While I waited patiently on the phone for a Per Se reservation two months in advance of the date, my lunch at the French Laundry came up rather unexpectedly. Knowing I would be in Napa in two weeks, I put myself on the waiting list in case there was a lunch cancellation. Having assumed that most people make the French Laundry a vacation destination in itself, I didn’t expect a call. Yet, after returning from a hike in Point Reyes National Seashore park, there it was: A missed call from the French Laundry (joy)… but 45 minutes ago! (misery) Arg, surely they had found someone to take the open reservation the next day. But (insert minor hyper-
ventilation here) they hadn’t, and of course we were in. You gotta do it once, right?
Unlike Per Se, the French Laundry does not abbreviate its lunch menu; the experience is nine courses whether it’s lunch or dinner (but really it turns out to be 12 courses with all the extras). Not only did we have an amazing meal, but once our amicable French waiter Guillaume noticed yours truly scribbling away on a copy of the menu, he led us on a kitchen tour afterward! (Are you allowed to squeal at the French Laundry?)
After an amuse bouche of gruyère cheese gougères, we were given the other standard off-menu starter of salmon tartare cornets with local chives and crème fraîche (in the cone).
First dish: Cauliflower “Panna Cotta” with Island Creek Oyster Glaze and California Sturgeon Caviar. The panna cotta interpretation was a bit dense for my taste, but the delicate cauliflower flavor was a perfect match for the caviar.
Second dish, Option 1: Sacramento Delta Asparagus Soup with Polenta Beignet, Morel Mushrooms and “Fines Herbes.” Gorgeous presentation; wonderful spring dish.
Second dish, Option 2: Moulard Duck “Foie Gras en Terrine” with White Honey, Walnuts, Celery Relish and Dijon Mustard. I was surprised how delicate the foie gras was; Guillaume explained that they make it in-house with a light touch since the meal is so extensive; the celery relish was an amazing accent. It was served with toasted brioche and three sea salts: sel gris, a Phillipine salt, and a “Jurassic” salt–pulled from a mine in Bozeman, Montana, from, yes, the Jurassic era. Only at the French Laundry, right?
Third dish, Option 1: Sautéed Fillet of Atlantic Striped Bass with Razor Clams, Globe Artichokes, Green Garlic, Meyer Lemon, Parsley and Spanish Saffron. Excellent.
Third dish, Option 2: Connecticut River Shad Roe with Hobbs’ Bacon, English Peas, Pearl Onions, “Soubise,” Garden Lettuce and Black Truffle. This was probably my least favorite dish; the texture of the shad roe was a bit “mealy” and the bacon overpowered its flavor. Gorgeous to look at though.
Fourth dish: New Bedford Sea Scallop “Poêlée” with “Pommes Rissolées,” Cucumber, Baby Beets, Red Ribbon Sorrel and Horseradish Crème Fraîche. Excellent, and the cucumber dressed with crème fraîche was a refreshing touch.
Fifth dish, Option 1: Four Story Hill Farm “Poussin” with Fennel Bulb, Navel Orange, Jingle Bell Peppers, Arugula and Pimentón-Scented Jus
Fifth dish, Option 2 (not pictured): Thomas Farm Squab with “Pastilla,” Nantes Carrots, Apricots, Marcona Almonds and Cilantro (serves two)
Sixth dish: Elysian Fields Farm Lamb Rib-Eye with “Collier d’Agneau,” French Laundry Garden Brussels Sprouts, Young Turnips, Toasted Farro and “Sauce Navarin.” This is the same lamb purveyor used at Per Se, where I had the best lamb dish of my life. While I preferred Per Se’s rack of lamb over French Laundry’s rib-eye, the diskette of lamb neck (foreground) simmered at length with mirepoix (onion, carrot, celery) could start a war or two.
Seventh dish: Cabot “Clothbound Cheddar” with “Branston Pickle,” Mizuna and Country Bread Croutons
Eighth dish: Steel-Cut Oat Sherbert with Granola, Granny Smith Apple and Rum Raisin Coulis
Ninth dish, Option 1: Peanut Butter “Bavarois” with Crunchy Feuilletine, Maralumi Milk Chocolate “Whip” and Gros Michel Banana Sorbet
Ninth dish, Option 2: “Savarin au Citron” with Citrus “Vierge,” Moulin des Pénitents Olive Oil and Straus Dairy “Crème Glacée”
Off-menu dish: Passion Fruit Tartlet
Finally, Mignardises… Oof, what a meal!
KITCHEN TOUR, including (but not pictured) the live video feed to Per Se’s kitchen in New York City.