In 1994, when chef Thomas Keller purchased the French Laundry in Yountville, it was a modest affair, modeled on the early and very homey Chez Panisse in Berkeley. Owners Don and Sally Schmitt cooked a single menu every night and reared two children in the house next-door.
Where that home once stood, a 15,000-bottle wine cellar now anchors a new building. It's all part of a more than $10 million makeover and expansion as the restaurant celebrates its 40th anniversary.
A new semicircular drive provides a grand entry, something the restaurant never had in the past. The main dining room has been refreshed, and the private dining room upstairs has been enlarged to accommodate 12 where eight could barely squeeze in before. The courtyard and a second private dining room next to the new wine cellar can each accommodate 14.
An earlier phase of the renovation expanded and modernized the kitchen, now overseen by chef de cuisine David Breeden. Before the kitchen's reopening in February, the cooking was done in two temporary buildings for 18 months.
The menu, which changes a course or two daily, has been rethought with an eye toward streamlining meals that often stretched to four hours or more. The cuisine still plays off classic French techniques and relies on the same sources for ingredients. It's not all local, with butter from Vermont, olive oil from Tuscany and oysters from Massachusetts, but it all comes from impeccable producers.
Those oysters star in one of Keller's signature dishes, dubbed "Oysters and Pearls" because the oysters luxuriate in a spoonful of a sabayon made with pearl tapioca. Breeden's update is to chop the oysters so every bite contains their flavor and texture. Another innovation combines several small courses into an attractive array instead of bringing them out one at a time.
The most-ordered wines occupy a small cellar holding 3,000 bottles, tucked away off the corridor between the dining room and the kitchen, for easy access. The new main cellar corrals more than 10,000 bottles that had previously been scattered around various storerooms across several buildings into one clean and dramatic space. A whole wall of half-bottles provides more options for weaving wine into a multicourse menu. (The French Laundry has held Wine Spectator's Grand Award since 2007.)
With this many wines at hand, wine director Erik Johnson, an eight-year French Laundry veteran, huddled with Keller to take a new approach to wine-pairing. Instead of a set selection to match with the day's menu, Johnson creates bespoke pairings. "Why do the same wines as everyone else is getting?" he asks. "Why not design something just for you and your preferences?"
Johnson asks guests where they might have visited in Napa Valley. "If they say Colgin or Bond, that'll give me a clue. I can pick wines of similar style that they may not know. If they talk about an unoaked Chardonnay they really liked, I can go to an Arnot-Roberts, which is versatile with so much of our food."
"I try to get [the sommeliers] to be humble about the wine program," Keller adds. "We don't want it to be ritualistic or religious. We want to have a party. And it's different for everyone." The cost is adjustable. Depending on the guest's comfort level and the rarity of the wines, customized pairings can be anywhere from $75 to $1,000.
The iPad wine list is just a wine list, with no bells and whistles like label photos, tasting notes or wine ratings. Johnson wants it to be a straightforward reference tool. The font size is adjustable for easy reading, and using an iPad ensures that the list is up to the minute.
A recent three-hour lunch demonstrated that the new French Laundry operates at as high a level as ever, and with some innovations worth appreciating.
Several courses in, after delicate butter-poached lobster served cold with white asparagus, came a bread course, a bitter cocoa-laminated brioche. A bread of the day conjured by François Hiegel, executive head baker for Keller's restaurants, it comes with a lavish pat of Diane St. Clair's Animal Farm butter from Vermont.
"People filled up on bread early in the meal," Keller says of the assortment previously offered, "and they were too full to enjoy the last few courses." It made a welcome segue to the next courses, a series of meat dishes culiminating with a butter-tender slice of Wagyu steak.
Replacing a composed cheese plate, a gougère of the day now uses one of Soyoung Scanlan's soft cheeses from her Andante Dairy in Sonoma County. "It's two bites, it takes less time and it's less filling than a whole cheese course," Keller says. "And we love her cheeses."
Andante's aromatic Etude flavored this gougère, which was topped with chopped walnuts. It set up what followed, a delicate dessert inspired by the classic French floating meringue known as an île flottante.
Among other highlights was a stunning, delicate granité of ginger-infused Japanese sake, kept perfectly snowy in a gold-rimmed bowl clad with material that keeps its contents frozen. A pool of soft polenta framed a grilled duck heart and a ragout of California morels. Local Dungeness crab played sweet music against a gelée of sour apples and celery.
Refined and precise from start to finish, this is haute cuisine extremely well-executed. The flavors had purity and clarity, and presentations were beautiful without fuss, using an array of custom plates and implements. This level of refinement comes at a price tag of $310 (including tax and gratuity, but before any supplements), but it's hard to argue that it's not worth it.