
The Vacherin with ricotta pound cake, Bing cherries, lemon verbena and Tahitian vanilla-lime ice cream looked stunning.
Coffee and Donuts was another signature dish involving a frothy frozen cappuccino with cocoa dusting, warm sugar lined donut holes, and Valrhona-dipped, powdered sugar-dusted macadamia nuts.
Valrhona mignardises came in six flavors: mint-dark chocolate, passion fruit, PB&J, hazelnut, coconut, and salted caramel.
To go, we received tins of sugar-lined shortbread cookies…
…along with a signature clothespin.
After lunch, we walked back across the street to the garden and found Tucker Taylor, The French Laundry’s friendly Culinary Gardener, who shared a combination of fun and fascinating insights into his role.
Before we left, our server invited everybody into the kitchen, knowing it was June’s birthday. Thomas Keller was in the house, writing in a phone booth-sized office, and was just as gracious as advertised. He posed for a photo with June and signed a menu to commemorate this epic meal, which now hangs framed on her home kitchen wall.