Wine Country: The French Laundry

Looking down at my lunch, I'm thinking, "Must stop eating french fries." A few more fries later, "No, really. Stop, now."

How do you prepare for a meal at a restaurant the caliber of The French Laundry? We had planned to sit by the pool all day, relaxing and eating light. Breakfast went well — yogurt, granola and fruit. But then came lunch, and hey, the menu did not say the smoked salmon sandwich came with fries. (Sabotage!) And how can you NOT eat really good looking fries when they're sitting in front of you?

Needless to say, the pre-French Laundry fast didn't go as planned, but we were still good and hungry when we arrived. Located just off the main street in Yountville, the restaurant is fairly unassuming from the outside. A quaint, candle-lit stone courtyard leads to the entrance (at right). Inside, about 15 tables are divided among a few small rooms, creating a truly intimate ambiance.

The nine course meal started with puffy Gruyere gougeres and Thomas Keller's playful salmon cones, a tiny scoop of salmon tartar perched atop a black sesame tuile filled with red onion crème fraiche. Next came the renowned "oysters and pearls", probably my favorite dish of the evening. Beau Soleil oysters were hidden in a creamy sabayon of pearl tapioca and white sturgeon caviar.

Another highlight: the white truffle lasagne with Castelmagno cheese, veal jus and Alba white truffles shaved over the dish tableside. A server presented a box containing three or four gnarly little truffles (at about $2,200 per pound) nestled in rice, and when she cracked the lid, the pungent scent was deliciously overwhelming. A generous shaving off of one left my dish covered in petal-like slivers of the aromatic truffle.

Since I'm still on vacation and don't have the patience to write a post long enough to do this meal justice, check out these other, more eloquently written reviews from Vinography and Chez Pim (with pics) if this post doesn't do it for you.

But to sum up, the experience was really magical. The service was the best I've ever experienced — friendly, seamless and just casual enough to put you at ease. The food presentation was elegant and simple. The rest of my meal is condensed below:

* Perfectly sauteed fillet of Japanese medai with a tangy preserved meyer lemon gastrique, grilled aggplant and piperade.

* A maine lobster tail, cooked sous vide, with chanterelle mushrooms, brussels sprouts, caramelized salsify and Pedro Ximenez lobster emulsion.

* Tete de cochon, braised all day, served over melted collard greens with a fried Jidori hen egg, an applewood smoked bacon wafer and grain mustard vinaigrette.

* A grilled calotte of Snake River Farm's American-style Kobe beef, served with sliced 48-hour brisket, heirloom beets, horseradish pain perdu, watercress and Bordelaise sauce.

* Andante Dairy Acapella cheese with quince membrillo, field arugula tapenade and Armando Manni 2005 Harvest "Per Me" extra virgin olive oil.

* Bartlett pear sorbet with wildflower honey cake and whipped tupelo honey.

* And a barrage of sweets, including chocolate truffles in flavors like peanut butter and caramel, fruit gelees and a take-home bag of buttery shortbread cookies.

A much needed post-meal walk in the garden (above) followed, where (this being California) herbs and vegetables were still flourishing.