Dodie Smith said in her novel, “I Capture the Castle”, that beauty always carries with it a tinge of sadness perhaps because of its fleeting existence. My friend Mimi said that a beautiful piece of music makes her sad. My friend Kailin said that she had a piece of sushi in Causeway Bay the other day which was so good it made her cry. I could not agree with these people more. If you are having trouble comprehending this complex feeling, I suggest you go to French Laundry. It is guaranteed to put more smiles and sighs on your face, almost simultaneously.
The feeling of joy and content enveloped me as soon as I stepped out of our rental car onto the charming village of Yountville in Napa. Clear blue skies, vineyards stretched across gentle rolling hills, attractive yet unassuming stone cottages, and a reservation for lunch at French Laundry… SIGH… if only life could be like this every day!
We were recommended the Donnehoff Riesling, a dessert wine, to go with our first fourcourses. This pairing was so perfect and made me so ecstatically happy that when my fellow diner said that he could swim in a swimming pool full of this wine, for the first time with wines, I felt like I would have gladly jumped in with him.
Shortly after came our first out of the nine courses, Cauliflower “Panna Cotta” with beau soleil oyster glaze and sterling white sturgeon caviar. If you believe that first impressions either make or break a deal, this panna cotta surely made, or may I say, locked the deal. The cauliflower panna cotta was “quite exquisite”, or “heaven in my mouth”, as proclaimed by my fellow diners in mock English accent, and somehow the English seemed necessary to express just how “exquisite” this light cauliflower pudding was paired with caviar. The caviar is heavy, salty and flavoursome while the panna cottta, in all its apparent richness, managed to be light, slightly sweet and very refreshing.
The second course, the Moulard Duck “Foie Gras en Terrine” with shaved black truffle, celery branch and pomegranate-truffle “Gastrique”, came with brioche toasted to perfection and three different kinds of salts including the ‘Jurassic Salt’ which apparently is some 4000 years old.
The third course, Sashimi of grilled Kahala Belly reminded me of something I might be able to get at Nobu, and yet the beech mushrooms “a la grecque”, eureka lemon “confit” and cilantro shoots that came with it reminded me of the phos I had in Saigon.
I remember eating our fourth course, the Maine Lobster Tail “Cuite Sous Vide” with poached rhubarb, Tokyo turnips and watercress “coulis”, and not being able to stop laughing. This lobster was so tender it verges on resembling the texture of the notorious mantis shrimp in Hong Kong, French style. Like truffle on your instant noodles.
You move from extreme happiness slowly through to slight disappointment from the fifth course onwards as the meal went downhill towards the end. We had rabbit, lamb, cheese, a light apple sorbet, and a chocolate and pistachio mousse, which were all, honestly, quite forgettable. Not to say that any of them were awful, but something I would not have expected from Thomas Keller. The saving graces were the donut and coffee mousse and permission to visit the kitchen, all especially crafted for us to rectify a mistake they had made earlier during the meal.
After lunch we took a stroll along Washington Street to Bouchon, the bakery and bistro attached to French Laundry and where the latter’s breads came from. If not for my bursting stomach I would have bought all the breads on display there but ended up snatching up only a croissant and pain au raisin. You know how hard it is to find good croissants and pastries, even in Paris. But my croissant and pain au raisin, after sitting a whole day in its bag, remained light and buttery - just beautifully delicious.
Some question whether French Laundry was worth its price tag and all the hassle attached to getting a reservation, especially when the latter half of the meal proved to be a bit of a disappointment. To me however, not many expereiences give me joy and sadness at the same time. French Laundry was one of these experiences. So if you ask me, its well worth the pilgrimage.