Throughout the year, Restaurant Editor Bill Addison will travel the country to chronicle what's happening in America's dining scene and to formulate his list of the essential 38 restaurants in America. Follow his progress in this travelogue/review series, The Road to the 38, and check back at the end of the year to find out which restaurants made the cut.
Our server at The French Laundry delivers the icon-of-an-icon with a grin. "Cornet of salmon tartare with sweet red onion crème fraîche," he says. Fifteen years ago, when I first relished this savory replica of the all-American ice cream cone, the staff brought the snack with a demeanor that announced, "We're turning fine dining on its head." Now it arrives almost as a nostalgic gesture, an opener that says, "This is where the revolution began—and isn't it still delicious?"
The French Laundry turns 20 next month. Or rather, its incarnation with luminary chef Thomas Keller as its owner does. The 1890 stone building, nestled among vineyards in a small Napa Valley town, began its life as a restaurant under the same name by a couple, Don and Sally Schmitt, in 1977. Keller had trained in restaurants in France and New York and ran a restaurant in Manhattan called Rakel that ultimately failed in 1990. The Schmitts served meals in a Chez Panisse-like format, with one set menu that changed nightly. When Keller took over in 1994, he offered a four- or five-course dinner with options in every category. Soon, he would begin concentrating on tasting menus that included a flurry of whimsical small bites to start the evening.
In his years between running restaurants, Keller percolated on ideas that would eventually reset the nature of upscale American cooking. At The French Laundry, he melded European technique with dishes that were embedded in our national consciousness. His take on "coffee and doughnuts"—cappuccino semifreddo with hot cinnamon-and-sugar-coated orbs—was an early hit and gave him confidence to keep the pushing the boundaries of wit: "Surf and turf" with monkfish tail and braised oxtails, "Caesar salad" with Parmigiano-Reggiano custards, "Banana split" with poached banana ice cream and crepes. Due to Keller's precision, these creations never came off as gimmicky. His approach forged new contextual territory in the food culture, and gave French cuisine—always the basis of his cooking—a place of honor at a time when "New American" was the mantra in restaurants.
So much has been said over the years about The French Laundry and the empire it spawned. (Keller hasn't manned the stoves at the Laundry since 2005; chef de cuisine David Breeden oversees the kitchen day-to-day.) I came to a recent meal intrigued to see how the experience fit in among the newer generation of tasting-menu restaurants. Many of them are run by Keller disciples, including Grant Achatz of Alinea and Next in Chicago, Corey Lee of Benu in San Francisco, and Rene Redzepi of Noma in Copenhagen. The relative newcomers take wilder leaps of imagination and exotica than the Yountville standard-bearer, which can seem downright traditional by comparison.
And by no means am I using "traditional" as a euphemism for "boring." A person can't feel ennui amid such a whirl of attentiveness, a style of intelligent, unusually personable service perfected by former general manager Laura Cunningham. That rare feeling—of being pampered by knowing guides who establish a specially tailored rhythm and mood—is part of what makes the meal worth the price.
My friend and I came for lunch, which to me is the power move at The French Laundry: The food engages the palate and the brain, and it seems more enjoyable to absorb it all midday. We started off with gougères and then the salmon cornet—France and America each in single mouthfuls. The courses seesawed between richer and lighter, sharper dishes. Pleasantly astringent avocado and buttermilk soup came before Keller's signature "oysters and pearls," a sabayon of pearl tapioca with two tiny oysters and a quenelle of white sturgeon caviar that resembled a giant mulberry. To cut the decadence: a square of translucent mackerel, its fishiness assuaged by Meyer lemon and frisky piquillo pepper. A plate of intricately arranged peas and carrots—dewy in their springtime glory, with poached rhubarb and minced hearts of peach palm—acted as a palate cleanser before fried soft-shell crab crowned and asparagus surrounded by onion velouté enriched with crème fraîche.
Part of Keller's intent has been to serve food that evokes emotion, and the highlight that left us exhilarated was one of the restaurant's riffs on macaroni and cheese. The original came with butter-poached Maine lobster, but as restaurants across America glommed onto the idea, Keller and his crew came up with new versions: This one brought together handmade tube pasta, sweetbreads, and a binding sauce fashioned from fava beans. Out came the humidor box, and one of the staffers giddily buried the dish in black truffle shavings. (I should add that the dish comes with a $100 supplement charge atop the meal's $295 base price, but for such dizzying luxury I'd say go for it.)
A veal dish wrapped in leaves and mousse made of cabbage, with a pierogi filled with a ragout of corned veal heart (scrumptious), was followed by a small, charming cheese course: Pawlet, a nutty cow's milk variety from Vermont, was cut in a thin, fluted circle to match a fennel pollen shortbread cookie. Finally, the desserts arrived: sour cherry mousse, then yogurt sherbet with a brown sugar-maple tart, and then a layered chocolate torte flavored with Virginia peanut and caramel made from Banyuls vinegar. And just when we thought we were done, the server arrived with one last treat: "We couldn't let you leave without our 'coffee and doughnuts,'" he said. Honestly, we were spent—and the dish has been imitated so often over the last two decades, it had lost its novelty. We ate it more out of politeness than excitement.
I left thinking about meals I'd had at Benu and Saison on the same Bay Area trip. At those next-gen tasting menu restaurants, unexpected ingredients and jolts—a chicharron made from sea cucumber, a kimchi dumpling that shattered in the mouth—made meals as much about novelty as pleasure. The French Laundry is more about experiencing the familiar in elevated ways. I respect both approaches. Which do I recommend more? If you're young and want to understand the groundwork of modern fine dining, head to Yountville. If you've dined before at Keller's paean to perfectionism and have an open mind, try Benu or Saison.
But even the jaded should keep an eye on The French Laundry. Keller recently announced that he's renovating the restaurant, which will include a new 2,000-square-foot kitchen. The restaurant certainly isn't hurting for reservations, but Keller wants to stay big-picture relevant. I can't imagine the salmon cornet or the coffee and doughnuts will disappear altogether, but I'm guessing we might soon witness new levels of creativity at his flagship.